How to study for the MCAT when you're not done with science coursework

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By John C.

Statistical Mediation & Moderation in Psychological Research (3)-1A lot of folks have asked me how to study MCAT material that they have never seen in class. It is a good and important question. Many of the topics covered on the MCAT—particularly on the Chem/Phys section—are covered in classes that students tend to take later in their college careers, such as second-semester physics (E&M). In this brief post, I hope to share a bit of my own MCAT story, as I took the MCAT while I was in the midst of second-semester organic chemistry and second-semester physics.

My story

I was a history and politics major in college, and I did not take a single science class. After graduating college, I entered a one-year full-time post-bac program in order to take all of the prerequisite science classes. I took two semesters of general chemistry over the summer, then took organic chemistry, biology, and physics in the fall and spring before taking the MCAT in early May. These classes had not yet finished by the time I took the MCAT.

Learn content with outlines

I started reviewing content on January 1st, with an eye towards taking the MCAT on May 5th. I chose Kaplan review books, but you could easily use others. (Cambridge Coaching can counsel you on which texts make sense for your situation.) And, I began outlining each content area.

It was admittedly difficult to outline content areas that were entirely new to me. But, I found that it was helpful to focus on broad concepts and basic structures, and then later on specific vocabulary words and details. Throughout the process of outlining the content, I would make a flashcard every time I saw a word or concept that I did not recognize. I would drill the cards on my phone while taking the bus or waiting in line for food—a great supplementary review to the content outlines I was in the midst of creating.

Practice makes perfect

After going through the content review, I began using Khan Academy's practice questions to brush up on my content knowledge. Khan Academy’s questions do not exactly mimic the format of the MCAT—sometimes they can be easier, and sometimes they can be harder—but they do a wonderful job of drilling the content, as the questions come in sets of 4-5 centered around a specific topic. Khan Academy’s answer explanations were very helpful, as well. For instance, I had never learned a thing about optics prior to starting my MCAT review. After drilling through all of Khan Academy’s questions on optics, I felt much more comfortable with the material. Although doing Khan Academy sometimes impacted my confidence, as I felt like I was missing lots of questions, I felt that the KA questions in conjunction with the content review provided a very solid foundation for learning the scope of material on the MCAT.

Listen to the AAMC

The AAMC releases only limited numbers of practice tests and practice questions, so it is important to save these for the last month or two of your studying. These are the most helpful materials for studying for the MCAT, and it would be a shame to use them too early in your studying process! The AAMC materials helped me understand the scope of the questions that would be asked on the MCAT. For instance, optics is an almost unimaginably large and complex topic, but the questions that the AAMC could ask about optics are fairly limited—in fact, there are only a few variations of optics questions that will ever appear on an MCAT.

I hope my tips will be useful to all students, not just students who are taking the MCAT without having seen all of the material. Because the fact remains: content review, followed by drilling with flashcards and practice questions, and topped off with practice tests to understand the scope of the MCAT, comprise a solid strategy for learning and reviewing relevant material, whatever your starting place may be.