The MCAT Tutor: A Smarter Type of MCAT Flashcards

Posted by Jack Varon on 11/25/13 8:13 AM

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Isn't it time we started working smarter, not harder?


I have a confession to make: I’m a flashcard addict. Flashcards are the perfect tool to memorize facts, review mistakes, and give nervous hands something productive to do on mass transit. When I took the MCAT in 2008, I had a stack of about 500 flash cards that I would review every day. My two go-to sources for flash cards were formulas and facts I came across while studying from review books, and questions which I got wrong or found challenging in the course of doing practice problems while studying for the test.

My technique was to try to review all 500 flash cards every day. Invariably, there would be a few that were really easy and I could flip through quickly, a few that were a bit tougher and I had to think about before answering correctly, and some that I would get wrong. I would pull out all the easy cards from my flashcard deck, and re-review all the cards that were difficult. I’d repeat this process until all the cards were coming to me easily.


This process was thorough and effective, but not particularly efficient. 

Fast-forward to 2013, and my approach seems laughably outdated. Why? Because of ANKIcards. ANKI is a free flashcard program that helps you study effectively and efficiently. The key is the rational spacing of flash card review based on how difficult you find a given card. Suppose my first flash card is a fact that is easy for me to recall:


What is the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration?




It doesn’t make sense for me to review this card every day; in fact, every time I see it, I can probably wait a little bit longer until I review it again. So ANKI presents you with three options after you review a flash card: EASY, HARD, or WRONG. Each time you review a card and click EASY, ANKI waits a little bit longer to bring that card up for review, say maybe a week. Meanwhile, cards that you mark HARD will be reviewed sooner, perhaps in a day or two. Cards that you mark WRONG will be reviewed once you’re done reviewing your other cards in that session.

There’s a good bit of memory research that went into building ANKI; while I won’t get into the weeds, the basic idea is that the best time to review a piece of information is right before you’re about to forget it. This is why ANKI’s intervals are spaced as they are.
The optimal way to use ANKI while studying is to keep the program open while reviewing material, and making a card for any fact you’d like to remember. But you should also make an ANKI card for any question you get wrong, making sure you isolate any facts you didn’t understand.

Of course ANKI is great for way more than just the MCAT. It’s a powerful tool for building vocabulary, foreign language, or STEP 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) boards when you make it to medical school. For example, my USMLE STEP 1 ANKI deck had over 2,000 flash cards in it. Like I said, I’m a flash card addict. 

ANKI can be downloaded at:

It’s available for Mac, PC, and Linux. There’s also a mobile app for iOS and Android as well as a syncing service if you sign up for a free account.

[Cambridge Coaching is not affiliated with ANKICards in any way.]


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Tags: study skills, MCAT