How to Study for the MCAT like a Broke College Student

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Hokay, here’s what I figure is the cheapest way to efficiently study for the MCAT...for me. Certainly everyone studies differently and the best study schedule will be tailor fit to your needs, time restraints, and style. This is just another way to do it that if you’re trying to figure out what you’re doing you can look over and pick out what you like.

Me, I like keeping things loose and flexible and keeping the study plan highly adaptable. With that in mind I just loosely broke up the studying into three chunks: Review, Practice, and Full Lengths (henceforth Fls). The rule of thumb that I’ve read is that about 485 hours of study should be the commitment you expect. Since I could study full time I called it 8 hours a day, five and a half days a week for twelve weeks and that put me about where I needed to be. So ultimately that means my studying was broken into one month for each section.

Lets also take a second to talk about the MCAT itself. It is its own beast and it’s designed to test you in a very specific way. How do you think under stress? How well can you critically evaluate information? How well can you memorize facts? How quickly can you translate something into the terms you need to see it in? That’s what the MCAT focuses on and it’s a tricky bugger. The best way to learn how to do that stuff is to practice doing it and the only way to really do that is to do lots and lots of high quality full length tests. Since you can’t jump right into full lengths, though, this study guide is really just a way of getting up to speed enough to dive into the good stuff.

It is probably worth it, though, to take a quick diagnostic practice test before getting started. I wouldn’t waste a free online full length (those things are precious) but I bet you can find a half length test from some company like NextStep of Kaplan that would be a great way to start. Forget the score you get or use it as a pretend baseline to make yourself feel successful when you get into FLs for real. Just use it to see the way this test is challenging in it’s own way – how it is dealing with the time constraints, the tough passages, and the level of detail you need to learn.

Other people have written things along the lines of “if you’re practicing for a race you don’t run as hard as you will in the race, you run twice as hard and then the race is easy” to support the idea that you should make your practice harder by doing short answer problems or something of the like. I would counter saying that you don’t learn to drive a car by riding a bike. They’re two different ways of being tested and the multiple choice format isn’t easier, it just has its own tricks. To learn how to excel at that test format takes a lot of time practicing with that test format so spend the time you have wisely.

Without further ado lets start talking about review.

Materials used: Kaplan 7 book set, Princeton Review Psych book, Khan Academy (KA)

I worked through the six kaplan books one by one chapter by chapter (didn’t use the CARS books, more on that later). I honestly never touched the TPR book until I was doing Fls. It’s worth it to get it for free FLs and may be worth it for you too, I dunno. There’s a concept which over the last month I’ve purged the name of from my brain that claims that once you commit something to memory the longer the span of time before you relearn it the stronger it will be in long term memory at the end. With that in mind I went through all the material to be tested on book by book without jumping around at all. I would go through one or two books a week and just read a chapter, do the problems at the end of the chapter and move one. Sometimes I would start a session by glancing over the end of chapter review page of previous sections.

IMPORTANTLY every speck of important new information I would make a flashcard out of, I use Anki. That way once all the review is complete I just ran through my preposterously huge virtual flashcard decks a few times and filled in gaps as I did practice problems. It worked pretty well for me. I wasn’t able to get all the content review done in one month, it took me 6 weeks. That’s okay. The practice problems continued on into FL off days a lot anyways. Also, the general technique for reviewing consisted of reading the chapter and anything I struggled to understand I would watch the KA video of online in 2x speed. Khan academy is incredibly comprehensive and of super high quality. Be sure to make the most of that free resource.

Materials used: Kaplan practice problems (free with review), KA practice problems, and all the stuff you can get from AAMC (offical MCAT guide practice problems, section bank questions, each section associated questions, other stuff…)

Here’s a rule of thumb: anything made by AAMC is golden. Call those guys midas and act accordingly. Everything they give you to work with is well worth the money (except I don’t know about the flashcards, didn’t use those).

My practice section was the least organized, really it was an adaptable filler period between finishing review and starting the FLs. The idea is to reacquaint yourself with all the material you’ve studied already. A lot of it will feel totally new, which is a disconcerting feeling, halfway to test day. But have faith, it should stick really well. There are so many practice problems out there just start plugging away. KA has a bazillion, you can get a mobile app to access them and do one or two whenever you find yourself waiting for something. Kaplan has some pretty good sets but they’re a little more detail oriented than MCAT tricksy so don’t stress them too horribly. Then the AAMC section banks are great.

But wait, what about CARS? Okay…

Materials used: https://forums.studentdoctor.net/th...’s-30-day-guide-to-mcat-cars-success.1131850/, something like ExamKrackers 101 verbal reasoning passages (old MCAT verbal reasoning is close enough to CARS, you don’t need a new book)

I think this is all you need. Follow this guide pretty closely and you should do fine. The idea is practice, practice, practice. Start slow and focus on timing, timing is super duper key to the CARS section. Then practice reading really critically and always go back after reviewing questions asking “how could I have gotten this right?” The thing about CARS is that there always is a right answer, and it’s always right. The other three are always wrong. Or, really, two are really wrong, one is fairly wrong, and one is just plain right. Try to learn that game. Follow the dude’s guide and it oughta go.

And then that brings us to (drumroll please):

Materials used: Kaplan FLs 1-3, TPR FLs 1-3, AAMC FLs Sample, 1, and 2, and NextStep free demo FL

If you’ve gotten the kaplan review set you get 3 full lengths with it, if you’ve got a TPR book you get a demo and two full lengths with it, NextStep has a single free full length, AAMC has one free one and two you can buy. And that’s all you need! Screw paying hundreds of dollars to suffer through tests. That’s ten. That’ll do. Use them well.

I set myself a schedule of doing three a week for three weeks, then two the last week. My test was on a saturday so it would go like this. Test, review, test, review, test, review, rest. Repeat for week two. Repeat for week three. Then test, review, rest….test, review, rest… TEST. Maragarita. I felt a little burnt out in the middle there. Week two I had to miss a FL due to computer problems demanding attention (hence only ten required which worked nicely). Do what you can. Do as many as you can. This is where it counts.

The review days, you’ll hear everyone including me say, are just as important as the test days, and will probably be longer. A test takes 7.5 hours then you go home and stare blankly at the wall of the shower. A review days involves going over every question you got wrong (and if you’re doing well every question you got right too) and asking yourself, what are they looking for, how can you answer this, what did I need to know that I don’t? Make sets of flashcards for all the information you need to learn and study them before bed, after bed, with your wheaties, go hamsters. I would make a new flashcard set every week just so I would work through only the new information I really needed to practice with. Also, if you have time on your review days keep working through practice problems. Be sure to use everything you have made by AAMC before the test. The section bank is pretty massive so just chug through it when you can.

Pace the AAMC ones tactfully. I gave myself three FLs to learn pacing before doing an AAMC. You’ll notice the difference. Those ones are gems for the content. Review every single question they consist of, worship them like they are gods. Also, take your rest days seriously. Have some serious fun and R&R. Don’t drink too much or anything, you gotta baby your hippocampus here, but seriously let loose and don’t do anything school related one day a week if you can.

If everything’s gone well up to this point you should be on a clear trajectory. The day before my test I rock climbed as hard as I possibly could for as long as I could then took a really nice long nap. I did a couple problems and flipped through some flashcarfds because I couldn’t help myself but besides that keep you brain in recuperation mode.

Test day, treat it like a marathon. Don’t overcaffeinate yourself, nerves should have plenty of cortisol coursing through them already. If you get fidgety drop and do some pushups maybe (the test proctors won’t judge you). Go hard and get it then party down and set your sights on the next thing.

May the force be with you!

For those interested here’s an excel sheet with my FL scores to trend off of:


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How do expect anyone to read the novel you just wrote??
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