How to learn effectively for the MCAT

active learning MCAT study skills
By Han

During any academic pursuit, it is always important to value learning over rote memorization. Particularly for the MCAT, where there is a seemingly unending amount of content that needs to be understood, you need a strong foundation of learnt material over memorized material.

As such, active learning must be prioritized over passive memorization.

So what exactly is active learning? Active learning involves engaging with material in a critical way. Note-taking, traditional flashcards, and watching videos tend to be used as forms of passive learning. They don’t have to be passive, but it is easy to slide into the habit of reading a chapter of a Kaplan book and copying down the bolded definitions or passively flipping through flashcards.

Actively engaging with material involves stopping to consider new information, manipulating the information to see how it fits with the background knowledge that you know. Learning a new block of information necessarily means knowing which details are less important, formatting core concepts together, and arranging the information in relation to itself and to other fields of knowledge. The human brain does not learn things in a linear fashion, the way text is written. New knowledge must be translated from an ordered list, to fit the network of memories that we have. The more connections you can form, the more easily you can access that knowledge later on.

Active learning is inherently a more time-consuming process. So why engage with it? Active learning is an investment in your long-term understanding and retention of the material. While passive memorization might give you a short-term sense of familiarity with the content, active learning cements the knowledge in your mind by forcing you to actively process and apply the information.

Here are some reasons why prioritizing active learning for the MCAT is essential:

You will gain a deeper understanding

Active learning encourages you to delve deeper into the material. Instead of merely memorizing facts, you're challenged to comprehend the underlying concepts, mechanisms, and relationships. This deep understanding is crucial for tackling the complex and integrated questions on the MCAT.

Your critical thinking will improve

The MCAT places a strong emphasis on analysis and critical thinking. Active learning methods, such as discussing concepts with peers, solving practice questions, and applying knowledge to real-world scenarios, help develop these skills. You'll learn not just what to think, but how to think.

Your ability to retain information will improve

Actively engaging with material makes it more likely that you'll remember and recall the information during the exam. Creating connections between new concepts and your existing knowledge helps in forming a strong memory network.

You will be able to apply your knowledge elsewhere

Medical practice involves applying theoretical knowledge to real-life situations. Active learning methods, like case-based learning and scenario analysis, mirror this application process. By practicing these techniques, you're better prepared to apply your knowledge as a future medical professional.

A high yield approach

Having true mastery over concepts will allow you to better answer an entire class of questions on the exam, rather than having specific content knowledge that would only be helpful on a maximum of a few questions. 

Additional long-term benefits

Beyond the MCAT, active learning skills are invaluable for medical school and beyond. Medical education and practice require continuous learning, critical thinking, and application of knowledge, making active learning an essential lifelong skill.

So how can you become an active learner?

Active learning is inherently an uncomfortable process. Think about the times when you spent an hour grappling with a new chemistry concept and the discomfort you felt over the uncertainty of understanding. Active learning requires taking the training wheels off and putting aside materials to recall information and reformat it in a way that makes inherent sense to you. It will force you out of your comfort zone, engaging with concepts that still aren't familiar, but that is the surest way to gain competency.

Strategies for Active Learning

  • Put away the answers: It can be easy to take notes while looking at the textbooks, but when you are learning a new concept, try to recall as much as you can without references. Use the reference afterwards to revisit and see which ideas need further reinforcement.
  • Group discussions: Organize study groups to discuss complex topics, exchange perspectives, and debate concepts. Explaining concepts to peers reinforces your understanding.
  • Concept mapping: Create visual diagrams that connect different concepts and relationships. This aids in visualizing the bigger picture and how everything interrelates.
  • Problem-solving exercises: Work through practice problems and passages actively. Discuss your approach with peers, analyze answer choices, and understand the reasoning behind both correct and incorrect responses.
  • Teaching simulations: Pretend you're teaching a concept to someone unfamiliar with it. Simplifying complex ideas forces a deeper understanding.
  • Case-based learning: Utilize real-life scenarios to apply theoretical knowledge. This mirrors the MCAT's focus on practical application.
  • Interactive online resources: Leverage MCAT prep platforms offering test questions, quizzes, and simulations for active participation.


The MCAT is not a test of how well you can memorize information, but a measure of your understanding, critical thinking, and application skills. Active learning is the key to mastering the MCAT and excelling in your journey towards becoming a medical professional. While it might require more time and effort, the benefits in terms of knowledge retention, critical thinking abilities, and long-term competency are well worth the investment. So, as you prepare for the MCAT, remember that it's not only about how much you can memorize but how effectively you can engage with and apply what you learn.


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