Hey y’all! This is probably the post that’s been most requested and I’m finally going to sit down and write it.
Before we dive in, a few disclaimers:
• I took the MCAT over 3 years ago. This post is written from memory & using pictures to piece together the nitty gritty details.
• This is what worked for ME. Studying and test prep are never one-size-fits-all. My hope is that by sharing what worked for me, it might give you ideas of what will work for you. Take some of what I did, take none of it, take whatever works best for you.
When did I take it?
I’ll provide a quick recap of my timeline because choosing when to take the MCAT is a big consideration. I went to community college from 2011-2014 before transferring to a university 2014-2016 to finish my B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I chose to take the MCAT during the summer before my last year for a few reasons. Mainly, I wanted to get as many medical school prerequisites done as possible before taking the MCAT. By choosing to take it during the summer of 2015, I was able to ensure that I’d completed all of my bio, chem, orgo, and physics before studying them for the MCAT. A mindset I’ve commonly seen regarding the MCAT is the “oh well, I can always take it again and treat this as practice” approach. I don’t like that. If you’re going to invest your time and money into this, why not do it the best you can the first time? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking it over if you know you can improve, but a backup plan should not be your plan A.
I also chose to take it during the summer so that I would have adequate time to study. I worked throughout my undergrad career. Classes, working, and MCAT studying would have been a lot of stress for me, personally. I did have to continue working while I was studying for the MCAT, but I only worked an average of 20-30 hours each week. At the time, I was working as a nanny and a horseback riding instructor/trail guide. My bosses were very understanding and I did a lot of studying on breaks and while the kids I nannied were sleeping. I studied for 8 weeks and took 10 days off work immediately prior to the test.
What did I use?
I did a prep course through Princeton Review for 6 weeks and spent the last two weeks studying independently. I won’t lie, it was VERY expensive. I was able to get a discount and it still was almost prohibitively expensive for me, but I really wanted to take the MCAT once and know that I had done my best. Their books were really helpful as a review of the information likely to be tested. I’ll say it again because it’s important. Test prep materials should be REVIEW of what you’ve learned in classes. Learning it all for the first time would have made studying much harder. Of course, there were some things I’d never learned, but the vast majority had been covered in my coursework. Background knowledge is incredibly important.
How did I prep?
I’m sure it’s obvious if you follow me on Instagram, but I am a BIG proponent of planning. Having a solid game plan is how I managed to work as a premed and how I stay (mostly) on top of things in medical school. I first look at what I have planned for the day and try to estimate how much studying I can do. I personally like to assign myself work each day, based on what else I have going on and what I need to get through. It helps me to achieve a reasonable amount without overachieving and burning myself out.
I went through and made lists of all of the studying I needed to do. I’d put them into my planner and check things off as I went. I also tracked the hours I spent studying, mostly so I didn’t beat myself up for “not doing enough.” I studied between 40-70 hours per week. On days that I didn’t work, I assigned myself more work and vice versa. I would assign myself work for Monday through Friday and then tackle whatever was leftover on the weekends in addition to covering weak spots again.
I also printed out some motivational memes, because why not. These checklists might seem ridiculous or like a waste of time to create, but for me, they work. Having a solid plan makes me more efficient.
Honestly, I could talk about the importance of planning forever because it is just so vitally important. Make a plan that works for you, do the best you can, be willing to adjust when things don’t go just right. I managed to get a terrible URI the week before I took the MCAT. Fever, headaches, non-stop coughing, the works. Needless to say, that was NOT in the plan. It was miserable, but it did make me prioritize. I took some time to rest and focused my time on subjects where I could improve the most (physics) and subjects where I was strongest to ensure I didn’t miss anything obvious (biochemistry).
How did I study?
A lot of people have asked how I split my time between content review vs. practice. For me, it was probably a 40/60 split. I prefer to use practice questions as a way to learn, not just as assessment. I would review content and take notes, focusing on things that I hadn’t seen before or struggled to understand. Once I’d seen the material once, I would do practice passages, take note of where I was weak, and return to content review to fill in weak spots. Repeating this cycle left me with less content to cover each time and made studying less overwhelming.
I learn best by handwriting my notes, so I did that as I studied. Something that I learned from working during undergrad was to switch between subjects when I get overwhelmed. When you need to study a lot of material in a short amount of time, it can be helpful to change subjects at regular intervals before you get mentally exhausted. When I had a longer amount of time to study, I would study each subject for about an hour before switching to the next. Cycling in this way lets me get more things done. I also did a fair amount of studying in small chunks when I’d get a break at work.
Note: These are my original MCAT notes! I rewrote a few sections over the summer and they’re available in my shop now.
For CARS specifically, I tried out a few techniques including highlighting and summarizing. What worked best for me was to write one line about each paragraph as I read through the passages. That helped me to read critically and also made it easier to know where in the passage to look for answers to questions if I didn’t know after one pass. I’m a fast reader by nature, so I ended up doing every CARS passage when I took the MCAT, but I did leave the one that seemed hardest for last. If I hadn’t gotten to it, I would have been okay, but I didn’t want to spend too long on one set of questions. There are many CARS strategies, so I’d encourage you to try some out and choose what works best for you.
What did your scores look like?
Since I used Princeton Review, I used their practice tests to prepare. I didn’t end up buying any AAMC materials, because TPR was such a huge investment and they had a lot of practice exams. I took one exam before I started studying as a baseline, and then at various points throughout my prep. As you can see here, my scores on the practice exams were lower than my score on the MCAT. I wasn’t expecting that much of an increase in my score, but I’m obviously okay with it.
Do I have to study all the time and not have any fun?
NO. Please do not do this. Plan in breaks, schedule some fun things. Be a human being and not just a human studying! If you’re feeling worn down and you haven’t accomplished everything you set out to, take a break. If you’re spending your studying time sitting there thinking about how exhausted you are and hardly covering any material, you aren’t serving yourself. Take a break to regroup. Learn to rest, not to quit.
What did you do after the test?
Immediately after taking the MCAT, I went to my car and cried tears of relief that it was done. I had to babysit that night, and the kids I watched were a great distraction in my post-test exhaustion. The 5-week waiting period to get my score could have been awful, but it wasn’t. Classes started up again, and I focused on that instead of counting down the days until scores were released. I did such a good job that Timmy had to remind me when my score was released!
P.S. I’m realizing I only write blogs when they’re highly requested, so if there’s anything you’d like me to delve into, let me know on Instagram!