4 Strategies of MCAT Top Percentile Scorers

posted by Kevin Jubbal, M.D.

The MCAT is no walk in the park, and despite your best efforts in your prerequisite classwork, it’s no guarantee of a high score. One student with a 4.0 GPA may receive a 505, while another student with a 3.5 GPA may achieve a 522. Moreover, everyone approaches the MCAT differently, and sifting through advice from top scorers can be overwhelming. To help you cut through the noise, we’ve identified common patterns in those who score highly based on our conversations with hundreds of students taking the MCAT. These are four principles of top MCAT scorers.

Principle 1 | Organization & Early Use of Testing

Sports teams begin their training with a game-plan. This is a perspective that should be applied to the MCAT as well. The MCAT is often referred to by pre-medical students as a “marathon.” Most marathons require a strict regimen to achieve an attainable goal, and the MCAT is no different. A well-formed plan includes scheduling out your daily study priorities from now until test date, including content review, spaced repetition, practice questions, and practice tests. Just like an athlete, recovery is key to peak performance, so don’t forget to include break time as well. Many premeds studying for the MCAT often fall into the trap of biting off more than they can chew. Remember, for a marathon like the MCAT, steady and sustained progress is key, not a brief sprint leading to burnout. Don’t forget to schedule in catch-up days to account for the times when life happens.

Typically, students focus on content review in the first half of their prep, and hone in on practice questions and practice tests in the second half. As learning science has evolved and study approaches are refined, we now know that incorporating practice questions and tests from the beginning is a surefire way to improve one’s test day performance. Keep this in mind when you craft your schedule, or if you start with a templated schedule from SDN or Reddit, as the importance of the testing effect on learning and memorization is underappreciated.

In terms of which content and practice materials to use, there are many options and as a result, preferences and opinions vary. However, we have observed that students achieve the best results when focusing on a limited set of high-quality resources rather than spreading themselves too thin across an ocean of different resources. Depending on their studying regimen, successful students will focus on 1-2 selected content review resources, 1-2 practice question resources, and the AAMC materials.

What cannot be refuted is that the AAMC practice materials are essential – after all, they’re created by the MCAT test makers themselves. The bulk of the AAMC materials should be saved for the final 4-6 weeks of prep, as you approach your test date. Doing so not only prepares you for the style of questions and content that will come up on the real test, but also provide a relatively accurate score prediction.

Principle 2 | Early & Consistent CARS Practice

The CARS (Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills) section on the MCAT is unique in that it does not test any content or background knowledge, meaning your study approach for CARS is different than for any of the science sections. It’s often lamented as students’ least favorite section, and for good reason. After all, pre-medical students have spent most of their college years studying the sciences, and as such analyzing literature feels foreign.

Some students hope that since medical school is primarily science-focused, their science sections scores should hold heavier weight than their CARS score. That’s not the case – most U.S. medical schools emphasize an equal weighting and prioritize an even score distribution. Several Canadian medical schools actually put greater emphasis on CARS scores over the science sections.

If the science sections are representative of training most body parts in the gym, consider CARS representative of training your core and abs. Like your core, CARS requires a slightly different approach. Compared to other muscle groups, your core may require more frequent training, a wider variation from low to high rep count, or isometric movements. Similarly, CARS requires some finessing. It’s not about memorizing content or synthesizing scientific concepts, but rather critical thinking and inferences in reading longer passages.

CARS is a section that requires consistent, regular practice to achieve score improvements. From early on in your dedicated studying period, we would recommend scheduling in at least 20-30 minutes of CARS prep at least 5 days per week. Approaching CARS in this manner allows you to build your familiarity and skill.

Principle 3 | Mental Health Prioritization

The MCAT is often described as an “emotional rollercoaster”, resulting in serious mental toll on many students. You may feel hopeful and optimistic as you see your practice test scores steadily increasing in the early weeks, followed by despair or frustration as your score plateaus or even drops.

Remember, MCAT prep is a marathon, not a sprint. Taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back still puts you ahead of where you started. Rather than being outcome-focused, redirect the focus towards the process. Use this as an opportunity to learn and improve. What types of questions are you getting incorrect? Was it due to careless mistakes or content deficiencies? Is your timing appropriate or are you frantically working against the clock at the end of each section?

Reroute any discouragement as motivation to seek and improve your weaknesses to ultimately perform better on test day.

Mental health is a complex and multifaceted element, and adopting a growth-mindset will help, but it’s not foolproof. Don’t overlook your social support, high-quality sleep, and regular exercise. Despite these elements being critically important, students often deprioritize them during their MCAT prep as “lesser priorities.” After all, they can catch up on sleep and exercise after the test, right?

This line of thinking is not only dangerous but results in suboptimal performance. Although it’s difficult for us to realize the day-to-day effects of sleep and exercise on our cognitive function, the data are clear – compromising sleep and exercise during MCAT prep will hinder one’s performance.

Principle 4 | Evidence-Based Learning Methods

Our education system, beginning at the earliest of stages, pushes passive learning methods over active forms. The data are clear – passive learning methods, such as reading and re-reading chapters or notes, or watching and rewatching videos, are not the most effective learning methods, leading to suboptimal learning, suboptimal memory retention, and suboptimal critical thinking abilities. In high school and college courses, these methods feel sufficient and comfortable for many students. However, the weaknesses of passive learning methods become exposed by the sheer volume and detail of information on the MCAT, and these shortcomings become even more limiting in medical school.

The two most effective ways to incorporate active learning into your study approach are (1) practice problems and (2) spaced repetition with active recall. If passive learning is the equivalent of going to the gym and lifting dainty light weights, think of active learning as pushing yourself hard and making each rep count. Active learning should initially feel less comfortable than passive learning, and that means it’s working.

Practice questions and tests are not only an opportunity to get used to the testing style and assess your knowledge, but also serve as a highly effective method in active learning. Students often appreciate the importance of practice questions in terms of assessing where you should spend more time studying, honing section timing, and getting used to the question styles. But students should not overlook the importance of proper review. To quickly skim through questions would be leaving much of the benefit on the table. It’s imperative to closely review all questions, including the ones you got correct. After all, getting a question correct on a practice test for the wrong reason means you’ll likely miss that same tested concept on test day.

While practice questions and practice tests are exceptional, you need a rock-solid foundation of knowledge to properly tackle these questions. Spaced repetition with active recall is a time-efficient and effective method to build this foundation, as well as to reinforce and maximize learning from missed practice questions. If you want to jam pack a high volume of facts in a short period of time, as is required by the MCAT, then you need to use spaced repetition with active recall.

The “spaced repetition” refers to a key finding from the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve – we don’t retain information forever – rather it slowly decays over time. The more exposures over a period of time we receive, particularly if that memory is just about to fade, the longer we will be able to retain it. Active recall is the method whereby one actively tries to recall the information from their memory, rather than simply seeing the fact and recognizing it. Combined, spaced repetition with active recall is the single most effective way to memorize facts. It saves time and results in longer retention.

Prior attempts at incorporating spaced repetition with active recall for MCAT examinees have been plagued with issues that limit their ultimate effectiveness for students. At Memm, we’ve developed a novel approach for spaced repetition with active recall for the MCAT that overcomes the obstacles most students face.

With other tools, students often faced issues with the learning curve involved. With Memm, we’ve eliminated the learning curve with a simple, easy-to-use and modern interface. With other tools, students found themselves with isolated facts that were difficult to make sense of or recall on test day. Students lacked a mental framework to understand those pieces of content and how they relate to one another. With Memm, we’ve incorporated Sheets that not only condense all the facts you need to know for the MCAT, but are also incorporated into each Card for vastly improved contextual understanding.

With other tools, we found students limiting their score potentials due to the learning curve and sheer time commitment of the card creation process. With Memm, we offload that responsibility from you. We’ve created the best MCAT flashcards that not only hone in on the exact pieces of content you need to know, but also utilize flashcard best practices so that you’re learning content rather than pattern recognition. Students who have tried premade decks with other tools learn more efficiently and improve their scores more consistently with Memm.

Final Thoughts

While the MCAT can feel like an unwieldy beast of an exam, understand that you can conquer it. By following these four principles of (1) organization and early incorporation of practice questions, (2) early and consistent CARS practice, (3) mental health prioritization, and (4) evidence-based learning principles, you’ll be well on your way to a top MCAT score.

Last edited on: February 17, 2021

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