Prepping for a 522 - an alternate way...

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May 3, 2016
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Hey all,

So I've read a lot of threads and posts on here about students worried about their performance on an upcoming MCAT. I know many students take a fairly ubiquitous route of cramming for a summer before taking the MCAT end of summer or beginning of fall. Since I took a less-traveled route to my MCAT, I thought I'd share what I did, and why I think it is far superior to the summer-MCAT cram.

In a sentence: biochemistry/psyc major coursework for two years, mild studying during my soph-jr summer, focused Fall JR coursework (biochemistry, psychology, neuroscience), followed by a 4 week focused study session during winter break. January MCAT --> 522.

I originally planned to do the summer cram route, but found that I was way too busy with ECs, TAing etc. I think that summer cramming can work for some students, but that most lose out on some critical benefits of spacing out their study between their summer and the fall/winter semester. Here are some of my biggest points:

  • Spaced study. Psychology for a long time has taught the benefits of spacing your study, especially with volumes of material. The MCAT is a huge test, with a multidisciplinary knowledge requirement. It is hard to rush this in a summer, even with previous coursework (because even that decays quickly). By doing light studying during the summer, focused coursework and practice tests during the fall, and a focused "cram" during winter break aimed at my weaknesses, I gained exposure to the testing style and material over 8 months. I think this is critical.
  • Time for additional coursework. This may not be as much of a problem for some, but by my soph-jr summer, I had not taken Biochemistry. As it was one of the biggest focuses on the new MCAT, I felt obligated to take a full course during my JR Fall rather than try to learn the complex material from a condensed study book. I would say it worked! The course structured my learning, allowed in-depth exploration, and once I got to taking MCAT biochem sections, the material was easy relative to the challenging coursework I had taken.
  • Time for additional practice tests. I personally think students do not take enough practice tests for their MCAT. Its easy to see why - practice tests literally take a full day. They aren't fun. Yet, it is a reproduced exam-day experience that you can do as many times as you want. Not only do you get used to taking the test, but you learn additional material, are exposed to a wide range of question styles and difficulties, and most importantly, you identify your weaknesses in real time. More on this in next bullet.
  • More time to address weaknesses. As a psychology major, we learn all about what makes "intelligence," and what makes "expertise." Whether its in gymnastics (Rio anyone??), chess, or academia, the BEST in these fields all do the same thing - directed, focused learning. I used to be the type that thought reading the textbook through over and over again was useful. And while studious reading is important, I think one of the best things to do is focus your time. Obviously, most people who make it through college become good at this, but with the MCAT, its incredibly more important. You are not just identifying areas that you are lacking knowledge in, but areas that you trip up on and fail somewhat in your problem-solving and critical thinking. Identifying these areas that you are weak on with practice tests, question banks, and other resources and focusing on those parts of the review books is what will drastically change your score.
  • A shorter-term study period. I don't know about others, but studying during an entire summer is daunting to me. Many students focus their entire summer on studying for the MCAT, ignoring opportunity for personal growth, research, community service, and additional coursework. While some do fit in ECs during their "MCAT summer," there's no doubt the MCAT steals valuable time for summer crammers. The alternative? Utilize the winter recess, late Dec to early Jan, as the "cram-period." When looking at the ideal "cram-period" for Step 1, for instance, researchers identify it as approx. one month. Longer and you have too much time and lose focus, procrastinate, etc.... shorter and you don't have quite the time to finish material review and practice. During winter break, ~3 weeks, plus the 2-3 weeks before the late January MCAT, you have plenty of time to execute a structured study plan. See below for my 3-week session.
All in all, I think many many more students should be switching gears from summer cramming and engage in a more gradual, multi-process study plan. This deviates even from what I usually do - I am a test crammer, not picking up my notes until two days before an examination. However, spreading out my studying and knowledge exposure over 8 months was critical to my 522 test score. The important thing is to build in test material not only to your personal study schedule, but to your coursework selections, and to some extent, your ECs for those 8 months. I worked as a paramedic during that time, and while that didn't teach me intense bio or sociology, it helped my general medical exposure and problem-solving skills.

Best of luck, MCAT test-takers!! Hope this was helpful.

P.S. - my Dec-Jan 3-week study schedule. Three day rotation. Day 1: practice test (8AM start), then relax rest of evening. Day 2: look over old practice test, do some focused reading in the subject books based on what I missed. Day 3: miscellaneous reading, catching up on review chapters, maybe some test bank questions. Did this for three weeks, ended up taking 11 practice tests over the course of the 8 months (most in Dec-Jan), took the late Jan MCAT.
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