If you’re in the midst of studying for MCAT exam prep, check out my story on how to conquer it!
“And now let’s honor the graduating class of 2016!”
The arena fell into a thunder of applause as family, friends, and everyone in between clapped for their graduating engineers. I knew I should have been elated. (After all, I was officially a biomedical engineer; I could now add B.S.E to my email signature.) In this moment I should have relished in the overflowing adoration.
But all I could think was “I need to go home and study for my MCAT.”
It was the day of my college graduation from Arizona State University, the last of my two ceremonies. After I walked across the stage, out the doors, and into the merciless Arizona sunshine, I would officially be finished with all things undergrad. But, unlike most of my classmates, I would not get to frolic into the beckoning summer, breathing sighs of relief and spending carefree days enjoying my accomplishments. That would not be me at all because I was a premed.
And a premed’s work is NEVER done.
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What was weighing on my mind the most was my upcoming MCAT. June 18… 5 weeks away. I had 5 weeks to master everything I’d learned in the last 4 years. I’m sure you’ve heard what they say (all premeds have), that you should have at least 3 months of dedicated MCAT exam prep before taking the test. The fact that I had less than half of that time really pushed me to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Key word: verge. I wasn’t about to let the MCAT beat me. (And *spoiler alert* it didn’t.) This story has a happy ending (I promise) and even if you’re in the same situation I was, yours will too! Want to know how? Well… let me tell you how I ended up in this mess first and then we can talk about how I cleaned it up.
Everyone told me my last semester of college was going to be the least stressful semester of my life. They said it would be a breeze. Everyone told me I had nothing to worry about.
And what did I do? I believed them.
Since I thought my last semester was going to be so easy, I piled on as much as I could (sort of like a last hurrah), confident that I would still be able to find time for my MCAT exam prep. Overcommitting was almost a compulsion at that point; when adding an activity to my résumé, the joy and excitement I felt was comparable to a toddler’s first Christmas.
As obvious as it may seem to you (and me) now, at the time I didn’t realize that taking 19 credit hours, researching in 3 different labs, preparing for my thesis defense, starting a part-time job, and prototyping a medical device (with 2000 pages of supporting documentation) for my senior Capstone project would leave absolutely no room for MCAT exam prep.
The realization hit me much too late and, while I had optimistically set my MCAT for a comfortable May 14, by the time I graduated I knew I would have to push it back. Thus, the dreaded countdown to June 18 began. How was I going to study for the MCAT?
DOMINATE THE MCAT WITH PICMONIC
My Approach to MCAT Exam Prep
I started my MCAT prep when I got home from my graduation ceremony. If you’re in the same situation I was in, or your exam date is coming up and you don’t feel prepared, I advise you do the following:
HAVE A GOAL
It’s a good idea to know the number you’ll want to see on your MCAT score report. Knowing I was at a disadvantage, I aimed for a 509 which, when I was applying, fell in the 82nd percentile and was the average MCAT score for matriculating medical students. (It’s gone up to 510 since then.) What constitutes a good MCAT score is partially subjective, and depends on your personal goals and aspirations.
To figure out what you should be aiming for and to analyze MCAT score ranges,, look at the score distribution outlined by AAMC.
Remember to have realistic expectations. (I hoped for a 528 but expected a 509.)
KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES (AND STRENGTHS)
Let me tell you a secret: I did not take a single general biology course during college (thanks AP/IB credit). While it was nice to have that room to take other classes (like genetics and biochemistry), I definitely did not know my organ systems as well as I should have. Because of that, I knew I would have to spend most of my time reviewing for the “Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems” section of the MCAT.
Now, the (not-so) “new” MCAT also has a “Psychological Foundations of Behavior” section. I don’t know about you but I love psychology. Believe it or not, I largely drew from my high school AP psychology class when completing these practice passages (this is the one section of the MCAT where rote memorization can get you far). Needless to say, I studied less for this MCAT section than I did the other science sections.
Everyone is different though, so just make sure to spend more time on your weaker subjects and less on your strong ones. If you’re the type that likes to have everything organized to a T, make an MCAT study guide and schedule. Use your time wisely; that’s what they call time management!
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PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
As much as it pained me, I knew that extensive content review was not an option; I would never get any practice in that way. So I relied largely on my years of premed classes and prayed they would get me where I needed to go (they did, and yours will too). I think what a lot of people get wrong about the MCAT is that they believe it purely tests how much they know. While knowledge is definitely important (sorry, you still have to know the enzymes involved in cell respiration), the MCAT at its core tests critical thinking. In other words, it’s not how much you know, but how much you can know using information you don’t know. (Let that marinate in your brain for a minute; if you’ve ever looked at an MCAT biochemistry practice passage, you’ll know exactly what I mean.)
Thus, my approach revolved almost solely around MCAT practice questions. For this, I mainly used the Princeton Review; the practice questions in each book are (1) impeccable and (2) numerous. To get more practice, I also used Picmonic (very helpful for enzyme kinetics), flipped through AAMC flashcards, and, a few days before my test, ran out and bought McGraw-Hill’s 500 Review Questions for the MCAT in every subject.
Make sure to use a variety of resources and review the explanations for each question, REGARDLESS of whether you got the question correct or incorrect. The question explanations in any book are a gold mine of tips and tricks; use them to your advantage.
2021 and 2022: STAYING MOTIVATED AT HOME
The 2021 exam and application season was unlike any seen before. In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, many students are studying from home instead of at their colleges. This comes with its own benefits, but also drawbacks. (Remember those times you told yourself you’d study over holiday breaks..) Staying on task and motivated is crucial to coming out of this season with an exam result you’re satisfied with. Regular exercise, a varied diet, and realistic prep and studying expectations can all help you ensure that you’re taking steps in the right direction.
My MCAT Exam Prep Study Schedule Week-By-Week
Week 1: Accelerated content review. I went through all of the Princeton Review books (one a day), skimming the chapters, reading the summaries, and doing all the questions at the end of each chapter.
Weeks 2-4: I did nothing but practice passages, dividing up my time by subject in order of weakest to strongest. I used the Science Workbook that comes in package of Princeton Review MCAT material.
Week 2: Focused Biology and Biochemistry Practice
Week 3: Focused Chemistry and Organic Chemistry Practice
Week 4: Focused Physics Practice
Week 5: Final Review
This is when I did a little bit of psychology and CARS practice. I also reviewed the notes I had taken during all of my previous practice sessions and further practiced topics I felt shaky about using McGraw Hill.
Always have hope. It sounds cheesy, but keeping a positive attitude will be the fuel that gets you through your MCAT exam prep.
Socialization is dead to you. During this accelerated prep, no one else should exist (except your parents; they always matter). That means putting away your phone, keeping away from social media, and not going to parties or hanging out with friends. (I promise it’s not the end of the world if you don’t like your best friend’s profile picture for a few weeks or don’t see the premier of that new movie.) There will be time for all of that AFTER your exam.
Study every moment you can. (I know they say not to study the day before your exam, but that’s 24 hours of time you’ll never get back…think about that.)
Bring a jacket on test day (it WILL be freezing).
GOOD LUCK AND HAPPY STUDYING!
Read about Aimen’s MCAT exam prep and keep up with her journey as a first year medical student by following her on Instagram @lil_waimen.
USE PICMONIC FOR MCAT EXAM PREP