Medical MCAT Veteran Teaches You How to Prepare for Your Test

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Podcast interview with Todd Bennett.jpg

What factors should you consider when deciding how to prepare for the MCAT? [Show summary]​

Our guest today has been providing MCAT prep for just under 30 years and he’s going to share his best MCAT prep advice with you!

The Berkeley Review’s CEO, Todd Bennett, shares his best MCAT prep advice [Show notes]​

Our guest today is Todd Bennett, whom I met many, many years ago. He is the CEO of and an MCAT instructor at The Berkeley Review, which he co-founded in 1992. Todd, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk!

How did you get involved in MCAT prep many moons ago? [1:22]​

So much of life is serendipity. So, way back in 1988, I had a job teaching organic chemistry as an adjunct lecturer at UC Irvine. And one summer there was nothing to teach and realizing that, hey, I need money for rent, I went to the job listing on campus. And there was an interesting offer tutoring chemistry and physics to postbac students trying to get into med school, a bridge program through Dave Hacker and Charles Gipson. I signed up for it and fell in love with it – greatest teaching job in the world; motivated students, smart, dedicated, and best of all from a teaching standpoint, no grading. You were purely on their side in working their way through it. So that summer I wrote up notes and practice questions and put together a pretty good booklet, and without even noticing it, it became kind of an underground sensation around UC Irvine and then Southern California. And somebody in San Diego got wind of it, who ran an SAT company and said, “Hey, what do you think about doing MCAT?”

And so, we started something called Hyper Learning at the time. It ends up that the people I was with, honestly, I don’t think one of them had any interest other than making a quick company, selling it, another quick company, and selling it. And so, it was on the selling block immediately and I thought, “No, no, I like what I’m doing. I don’t want to switch.” And so in 1992 we started The Berkeley Review, grabbed one of the bio teachers, a physics teacher I knew, and just went for it. Amazingly, it just shot off like wildfire. I mean, at the time it was just really needed.

Do you want to bring us up to date a little bit in terms of what’s been happening with The Berkeley Review? [3:03]​

We change with each test. So since we started, there’ve been three changes in the test, and each one’s brought a new challenge. I mean, I know this is probably blasphemous to say, because it’s stressful for a lot of people, but the MCATs are a really well-written and well thought-out test. You can reason your way through it, and it really does test pertinent skills in analyzing data material and getting you to work well with things you maybe don’t familiarize with at first. And in time you realize, “Hey, I get this. This is simple.”

We continue to do classes. COVID forced us to go online. We were very antiquated for many years and got up to speed, and I realized our fear of going online had a lot to do with losing the personal touch. Knowing each person individually has been key.

And one of the biggest godsends of going online that I never thought of in a million years, it caters to the shy student. The student can now type in a question in a private chat. I have one particular student in mind who, when we were live up until last March 2020, she never asked a question in class. She’d come up after class, wait until everybody left and she’d ask a few questions. All of a sudden in the chatbox, she was typing like a stenographer. It was awesome. She came out of her shell, and I realized this is a great medium for certain students and so, I’ve fallen in love with online teaching. A year and a half ago, if you were to ask me, I would have never, ever thought that would happen, so it’s kind of where we’re at today.

And basically at this point then, anybody anywhere in the United States to be sure, and maybe even in the world, could take a class from The Berkeley Review, right? [4:42]​

Yeah. If there’s space. We are going to still stay small. We’ve had that company decision that we’re going to stay small.

Okay, great. Now let’s turn to the MCAT itself and how The Berkeley Review recommends that students prepare for it. When should pre-meds plan to take the MCAT? That’s probably one of the most common questions out there. [5:02]​

There’s no easy answer. It really comes down to when they’ve mastered material in the really key subjects. You’ve got to have your Biochem down pat. I mean that should be the number one thing people go by. Not “Have I taken Biochem?”, but ”Have I taken it at a high enough level that I feel prepared for it?” Because the MCAT is going to throw a ton of Biochem at them. And in most curricula for most schools, by the time they take Biochem, they’ve got all their OChem, their GChem, their Physics, their Molecular Biology, Genetics, and Cell. They’ve done most of the other classes necessary to be ready, so I think that’s their guiding light is as soon as they feel like they’ve mastered Biochem, it’s time. They’re ready.

That’s very clear guidance. How does an applicant know how much time he or she should budget for the MCAT? I’m guessing it varies from individual to individual, but do you have any advice or guidelines for that question? [5:52]​

The hardest thing to do is self-assess. I mean, everybody is looking for this diagnostic test that tells you what you need to do, and it doesn’t exist, because the thing is, most people miss questions, not because they don’t know the material, but maybe misread the question, misunderstood, misinterpreted what they’re asking. And so, because of that, you can’t really tell content-wise.

So in general, this is a very generic guideline, but if you can invest anywhere from 40 to 50 hours of true studying per week, then six to eight weeks is typically enough to do your initial content review, and then the first, of what I call phase one and phase two of your homework process. The first one is where you reacquaint, you get beat up, and that’s fine. The second one is where you master the timing, but usually six to eight weeks is enough for that aspect. Then you need two weeks of just unadulterated pounding through realistic questions.

AAMC releases a lot of material. It’s a must. Anybody who tells you to skip it is crazy. Every single AAMC material is essential. Those two weeks, everything but the full lengths, and then phase three of homework. And then the last three weeks are all about full lengths, and not just taking them. For every hour you spend taking them, you should be spending two hours going over it. And as I like to say in class, as you go through it, write a note to your future self and say, “Dear Future Self, you might want to look at this equation.” You might want to say, “Look at the table first or divide data instead of subtract,” but come up with a game plan. Something you want to tell yourself on test day to remember to do, and as long as you do that, as long as you can honestly say, “Whatever score I got, fine, but if I could get five more questions right in each section,” you’ve done exactly what you should be doing. You’re moving upward.

What about people who prepared, thought they were preparing correctly, and they didn’t get that good of a score, and they may be taking the test for the second or third time. Do you have any suggestions for them? [7:50]​

That’s a hard one. The reality is that for whatever reason, about half our students studied for it at least once before, some on their own, some with another company, some did something, and they come here. Best advice on day one, forget what you did before and instead analyze what you should have done. And that’s really hard to do. It’s really hard to self-assess, but I think one of the things that people feel really confident about is they listen to videos and let’s face it videos are really well done. They’re polished. They’re excellent. They give great information, and you walk out and think, “Wow, I totally get it because they explained things really well.” People walk out of lectures feeling really strong. I totally get it. They get this sense of confidence, and then on the test, suddenly it’s not in the format they’re used to. It’s in a convoluted format, tied with other things.

It’s like, “Ah, what went wrong?” What went wrong is usually practice. So second time through, you have to change your entire approach. If you emphasized review the first time, then it’s all about practice. If you only did practice tests the first time, then it’s about solidifying your content and figuring out ways to recall it; mnemonics. It’s doing the things you didn’t do the first time. And it’s honestly assessing where you went wrong. And honestly, some of it sometimes just comes down to confidence. I mean, I’ve seen people go up a second time on nothing more than just saying, “You know what? I’m tired of this test. I want to get over and done with it.” Going with the right attitude really makes a huge difference.

What about non-traditional applicants who have been out of school for, let’s say, two, three, five years? [10:17]​

We get a lot of that, the average age in our class is 31 right now. It’s really high. And so, most students we have are in the same situation, and the reality is anything you forgot from school, you’ve forgotten the first two or three weeks after the final. Whether it’s been three months or three years, you probably are not in that much of a different situation. Whatever is going to stick will stick, whatever is missed, is missed. And so, you just have to accept it like, “Look, I have to rebuild this pool of information, no matter what, whether I’m doing it immediately after school or a long time after school.” And the really, wonderfully, surprising thing is, the second time looking at material, it comes back faster.

You learn how to learn as you go through school. I think most people think they learn material, and honestly, I think they learn how to absorb and process the material. So the second time it goes faster, and I’m always pleasantly surprised by how much people know who said they didn’t know much on day one; that it comes back and they apply it. And it all integrates. What you learned in GChem carries over to Biochem. What you learned in Biochem applies to Cell, and that excitement of how you connect things, is powerful. It’s fuel. Be positive. Come back in and realize, “Yeah, I got some work to do, but it’s going to be easier this time.” It’ll be easier the second time you’re learning it, than the first time.

That’s very true. Is there any one section of the MCAT that tends to trip people up? [11:46]​

Chem/Physics has the lowest curve. It’s the one that you have to have a different mindset. So for instance, the Bio section, there’s a certain aspect of memorization and just understanding of lab logic of how things work. If you learn what you’re doing in lab, you’re going to do well in that section. Psych/Soc you memorize enough terminology, speak the language, it’s going to go a little bit better. CARS is CARS. It’s a technique-based one, but Chem/Physics, you have to think like an engineer, and apply it to medicine.

And common sense… You get through school, and you’re not rewarded for common sense, and then all of a sudden, here’s a section of the test that emphasizes common sense. Like putting a stent into somebody’s vessel. Why do you do this? And so, a lot of people will be able to tell me all about the technique and all this, but the general reason is you’ve got to have a wider pipe, the wider it gets, more fluid goes through. And just that simple thought right there is going to get you a question or two. And it’s changing your mindset, that a lot of people just don’t. I mean, for Physics and Chemistry, it’s usually: memorize all the equations you can, show your work, box your answer, and pray for partial credit on your midterms and finals. On the MCAT, it’s apply what you know to some seemingly unrelated system. And it just takes a while to get used to. Not that it’s hard to do in time, it’s just unfamiliar at first, and it’s a struggle.

What are the most common mistakes that you see in MCAT prep? [13:19]​

The biggest one by far… And I dare say, I’d guess 80% of the people studying for the MCAT make the same mistake. They emphasize content, because what happens in college? You memorize content, you regurgitate it on a midterm or final, you get a good grade. So you’ve already been taught. You’ve been trained that memorizing equals success. The people memorize, do all their flashcards, watch all these videos. They’re spending countless hours, taking notes, reading books with no questions in them, watching videos. And then, they just aren’t prepared to look at things out of the context, out of their comfort zone. I mean, simple phrase, “Practice, practice, practice.” You hear it all the time. You play a sport, you play an instrument, you do anything, and they tell you, “Training and practice.” Well, that’s exactly what it is. And too many people put way, way, way, way, way too much emphasis on trying to feel like they can memorize and recall it.

Flashcard learning is such a false sense of security of what you know. I think if people would just have the confidence that, “Yeah, you know what? I’m going to do this passage, I’m going to get two thirds of it wrong and I’m going to feel terrible about myself, but I’m going to grade it. I’m going to learn it in context. And then when I see a passage like that next time, I’ll get 50% right. Then I’ll get beat up a little bit and be upset and I’ll get 60%, and climb that ladder.” There’s a thing called the Dunning Kruger curve; the learning curve. It’s wonderful. You spike up, you have all this confidence because you’re reading things, like videos and all, feel like you’re doing really well. Then all of a sudden, when you have to apply it, you drop and then through application and success, you climb back up to being good at it. Nobody likes this part of it. It’s painful, but you have to go through it, and getting things wrong is so okay. It’s fine. It’s part of the process.

What are your top three MCAT prep tips? Obviously practice is something you’ve emphasized. [15:26]​

Practice, practice, and practice are going to be all of them. But I think more than anything, you’ve got to learn to think like the test writer. That’s true of tests in general, but especially with multiple choice. The four sections are written very differently, and you have to figure out what is minutia and what’s important, and that takes practice. And you can only do it by going through the AAMC materials. Speaking of which, I think one of the things that a lot of people don’t do, and they miss a golden opportunity. AAMC has put out a book, a guide to the MCAT, that has an exact listing of the topics and tons of sample questions. They are really, really transparent about exactly what’s on their exam; the style of writing, what they expect. And I can’t believe the fact that the majority of our students don’t look at that book. It’s available to them and they don’t look at it.

That’s exactly what you should be looking at. Figure out what’s on the test, then study for it. Don’t study, study, study, and then try to figure out what’s on the test. It’s the wrong order. So get that book, that’s huge. And then get good at reading graphs, tables, charts, and data. A lot of their passages are based on experiments, and they’ll ask you, “What happened in this step?” It’s a matter of reading and seeing if a number went up or went down on the table and then knowing what that means. It’s often really simple questions hidden in a really challenging package of these numbers that are tatted, they don’t recognize. And once you see it and say, “Oh, I get it, that’s simple,” it goes much, much better. So read tables, get the AAMC guideline and learn to think like a test writer. If you do those, you’re going to be fine on this test. You’re going to do really well. It takes time, but you’ll do fine.

How about tips for the day before or the week before or the day of the exam itself? I mean, should they be cramming like crazy at that time? Or should they take a day off? What should be happening? [17:21]​

I’m so glad you asked this because honestly, my opinion on this over the years was ambivalence, whatever somebody did. And I’m trying to say this in the right way, but I had the amazing fortune of becoming very good friends with somebody who’s in their sport, a five-time world champ, and they coach a US team. Through him, I know another Olympic gold medalist, and being able to have lunch and sit and talk and figure out what these guys do. And to my surprise, I got more helpful insight from what they talked about, of what they did to train, than all the years I’d gone to classes and seminars. Of course, they’re the greatest at what they do. So they’re going to have some good insights, but both of them independently had the exact same thing to say about preparing: the last 24 hours are the most important, not to train but to get in the right mind frame.

You’ve trained all this time. You know the test, you know the questions, it’s time to stop second guessing yourself. It’s time to start trusting your training. You’re going to feel stress. You’re going to feel anxiety. If you don’t, something’s wrong. And both of them independently said, “Embrace the moment. Let your body tell you what’s going on and do what it says.” Do a test run. Go to the center, make sure you have a backup plan, have a backup ride in mind, take care of all the periphery things. Know where the center is, know how you’re going to think, visualize what you’re going to do. Go back and read all the notes you wrote to yourself of what you want to do on test day. But use that day to just get your mind confident in the right spot.

Don’t study new material. Review and coordinate and organize other material and take care of you. You’re training for four to five months. That’s all you needed. But believe it, believe in yourself. And it was empowering. I mean, it was wonderful to sit and listen to some of what they had to say.

There are lots of MCAT prep options out there, test prep companies and non-commercial options. How is The Berkeley Review different? [20:03]​

We’re small and personal, we’re boutique-y. Over the years, we had the chance to definitely expand and become big. And this was a decision we made lots and lots of times at meetings, every three or four years, when it would come up again. We just don’t want to be corporate. We don’t want to be big. We take pride in the fact that we know every student by name and I mean, 30 years later, if I run into a student, I will still know who they are. And it’s nice. It’s a really good feeling, and we emphasize teaching. We’re the only MCAT only company. The typical course, the typical approach would be take a test and build down. So test logic fed down. I don’t think it works that way. I think it’s better to take the test itself, reverse engineer it, and build back up. Ask “what skills do you need to do well on this test?” And make them MCAT specific, not what is good in general about test taking, and let’s apply it. So, I think we’re just completely opposite of all of them. And honestly, it doesn’t work for everybody. The truth of the matter is, some people just want to be told, “Memorize this, memorize this, memorize this,” and it’s great. For the right student, it’s the perfect method. The person who’s willing to think and work hard and gets excited in a geeky way when something you learn in CARS actually helps you in Psych/Soc, or something you learn in Psych helps with your Neuro, which helps with your Physics. So I mean, be nerdy and excited, and we’re a perfect match for you.

You have some in-person classes now, don’t you? Or are they all closed at this point? [21:48]​

They’re closed at this point in time, just because we’re in some pretty high risk zones. Our plan was to go back live this summer, but student opinion was just so few wanted it. So we will do some office hours in-person. We’re going to do some things, but all the classes are going to be online at this point.

And you also have lots and lots of self-study material. So my question to you would be, to whom would you recommend the self-study material and to whom would you recommend the classes? Or do you like a combination of both? What’s the fit there? [22:12]​

The best advice for anything, like, “What car should you get?”: I don’t know, test drive them. See the one that fits and feels right. I think that’s honestly what too few people do. Sit in a lecture, because for some people, lectures are awesome and they organize everything. You have a chance to ask questions. Office hours, I mean, I get regulars at office hours every single time, with good questions, or they’re there to hear other people’s questions. For them the class is perfect, but we always get a student who just comes in, checks in at the start, checks out at the end and we never hear from them. They might have been better off doing it on their own.

I think sitting in on a class before you drop two, three, four grand… I mean, a few classes out there, I think, are 11 grand or something crazy like that. Sit in, test it out, try it out, make sure it’s for you before committing the time and the money. I think people are pretty good at knowing what works for them, and they’ll figure it out. Admittedly, we get a lot of people who try to study on their own and it doesn’t work. That’s fine too. They’re going to do fine. They’re going to get into medical school, it’s just going to be an extra year, or the journey is going to be a little different, but I mean, it works. I think it really comes down to the person.

Is there any offering at TBR that’s particularly popular? [23:49]​

Pretty much everybody has a full course. I mean, I get a lot of requests for private tutoring, and for years I sort of resisted that. But I think this year we’re going to start doing a little more of that, but generally, I think most people just want to sit down and be told what I should do and a whole package. And then they figure it out as they go where they need the help, which office hours they need, where they’re feeling strong and weak.

What do you see in your crystal ball for the MCAT going forward for MCAT prep? [24:21]​

You know, MCAT going forward, some of the things that I’m really curious about, and COVID is going to force this issue – there’s some med schools that supposedly are going to start weighing the MCAT less, during this period and some schools are ignoring it for now. It’ll be interesting to see how the admissions process goes. So the MCAT coming out of COVID is going to be different. And your guess is as good as anybody’s. There’ll be schools that’ll still keep it, some schools that might use it as optional, some that will ignore it, and we’ll see. As far as prep companies go, as long as there’s a test, there’s going to be people wanting to take it. And I think we all need to adjust to the fact that most students, most of their learning is with thumbs and a screen, and not reading a book these days. So, we have to adapt to that. It’s been a very interesting personal year. I mean, I’m the last one standing of our entire company that started it out, now. And so, it’s going to go in whatever direction the people need, basically. So more private tutoring, some different offerings, fewer classes, smaller classes in the sense that maybe science only, but I mean, we’ll invent ourselves as we go. We kind of have to.

Is there anything you would have liked me to ask you that I haven’t asked? [26:00]​

I think the only thing, that badge of honor, that pride we wear, is how our students do, and what the cost is; because those are the two things that we really stand out in. The two statistical features that mean so much to me is our class average is over 510. We also cater to people that are serious about it. So I mean, there’s a lot to that. It’s also a selectivity process but if you’re committed and you work really hard, you can get a great score. The numbers are there, there are a lot of people, 520 and above. And I take pride that every year I’ve done this, I’ve had at least one and oftentimes very many people in the top 1%, and it’s an attitude. It’s a way of looking at the test, and there’s people who have it, but aren’t confident enough to use it. And I’m hopeful that’s what we’re sharing, and there’s other people who just didn’t realize you can look at things a little differently and they take it to heart and do really well. And so, I love the results we get.

Can you define the attitude? [27:22]​

Yeah. A cockiness of, “You know what? I know this material well enough and I’m going to be able to figure it out in context, and I don’t care what graph or data or chart they give me, I’m going to do just fine on this.”

Confidence is so key on this test. And then the cost. I think anybody who does the math thinks about it. We’re not corporate. For the companies that are corporate, they have shareholders and everything, so of course, you’re paying $3,000, probably $1,500 is paying a CEO and their staff salary. We don’t have that. So you get so much more for your money. We’re under $2,000 and you really get more for your money.

It’s funny, because in business we’re told, “No, you should raise your price to look comparable to everybody else.” And I know, it might look sketchy. Somebody goes on and says, “Wow, why are they cheaper?” We’re not going to raise it just to play the business game. If we’re getting somebody signed up because it’s a business game, we don’t want them. We’d rather have the person who knows we’re good and is here, because we’re good. So I’m proud of that. I’m proud that we’re reasonably priced and just get stellar scores.

Where can listeners and MCAT test takers learn more about The Berkeley Review? [28:51]​

Two ways to do it. We’re small enough, email me if you have questions, like content questions or something at toddb[email protected]. And then our website is Reach out – we’re pretty small and pretty good about getting back!

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