How to Prepare for the MCAT

Discussion in 'The Berkeley Review' started by BerkReviewTeach, Feb 4, 2013.

  1. BerkReviewTeach

    BerkReviewTeach Company Rep & Bad Singer Exhibitor 10+ Year Member

    May 25, 2007
    SDN Exhibitor
    Not everyone thinks the same way, learns the same way, has the same background, or approaches a multiple-choice question the same way. But everyone is training for the same exam. So when preparing for the MCAT you need to balance techniques and style that will work for you with practice questions and passages that are the most MCAT realistic available.

    Don't Just Learn the Material; Learn to Take the Exam
    First and foremost, you need to know the subjects being tested at a deep enough level to recognize them out of the context you learned them in. A good deal of the MCAT involves presenting a familiar concept in a new situation. To get good at this, you need to practice. While reviewing and refamiliarizing with the equations, definitions, concepts, and theories has its merit, most people overestimate its importance. To prepare for a test with 230 multiple-choice questions, where 81% of the questions are based on a passage, you need plenty of practice with passage-based multiple-choice questions. Getting good at extracting useful information from a passage while recognizing what is extraneous is a more useful skill on this exam than an in-depth knowledge of all of the topics.

    Design a Study Plan Specific to Your Needs
    The right preparation starts with you honestly assessing your strengths and weaknesses in terms of testing skills and your areas of knowledge and insufficiency. This cannot be done using a multiple-choice exam, because our reason for getting questions right or wrong is often not a direct result of the amount of information we know, but more so our ability to process a question. If you take a diagnostic exam to start and trust the results to tell you what you know and don't know more than you trust your life's experiences, then you are making a big mistake. You could have gotten lucky on a question and because the exam only had one question on that topic, you are led to believe that you are 100% proficient. Equally, you could make a careless error and the diagnostic exam might tell you that you have 0% knowledge in an area you actually know quite well.

    To start, you should go to the AAMC website and download the pdf files listing "what's on the MCAT exam." Go through each list page-by-page and do an honest inventory of what you know well, what you sort of know, and what you need to thoroughly review. Once you do this, then you should make a schedule. When making a schedule, count from the MCAT backwards rather than reviewing forwards.

    Choosing the Right Study Materials For You
    More important than any other feature of a review book are the answer explanations
    . This is where you'll do the majority of your learning and improving. You should read through at least 50 answer explanations before choosing what materials fit your needs. The ones that explain the answer clearly, address why certain answers are wrong, and give test-taking tips are the ones you will benefit from mostly. Many people mistakenly look at the text portion to make their selection, and end up with materials that leave them unprepared based on what they truly needed.

    Keeping Your Motivation Up
    You have to maintain a realistic schedule that balances study time with recuperation time. You need some routine to be productive and some flexibility and variation to prevent any mundane feelings from taking root. Rather than scheduling a day completely off, schedule some back-to-back light days and then if you work extra hard and complete the work of both days on the first day, then you earn your day off. You'll enjoy it so much more. You need to stay in contact with others who are studying. It's been shown that when people try to lose weight on their own, it's not nearly as effective as when they are part of a group that checks in with one another on a semi-regular basis. Studying for the MCAT is like that, partly due to accountability and partly due to the positive feelings knowing others are sharing the experience.

    Practice Under Timed Conditions
    If you had unlimited time on the MCAT, then you could no doubt do much better. But the reality of the MCAT is that you have to answer questions quickly and operate at a high level of focus for at least an hour at a time. You have to practice at this. When you do your homework it's fine to take a while on the first few passages so that you thoroughly get the concepts. But at leat two-thirds of your homework should be done with a clock dangling over your head. Get used to answering questions under time pressure.

    Do a Thorough Analysis of Your Practice Passages After You're Done
    In preparing for the MCAT, it's about quality and not quantity. Blazing through twenty passages in a day and then lightly reviewing them won't help you as much as doing only ten passages in a day and then going through each answer painstakingly slowly to evaluate each answer choice and learn how to best approach that question. Part of your review is to determine why you got a question wrong. More often than not it was a case of not translating their question correctly and very rarely a case of not knowing the material. Finding careless errors is the first step to correcting them.

    I'm sure you have heard people talking about how they had studied for months and reviewed everything, knowing everything the MCAT could test. And then they end up bombing the MCAT. The problem was that they emphasized the content too much and likely never thoroughly looked at the way they answered questions. There are subconscious algorithms that we follow when answering a question, and only by thorough analysis of a question we have missed can we make the necessary changes to these algorithms. If all you do is read then answer explanation and think to yourself, "oh, I know that material so I'm fine," then you won't improve. Preparing for the MCAT is all about becoming a better test taker.

    Taking Practice Exams
    This is crucial to your success. Do not start so early that you aren't fully reviewed (in terms of both the material and developing your techniques) or so late that you don't get enough exams done. You should take exams from at least two different sources to get exposure to many different ways of seeing questions. Different writers use different distracters in passages, questions, and answers. If you only use exam materials from one source, then you may not be exposed to other ways of presenting the same material or question type. Take enough time between exams to thoroughly review each exam before moving to another exam. One exam every three days is ideal. Do not repeat CBT exams if you are studying for a second time. The truth is that we remember parts of these exams as we go through them, giving us a false sense of security and perhaps an inflated score. The actual MCAT is going to be all new passages that you have not seen before, so your practice exams should also be all new passages that you've never seen before.

    Visualize the Day; Take Care of Logistics
    Any successful athlete will tell you about the importance of mental preparation. The MCAT is very similar. You should know exactly what your day is going to entail by going through it in your mind several times in advance. Have all of the things you need, from snacks to ID, ready the night before so you don't wake up in the middle of the night stressed about anything. Get to the center early and check in as soon as you can. Have an idea of how you'll handle moments of anxiety. Know how you'll attack different types of passages. Psyche yourself up. If you wish, maybe do an easy passage before you go into the exam to get warmed up. Don't be surprised by anything.
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2015
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  3. n4now

    n4now 7+ Year Member

    Jan 23, 2010
    great post! a huge thank you! :)
  4. BerkReviewTeach

    BerkReviewTeach Company Rep & Bad Singer Exhibitor 10+ Year Member

    May 25, 2007
    SDN Exhibitor
    I want to add this link, because it is superb in the basics of how to prepare.

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