Preparing for the MCAT is a daunting task for anyone. Rightfully so, there is plenty of advice regarding MCAT prep available from the Internet, advisers and peers.
With so much information readily accessible, it's easy to end up following detrimental strategies. The following points are four of the most common MCAT prep mistakes that students make and how to avoid them.
1. Spending excessive time memorizing small details: Unlike typical college exams, almost all of the background information needed to answer a question on the MCAT is presented in its accompanying passage.
The questions are designed to test you on critical thinking and application, not regurgitation of facts. Mirror this strategy in your preparation by not spending excessive time meticulously memorizing small details.
You don't need to commit every step of oxidative phosphorylation to memory in order to do well on the MCAT. Rather, focus on reviewing fundamental concepts and creating a basic foundation of knowledge, then focus on completing practice questions.
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2. Spending more time reading than practicing: Think of the MCAT as part of your audition for medical school – it is a performance. In preparing for a performance, there is undoubtedly a need for a solid foundation.
For the MCAT, this involves the basics of biology, inorganic and organic chemistry and physics. After this foundation is built, however, the most important part of your preparation is practice. The majority of your time should be dedicated to completing timed practice sets and exams.
Use practice questions as a way to learn. If you missed a question, analyze why you missed it and identify which concepts you need to review to ensure you don't miss that question type in the future. If you answered a question correctly, recognize why the other choices are incorrect.
Be sure to diligently time your practice sessions. Completing practice sets without a time limit may create bad habits that will be difficult to reverse once the pressure of timing is added.
3. Sacrificing prep time for extracurriculars: Getting into medical school requires a well-rounded combination of outstanding academic achievement, leadership involvement, community service and usually some form of research or clinical exposure. Understandably, students are often spread very thin in terms of extracurricular commitments in their premed years. However, during the months of your MCAT preparation, it is imperative to prioritize MCAT studying above most extracurricular activities.
No matter what anyone tells you, additional extracurricular involvement will rarely compensate for a lower MCAT score – except for something like being an Olympian. Consider choosing a small number of the activities you truly enjoy and maintaining them during your MCAT prep and scale back your involvement in groups that don't add as much value.
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4. Not studying efficiently: With so many practice books, exams and question banks available, preparing for the MCAT can often be an overwhelming process. Students may spend significant amounts of time studying without corresponding increases in scores.
This happens because of inefficient and oftentimes redundant review. To prevent this, make sure that every MCAT study session has a clear structure. Creating a study calendar with what you will study each day is key.
Furthermore, many students tend to shy away from studying subjects they find difficult or dislike. Instead, they end up spending more time reviewing subjects they enjoy and find easy. This also leads to wasted study time that doesn't improve scores.
You should deliberately focus extra time and attention on subjects you find difficult. By giving these weaker areas more work while periodically reinforcing subjects you are already comfortable with, you will see a rise in your score as you expand your knowledge base.
Overall, many students focus too much on small details, don't do enough practice questions, fail to prioritize time for MCAT preparation and find themselves studying inefficiently. Use the above strategies to combat these common mistakes as you continue on your road to medical school.
Anubodh "Sunny" Varshney is a professional MCAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from Washington University in St. Louis and is a medical student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.