posted by Kevin Jubbal, M.D.
The world of MCAT prep is a crowded space, littered with well-intentioned but poor advice both in person and online. Some swear by a particular series of resources, others say it’s necessary to study at least 3 months intensely with no days off, or that almonds are the secret to improving your memory and critical thinking. How can we separate the signal from the noise?
Understand that just because Katie scored a 525 and says essential oils and acupuncture were her secrets, those techniques aren’t necessarily going to work for you. Some high scorers get lucky, some are naturally gifted despite suboptimal study methods, and only some got there through methods that reproducibly and reliably improve performance. Let’s remove the component of luck or individual talent from the equation. Here are the pitfalls to avoid so you too can score highest on your MCAT test day.
In most MCAT study circles, the traditional approaches to studying still reign supreme — start with a content review textbook or series of videos, and then when it gets closer to test time, start focusing more on practice questions and practice tests. This conventional approach, however, does not effectively incorporate key evidence-based tactics such as spaced repetition, active recall, desirable difficulties, and interleaving.
With the conventional approach, students quickly forget what they had just “learned” through reading review books or watching videos, leading to frustration and stagnating scores. Fact is, there are better ways to study, and through our experience working with students, we’ve found that the quality of one’s studying is the most important factor. That’s right, it’s even more important than the number of hours spent or the individual’s level of intelligence or test taking ability.
If you want to elevate your MCAT score as quickly as possible and to the highest degree, you should focus on evidence-based learning principles, meaning they’re backed by validated scientific studies, not some random internet stranger’s opinion. You can find the full list of all 7 evidence-based learning strategies here. An optimized MCAT study approach uses some form of active, spaced repetition-based learning to reinforce and consolidate material, ensuring retention.
This is often where students object and say they’ve tried doing spaced repetition and flashcards but it’s not for them. However, we have repeatedly found that these initial preferences can be misleading. This is a domain in life where your feelings shouldn’t guide your strategy – data on what actually works should be your north star.
If you’re early on in your implementation of active learning, I can almost guarantee you will prefer passive forms of studying. That’s natural, and I remember feeling that way too. Passive learning techniques are easier and more comfortable. Active learning, on the other hand, is uncomfortable and feels like added work and effort, particularly when first starting out. That’s normal. Similar to weight training in the gym, you have to challenge and push your boundaries for a stimulus large enough for meaningful growth.
Also understand that you may dislike the tool more so than the technique. We’ve seen dozens of students write to us about trying spaced repetition with Anki flashcards, but despite their efforts, it never really clicked. These students, after using Memm, wrote to us about how it feels like an entirely different way of studying, despite similar core functionality of spaced repetition with active recall through flashcards.
Speaking of flashcards, we find students repeating two highly costly mistakes: 1) creating their own suboptimal flashcards or 2) using other students’ suboptimal flashcards.
The reality is that it is impossible for a student studying for the MCAT to create flashcards at the highest level of quality. The best flashcards can only be created once you first completely understand the material deeply. That includes not only a comprehensive understanding of the concept, but its relationship to associated concepts, the relative importance of the concept, and most of all, the manner in which the concept is tested by the MCAT. No individual can address all these elements until they have studied extensively for the exam, completed the MCAT, and done additional post-test analysis through further study or tutoring.
This isn’t to say there is zero value in creating one’s own cards. Card creation is an active learning exercise that deepens comprehension when properly executed. However, through hundreds of interviews with students, we have observed that the reality is rarely so straightforward. An overwhelming majority of students struggle with the card creation best practices fundamentals, ultimately resulting in countless wasted hours. Remember that with spaced repetition, every poorly written or irrelevant-to-the-MCAT card is reviewed multiple times, exponentially multiplying wasted time. In these situations, compounding works against you.
This time could be better spent on higher impact activities that translate into higher scores, such as practice questions, full length exams, or reviewing high quality flashcards. Even those students who manage to overcome the learning curve to derive significant value in card creation could have more efficiently learned the material faster, and in most cases achieved greater mastery, through using high-quality premade cards.
You can think of flashcard quality as stratified:
The lowest level would be the regular flashcards most people make. These cards aren’t focused, they tend to include too much information, include out-of-scope concepts, and the prompts don’t precisely test the information you need to know. Instead, they often unintentionally promote pattern recognition.
The middle level would be understanding and following flashcard best practices. This is much easier said than done, and I was still working on it after 5 years of using Anki through medical school and residency. Once you do finally achieve this level, the quality of your flashcards will dramatically improve and you’ll be able to take better advantage of spaced repetition with active recall. You’ll be consolidating semantic memories rather than using techniques that promote pattern recognition or result in suboptimal retention. But you are still not at the highest level, and even the best premade MCAT Anki decks fall into this middle category at best, as they were initially created by students still studying for the MCAT.
The final and highest level is like a precise scalpel that surgically delineates the content and information you need to know, discarding the rest. It pinpoints not only what information you need to know, but how it will be tested on your exam. And by following flashcard best practices, this level accelerates content retention and mastery to a far greater degree than the more common options.
The traditional MCAT study approach focuses too heavily on passively reading content. Most students are afraid to “waste” their practice materials too early, and feel they should “save it” for later, when they better understand the content. In reality, practice questions and cards are the key tools to achieve understanding of the content and should be done throughout content review.
By looking at how medical students study for USMLE, the next standardized test you’ll take after the MCAT, we see that practice questions are heavily utilized as a study resource, not just as an assessment or practice tool in the final weeks leading up to their exam.
The scientific literature is clear — testing is not only a way to assess knowledge, but a highly effective tool to accelerate learning as well.
At the beginning of your study period, you’ll need to balance three separate domains:
(1) content review focusing on comprehension
(2) spaced repetition with active recall focusing on memory consolidation
(3) practice questions focusing on a mix of application, comprehension, and consolidation
As your study period progresses, you should diminish the time spent on content review, and increase the time spent on intermittent review for specific facts or concepts when you require clarification, rather than a sweeping plan of reviewing all content a second time. You should not expect yourself to be a master of the content from reviewing content review resources.
Simultaneously, you should be gradually spending more time on flashcards and practice questions – two active learning methods that, particularly when combined, will most rapidly improve your scores. Some foundational level of comprehension is useful, but remember that having this foundation is different than having everything down cold.
Finally, don’t overcomplicate the MCAT study process. Some students think they need to use half a dozen different resources to get the best score possible, but they are actually spreading themselves too thin.
Again, take a page from the medical students’ strategy — they focus on just the few highest yield resources and wring them out for all they’re worth, rather than superficially going through multiple different resources of varying quality.
Our students have reported consistent and substantial score improvements by heavily relying on Memm for content review and spaced repetition and UWorld and AAMC materials for practice questions. For those looking for a complete package of content review, scheduling, and study strategies, the Med School Insiders MCAT Course is a good option.
You’re bound to hear conflicting advice and strategies when it comes to MCAT advice. If you’re seeking optimal performance on your MCAT, look to the scientific literature for evidence-based study strategies, or to experts who have not only achieved top scores themselves, but helped others do the same as well.
In summary, use evidence based study principles, find the best resources you can, and invest your time and energy into them heavily. Active learning methods, such as practice testing or spaced repetition, will initially feel more uncomfortable than passively reading. That’s normal. Think of it like weight training in the gym. If it were too easy, you wouldn’t be taxing your muscles to make meaningful progress. To make meaningful gains, whether in the gym or with the MCAT, you must challenge yourself and leverage your efforts strategically.
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