posted by Kevin Jubbal, M.D.
You’ve been studying hard, your test date is approaching, but perhaps you aren’t quite certain if you should take the MCAT or reschedule it for when you’re better prepared. Here’s an easy, step-by-step process on how to decide whether you’re ready to take the MCAT, or whether you should delay.
Prior to diving into the specific numbers and recommendations in determining whether or not you’re ready to take the MCAT, you must understand the big picture pros and cons that are often misunderstood. Namely, delaying the MCAT results in two overlooked drawbacks: (1) forgetting content and (2) burnout.
Students erroneously believe that the more time they spend studying, the better their final MCAT score will be. This is simply false, as demonstrated by the fact that many students who spent 6, 12, or 18 months studying for the MCAT don’t necessarily perform better than those who spend just 3 or 4 months.
You can visualize your own MCAT test performance as a bell shaped curve, with the time spent studying on the X-axis and your score on the Y-axis.
At early stages, more time spent studying will yield an improved score. However, at a certain point, further time spent studying will result in a score plateau, and after this point, further studying will actually result in a worse MCAT score outcome.
The reason for this is two-fold: (1) the balance of retaining versus forgetting and (2) burnout.
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve illustrates the fact that we don’t retain information forever. We can limit the amount of forgetting through certain learning principles, such as spaced repetition and active recall. However, after a certain point, the rate of information you are adding and retaining will balance out with the rate of information you are forgetting.
This effect is more prominent with those who space out their MCAT studying over longer periods, such as 9 or 12 months. By spending a fewer number of hours per day spaced out over a longer duration, they forget information at a higher rate, thus reaching retention-forgetting balance point much sooner. Their scores are held back as a result.
We find that students generally, all other things being equal, perform best when they can study for the MCAT over a shorter duration but higher intensity. For example, 3 months fully immersed in MCAT preparation at higher intensity, or even 6 months with moderate intensity. This increases the rate of learning and retention, and limits the rate of forgetting.
The second part of the equation is burnout. You cannot expect yourself, or any student, to be able to study for the MCAT indefinitely, particularly at high intensity, without reaching a point of burnout or frustration. As much as we love the MCAT and its foundation in learning about the human body and becoming a doctor, we know it’s not the most exciting thing in the world.
Burnout is a multifactorial phenomenon that can be mitigated, but that’s a conversation for another time.
In understanding these two core foundations of forgetting and burnout, we can rid ourselves of the notion that more studying will always lead to an improved MCAT score. What we want to determine is whether you should take the MCAT as planned, or opt to delay and reschedule for a later date. There is a subset of students who delay the test when unnecessary and end up hurting their score. There’s another subset who are too inflexible to postpone, even when that would prove beneficial. Here’s how to decide if you fall into either one of these camps.
The first step is being honest with yourself. How has your MCAT studying been thus far, and are you overall satisfied with the intensity and rigor of your efforts? This includes assessing both the quality of your studying as well as your resources and progress within them.
This isn’t the time to pat yourself on the back for studying for 4 hours per day when you were planning on studying for 8. Similarly, you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you’re a bit behind schedule, underestimated the time requirements, or needed an extra break day or two beyond what you had initially planned for. The better behaved you’ve been, the more likely it is that you’re ready to take the MCAT. The more you’ve deviated from your plans, the more likely it is that you’ll need to delay your final test date. But hold on before making that decision, as there are other factors to weigh.
You also need to look at your resources and their relative importance. You don’t have to get through every single resource in order to get a great MCAT score – in fact, many students spread themselves too thin across multiple resources, so it’s only natural to pare things down.
In terms of MCAT resources, there are three main categories: content review books & videos, spaced repetition tools, and practice questions/tests.
The highest yield resource is the Official AAMC Practice Materials, including question packs and practice tests. You should absolutely get through 100% of these materials, saved toward the end of your study period.
Next in order of importance, spaced repetition tools, such as Memm, help you memorize important content efficiently while minimizing unnecessary fluff.
Content review books and videos are the lowest priority, as their consumption is passive, yielding poor retention, and they often are riddled with out-of-scope information that won’t contribute to a higher MCAT score.
If you’re unable to get through all the resources you intended, revisit them through the lens of relative importance and see what you’ll be able to get through by test date.
How can we make sense of all this? We’ll need to consider how long have you been studying and how far away are you from your test date, as this informs how large a score improvement you can hope to achieve.
The greater the duration of your studying, the larger the impact of your past study habits on your future score. If you’re only 2 weeks into your study period, you’re fairly early on in the process and making changes now can have a dramatic influence on your ultimate outcome. On the other hand, if you’re 10 weeks in with only 2 weeks left, you have less of an opportunity to move the needle. A greater amount of your studying is already behind you.
Ultimately, if you’ve been sticking to your study plan and are further away from your test date, the lower the chances you should delay your MCAT. On the other hand, if you’re been distracted and not studying as intensely as you know you could, or your test date is rapidly approaching and you’re not anywhere close to your target score, you may want to consider delaying your MCAT.
Next, we’ll rely on more objective measurements to guide your decision on whether or not to delay your MCAT test date. First, you’ll need to refer back to your target MCAT score. Some students should be aiming for a higher score, and others will have a favorable outcome with a comparatively lower score.
You should be taking regular practice tests – our recommendation is at least one every 2 weeks. As you get closer to your test date, that frequency should increase, and you should prioritize using the AAMC materials within the final couple weeks. The AAMC practice tests are the most similar to the real thing – after all, they’re made by the official test makers. These AAMC practice tests are the most representative of the real test – both in the experience and your predicted score.
On the other hand, if you took practice tests from a different test prep company, understand the difficulty may be lower or higher compared to the actual test, and the predicted score will be less accurate than the official AAMC materials. Regardless, these are objective measurements that provide a loose guideline on your score range on test day.
Every student is different, but in most cases, you can expect to improve your score from your practice test score to your actual test, assuming focused, strategic preparation up until test day.
Assuming two weeks of dedicated studying prior to your test date, you can expect a few points improvement compared to your AAMC predicted scores.
Assuming 1 month of dedicated studying, we’ve seen 10 to 12 point improvements by focusing on Memm and practice questions.
This is a rough guideline and not a guarantee – it’s also highly dependent on your target score and their associated percentiles. For example, it’s much easier to go from a 490 to a 500 than a 515 to a 525, even though both are an increase of 10 points. In the former, you’re going from a 19th percentile to a 55th percentile, whereas in the latter you’re going from a 94th percentile to a 99.9th percentile.
On test day, you’ll be subject to increased pressure. Some students savor the challenge, and others find it disruptive.
If you’re one of the lucky few students who finds themselves performing better on the real test than on practice tests, you can predict your final score to be 1-2 points higher than predicted.
It’s more likely that you’ll fall into the second group, students for whom the pressure and stress of the real test cause them to perform worse than their practice tests. If you fall into this camp, it’s not uncommon to experience a 1-3 point drop compared to your predicted score, depending on how you manage the pressure.
As a rough guideline, if you’re more than 10 points away from a score you’d be happy with less than 1 month until test day, consider delaying.
Factors that should push you toward delaying include being a poor test taker, having already done most of your studying, or not being able to dedicate yourself primarily to the MCAT until test day. These factors indicate it will be more challenging to raise your score to a satisfactory degree in time.
Factors that lean toward not delaying include being a strong test taker, having more than 1 month of studying remaining, or having done extended studying with suboptimal strategies, meaning no spaced repetition, active recall, or enough practice questions. These factors indicate you should be able to improve rapidly in a short period of time by fixing your study strategy deficits.
The final step is focusing on a few tertiary factors. After all, this is a highly personal decision, not something that follows a simple formula. Here are some other important considerations:
How does this MCAT test date fit into your overall big picture timeline? Would delaying the MCAT have a detrimental effect on your medical school application?
If you’re applying in the immediate cycle, understand that delaying your MCAT ultimately delays when medical schools will review your application. With rolling admissions for medical school, this becomes costly. Simply applying before the deadline is not a recommended strategy. Understand the timeline and how much you can delay without adversely affecting your admissions chances. If your score is predicted to be very low, you may even want to consider delaying and applying in the next year’s application cycle to ensure you’ve maximized your chances. After all, you don’t want to apply to medical school more than once if you don’t have to.
On the other hand, if you’re not applying for the next several months, then you have more flexibility to delay your test date.
In a worst case scenario, if you take the MCAT and aren’t happy with your score, would you be able to retake the test and still apply to medical school as planned? You’ll have to determine how this plays into your bigger picture plans.
It’s not advised to take the MCAT, knowing you’ll receive a low score, only to retake it in the future. Although one low score is not considered disastrous, it is still best to take the test once and do well rather than twice, all else being equal. Know that medical schools will see all your prior MCAT scores.
Impostor syndrome refers to the common feeling of one believing they are not as competent as others perceive them to be. Amongst pre-meds (and even medical students and physicians), imposter syndrome is quite common. As it relates to your MCAT preparation, this may sneak up as the sense you’re not ready, and possibly never will be, when in reality you have the capacity to achieve a top percentile score.
This is why it’s key to rely on objective measurements, such as practice test scores, rather than just a gut check. If you’ve put in the work and done the heavy lifting, don’t let your nagging doubts convince you otherwise. It’s natural to be second guessing yourself, but trust your practice test scores and the hundreds of hours you’ve put in.
If you’re still scared you don’t actually know what you should, go through the AAMC content outline as a sanity check to reassure yourself you’ve comprehensively covered the tested items.
Last, do a mental check. Are you burned out and tired of the MCAT? Towards the end of your study period, it’s natural to not be as enthusiastic about MCAT studying. If you’re approaching the tipping point in the last week or two, that’s par for the course. In this situation, delaying your test by even a couple weeks can push you into the time frame where burnout is in full force and you ultimately score worse.
Or perhaps you feel already burned out to the extent that you can no longer study effectively. If so, you may want to consider a break from MCAT prep, and if your timeline permits, re-approach the test again in the future with another dedicated MCAT prep period. If you take this route, make sure you reflect on what was unsustainable the first time around that led to burnout so you can ensure it doesn’t happen again during your next study period.
In summary, choosing whether or not you’re ready to take the MCAT is multifactorial. Delaying the MCAT isn’t always good, even though it seems harmless, as you increase the risks of forgetting previously studied information or burning out.
In step 1, you must assess your studying up to this point, both in your plan and resources as well as the quality of your studying.
In step 2, look at objective data, specifically AAMC practice tests, to predict roughly your test day performance.
And in step 3, consider other factors, like timeline, imposter syndrome, and your mental state.
Medicine is a marathon, not a sprint, and those who are able to adopt a long term strategic approach are rewarded. Ultimately, it’s more important to be adaptable and flexible. Sometimes that means sticking to your plan and pushing through to the finish line. And other times, it means retreating to regroup and fight another day.
Whatever you decide, we wish you the best of luck on your MCAT!
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