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How to Study for MCAT

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MCAT Study Materials: How to Study for MCAT? 100th percentile MCAT Experience

If you’re interested in attending medical school, you are almost certainly dismayed that you have to conquer the MCAT to stand a fighting chance with the highly competitive admission process. This blog will breakdown exactly what you need to do to tackle the MCAT and what resources you should use.

What is the MCAT?

The MCAT is the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). As implied by its name, the MCAT is the standardized exam required for medical school admission, including allopathic M.D. and osteopathic D.O. programs in the United States, Australia, Canada, and the Caribbean Islands. You’re also eligible to take the exam if you are applying to podiatric (D.P.M.) and veterinary (D.V.M.) programs.

When should I take the MCAT?

You must take the MCAT to apply to these health professions schools, so definitely in time to get your score back before you apply, which usually happens in the fall before the year in which you wish to matriculate. It often takes a month or two after the exam before you receive your score. In addition to that time frame, many students like to have additional time so that they may take the MCAT again if they aren’t satisfied with their score the first time around (see “When should I retake the MCAT?”). And finally, you should take the MCAT when you feel prepared. This means that you’ve ideally taken all the introductory-level biology, general and organic chemistry, physics, biochemistry, psychology, and sociology courses that the MCAT covers, and that you’ve had time to prepare specifically for the MCAT (see “How long does it take to prepare for the MCAT?”).

What is the average score on the MCAT?

The MCAT is scored in a range from 472 to 528, with each of the four sections being scored from 118 to 132. In 2022, the average score was 501.6, but the average score for matriculants was 511.9.

What score should I aim for on the MCAT?

It depends! As with all exams, the higher the score, most likely the better, but you will define your target score based on your desired medical school(s). You can subscribe to AAMC’s free Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) page to find the average MCAT score for your desired medical school(s). You can aim to achieve that score, and you don’t have to surpass it—after a certain point, there are diminishing returns and that time is probably better used to dedicate to other parts of your application.

What is the structure of the MCAT?

The MCAT is a computer-based, multiple-choice exam that takes 7.5 hours to complete—almost the length of a typical workday! It consists of four sections.

Which MCAT study materials should I use for each section?

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning (CARS)

The CARS section is often considered the most challenging section, but don’t worry! You can prepare for the CARS section and the skills you learn for the CARS section—such as synthesizing the most important information from a given set of data—will be valuable for future clinical encounters in medical school and beyond. Prior knowledge, in the conventional sense, is not necessary for this section; CARS does not test facts. Because of that, it is especially important to practice with sample passages and questions.

Science Sections

The Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem) and Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys) sections are the traditional science sections on the MCAT. The same resources are helpful for both exams. Unlike the CARS section, these sections require fundamental knowledge in biology, chemistry, and physics, knowledge that is typically covered in the introductory classes in each respective subject in college. However, it is worth having resources to summarize and review the content, as well as resources for practice questions, as with the CARS section.

Psychological, Social, and Biological Functions of Behavior (Psych/Soc)

The Psych/Soc section is a relatively new section that is generally considered to be more straightforward. Some students have found this is the section they require the least preparation for, with introductory college classes covering most of the material well even before the dedicated MCAT studying period.

How should the MCAT study materials be used?

More is not necessarily better! Though we have suggested several resources and there are many more out there, you should not use too many resources. Prioritize the resources you do decide to use. Figure out which resources you would like to use to learn the content for each section and which resources you would like to use to practice questions.

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Which MCAT assessment tools should I use?

In addition to learning content and practicing questions for each section, it is important to take full-length practice exams. This will provide a feel for the actual MCAT, build stamina for the exam, and allow you to assess your progress.

The AAMC exams are most useful for these purposes. You can take the AAMC Sample Test first, as it does not offer a score, only a percentage correct. This exam can be used to learn what it feels like to take the whole exam in one setting. AAMC Exams 1-4 are the most predictive exams for your score on the actual MCAT and each costs $35. Exam 1 should be taken in the first 2-3 weeks of studying. Don’t take the exams more frequently than a week apart as it takes a day just to review the exam and it takes time to see your score change. These exams are assessment tools, not practice tools like question banks

Finally, if you have additional time, you can also take the Next Step and Princeton Review exams, keeping in mind that they are more challenging and less representative.

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How long does it take to prepare for the MCAT?

This also depends! We would recommend that you take a practice exam about once every week and that you take the five AAMC exams. So, five exams mean five weeks. If you’re adding the Next Step exams or want to space out the practice exams, then you might want to take 7-8 weeks. Two months is a good amount of time to study for the MCAT, especially if you can dedicate that period to studying. If your study period is too long, you risk forgetting some of the material you learned at the beginning of your study period or even burning out. This is just a guideline, however, and you can adjust the amount of time to your schedule and your needs.

Remember, also, that you’ve been preparing for the MCAT through all your pre-medical courses all along!

What are some strategies for the MCAT?

One of the most important strategies for the MCAT is to start questions from Day 1. A mistake that is often made is to separate studying time into content time and then question/assessment time. Students sometimes feel that they should learn content via traditional didactic content—i.e., books, videos, podcasts—before they attempt any questions. But questions are the best way to learn in the first place. Questions prime you to learn the content more efficiently.

When you review the questions you’ve answered, you can use a method called
active reviewing. In this method, you go through all your questions first, simply marking correct and incorrect, without looking at the explanations. Next, go through and redo the questions you got wrong, just to make sure it wasn’t because of a simple mistake. If you still get the answer wrong, it is likely because of a content issue, and you can review the topic using the above resources. This makes the information more memorable as your brain is primed to learn it.

Another strategy you can use to structure your study time is
subject spacing. This means you alternate the topics you study throughout the day. For example, you can start the morning with CARS, which would wake you up, then switch to the science sections, then psych/soc, then CARS again before lunch, before doing the same thing after lunch. This method allows you to cover a subject multiple times throughout the day, which helps you to consolidate the information. It also forces you to change focus, keeping you awake through a long study day.

Finally, we will address
notetaking, or rather, limiting it. Students often take too many notes, as if in doing so, they will remember everything they write down. But the best way to learn is through active learning and copying notes from your resources is not active. Active learning involves recall, as with doing questions or flashcards. If you take notes, do so sparingly, focusing on topics/questions you’ve missed several times.

When should I retake the MCAT?

This depends both on your goal score and what you can do differently the next time you take the MCAT. You can consider retaking the exam if your score is significantly lower than your target score or if your score is imbalanced across sections (i.e. 129/122/130/128). It’s important, however, that you can demonstrate a significant score increase the next time around, at least 4-5 points. You can take the MCAT up to three times in a year, up to four times within two years, and up to seven times total in a lifetime. Remember that schools can see every time you’ve taken the exam and every score you’ve received.

How do I register for the MCAT?

You can register for the MCAT through the AAMC website:
You will need to create a free AAMC account first.

How much does it cost to register for the MCAT?

The MCAT is expensive, costing $320 to register for the exam. There is a fee assistance program (https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/applying-medical-school-process/fee-assistance-program/) through the AAMC, and often there are other programs through your college.

The MCAT journey is stressful, expensive, and intense. We hope that this blog post has made it a little less so and gives you a solid footing to start your MCAT journey.

Myan Bhoopalam

Myan Bhoopalam graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania as a Roy and Diana Vagelos Scholar with a triple major in Physics, Biochemistry, and Biophysics. He also concurrently completed a M.S. in Physics during his 4 years at Penn. He is currently a 4th year medical student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is pursuing a residency position in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Ashley Zhou

Ashley Zhou graduated with honors from Duke University as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Chemistry and Cultural Anthropology. She is currently a 4th year medical student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is applying into Ophthalmology for residency, with plans for a fellowship in Pediatric Ophthalmology.

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