Two common mistakes students make about the MCAT, or how to reset your mind for MCAT success

By Weike
The MCAT is well-written test. It is thorough, consistent and serves a valuable purpose, which is to assess how qualified you are to begin a career in medicine. It requires that you:
  • Sort through a large volume of information
  • Endure (the test is 8 hours, takes months to study for, and many people have to retake it)
  • Keep calm

With every student, I have had to reiterate these 3 points. Preparing for the MCAT is a journey and the best way to start this journey is to accept the test for what it is and also acknowledge why it is important. As a physician, you will often have to see your patients at their most vulnerable and uncomfortable. Disease is not nice, and the people and families it afflicts go through all aspects of hell. For all families, you will have to be prepared to be a mentor, friend, advocate. But, above all, a reliable source of valid information.

In science, reliability is precision, and validity is accuracy. Patients will count on you to provide both, and to shift through medical jargon, basic science research, epidemiological studies that they cannot. You are their intrepid guide. Thus, if you are not sure about an intervention, you cannot say that you are. If you misinterpret a graph or a table, you have not done your job. As a physician you are responsible for recognizing the limits of information, research, and what medicine can and cannot do.

Hence, the first and more egregious mistake I see students make with respect to the MCAT is treating it like a recall or a memorization exam with no regard for what the test is trying to measure.

The MCAT is trying to measure how you think. In an emergency room, you are not going to have a drop-down menu of “things wrong with my patient” with a 1 in 4 chance of getting it right. Also, there will be a timer but you won’t know how much time is left. The ability to think through a problem under pressured conditions is a skill. Just as writing is a skill and chess is a skill and synchronized diving is a skill. You are going into a skill-oriented profession, so consider the MCAT not as a measure of how well you did in your pre-med classes (because it is not), but as a measure of how well you perform under pressure, how well you respond to unfamiliar material, and how well you can think your way out of the dark.

So, if the MCAT is not a recall test, how do you prepare?

The same way you would for any test. You first shore up foundations (sometimes the most basic things are the mostly likely to be forgotten), and then learn to apply them. The second part is harder than the first and usually takes more time. It comes down to how much independent research you have done, how astute you are at problem solving, and if you read. Yes, reading is important. Not necessarily Jane Eyre, though that is a great book, but abstracts, op-eds, prose that contains opinions and tries to sell you ideas. That really is what this test about. Each section has passages and each passage is trying to convince you of something, whether it concerns Picasso’s genius or the function of a gene or the health benefits of yoga; each passage has an argument supported by evidence. Here is where I see most students freeze. Because they have not seen this exact passage, they are not sure what to do. I then see the following logic play out in their heads.

  • How am I supposed to know this?
  • I must not have studied this, so this passage/question is an exception to every rule I’ve learned.
  • Panic
  • Forget everything I’ve learned, I’ll just pick an answer that sounds good or looks different or seems possible or sounds complicated
  • Jesus, take the wheel!

I see this response often especially from students who have studied every MCAT topic there is and still feel as if they have not “seen” everything and thus are hitting a wall. Their error is in their perspective. If you treat every passage as one to have studied/read before, you will fail this test. But, if you treat each passage as an argument, all you really need to ask yourself is, am I convinced? Other questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the hypothesis/argument? What are the authors’ goals?
  • Do the experiments answer this question?
  • Is the evidence relevant or ancillary?
  • Any assumptions?
  • Can other factors explain the results besides the proposed hypothesis?

Not every passage is well argued. The question then becomes whether you can parse out the pearl from the bullshit. Sometimes there is no pearl. The more you dig, the more you realize a study is actually not very good and an argument really does not hold. Thus, the ability to be critical with information, but not overconfident, is what will make you a qualified doctor.

I wish to be clear here for readers who would like to believe that the MCAT is more strategy than content. I am not saying that.

Actually, if you only focus on strategy, you will fail it as well, probably more horrendously. Then, you won’t want to take it again, as your poor previous performance will have crushed your spirit and given you test anxiety or existential angst. It follows that the second most egregious mistake I see is students' thinking that they can punch through this test like a wall, purely on tricks and tips, and then a can of Monster the day of. But, the MCAT has changed to reflect the changing medical landscape and the uncertain future. It is not an aptitude test, but a test meant to glean if you are going to prepare and take it seriously. There are certain topics (many not covered in premed classes) that you will have to study on your own and master.

Strategy and content must complement each other, not replace or supersede.

Filling your brain only with content will cause you to lose sight of the forest, but relying too much on strategy is a mistake of hubris. Ergo, balancing the two is what makes the MCAT journey interesting, challenging, and at times fun; after going through it, you may feel different and even improved. You will certainly be more self-aware, but also humbled and invigorated, ready to take the next leap into this career.

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