posted by Kevin Jubbal, M.D.
I’m fortunate enough to say that I scored in the 99.9th percentile on the MCAT (my score was rounded up to the 100th percentile but there’s no such thing, statistically speaking). It was a grueling 10 weeks of preparation, with 10 hours of studying 6 days per week, and minimal time off on the weekends. There were certain things I did correct, but several things that made the journey much more painful than it needed to be. Had I resolved some of these issues, I would have been able to secure the same 99.9th percentile score, but without so much pain and friction along the way. Here’s what you can learn from my MCAT journey.
There were a handful of things I did right that facilitated rapid knowledge acquisition and score improvement. While this isn’t a comprehensive list, these are the key factors I urge other MCAT examinees to prioritize in their own study approach.
The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section, or CARS, is unique from the other sections and therefore requires a unique study approach to perform best. Unlike the other sections of the MCAT, it requires no outside knowledge to answer any of the questions. The test makers want to assess your ability to comprehend, analyze, and reason through material that you read.
For many, including me, it’s the least favorite section of the MCAT. It feels tedious, boring, and more of a formality than a true assessment of skills necessary to become a competent future physician. While it’s not a perfect assessment, it turns out CARS is indeed relevant, but that’s a story told another time.
The key in dominating your CARS section comes down to regular practice – think low duration but high frequency. For the MCAT science sections, you do the opposite – higher duration in a single sitting, but lower frequency.
With CARS, I did at least 30 minutes every day, 5 days per week, for close to 2 months straight. This was the key element in slowly but surely driving up my score. Sure, at the beginning I focused a bit on techniques and strategies with CARS, but ultimately the biggest driver of my score improvement came down to getting the reps in – a little bit every day.
I often compare CARS to training your abs in the gym. The abs are a unique muscle group in that you can train them quite frequently, at relatively lower intensity compared to other muscle groups, yet see hypertrophy and strength improvements without overtraining. Similarly, CARS is best approached with shorter, intense study bouts every day, rather than dedicating a single “CARS day” once per week. If you attempt to sit down and work on CARS for hours on end, you’ll quickly find yourself burned out and experience a rapidly diminishing quality of your studying.
In MCAT circles, practice questions and tests are primarily saved in the latter half of a student’s MCAT prep. The line of reasoning being that you need to first learn the content through content review resources, and then do testing later to understand question styles and timing for the test.
This strategy is suboptimal and leaves several points on the table. In my own MCAT prep, I focused on a higher than normal volume of practice questions and practice tests. Within the first 2 weeks, I took one full length practice test. In hindsight, I should have started even sooner. Every 1-2 weeks after that, I was consistent in taking another. In the final month prior to my exam, I did at minimum 3 full length practice tests every week.
The key isn’t just to get through the practice test, but also review all the questions appropriately. Only if I was very confident in knowing a question and all its answer choices did I breeze through it. Every incorrect answer had to be thoroughly reviewed, as did every question I guessed and got lucky with.
Practice testing is useful not only later in the study periodαbut also a highly effective way of learning content early on. I focused on CARS practice passages daily, and the occasional full length practice test every week or so. In hindsight, it would have been even more effective to purchase a question bank subscription, such as one with UWorld, and get through additional practice questions several days per week from the beginning.
We tend to focus on the strategies during the MCAT study period, but the importance of the preceding coursework is often overlooked. When I took my first practice test 2 weeks into studying, I hit a 67th percentile on my practice test. This was approximately 2 months out from my test date, giving me plenty of time to build and improve upon this foundation.
Having a strong foundation from college coursework elevates the starting point when you begin your dedicated MCAT prep. In doing so, you raise the ceiling for your ultimate score. Had I goofed off in my first two years and scored a 20th percentile on my first practice test, there would be a much larger gap to fill in order to get a satisfactory score.
In my first two years of college, during which premeds focus on their medical school prerequisite courses, I made it a point to apply myself fully in every course. Rather than cramming last minute, I made it a point to study at least a little bit 5 days per week. Spreading out the studying in this manner not only helped me achieve straight A’s in these classes, but also consolidated the facts to my long term memory. Had I crammed, much of the information wouldn’t have stuck around to MCAT prep time.
Although I’m happy with my score, there were several possible points of improvement in my study approach. Had I implemented these changes, I would have been able to achieve the same score with less effort, less time, and less pain.
It wasn’t until medical school that I learned about proper implementation of active learning, which is far more effective and efficient that massive means. When I was studying for the MCAT, I primarily relied on passive learning techniques – passively reading content review books, highlighting, and rereading those highlights. In doing so, it took me longer to learn and consolidate key facts to my long term memory for test day.
I only occasionally incorporated active methods. Since my two roommates were also studying for the MCAT simultaneously, we made it a point to use the Feynman technique occasionally, particularly when we were facing a difficult concept or getting tired studying on our own. My use of practice tests, with in depth review, was also an active learning method.
My mindset in preparing for the MCAT was to learn too much information rather than too little. I acknowledged that it would require more time and effort on my part, but I figured it was a price I was willing to pay to achieve a top score. After all, it’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.
I remember spending a full evening memorizing every step of the sound conduction pathway from the pinna (external ear) all the way to the cochlear nerve. This was not something I needed to know for the MCAT based on how it tests these concepts. However, it was in my content review book, and I figured I should know everything within it cold.
This may seem harmless at first, but this approach leads to massive opportunity cost. That full evening could have been better spent focused on reviewing content that would show up on the test, practicing CARS, or even relaxing and rejuvenating.
One common misconception amongst premeds, including my former self, is the importance of low yield information. I thought that knowing these low-yield details would be the difference between a good and exceptional MCAT score. In reality, this is not at all the case. Much of the “low-yield” information in review books is beyond the scope of the MCAT and contributes zero to scoring higher, which is tremendously costly. Additionally, the main differentiating factor for top percentile scorers is almost always their in-depth mastery and precise recall of medium-yield concepts rather than their ability to remember some esoteric piece of information.
When I took the MCAT, there weren’t YouTubers focused on teaching evidence-based study principles to future doctors. In fact, it wasn’t until I got to medical school and was forced to drink from the proverbial fire hydrant of medical knowledge that I was forced to learn a better way to study. Had I implemented those evidence-based learning principles in college, I would have been able to get stellar results in class and on the MCAT, but with far less time and effort.
In short, the two primary evidence-based study principles you should focus on are (1) practice questions and practice tests and (2) spaced repetition with active recall. These are the two most effective methods in not only memorizing information, but also learning them deeply such that you can apply that knowledge effectively on test day.
If I could do it all over again, I would focus on three key principles:
These were the strengths and weaknesses of my own study approach to the MCAT. Make sure you aren’t falling for one of these 4 common MCAT pitfalls that are holding back your score potential.
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