How to Crush the MCAT: Insider Tips & Online Resources for Every Med School Hopeful

From gathering the MCAT resources every med school hopeful needs to discovering the inside info on what they don’t tell you about the exam, learn what you need to know to ace the MCAT

MEET THE EXPERT

Colin Ma
Colin Ma

View Bio

Colin Ma is a problem-solver who loves developing creative solutions rooted at the intersection of technology, marketing, and strategy. He’s built applications for Fortune 500 companies, sold digital businesses, and won breakdancing competitions. He currently works digital marketing and is in the process of applying for medical school.

You know the basics. Four main sections, 230 questions, and just shy of six hours to get it all done. You have serious studying to do. But the MCAT isn’t about memorizing facts and statistics and spitting them back out during the test. The MCAT requires you to apply critical thinking and scientific reasoning to solve complex problems and answer complicated questions. And while there are countless online and in-person resources for med school hopefuls — from discussion boards and forums to online tutors and intensive prep courses – the right help could be the difference between a 505 and a 515. If you’re ready to create the comprehensive study plan you need, keep reading for tips, recourses, and expert advice for acing the MCAT.

MCAT Snapshot

The 2020 MCAT underwent some modifications to better serve test-takers during the Coronavirus pandemic. It still requires you to answer the same number of scored questions, but now it’s structured to have a total “seated time” of 5 hours and 45 minutes, down from the original 7 hours and 30 minutes, until further notice. The Association of American Medical Colleges assures test-takers that the test is still scored the same way, covers the same topics, and presents questions at the same level of difficulty as before.

The MCAT tests your reasoning, critical analysis skills, and general knowledge of a broad range of topics in general chemistry, biochemistry, general biology, sociology, physics, psychology, and organic chemistry. Below is a breakdown of what you can expect in each one of the four main sections.

Number of Questions Testing Time Concepts Covered Scoring
Biology & Biochemistry 59 questions (There will be a combination of discrete questions and passage-based questions). 95 minutes For this section, you’ll need to have a breadth of knowledge in biochemical and biological concepts. The questions check your knowledge of scientific processes that are specific to living organisms, including reproduction, adaptation to environment, energy, and sensory systems. The section also tests basic skills in statistics concepts, research methods, and scientific inquiry and reasoning. Major areas include: Organic Chemistry, Basic Biology, Inorganic Chemistry, and Biochemistry. Multiple Choice
Physics & Chemistry 59 questions (There will be a combination of discrete questions and passage-based questions). 95 minutes This section asks you to solve scientific problems by applying physical and chemical foundational knowledge. You’ll need to show how research methods, statistics skills, and scientific reasoning work with problems in the natural sciences. Much of the information comes from first-year biochemistry classes. Multiple Choice
Behavioral Sciences 59 questions (There will be a combination of discrete questions and passage-based questions). 95 minutes This section focuses on the biological, social, and psychological aspects of human behavior. Much of the content comes from topics commonly covered in first-semester sociology and psychology courses. You’ll need to apply your scientific reasoning, knowledge of statistics, and research methods to broad categories in the behavioral and social sciences. Multiple Choice
Scientific Inquiry, Reasoning, & Problem Solving (aka Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills) 53 questions (All questions go with a passage). 90 minutes In this section, you’ll need to show your level of knowledge in 10 foundational concept areas. It is similar to other verbal reasoning tests you’ve taken in the past, with 500-600-word passages you’ll read with questions following that test your comprehension of the material. The questions here involve reading passages that cover social science disciplines and a selection of the humanities. Multiple Choice
Source: AAMC

Insider Tip 1

It’s Who You Know

Remember the old adage, “it’s not what you know, but who you know”? Well, when it comes to the MCAT, it’s both. It’s important to leverage the knowledge and experience of current and former med school students that you know (or can meet). Those who have taken the MCAT can offer you the insider’s advice that can be hard to get elsewhere. Since everyone’s experience is unique, you’ll probably get more useful information the more people you talk to.

According to Colin Ma, an MCAT taker and med school applicant:

quote

There’s a lot of great information online, but I got a lot of value from reaching out to my old contacts and friends who took the MCAT or were current medical students. All of them had a nugget of wisdom or two that I found really helpful—whether it was around my test-taking strategy or approach to certain styles of questions.

MCAT Prep Timeline

Based on what you find in guidebooks, reliable sources online, and the contacts you’ve been able to reach, you’re in a good position to formulate an MCAT study timeline. You’ve probably noticed by now that there are different schools of thought regarding how long you should study. In most cases, somewhere around 3-6 months is an appropriate amount of time for the majority of students.

It’s best to think about your prep time in terms of hours, and no less than 300-400 hours is recommended for test-takers to feel confident taking the exam. After you take a quick look at the major topics on the test and determine how familiar you are with them, you’ll know if you’re closer to needing a six-month plan or a three-month plan. Whatever the case, experts suggest that the best way to prepare is to have an individualized plan according to your needs. Let’s take a closer look at some of the individual steps of an organized timeline.

3-4 Months to Test Day

Let’s assume that you’ve got a decent handle on the general concepts included on the MCAT, so you’re planning on a 3-4-month study plan. Here’s what the first 1-2 months of prep work should look like.

Talk to Past Test Takers

We think it’s important to heed Colin’s advice: pool those resources and talk to people who have studied for and taken the MCAT to get their understanding of it. Collect as much information as you can. Have questions prepared for them in advance. You’ll get some good tips on preparing and actually sitting for the exam, but most importantly you’ll get a better idea of how you should spend your hours leading up to test day.

This information provides a good foundation for your study plan as you move forward. If you have trouble locating people in your social and professional orbit who are willing to talk in detail about their MCAT experiences, Colin suggests that test preppers check out the reddit forum reddit.com/r/mcat/. He argues that, “[Reddit] has similar benefits to talking to people, but what’s nice here is that there is a huge archive of questions and answers. This helped me with my approach and mindset, as opposed to actually understanding the material—though there are some threads about material as well.”

Review What’s on the Test

Take a Baseline Practice Test

Create Your Study Plan

Research and Decide What Study Aids You’ll Use

Get Organized

Start Studying

2-3 Months to Test Day

Now that you’ve spent the first part of your study time getting familiar with the test and reviewing concepts, you can slowly transition to spending more time on test-taking strategies and taking actual practice exams.

Keep Studying

Just because you’re spending a little more time working on practice exams doesn’t mean you can totally drop your study and review routines. You don’t want your brain to shift completely into test-taking strategy mode before you’ve covered all the content first. On the contrary, now is a good time to refer back to your record-keeping sheet to see which topics you need to revisit. It’s okay to schedule review time that isn’t accounted for down to the minute with review topics, but you do need to give yourself enough time to revisit those things that you felt less comfortable with before.

More Practice

Diversify Your Study Methods and Review Test Answers

Review Strategies

1-2 Months to Test Day

Okay, we’re getting down to the wire here. What are some things to keep in mind while you’re still several weeks away from test day? Consider the following tips and potential adjustments to your study plan.

What to Practice

Remember that if you don’t possess the foundational knowledge of a few critical areas, you won’t be able to reason through test questions properly. With 1-2 months until test day, this is the time to refer back to your record-keeping sheet to ensure that you have, in fact, reviewed all of the problem areas you’ve encountered while taking practice tests or studying. Also, what about the test-taking process feels uneasy? Time management and pacing? Reading comprehension? Stamina? These are also things to practice with 1-2 months to go.

Keep it Fresh

Increase Time Studying (with Caution)

Less Than 1 Month to Test Day

With less than a month to go, you’ve probably covered the majority of things on your record-keeping sheet and are reviewing material to keep it fresh in your mind. That’s a good way to spend your time but, in addition to that, you need to focus on building your test-taking conscience and knock out some more practice exams.

3-4 Weeks

During this time, plan to continue to take practice exams. There are four official AAMC practice tests available, three of which are scored. The fourth exam includes explanations for all of the correct answers in every section. Take one exam every week leading up to the test day. We recommended this strategy because these are as close to the real thing as you can get. So, during week four, take the first AAMC exam. This may also be a good time to locate an MCAT study group if you’re interested in talking through content with experienced test preppers at your level. You’ll need to make sure, however, that you’re not getting involved with a study group where you’re doing the heavy lifting for someone else. You don’t have the time or energy to be someone’s teacher at this stage in the game.

2-3 Weeks

1-2 Weeks

1 Week and Less

Insider Tip 2

Trust Your Auto-Pilot

Just like riding a bike, writing your signature, or brushing your teeth, you want the act of test-taking and harnessing your mind into a singular focused effort to be second nature. That may seem like a lot to ask, but studying, repetition, and taking practice tests can pay off. In fact, its benefits are wildly accumulative and it’s almost impossible to know how much you can personally benefit until you reach the end of your study plan. Take some advice from Colin on this one:

quote

I was very nervous about the test and thought I would struggle with it since I get some test anxiety. However, because I had taken over 30 practice tests, once it started my mind just dialed in on the task at hand and I was able to complete it with no issues and nervousness. I was genuinely surprised by how I was able to go through the test without much apprehension. It goes to show practice really goes a long way.

Insider Tip 3

Know When to Void

Yes, you should use the bathroom prior to the test, but in this case, we’re talking about the most important part of the MCAT: your score.

After you’ve finished all the sections of the MCAT, you will then be able to decide if you want to submit the exam for evaluation or you can choose to void it. You cannot leave in the middle of the test or it will be scored as it stands. Therefore, you need to complete all sections before you can make the decision whether to void it or not. In this section, we take a closer look at when and how it can be helpful to void your test and if voiding it might hurt you.

  • After the 2020 MCAT exam, you’ll be given a two-minute window to decide whether or not you want to void your test.
  • Medical schools will not receive a record that you voided your exam provided you finished the entire MCAT and did not walk out in the middle of it. Walk-outs’ exams are scored.
  • Do not void a score because of general anxiety about not doing your best. If you know that you were ill prepared for the exam, and guessed several times and left a few things blank, voiding the score might be a good choice.
  • The downside to voiding the exam is that it counts as an attempt. You can take the exam three times in a calendar year, four times in the span of two years, and up to seven times total in your lifetime.
  • Colin Ma weighs in on voiding scores: “If you’re taking the MCAT, be cautious about voiding it as it doesn’t always look good. Nobody feels good walking out of the MCAT and it’s more than okay to leave a few questions unanswered. However, if the amount of questions you didn’t answer is in the double digits, then it’s a good time to consider voiding your score. Keep in mind voiding it needs to be done while you are taking the test. You have five minutes [two minutes on the 2020 MCAT] to answer the question so it’s not a lot of time, but at least the MCAT gives you some dedicated time to think it through.”

Insider Tip 4

Simulate Real Conditions

You’ve studied a bunch, gotten some advice from other test takers, you’ve even taken several practice tests, but are you really ready for the game-time scenario of test day? The best way to prepare for the actual test is to simulate it as closely as you possibly can. In addition to things we’ve mentioned earlier in the guide, consider some of these additional steps to simulate the real thing.

  • Hire a proctor: Even if it’s a friend, consider hiring a proctor. They should hold you accountable for following the rules of taking the MCAT, keep track of the time, and offer you the optional breaks that are traditionally a part of the test-taking process.
  • If no proctor, use an alarm: If you can’t locate someone to serve as a proctor for a practice exam or two, the next best thing is a timer. You can even find one that’s broken down into the appropriate 2020 MCAT sections here on YouTube.
  • Sit at a desk: This one might seem obvious, but don’t sit on your couch or recliner. There won’t be any seating options in the test-taking room other than a standard desk or table and student chair. Sure, this isn’t the height of luxury but if you’re going to be a little uncomfortable during the exam you should practice taking it that way.
  • Zero distractions…period: Testing sites work extremely hard to ensure that you have as distraction-free of an environment as possible to take the MCAT. Aside from predictable noises from other test-takers and the A/C or heating system, it’s going to be pretty quiet in there. Try to get used to that during your practice by avoiding distractions of all types.

Insider Tip 5

Enroll in a Prep Class

Another great way to prepare is to enroll in an MCAT prep class. All of the major companies that offer these services today feature convenient online self-study modules. Some of the most expensive options feature live online classes in addition to self-study. These prep classes also give you access to additional full-length practice exams, video lectures, practice questions, and pre-made additional study materials like flashcards, mobile app quizzes, and more. Here are a few of the most popular prep classes for the MCAT.

  • Kaplan: Kaplan features three preparation tracks depending on how much time you have to prepare. You’ll also choose from DIY courses, live online classes, DIY courses with a tutor, among other options.
  • Princeton Review: Princeton Review provides five enrollment options, including online and in-person offerings. You can also pick and choose which sections of the test you need help with and take Princeton Review’s modules designed for those sections only.
  • Blueprint: Depending on your needs, Blueprint offers 15 full-length practice exams, 160 hours of video lectures, 4,000 extra practice questions, and access to an MCAT tutor for no extra charge.
  • MCAT Self Prep: This company features some of the more affordable options out there but offers quite a few less practice options. This program is good for students who want access to videos and a customizable study plan. There are also some helpful free options through them as well.
  • Magoosh: Magoosh offers three full-length practice exams, over 700 extra practice questions, online self-paced class, and instructional videos. You also get access to tutors via email 24/7.

Resources

AAMC Fee Assistance Program: This resource is for students who, without financial aid, would not be able to sit for the MCAT or apply to medical schools. Assistance includes discounted fees, free prep materials, and application waivers for up to 20 medical schools that use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS).

Khan Academy MCAT Collection: This free resource provides extensive explanations of the content included in each MCAT test section and helpful instructional videos that walk you through each component.

Magoosh Practice Test Guide: In addition to providing more information on the services offered through Magoosh’s programs, this site serves as an excellent guide on what to look for in a practice test and how to get the most out of those experiences.

MCAT Mastery App: This innovative app gives you the chance to explore various study materials and methods, including practice questions, vocabulary lists, quizzes, and mnemonic devices to improve your information retention.

MCAT Self Prep YouTube Channel: Provided by the MCAT Self Prep company, this YouTube channel gives you quick and free access to valuable test-taking strategies, studying advice, and video explanations of questions commonly found on the MCAT.

MedSchoolCoach: This YouTube channel features dozens of videos dedicated to helping you develop knowledge in key areas for the MCAT, study strategies, and test-taking methods.

Ready4 App: This MCAT prep app, available for Android devices, offers study tips and trial questions that come from the Princeton Review company.

Union Test Prep: This site features quick access to downloadable study guides for each section of the MCAT. The site also includes links to flashcards, tutors, and practice tests.

UWorld Cat App: Here you can access AAMC-style questions with any device. The free version offers up to 100 trial questions, while the subscription allows you to engage with more than 1,900 questions with interactive video explanations.

Varsity Tutors Flashcards and Mobile App: Varsity Tutors provides excellent studying resources for those of you on-the-go. Download the app to gain access to digital flashcards that you can access with just about any device.