Before you even start planning and prepping for the MCAT, you should be aware of what resources are out there. We know that you want to pick the BEST MCAT resources for you and your learning style and budget, so we’re here to provide you with a rundown of the main prep components to ease any of your exam concerns. No pressure or sales pitches here, just pure expert advice.
Self-Prep vs Comprehensive
All right, let’s start with the first big separation between prep programs in the MCAT world: self-prep versus comprehensive-prep programs. Treat these like a fork in the spectrum and know that one is not superior to the other. They are simply different camps and meet different different needs.
First up, self-prep. If discipline is your middle name, this path is for you, especially if you don’t necessarily feel like you need someone else to guide you along the way or have everything laid out for you. Perhaps you have a really solid foundation in the Sciences, or maybe you've already taken a diagnostic exam and have a good sense of what you need to do to achieve your goal score.
On the other hand, if that doesn’t sound like you, consider comprehensive. Are you the classic procrastinator? Or maybe you have more content area weaknesses and have no clue where to begin. Whatever the reason, you may just prefer more guidance, structured classes, and coaching to keep you motivated.
Thankfully, if you are a self-prepper, there are plenty of communities at your school or online, along with other accountability mechanisms, like making one big study plan at the start of your prep. For some of us, having a solid study calendar is super-motivating. And knowing that you saved a lot of money is icing on the cake.
In the end, don’t let the kind of program you choose dictate the resources and practice you ultimately do. Variety is the spice of life, and you may prefer different techniques to get you through the most difficult parts. A QBank from one place, some fun content review and a full length exam from another place.
We’ll discuss each piece a little more so that you feel more confident to study smarter, not harder.
Taking that first full-length practice exam may seem scary, but we highly recommend taking that first deep dive at the very beginning, what we like to call Week 0. It’s also known as a diagnostic exam because it will help you diagnose your strengths and weaknesses before you get into the weeds. It may also be helpful to determine how long you really need to study for the MCAT. Did you have your mind set on prepping in three months? Did you consider that a six-month window will give you the flexibility you may need? When in doubt, always give yourself more time than you think to tackle your pain points or to account for unplanned events.
During this time, it’s also important to start the habit of self-reflection, or self-summarizing, where you go back and look at your results. What did you do well on? What areas did you do poorly? Were these results as expected? How can you use the results to be as efficient and effective as possible?
Don’t underestimate the power of this exercise. We know, it’s tempting to cut this out of your schedule, especially if you’re cramming. But it’s a key step in your MCAT prep because you actively choose what resources will best suit your needs as you manage the next day or the next few weeks of studying. Trust us, smaller cycles definitely make the entire MCAT prep period more manageable and you’ll learn exactly what you need.
Content Review and Practice Exams
You're going to start off with a lot of content review, and that will naturally taper off as you become more comfortable with the content. It’s tempting to want to check off all content review before you take more full-length practice exams. After all, that’s what you’re used to in college. You study and then take an exam. But the MCAT’s a different beast. You want to make sure you sprinkle in practice exams, and it’s OK if you haven’t covered certain topics just yet. Review and revisiting content is part of memory rehearsal and ensures that you can easily retrieve the information in a timely manner, which is critical on exam day!
For more information on how to create an MCAT study schedule that works for you, check out that recent blog post. Just doing my part in trying to hold you accountable.
Ahh, quiz questions and mixed practice…your golden opportunity to find and address gaps in your performance and get into MCAT mode without a 7-hour commitment. Feel free to configure quizzes to sometimes focus on certain content areas and at other times, mix it up. And when we say Qbanks, we also mean AAMC Q-Packs and Sections Banks.
What drives your CARS score is not your experience with CARS questions. It's your experience with the kind of reading that you will see on the exam. Honestly, there are not enough CARS passages on earth (let alone in every MCAT prep book you could ever buy) to give enough reading practice. If you want to improve your CARS score, and your future reading comprehension skills, seek out complicated CARS-like writing every day. Make it your daily commute. And it may not be your favorite task, but it’s good for you, like kale and avocado salad good for you.
If you’re struggling to find reading materials, just ask your research friends to give you some articles or go to sites like Pubmed or those maintained by a community of philosophers. I doubt that you’ll want to read the articles in their entirety, but seriously, you can get away with reading a few pages. You’re welcome. And with that extra time, you can read this post to spend even less time reading and more time kicking CARS to the curb with your newly uncovered creative powers!
Finally, what you’ll focus on during the second half of your MCAT prep: full-length exams. Consider taking at least five, including your Diagnostic, before your real test day. For each one, make sure you can devote an entire day, and use the next day to review it. Take notes on what went wrong so that you can strategically incorporate that into your practice during the week(s) that follow, before you update again after another full-length exam. For instance, one week, it may be a specific content area that’s not working out and another week, it may be passages or figure analysis that’s tripping you up.
In any case, make sure that by the time you reach the end of a given week, you would have gotten every question right that you got wrong the previous week. Oftentimes, that means you should revisit a full-length multiple times.
Review + revisit = Retrieval
Now that’s a formula for success on exam day!