Structuring and Strategizing your MCAT Studying: Phase 3

By Cole


You made it to Phase 3 and you are still alive, so congratulations! At this point, we are now in ‘Period B’ studying (if that makes no sense, refer back to the Phase 1 article). By now we have successfully reviewed all of the content in our books and have taken a few MCAT practice exams. Things should be starting to feel a little more comfortable, but I wouldn’t expect you to have the exact pathway and effects of adrenocorticotropic hormone memorized right now. However, Phase 3 is where we change that! The primary purpose of this article is to help provide tips for internalizing material. I purposefully use the word ‘internalize’ rather than ‘memorize’ because the goal is to create a massive web of interconnected details rather than memorize isolated facts.

In order to help be as specific as possible, I’m going to separate my tips based on their subject matter. That is to say, the way you study biochemistry material will look very different from biology material. But before I do that, I want to give an overview of what we will be doing.

The best way of boiling 7 books worth of content down into a slightly more manageable form is by creating a SUPER STUDY GUIDE!! This is without a doubt the most labor-intensive process during MCAT studying, but it is absolutely worth it. When I was studying for the MCAT, I literally ate and slept with my super study guide. Mine was about 120 pages long, contained all 7 subjects (as categorized by the Princeton Review books, though we recommend the Berkeley Reviews), and was the key to internalizing the details I needed. So, how do we create this majestic document? Let’s find out!

Remember when I mentioned you should annotate the books while you read? Well, we’re back! To create your own super study guide, follow these simple steps. First, take one of your books (perhaps we start with the biology book) and start flipping through its pages. Skim each page and focus on your annotations and other key indicators like bold words, italic words, headlines and diagrams. Anything that is ‘concept based’ and less ‘detail based’ (i.e. limbs generate force by contracting muscles), make sure you understand but then move on. Once you reach something that is ‘detail based’, or something you absolutely need to write down to memorize, add it to your study guide. An example here being the exact details of how muscle contractions work; include the specific molecules, the I band, the H zone, and all the other important details. Work through the entire book, continuously adding details you need to memorize to the study guide. Fair warning, IT IS A LOT. But honestly, don’t be too scared. Using this study guide to internalize the details makes life a lot easier. Even the act of writing down the details and creating diagrams for the study guide helps engrain the details. Once you finish the first book, move on to the next!

I will pause here for a couple notes. About flashcards – these can be helpful in specific situations (I am in fact a person who loves flashcards), but when it comes to the MCAT, they are not as useful. In general, the MCAT wants you to tie information together on multiple levels. What does that mean? For example, take prolactin. You could potentially use a flashcard to memorize that prolactin is a hormone that helps stimulate milk production. However, this wouldn’t be a great idea. Why? Because the MCAT also wants you to know where it originates, what’s its target, any other molecules that influence it, and so forth. So, rather than use a highly detailed flashcard, use a diagram! Chart out prolactin’s path including all the details along the way. When it comes to making your study guide, don’t use 30 words when one picture can tell you the same (or even more) information. Flow charts, diagrams, illustrations – these are the ideal forms to represent information in your study guide! Also, use lots of colors. Colors are fun.

I mentioned above how each subject’s material is best represented in differing ways, so let’s elaborate. I have listed each subject below and included my favorite way to represent details based on its specific subject. 

  • Biology Review

    • Diagrams, flow charts, pictures
    • Biology is by far the most heterogenous population of information, so it differs on a case-by-case basis, but overall diagrams and pictures can include the most information and display it in the simplest manner. Use them!
  • Biochemistry Review

    • Flowcharts
    • The majority of critical information in biochemistry comes in the form of pathways. Use these pathways/flowcharts to study as well. Writing them out over and over again seems tedious, but it’s super helpful!
  • General Chemistry Review

    • Diagrams
    • Gen chem is also very heterogeneous, but pictures are always a safe bet when it comes to including lots of information while also remaining simple.
  • Organic Chemistry Review

    • Diagrams, tables
    • Orgo has a lot of molecules and reactions, so using diagrams to chart them out and relate them to one another usually works best.
  • Physics and Math Review

    • Focus on equations
    • For this section, there is a lot of information. Once you feel you know a topic well, switch to focusing on the equations/variables. Memorizing these save you a lot of time and are truly the most important parts of this section.
  • Psychology and Sociology Review

    • Tables
    • This section has a TON of information that can be sorted easily and quickly into tables. A lot of theories from psychology have ‘stages,’ so using tables to relate stages and the information is best for memorization.
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Review

    • Lists/words
    • This is the only section I would say demands actual words. You will learn strategies for answering certain questions, or tips for ranking passages, and these lessons can only be crystalized by using words. 

Now that we have our ‘super study guide,’ practice going through it a number of times. I loved using a white board as I went through the study guide. Perhaps you reach the biochemistry section in your study guide and see a pathway for glycolysis. Rather than staring at the page, try and replicate the pathway on the white board and then check your study guide to see if you got it right. I always tried to rewrite/redraw the information in my study guide when going through it rather than just staring at the page. 

Concluding Notes

Memorizing content is generally the most feared phase of MCAT studying, and with good reason! It’s a ton of information, and for the average pre-med student who wants to know every single detail, it’s hard to skim over anything. However, prioritizing your time on material you truly need to memorize is crucial. There is too much to cram in your brain, and no way to feasibly do it. Use your study guide to get as much as you can but don’t worry past that! I know that may not be reassuring to hear, so let me close on something that is reassuring. When it comes to the real MCAT (not the practice MCAT exams you will take), the real MCAT does not stress content knowledge as much as you might expect. (Wait what?!?) Yep, I mean it. Content memorization is not NEARLY as important as problem solving come exam day. You need to know the details of the fundamental topics, but in the actual MCAT, the majority of questions you are asked draw directly from the related passage. You need a good foundation of content (the stronger the better), but in reality, a lot of the content you memorize will not come into play. Understanding how to analyze the passage and retrieve answers becomes much more important! 

“Oh man,” you might be thinking, “how do we do that?!” Well, join us in the Phase 4 article where we will discuss how to build those problem-solving skills!

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Read the previous 2 articles to get caught up on Cole's MCAT structured plan:

Structuring and Strategizing your MCAT Studying

Structuring and Strategizing your MCAT Studying: Phase 2