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How to Prepare for the MCAT

Success on the Medical College Admission Test or MCAT


About the MCAT
The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a standardized exam required as part of the application to US medical schools. The test is administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The MCAT is designed to test knowledge of basic science concepts, problem-solving skills, critical thinking ability, and writing skills. The MCAT consists of four scored sections that always appear in the same order:
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Physical Sciences (physics and general chemistry)
  • Writing Sample
  • Biological Sciences (biology and organic chemistry)

MCAT Timing is Important!
The MCAT is offered at scheduled times throughout the year. Registration is about 5 weeks before the test. You can register online or mail in your materials. The test costs money (presently $175). Also, you may need to travel to take the test, which can add the expense of transportation and a hotel visit. This is important: it takes practically forever (seems that way at least) to get your scores after the test, so don't put off taking the test until the last minute! I know some academic advisors will caution you to wait until you have taken all of the related coursework (e.g., physics, organic, biochem) before taking the test. Well... ideally you would take those courses as a sophomore and junior to free up your senior year for interviewing. Even if you haven't taken the courses, you will probably delay entrance to medical school by a year if you don't take the MCAT early enough. Don't assume that the medical school will cut you any slack for either low scores or missing coursework; they won't. Applications are competitive.

Practice Makes Perfect
My recommendation? Take the April MCAT a year and a half before you plan to enter school. Unless your scores are marvelous, take the August test too. That way, if you have a summer or early fall interview you can say that you are retaking the test... shows a self-improvement goal if nothing else. The August test seems more laid-back to me. Also, I think your scores are likely to look better because the test has a lot of procrastinators or poor planners who weren't there in April, making you look better in comparison. Remember, your scores are given in relation to that of other test-takers. DO NOT wait until August the year before you plan to attend and certainly don't wait until April the spring before classes start. Your scores will take too long to arrive and the classes may be full before you get reviewed.

Take an MCAT Test Prep Class or Not?
There are several excellent courses you can take to prepare for the MCAT. Among them are the Kaplan Review, Princeton Review, and Berkeley Review. The AAMC says that taking a review course has no statistical impact on your scores (and how do you objectively test the null hypothesis, I ask you?) ... I disagree with them and I'll tell you why: the reviews don't just go over the course material, they teach to the test, meaning that you focus on test-taking strategies and review only the information that may be on the exam. That said, I don't recommend everyone take a review course (I didn't). Many students tell me they aren't taking the review because of the cost involved. Wake up call! Medical school costs thousands to a hundred thousand dollars! Don't skimp on preparation, either for the test or for the interview! If you think the review will help you, then plan for the cost.

As I said, not everyone will benefit from taking a review course, but I do believe everyone will benefit from studying the text materials used for the review course (get a 'used' copy for a bargain). You will get practice tests and a focused, concise study guide. Using the review texts is much more helpful than randomly scanning your biology, chemistry, and physics texts.

The possible writing sample topics may be viewed online at the MCAT website. Obviously you shouldn't practice all of them, but do look them over and practice this part of the test, timed, for a few topics. Neatness counts! I had a student (I kid you not) who got a 0 (zero, not the letter given to you to score this part of the test) because his handwriting was so psychotic (ran up and down the page and off the lines) that the test scorers wouldn't read his essays.

The Test Day
The big day has finally arrived! Ideally, you want to get a good night's sleep the night before (uh huh...). No matter what, try to relax. Really tense people might find studying relaxing; otherwise turn your brain off and take it easy. Make sure you locate the test center before test day. Eat breakfast! Get to the test center bright and early with pencils, pens, and erasers in hand. Food and drinks aren't allowed in the test room, but hard candy may take the edge off, especially if you have butterflies. Do not bring a calculator or anything with an alarm. Be considerate... no cell phones, pagers, etc. Don't berate yourself if you have trouble with a section. Just shrug it off and move on. It may be helpful to bring a lunch, especially if traffic is a concern. You don't want to be late for the afternoon fun and games! If you are like me, your brain will be pretty fried after the test. You'll get out around 5 pm. If travel is required, plan wisely.


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