3 Tips for Successful MCAT Preparation

Six months is the ideal amount of time you should spend preparing for the MCAT.

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The MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint. To be successful and get the absolute maximum score you can, preparation is paramount.

Many premedical students don't begin their MCAT preparation until three or four months before they take the exam. That may sound like a lot of time, but when you consider that most students are taking at least 12 academic credit hours, volunteering at a hospital or other extracurricular activity, are involved in research, and/or are working part time (at least), three or four months quickly becomes inadequate.

Six months is actually ideal. So how do you make the most of the time you have before your anticipated test date? Below are three tips to help you maximize your efforts and best prepare for the MCAT.

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1. Know what you are facing: A great way to start your preparation is to see what you are up against. Taking a practice MCAT under test conditions before you've done any prep can be an effective, and sometimes jarring, way to jump-start your MCAT training. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) currently offers a free practice MCAT online. This is a perfect (and free) opportunity to familiarize yourself with the content and format of the test.

Practicing under test conditions is important because it provides that element of time pressure that should not be felt for the first time when you are a few weeks out from test day. Please remember not to beat yourself up if you don't do well during this practice test. Once you know what you are facing, you can hone your strategy and plan for success.

[Planning to retake the MCAT? See these tips.]

2. Don't simply memorize: By the time you are sitting down to take the MCAT, you have already demonstrated that you are capable of learning new information and using formulas. Therefore, those that create the MCAT are far less interested in your ability to memorize formulas than they are in your ability to understand the physical, biological, or chemical process they describe.

When reviewing the MCAT physical and biological sciences material, in addition to being able to answer the practice questions, ask yourself if you can explain it to a fifth grader in an understandable way. This may sound crazy, but if you understand the material well enough to teach it, you are probably ready to take the test.

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3. Focus on your weaknesses: We all want to feel like we are smart, and consequently, many premedical students tend to focus on their strengths in their MCAT preparation and let their weaknesses fester. This is clearly not a good strategy!

Whether you choose to take an MCAT preparatory course or study on your own, use the practice tests and your demonstrated strengths and identified weaknesses as a guide to help you hone your study plan. The best plan is one that further develops your strengths while improving your weaker areas.

You shouldn't rely on just your strengths to pull you through. You need to be as solid as possible in all aspects of the exam to perform at the highest possible level.

Before the MCAT, most of us had never taken a test as comprehensive and impactful, but luckily there is an abundance of MCAT information and resources to help you prepare, as well as strategies like those above to help you get a handle on the exam. As long as you dedicate time to preparation, there shouldn't be any surprises come test day. 

Mark D'Agostino, M.D., M.S., M.Sc. is a Brigade Surgeon in the United States Army. As a Marshall Scholar, he earned a master's degree in Biochemistry at the University of Nottingham Medical School, and a second master's in Health Policy, Planning and Financing from the London School of Economics (LSE) and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). After graduating from Brown Medical School, he trained at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.