How to Ace the MCAT in 3 Steps!

By Nate

how to study for MCAT

The MCAT is not a memorization test. Let me be more specific: it’s much more about recall than it is about recognition.

When you’re prepping for the Psych/Soc section of the MCAT, you’ll learn about different types of memory—sensory, working, procedural, episodic—how memory is stored, and how it’s retrieved. You can retrieve stored memories through recall—rattling off everything you remember about ADH—or through recognition—noticing that aldosterone is one of the answer choices and remembering you read about its role in the renal system. So don’t worry about memorizing every single detail in your prep books.

You do, of course, need to memorize some things for the MCAT, but by and large, the MCAT is about recall and association: drawing the connections between subjects. This format actually mirrors how memories are organized in the brain: in semantic networks. Semantic networks connect memories whose meanings are related, and ultimately, the goal of your studying will be to strengthen those networks. Ultimately, you will be increasing your fluency in a number of areas, appreciating how the speak to one another, and noticing the patterns that underlie the details. 

The MCAT tests your ability to associate much more than it does your capacity to memorize. 

So, What’s the Best Way to Prepare?

The hardest part of taking the MCAT happens before you walk into the test center. There is so much material and so many ways to approach it all. How will you learn it all? 

After scoring a 522 on the MCAT and tutoring it for two years, I have developed a simple structure for approaching the test. It takes work, but it’s straightforward. And it works.

There are three steps: Exposure, Encoding, and Focused Review.

Step 1: Exposure, 2-4 months 

You might not need to memorize everything, but you should be aware of what’s out there. First things first, buy a set of test prep books. Do a bit of research, but don’t worry: the top selling test prep books will all get the job done. These books are very important. They will be the basis of your studying for Steps 1 and 2. For the next couple months, your books will be your best friends. 

The goal of this step is to get a sense of what could be on the test. It’s a lot, but right now your focus is not to internalize everything. Highlight, underline, write notes in the margins. Work through some of the practice problems (but in pencil or in a notebook so you can go back to them later). But don’t worry if you can’t remember what you read three weeks later. That part comes next.

If you’re like me and you get bored when you’re reading too much physics, switch it up! I generally recommend reading two or three books at a time. 

You should read every word, but feel free to read through chapters more quickly if you think you’ve got a good handle on the subject. I budget a decent amount of time for this because spreading out the information is much more helpful than cramming it all in.

That’s it! But before you start Step 2, it’s time for you to take your first practice test: AAMC Practice Test 1. AAMC writes the MCAT; they know it better than any of the companies. Take a look at how you do, highlight general areas you know you’re weak on, and see how you handle the test taking aspects of the exam: the length, the way questions are phrased, and how you eliminate answer choices. You should WAIT to take your first test until you’ve finished Step 1 because now you can more clearly see what was a content issue and what was a test-taking skill issue. 

Step 2: Encoding, 1-2 months 

You’ve seen everything, highlighted a bunch, and you’ve taken your first practice test. Now it’s time to hunker down and get it all in your head.

You don’t have to read through every chapter again, but skim through them and write up the key points, somewhere between five and fifteen for each chapter. Feel free to sketch out a diagram or graph if it’s helpful. This isn’t comprehensive, but at the end of it, you’ll have study guides for each subject. You can read over those instead of your books. This process of consolidation will both show you what’s really important and further facilitate memorization. As you’re writing all this up, you’ll start to see some connections. Focus on those links between subjects. Think about the more general concepts like feedback and equilibrium in organ systems, cellular respiration, and genetics.

There are a couple of extra steps for some subjects. Make sure you memorize your amino acids. They WILL appear on your MCAT and you WILL need to know them. For Gen Chem, Physics, and Biochem, you’ll write up two extra sheets. One will be an equation sheet: include every equation. The other will be a units sheet. Write down the unit, its symbol, how it’s used, and what it is comprised of in its most basic SI units (e.g. N = (kg*m)/(s^2)). Writing this last bit out will help you get the right answer even if you don’t fully understand the concept. If you end up with the right units at the end, chances are you got it correct.

For Psychology and Sociology, don’t bother with an outline. Unfortunately the Psyc/Soc section is much more memorization-heavy than the rest of the test. So for these subjects you should write out flashcards for every bolded term in your book. Yes. Every. Bolded. Term. It may not be the most fun you’ve ever had, but it will be useful.

Now that you’re done writing everything up, go through your notes and your flashcards. Don’t beat yourself up for not remembering everything. You’ll have forgotten a lot, but you’ll remember more and more. And again, you don’t have to remember everything.

To complement what you’ve understood from the books, check out some Khan Academy videos. Khan Academy has an MCAT specific section of their website. Take advantage of it! Reading and writing are great ways to learn, but it’s always good to learn in as many ways as you can. Plus, they’ll offer different explanations and give different examples. I’d especially recommend the Psychology/Sociology videos. Pop some earbuds in and listen on your way to class, on a run, while you’re doing laundry. Increase it to 1.5 or 2x speed if you want. It’s all about getting the info in your head. 

Now it’s time for you to take AAMC Practice Test 2.

Step 3 – Focused Review 1-2 months

Take a careful look at how you did, distinguishing between areas of content you need to review and test-taking skills you’ll want to work on. Write this up in a document and create a schedule for yourself to review both the specific areas you don’t understand well and improving your ability to test well.

In this last phase, you’ll alternate between test questions and studying. After you take an exam or go through a Section Bank, you’ll see what you’re still having trouble with and review that subject. Maybe you’ll have to go back to your old physics textbook and read about optics for it to really click. Maybe you’ll decide to write out a specific study guide just for the different types of reaction in organic chemistry, complete with oxidizing and reducing agents. Maybe you’ll have a lot of trouble with CARS and you’ll go through AAMC’s resources, Jack Westin’s CARS passages, and even SAT Reading sections (it’s all about building up your ability to carefully read in the way standardized tests want you to).

This is the most flexible stage because it’s all about honing in on what you need to work on. 

Here are my recommendations for what you should have accomplished by the end of Step 3:

  • Finish all four full-length AAMC practice tests
  • Complete the AAMC Section Banks and Q Packs for the sections you struggle with most
  • Take a couple more practice tests (Kaplan, Princeton Review, NextStep)

By the end of Step 3, you should be able to point randomly to any page on any of your study guides and explain it. Throughout this phase, focus on relating material in Biochem to organ systems and physics to chemistry. Notice how the practice tests force  you to do this and start getting into that mindset yourself.

And that’s it! Well, there’s on more thing

The Final Step

It’s the day before the test. You’ve worked hard. Real hard. You read everything that goes into those three steps: it’s a lot. You’re not going to cram anything more into  your brain in one more day. 

Take this day for yourself. Read a book. Hang out with some friends. Bake dozens of chocolate chip cookies. Do something that makes you happy. You’ll need it. Tomorrow is a lot, but don’t worry, you’ve been preparing for a while. It’s all in there.

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