The MCAT Tutor: How to use practice problems

Posted by Jack the MCAT Slayer on 1/14/14 10:04 AM

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Aside from teaching students the material necessary for the MCAT, or the best test-taking strategies, most students need coaching on the best and most effective strategies for studying. After all, the MCAT is a problem-based test, and the bulk of most students’ preparation will be spent doing problems. How a student completes these problems is as important as simply completing them. In fact, many students come seeking MCAT tutoring after having completed 1,001 questions (I’m not sure why that’s the number that comes to mind) in a particular subject area, but without ever seeing the improvement that they expected. Why is this?

There are two reasons why students can go through a whole book of practice problems without improving their scores.

The first is that they don’t use their practice problems as an opportunity to seek feedback. The second is they don’t use practice to simulate a testing environment. It’s like my coach in high-school used to tell me, “If you practice like you play, game day is the easiest day of the week.”

First, let’s talk about feedback. There’s been a ton of research on what makes people get better at anything, and the simple answer is deliberate practice. For practice to be deliberate, you have to be trying to get better, and to get better you need to get good feedback. For feedback to be good, it has to meet three criteria. It must be timely, specific, and actionable. A student can sabotage himself by not adhering to these principles. Take the MCAT, for example. He’ll do some practice problems and review them in a few days, instead of immediately after finishing them. Or perhaps after reviewing some problems, he’ll say something like, “I need to get better at physics formulas.” Even worse, he’ll say something even hazier, like, “I need to get faster.” The more efficient student will review the problems immediately, and say “I spend too much time on physics problems about kinematics because I’m not comfortable with the formulas; maybe if I spend some time reviewing the kinematics formulas, I can get a bit quicker.” This feedback is good feedback because you get it right away, it is specific to the problem, and it is actionable, with the action being reviewing kinematics formulas.

Second, there is a right time, place, and mental state to do practice problems in. This is a time, place, and mental state that mimics, as closely as possible. This means no working in a trendy café, or while you catch up on House of Cards before the next season. You should take your test in a quiet place where you can focus on the questions. You should devote prime mental time to your preparation; think afternoon, not midnight.

Practice problems are a valuable resource, and so is your time. Don’t waste either. Make sure to go over the problems you get wrong in detail to get the most out of your practice, and make sure to practice like you play so you’re ready to go on test day.


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Tags: study skills, MCAT