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Repeat Test Taker: Second/Third/Fourth Time's a Charm?

Preparing for the MCAT for months, finally sitting to take it, then waiting an agonizing and nightmare-filled month just to open your Thx report to find you need to repeat the exam can be devastating. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. Your emotions are raw and spirits are down. That's completely natural. But it's by no means the end of the world or even close. It's simply a setback in your timeline.

Thousands of people take the MCAT multiple times, so start your next attempt knowing that there are plenty of physicians out there who've been in your shoes. Once you've decided that you're going to repeat the MCAT, you should take a couple days to devise a new strategy. The reality is that less than twenty percent of repeaters improve as much as they hope. According to the AAMC data, the percent improvements in C/P, CARS, B/B, and P/S are generally minor, and this no doubt stems from the fact many people prepare a second time in the same fashion they did the first time. They maintain the same bad habits (like doing free-standing questions rather than passages), they don't recognize what they need to change (they emphasize material more than test-taking strategies), or they count on Lady Luck being kind to them on their next sitting.

If you learn from your experience, it can be a huge asset in your favor. If you make the changes in your approach that you need to make, then you can be one of those few who show a notable improvement. It all starts with a gameplan!

1) Assess What Went Right and What Went Wrong
Before you do anything, ask yourself a few assessment questions:

  • 1) Did I do all of the passages and problems I wanted to?

  • 2) Was the MCAT similar to the materials I used to prepare?

  • 3) Were there several things on my MCAT that I failed to study?

  • 4) Did I underperform because anxieties got the better of me?

  • 5) Did I make several careless errors?

  • 6) Were there several questions where I had no idea what they were trying to ask?

  • 7) Were there any passages where I had no clue what they were talking about?

The answers to these questions will form the foundation of your new study plan. For instance, if you answered yes to 1, no to 2, yes to 3, no to 4, maybe to 5, yes to 6, and yes to 7, then you need to use completely new materials this time around. Whatever you used the first time didn't prepare YOU for the MCAT. They could be fine materials in general, but they clearly didn't work for your specific needs. If you answered no to 1, yes to 2, yes to 3, yes to 4, probably to 5, no to 6, and no to 7, then you need more time but are okay using the same materials. One risk of using the same materials is that you know the answer from before (especially on the tricky questions), so you could get an inflated score based on that previous experience. This is a big problem for people who repeat the AAMC practice exams.

2) Devise a Schedule
Once you know what you wish to do differently in terms of materials and the focus of your studies, then you need to draw up a schedule. It will be hard to get started, so plan some catch-up time in the early part of your schedule. You won't need to review as much as your previous time, so you should plan on fitting more passages into your schedule. Set weekly goals in terms of how many passages you wish to complete. It is absolutely essential that you thoroughly go through every question and solution to make sure you got it correct for the right reasons or know how to solve the question quickly if you happened to get an incorrect answer. Make sure to schedule plenty of full-length exams throughout your studies, because reviewing those exams will be a major part of your preparation this time.

3) Mix Things Up a Bit
Try a few new things this time. Make studying a new and enjoyable experience. For instance, go to the SDN Q and A forum and try to answer all of the questions that get posted each day. It's a great way to experience a question a day and then some, especially since most of the questions will likely be a bit challenging (otherwise no one would be asking about them). Try tutoring someone in one of your weaker areas. This will force you to get better at the topic while also exposing you to different ways of thinking about the subject matter. Most importantly, find a way to have fun studying this time around.

4) Emphasize the Positives
See your improvements and emphasize the gains you are making. Don't make excuses. Keep track of everything you do and monitor your progress. Make to-do lists and be sure to check a few things off every day. The good feeling you get from checking things off as you do them can be motivating as well as confidence building. Randomly do a passage from a book you're not using that day, just to show yourself you're retaining the information and have honed in your test-taking skills.

5) Keep an Error Log
This can be a real pain, but it pays dividends immediately. When you notice the amount of errors that are careless, it will surprise you. Sometimes careless errors stem from not reading the question completely, because it reminds you of another question you've seen before. Sometimes careless errors stem from not seeing a key word in one of the answer choices. There are many types of careless errors, and when you become more cognoscente of the ones you make, you'll be less apt to make them. If your errors stem from a lack of information (equation, definition, or concept), then you should immediately write down what you're missing in your error log. Say it out loud as you write it. It may be cliché, but learning from your mistakes is the best way to see quick improvement.

6) Take Plenty of Practice Exams
Practice makes perfect. While you may not reach perfection, you improve greatly from practice exams, because it's an environment where you are actively thinking and are faced with random subjects so you have no preconceived biases about what will be asked. The most important part is doing a thorough postgame analysis of every detail of your exam. Notice where you went too slow or went too fast. See what type of errors you made. See what your score could have been if you would have not made any careless mistakes. Break every aspect of your exam experience down.

7) Exercise, Eat Right, and Most of All Get Good Sleep
People always seem to underestimate just how helpful sleep is to thinking clearly. Midnight oil doesn't burn as brightly as regular, wide-awake oil. It is amazing what sleep and good health can do for your confidence, your focus, and your overall attitude. Doing well on the MCAT requires being a machine, and machines run best when they're well tuned.

8) Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help
SDN is a great community for getting help. Best of all, it's free and usually pretty sound advice. There are plenty of people who've been there before and can share some insights that might make your experience better. When a question doesn't make sense, post it in the Q and A section (giving the appropriate reference so the author/company gets their due credit). Get a tutor if it will help. Take a review class if you think you'll benefit. Some people really need them while others function best flying solo. It's like any kind of training, be it physical or mental. A coach can motivate you and teach you a better way in some cases, but they can also not understand you and thus hurt your progress. Know yourself and put yourself in the best position to succeed.
 
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BerkReviewTeach

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This is a cut-n-paste from a message in the main forum:

So I took the MCAT and got a 500...
average of 6 practice tests was around 508.
I didn't panic and I normally do good on tests and under pressure, and I felt as prepared as I could be...
I basically just read for content review, did the practice questions, passages, and full-lengths...
I typically learn best through lecture/reading and teaching myself so that is what I did...

Starting with the positive, it is excellent that you can eliminate anxiety issues from the list, because quite honestly, that is the most common cause of underperforming. Over many, many years, I have had hundreds of students come in with a similar story. The stories that eventually ended the best were the ones that involved a complete change in approach. If you are amenable to trying what may sound unorthodox and goes against the approach you took the last time, then I hope the following suggestions will help.

(1) Reading content review is perhaps the single biggest waste of time when studying for the MCAT. I'm not saying you don't need to know concepts, definition, and equations. I'm saying that reading about them is too passive for anything useful to happen. You have to review through passages and questions. You have to quiz yourself on how to apply information, not the recall of information. When you prepare this time, set a schedule based 100% on passages.

(2) Repeat every question you miss until you get it right. If you do a question and choose B, but it's wrong, then do it again with just choices A, C, and D. If you get it right, great! You probably need to focus on a small item in the question to distinguish between choices on future questions like that. If you get it wrong on your second try, then try it again with two choices. Only after you have done this should you read answer explanations.

(3) For the first passage (or first few passages) in any homework sitting, do not worry about timing and write copious notes about your logic in choosing your answer. Remember, your goal is to get better at answering questions, and this can only be done by writing out what you were thinking and then modifying your thought process. On this first questions, rank the answers from best to worst. This is done so that you master the art of PoE.

(4) Do not make flashcards (except for psych/soc terms). This is another misuse of time. It develops a false sense of security that you know the material, when in fact you simply know how to recall it in the setting you have created. Keep a log of terminology, shortcuts, diagrams, etc... as you go through passages and questions, and by all means look it over, but do not emphasize recall.

(5) Try writing MCAT questions WITH four answer choices. Learning how to write an exam is critical to learning how to take an exam.

(6) Do not overestimate the value of a full-length exam or underestimate the value of homework passages along the way. People put way, way too much credence into FLs. They chart them, graph them, ask about them, stress about them, and basically treat them like they actually have some predictive value. It is good to do a few to get the feel for the test day (stress, timing, energy, etc...), but they really are not any different than doing homework. Any passage, from an FL or a homework set, has value if done the right way.

Doing well on the MCAT is about mastering how to take their exam. Too many people apply the techniques and approach they employed in college courses. Some MCAT materials are written to appease this desire because, let's face it, there are companies that care more about selling their product than making one that is actually helpful. To get truly ready for the MCAT, you have to master the art of extracting what you need from a passage and answering multiple-choice questions that will extrapolate from a concept or data point in the passage. Learning to keep things simple and not overthink when the passage is tricky is huge. This only comes from practicing with tough passages.

I wish you the best of luck this next go-around. If you want to see a jump, then stop reading and invest all of your time in "doing."
 
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