The Trap of Anki for the MCAT

posted by Memm Team

Finding the right MCAT resources is essential if you want to do well on the test. Unsurprisingly, not all resources are created equal, and wading through resources is a waste of precious studying time. Here, we explore one of the more popular MCAT study tools, Anki, and examine some of its fatal flaws. 

Anki uses spaced repetition, which is an evidence-based practice that we give credence to here at Memm as well. As a popular spaced repetition software (SRS), Anki is used by countless prospective and current med school students. Although the theory behind Anki is great, the software doesn’t always live up to the hype, particularly when studying for the MCAT. Learn why below. 

Steep Learning Curve

The first drawback: Anki has quite the learning curve. Before you can use Anki to study for the MCAT, you first need to learn how to use Anki. You’ll need technical knowledge to set up plugins. Once you’ve done that, you need to research pre-made decks and decide which will be best for you to use. If none of the pre-made decks are right, then you need to create your own flashcards, which is time-consuming and very difficult to do while you’re studying.  

One of the major problems that adds to the Anki learning curve is that there is a lot that Anki can do. If you had unlimited time to learn, that wouldn’t be a problem. It’s well-known that prospective med students do not have unlimited time. Researching which plugins and which decks to use can quickly become overwhelming and time-consuming. 

Once you get past the learning curve of setting Anki up, the interface is different from what many students are used to. There is quite the adjustment period that can delay your studying as well. 

The best way to circumvent this learning curve is to start using Anki long before you begin studying for the MCAT. Make no mistake: we’re not saying to start studying for the MCAT early. You can, however, use Anki to study for undergrad classes, then when you start studying for the MCAT, you’ll already understand how to use the software and will be ready to jump right in. 

Poor Card Quality

The second, and perhaps most pronounced drawback of Anki for the MCAT, is the poor quality of the flashcards. When you use Anki to study, you can choose either pre-made flashcard decks, or you can create your own flashcards. Both have their drawbacks and are likely to be of poor quality, as explained below. 

Pre-Made Decks

Most Anki decks are not made well, and there are a whole host of problems that come along with pre-made decks. 

Pre-made Anki decks are made by people just like you, which means they were also studying for the MCAT at the time they made the cards. Because they were still studying, they couldn’t have had mastery of all the information on the cards. Without mastery, it’s simply impossible to make an exceptional card. This often results in poor-quality cards that don’t have the right scope of information, don’t test the proper information, have too much or too little information, and don’t use flashcard best practices. 

None of the current pre-made Anki decks are comprehensive, high-yield, and high-quality. We’ve found that most of the pre-made decks contain way too much low-yield fluff. This might make a deck seem like it includes a lot of important information you need to study, but in reality, it’s simply creating extra work and stress. The more time you’re spending studying low-yield information, the less time you have to review the information that you really need to know for the test. 

Additionally, most people studying for the MCAT aren’t experts in card creation best practices. This leads to sub-optimal card quality. This might mean putting too much information on one card, creating too many cards overall, not including enough high-yield information, and many other issues. When you’re studying form cards that don’t follow best practices, you’re going to put forth more time and effort to learn and study the material, and you’re probably going to end up doing more pattern recognition than truly understanding and memorizing concepts. 

The problems with pre-made decks don’t end there. When you use pre-made decks, you’ll see flashcards in random order. The problem here is that this random order isn’t going to align with your content review. Before you can try to memorize information from a flashcard, you need to have a thorough understanding of that concept. If you’re seeing flashcards for a concept you haven’t yet reviewed, you’re less likely to remember information on that card and to be able to recall it on test day. Since your brain can’t fully comprehend information it doesn’t understand, it — again — may revert to pattern recognition. 

Another major pain point of pre-made Anki decks is that many of the cards contain blatant errors. Because Anki is cumbersome, it’s difficult to resolve the issues on these erroneous cards. 

Finally, each pre-made deck has its pros and cons, so some students try to use multiple decks so they don’t miss out on anything. However, if you try to use too many decks in an attempt to maximize your studying, you probably won’t get to all of the cards. This then ends up having the opposite effect where you ultimately review less material. 

All of these flaws of pre-made Anki decks often lead to one of the biggest problems we see: pattern recognition. Learning to recognize patterns in your study materials could give you a false sense of security, thinking you have a strong command of the topic. Then, when you take the test and see the information presented differently, you aren’t able to recall the information. 

Self-Made Decks

Unfortunately, self-made decks don’t solve the problems of pre-made decks. We’re going to come right out and say it: you probably aren’t going to make very good flashcards while you’re studying for the MCAT. This has nothing to do with your intelligence and competence but has everything to do with flashcard best practices. 

To make high-quality flashcards, you need to first have a thorough understanding of the concept. If you’re still learning the concept as you study for the MCAT, you’re not going to be able to make a completely accurate and comprehensive card. Expert command of the topic requires not only an understanding of the concept itself, but also how it relates to other concepts, whether the concept is high-yield or low-yield, and how that concept will be tested on the MCAT. If you’re studying for the MCAT, you — by definition — are not an expert on the material, and thus it is impossible for you to make comprehensive and top-quality cards. 

Making your own Anki cards is one way to avoid the random-order problem you get with pre-made cards. While you’re studying one topic, you can simultaneously create cards for the same topic. This is a time-consuming and inefficient way to circumvent the problem, however. 

To make excellent flashcards for the MCAT, you’ll need to spend way more time than the three to six months we recommend preparing for the MCAT. 

Frustration and Burnout

When you combine these factors that are barriers to using Anki well, it can result in minimal or even negative value. It can even cause students to stop using spaced repetition altogether as they erroneously believe the study method, not the software, is the source of their problem. This can be detrimental to both their studying and their eventual score. 

Even without the drawbacks of Anki, it’s easy to get frustrated and burnt out when studying for the MCAT. Add in a material that has a steep learning curve and poorly-written flashcards, and the risk for burnout increases. 

When people (understandably) get frustrated while using Anki, they often stop using it, or they continue to use the software albeit incorrectly. This leads to a bad ROI (return on investment) of their time. It can also make students feel like they aren’t ready to take the MCAT when in reality, they just need a better platform. 

The more frustrated and burnt out you become, the less you’ll study, leading to a slippery slope that ends in a lower MCAT score. 

Why Test Takers Choose Anki

Anki has its flaws, but test takers continue to use the software as they prepare for one of the most important tests of their lives. Why? There are quite a few reasons, not the least of which being the price. 

Anki is free. When preparing for and taking the MCAT can cost thousands of dollars, prospective med students will jump at the opportunity to use a free software. It does cost $25 one time on iOS, but it’s free on Android and on the web browser. 

Anki brought flashcards into the limelight for medical students. Once it became popular among med students, Anki trickled down to pre-meds and became popular for the MCAT. As we mentioned, the software uses spaced repetition, which is an evidence-based study strategy that can yield excellent results. At the time that it exploded onto the scene, it was a great proof of concept and became the first main player in the SRS space. It also includes a lot of features that people studying for the MCAT and those already in medical school find very helpful, such as various card formats and the ability to include pictures. Since Anki’s inception, however, little has been done to improve the software, which is why it has so many limitations and is now being surpassed by other SRS platforms. 

Word of mouth. A lot of people use Anki. When test takers hear that others who have used Anki have scored very high on the MCAT, it seems like a good idea to follow suit and use the software. 

A Better MCAT Study Tool

Anki is great in theory, it just doesn’t always deliver where it really needs to. That’s where we stepped in with Memm. Memm was specifically created to address many of the shortcomings of Anki to give MCAT test takers a better experience. 

With Memm, the biggest barrier to entry is the cost. Unlike Anki, Memm is not free. However, once you get past that point, Memm beats Anki out in every other category we discussed above. The value that Memm adds to your MCAT preparation far exceeds the cost. Where Anki does an okay job of using spaced repetition and other study strategies, Memm makes it a point to focus on spaced repetition, active recall, interleaving, and desirable difficulties.

These four evidence-based learning strategies are highly effective when studying for the MCAT. Memm also provides context to accompany each fact on a review sheet or card, and the resources are highly customizable. This allows you to take a study experience that is already designed to work and make it even more effective for you. 

While Memm’s resources are highly customizable, you don’t have to do it all yourself like you do on Anki. When you start reviewing with Memm, you immediately have access to our valuable resources, such as pre-made high-quality flashcards and comprehensive interactive review sheets. Memm subscriptions are also bundled with MSI MCAT course access for free. This is extremely valuable when you need additional explanation and clarification. 

With no plugins, no confusing interface, no flashcards to make, and no decks to install, Memm doesn’t have much of a learning curve. Our comprehensive review sheets also make a huge difference when it comes to comprehension. You can take time to ensure you fully understand a concept before you try to memorize it. The review sheets are seamlessly integrated with the flashcards. When we created Memm, we knew that high-quality, well-integrated review sheets were missing from many other MCAT content review platforms. Our review sheets give you the context and information you need to understand a concept before you try to memorize it. We also created review sheets to be interactive, thus incorporating active learning methods. 

The cards on Memm are created by two experts who both scored in the 99.9th percentile on the MCAT. After years of learning content and studying flashcard best practices, they created cards for Memm so you don’t need to waste time finding which cards are beneficial. At Memm, every single flashcard is beneficial, and we prioritize high-yield information. Our cards and content are all continually updated as well, making sure information is accurate and up to date. We help test takers spend less time studying while simultaneously helping them improve their scores

Last edited on: April 26, 2021

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