Welcome back to the Scenic Route. Thank you all again for taking the time out of your day to stop by this little blog. I hope you all are enjoying it so far, and have learned something or have been able to take something away from these posts. I have enjoyed writing these so much, and feel happy I can share them with you. 🙂 Last time we discussed a little bit about my less than conventional undergrad path, and this week? Why it’s none other than the dumpster fire that is the MCAT. Looking back now, I am happy that I made it through and never have to write it again, but here are 5 things I would do differently if I were to prepare for the MCAT again.
For those unaware, the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is a standardized exam requirement for most medical school applications. It tests students on their biology, general and organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, and critical analysis and reasoning skills. It’s a lot of information, and it’s a looong exam (about 7.5 hours). It’s an absolute B, and the way I went about it was not the best. Let’s start with the basics:
1. Plan Ahead
A spicy addition to my MCAT study schedule was deciding VERY late into the cycle that I was going to even apply. Canada is a little different compared to the states when it comes to rolling admissions vs. regular decision, so physically applying later wasn’t a concern of mine. Also, I wasn’t even planning on applying for that particular cycle, but I had crunched some numbers and had more credits than I originally thought. This meant I could finish my degree before the deadlines and everything would be amazing and great, right? Well…not so much.
When booking the exam, I wanted to schedule it on the absolute last day allowed for the application cycle. This would allow me as much study time as possible. That equated to about 1.5 months. 6 weeks to shove as much biology, chemistry, physics and psych knowledge in my brain as possible. Now, everyone is different when it comes to studying for the MCAT, but from what I had found, 3 months seemed to be the average length recommended for prep. So…yeah, I definitely felt a little bit crunched. Especially when I factored in work.
Trying to have a dedicated MCAT study schedule while working as much as possible to afford life was not a fun time. It’s easy to say “I don’t recommend working while studying,” but the fact is, most of us don’t have the option to not work while following our dreams. If you do have that option, amazing. I can only speak to my experience.
Looking back, I would have DEFINITELY waited another cycle to apply in order to give myself more time to effectively study and thoroughly understand the material. I also hadn’t taken any organic chemistry or bio-chem in my undergrad, so while having a strong biology and psychology background made studying easier for some portions, trying to teach myself orgo and bio-chem with a little review prep book was a tad…stressful. Which leads me to my next point.
Resources are a huge help when it comes to preparing you for a giant exam like the MCAT. For many of us, the main subjects that this exam focuses on were done in our early years of undergrad, or for some of the classes, not at all. This is another difference between Canada and US applications. I touched on this a bit in my previous post, but in Canada, most schools no longer require “pre-requisite” classes to be eligible for medical school.
I understand the idea is to not dissuade people from non-science backgrounds from applying, but at the end of the day you still need to write the MCAT, and hopefully do well enough on it for a school to notice you. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword: on one hand you are free to take the classes that really interest you and can hopefully help you maintain a high GPA, but on the other hand, you still need to understand these science courses enough to pull off the MCAT.
As I mentioned earlier, I wish I had planned ahead more for this entire exam process, and resources were no different. What prep company was better? Prep guides vs prep courses? Study groups or solo? Plus, then you get the one random dude on Reddit who said he didn’t even study for the MCAT and scored 99th percentile?? (yeah okay).
If I were to study for the MCAT again I think I would have tried taking a prep course vs just using the prep guides. While normally I enjoy learning on my own, I think that going through a class with an instructor would have helped shift my mindset into the way the exam questions were going to be asked. (I mean, and also would have NOT crammed everything into 6 weeks. But hey, hindsight 20/20.) Having weak spots in my science background definitely made me nervous for the exam, but I just kept telling myself that if I focused and put enough time into the material then it would be okay.
There are tons of MCAT study prep out there, and I can only speak to the things that I used. If you are already studying for the MCAT and enjoying another prep book brand or method, amazing, keep at it! Some resources that I personally found to be quite helpful were the Kaplan review books. They had great summaries of content and chapter exams to help ensure you understood the particular topics. I also got this handy Kaplan flashcard study set which was great, as I could sneak a handful in my scrubs pocket and try to do a bit of review on my breaks at work.
I also purchased a few AAMC full-length practice exams, which helped a ton to get me into the exam day mindset, as well as a few individual section exams for topics I felt weaker in. They are an extra expense ($35 for each full-length and $15 for the individual section question banks) but I did enjoy them. I also used a looot of YouTube for specific details on subjects I had a harder time understanding (I see you biochemistry), as well as Dr. Gray’s MCAT podcast (any of the podcasts on his site are fantastic to be honest). Are there other prep books? Yes, technically you could buy every single one of them, however I didn’t want to overload my brain or unload my wallet on 30 different prep guides.
Looking back do I wish that I got at least one more to change up the perspective of some of the content? Sure. Would it had made a terrible difference in my final scores? Who knows. I just know how I am as a person, and I can get overwhelmed when there are too many resources to study that I end up ineffectively reviewing all of them and retaining nothing.
Let me know what resources you enjoyed in the comment section below. 🙂
3. Book Your Exam Early
To make matters worse for myself throughout this whole process (we like to do things the hard way remember?) every single exam date in my city, hell, in all of western CANADA was booked. But I am extremely stubborn, and there was no way I was missing out on applying this cycle. I made the hasty decision and booked a plane ticket and exam date to the next closest location…WASHINGTON, for that August. (This is fine, totally normal, nothing to see here.)
I am very appreciative that my family let me steal some flight and hotel points for this trip, otherwise that would have been yet another expense in the med school bucket, and I hadn’t even gotten IN to school yet. (I’m sure you can sense a theme beginning here, or in case you were unaware…medical school and everything involved with it is not cheap.)
I arrived in Spokane two days before my exam. I already don’t love the stress of flying, and so I wanted to give myself an extra day to decompress, review, and (hopefully) rest before I wrote the MCAT. In typical Type-A Jessica fashion, the morning after I arrived, I walked down to the testing center from my hotel and timed myself to see how long I would need to get there. Why didn’t I just use google maps you ask? Well because that would be too simple and what if there was some secret detour I needed to take that would make me miss my exam and never get into med school? Or what if the building didn’t even exist and I just came to the US for no reason? Come on you guys, you absolutely have to think about these very plausible scenarios at a time like this.
Once the location was scouted, timed, and in fact, still in an existing building, it was time to locate study snacks. I took an Uber to a little grocery store not too far from the hotel and got myself some food for the weekend, as well as some celebratory snacks/champagne for after the test (It still feels so strange being able to buy alcohol in a grocery store, but hey, ‘Merica.)
The test itself went fine, aside from one guy across from me. I swear to God I have never heard more aggressive, heavy sighing in my life. Here’s a bonus tip #6 for you all: EARPLUGS. Fantastic inventions.
I remember I had all of these adventure plans for after I wrote my exam and you know what I ended up doing? I ate an adult lunchables (the only “charcuterie” I could find near my hotel) chugged a glass or two of champagne, and was in bed by 630pm. Absolute party animal, I know. I had a few friends warn me of how mentally drained I would be after, but clearly I didn’t take them seriously until I was drooling all over a hotel pillow. I did end up squeezing in a mini hike the next morning before my flight home so I still checked an adventure off the list.
Now I can look back and laugh at how I was so impatient that I had to go to another country to write an exam that’s offered literally hundreds of times in my own city. My takeaway from this, book your exam early, preferably in your own city…basically don’t be like me.
4. Review, Review, Review
This is one of my biggest regrets looking back on my study prep for the MCAT. You can do all of the chapter quizzes in the prep guides and buy separate full length and individual exams all you want, and maybe even improve your scores each time, but unless you are effectively reviewing your answers afterwards it kind of defeats a lot of it’s purpose (in my opinion). I remember reading up online and seeing how once people would take 8 hours out of their day to write a mock exam, they would take yet another 8ish hours the next day to review their exams fully, to see where they went wrong and what needed more focus and finetuning.
For anyone who has written any type of an all-day exam, you know how mentally draining they are. Your brain cannot function and it feels like absolute mush. The last thing I wanted to do was to review all of the questions I had just answered. Honestly…just do it. And do it effectively. I ended up doing two full length practice exams and went through the chemistry and CARS question packs. (I actually quite enjoyed CARS, as it quite closely mimicked the style of “which is the most correct” questions that a lot of our nursing school exams were based on).
After investing in these practice exams, I would quickly skim over the ones I got wrong, go “oh yeah, dumb mistake, I clearly MEANT to put the correct answer” (sure, Jan) but I wouldn’t take more than an hour to review my answers to make sure I was really understanding A.) what the question was asking, and B.) WHY I was getting that answer correct or incorrect. Sure you can squeak by with guessing on some here and there but if you don’t concretely understand the big concepts, the real exam will not be a great time. Bottom line: review the quizzes and exams thoroughly. It will help you
5. Don’t RUSH
I mean I guess this last tip is more an encompassment of everything else I’ve mentioned here today, but honestly it’s probably the most important. The MCAT is a huge investment, financially as well as with your time, so if you’re not ready or can’t commit enough to the prep, then slow down, reassess, and take the proper amount of time you need to ensure your success. Sure you can do what I did and it might work. It will age you about 100 years and you’ll be beyond burnt out at the end, but it might work. Or you can pick an exam date based on YOUR study timeline, instead of picking a study timeline based on your rushed exam date.
It sounds dramatic, but you want to come in as prepared as possible and leave everything all out on the table…er, computer. The worst feeling coming out of any exam is knowing that you didn’t perform your best, but when you add around $400 onto that plus the stress of it being deemed “good enough” for medical school, the feeling is so much worse. (Also, appreciate the cost of these exams now, because as you continue on with medical school, $400 for an exam will seem like a Black Friday sale).
Really sit down and make an efficient, REALISTIC plan. What works for one person will not necessarily work for you. And on the off chance that you do choose to/need to re-write your MCAT…this is fine. For some reason as we decide that we want to pursue medicine, there is this mindset that we have to instantly be perfect and anything less is unacceptable. You are NOT your score. Will your MCAT score determine whether or not you will be a fantastic physician? Absolutely not, it’s just one more annoying, standardized hurdle to jump through.
When grades were released after the most painful month of waiting ever, I felt relief. My grades were high enough that re-writing another time seemed like a why-bother. Would it be high enough for every single dream program I could imagine? No, but I was very much comfortable with it. Once that aspect was out of the way, it was application time. To this day, I still can’t decide what was more stressful: filling out applications, trying to find all my childhood addresses, thinking of every hobby I’ve ever had in my life (in turn realizing how boring I am), or writing the MCAT. I think we will save that for another day.
I hope these tips have been helpful for those looking at pursuing med and writing the MCAT, or answered any questions some of you might have when it comes to checking off all of the boxes for applying to school. Thank you all again for sticking around, have a great Tuesday!
If there is anything you see in one of these posts that you’d like more information on, or have something you’d like to see in the future, don’t hesitate to head to my Contact page and send me an email.