MCAT Study Tips from an MD/PhD Student

MCAT Study Tips from an MD/PhD Student

If you’re interested in applying to medical school or MD/PhD programs, you will probably need to take the MCAT one day. Lucky for you, I’ve compiled all of my study strategies and resources right here, to help you develop your own MCAT study guide!

Disclosure: Some of the links included in this post are affiliate links, meaning that at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

What even is the MCAT?

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is required for application to most medical schools in Canada. It is a 7.5 hour exam consisting of 230 questions divided over 4 sections:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (C/P) – 59 questions
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) – 53 questions
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (B/B) – 59 questions
  • Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior (P/S) – 59 questions

All questions on the MCAT are multiple-choice. Most are passage-based questions (PBQ), which involve reading a short passage and answering 4-5 questions related to it. There are also some stand-alone questions scattered throughout each section.

Me, studying for the MCAT 4 years ago! You can even see my May study schedule in the background.

The MCAT total score, which ranges from 472 to 528 with a median of 500, is a sum of the scaled scores for each section. These scaled scores range from 118 to 132, with a median of 125. Often, you will see people report their scores in the following format: 500 (125/125/125/125). The numbers in parentheses represent the section scores for C/P, CARS, B/B, and P/S, respectively. The MCAT also provides percentile scores, which tell you the percentage of other test-writers who scored equal to or less than your score (i.e., a 99th percentile score means that you performed equal to or better than 99% of the other test writers).

The MCAT is written between January – September each year, on specific dates. You MUST book your MCAT test date well in advance, as spots at the testing center near you might get booked up. Each test date has a corresponding score release date, which usually around 1 month after you’ve written the exam. Make sure that your score release date is early enough for your application deadline!

For transparency’s sake, I wrote the MCAT on May 18, 2017 and received a score of 514 (127/128/128/131).

Before you even start studying for the MCAT – get a baseline score!

Many people are hesitant to take a practice test without doing any studying first. But, I think it’s helpful to know what you’re up against. Having a baseline score also helps you track your progress, which we will talk about later in this post.

Free, online practice tests are the best way to get a baseline score. Make sure you don’t use any of the AAMC official practice tests as a baseline, as you will want to save these practice tests until closer to your exam date. The AAMC tests are the closest thing to the actual MCAT, so you can use those to predict your actual score once you’ve done all of your studying. Here is a list of free, online MCAT practice exams:

For my baseline test, I did the Kaplan Full Length #1 test, and got a 496 (123/125/124/124). To be honest, this baseline test was pretty soul-crushing and I felt like I was in over my head. But, it gave me realistic expectations for future practice tests, and made me determined to improve.

Do 1 full-length MCAT practice test per week

In my opinion, the absolute best way to study for the MCAT is to take as many practice tests as possible (and thoroughly review them, of course, but we’ll get to that later). I honestly believe that MCAT prep courses are unnecessary for most people, and you can save a lot of money by doing practice tests and using free resources like Youtube, Khan Academy, or even Reddit to study the content that you got wrong on your practice test.

A screenshot from an MCAT practice exam, showing how similar it is to the actual MCAT.
An example of an online practice exam platform – it looks just like the real MCAT!

Practice exams are designed to simulate the real MCAT. The online test platforms (usually) look almost identical to the MCAT platform on test day, and use the same highlighter and strike-out controls. Doing practice tests allow you to get familiar with this testing environment, and also help you build endurance to tackle this long exam! When I studied for the MCAT, I tried to complete 1 full-length test on either a Saturday or Sunday. I would sit at a private booth in my university library, pop in my ear plugs, and work away. I would bring snacks and a lunch, and time my breaks to match what would happen on exam day. After my exam was written, I would then take weekday evenings to thoroughly review each question, identify knowledge gaps, and study the topics I was struggling with. My strategy for answering MCAT questions really improved as I completed more practice tests as well.

Unlike the actual MCAT, practice exams allow you to review your answers after you’ve completed the exam. This allows you to see and understand the correct answer, as most exams also include detailed answer explanations to help you learn. Some exams even show you how well you did compared to others who took that test!

As mentioned in the previous section, there are lots of free practice exams online. In addition to these, there are many companies that sell practice exams either individually or in bundles. At the very least, I recommend doing all of the free practice exams and purchasing all 4 of the AAMC practice exams. These are $35 USD each, or you can purchase the AAMC exam prep bundle for $268 USD, which includes all 4 practice exams and other study resources (e.g., section bank, question packs, flashcards). Keep in mind that the AAMC resources and most of the test prep companies limit your access to paid products after a certain period of time. So don’t go purchasing test prep if you aren’t ready to use it within the next few months!

Review your MCAT practice tests, properly!

If you just take practice tests over and over, you cannot expect to improve. The key to this strategy is to do a thorough review of every single practice test. I definitely noticed that on weeks when I was feeling burnt out and didn’t review my test well enough, that my score on the next practice test pretty much stayed the exact same.

A matrix for categorizing MCAT practice exam questions into the following: Knew It, Lucky Guess, Should have known, and needs review.
When I reviewed my exams, I would actually tally the number of questions that I thought fell into these 4 categories. Any topics that came up in questions that fell into the “Lucky Guess” or “Needs Review” categories would go on my list of things to study.

How do you do a thorough review, you ask? I would go through my practice exams section by section, and evaluate why each question was correct or incorrect. It seems counter-intuitive, but make sure you review the answers that you got correct! Did you get the question right because you knew the answer and absolutely slayed the question? Hell yes! Or did you get the question right because you had absolutely no clue what the answer was and you gave it your best guess? In that case, it might be a good opportunity to mark the question’s topic down for review. Of course, evaluate the questions you got incorrect as well. Sometimes we make silly mistakes – you might know the topic well but misread the question and would have gotten it right otherwise. Of course, the questions that you totally guessed at and got incorrect need to go on the review list as well.

While going through each and every question and asking yourself these questions, make sure you keep a list of which topics you struggled with and need to review. For example, early on in my practice tests I realized I was getting a lot of questions wrong that asked about amino acids (e.g., what would happen to this protein if X amino acid was substituted for Y amino acid?). That week, I studied the amino acids like crazy, learning their short form names, memorizing their structures, and understanding key things about each one (e.g., pH). The next practice test I did, I felt SO much more confident on and my score really improved!

Track your MCAT score progress visually with graphs

Nothing is more rewarding and motivating than watching your hard work pay off as your scores improve over time. I actually found myself getting excited to take full length practice tests so that I could add to my score tracker to see if I had any improvements!

A graph showing improvement in MCAT practice exam scores over time.
Here are my progress graphs from when I wrote the MCAT in 2017.

Tracking your overall score is important, but it is vital that you track your section scores individually too. This allows you to see which areas you need to put more work into. For example, I could see that my C/P scores were consistently low, while my other scores made slow improvements. Around the end of April (scarily close to my exam date now that I look back on it), I started studying C/P topics like crazy and learning tricks to help myself in that section, like how to do math quickly without a calculator.

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t get discouraged if your scores dip down a bit. You can see on my graph I have a few instances where my scores dropped pretty dramatically before slowly climbing again. This could be due to external factors (e.g., stress, university courses getting busy) or simply due to the fact that you will be doing practice tests from different test prep companies who score the exam differently. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how AAMC calculates the MCAT score. Test prep companies do their best to approximate, but a 510 on a Kaplan test might be more equivalent to a 514 on a Blueprint test, for example. Keep this in mind when you are tracking your progress!

I used Excel for my score tracker. You can find my free score tracker template here!

Which MCAT practice exams and books did I purchase?

Personally, I purchased the Next Step (now called Blueprint) 6-exam bundle for $149 USD. I also had access to 3 full-length practice exams from Kaplan that were included in the purchase of their MCAT study book set. You can purchase this 3-exam bundle on their website, but I believe it is around the same price as the book set that includes the exams anyways, so you might as well get an entire set of books as well!. I also highly recommend the Kaplan 528 Advanced Prep book, which goes into detail about how the MCAT asks questions and strategies to answer them well, and the Kaplan Flashcards, which are great to quickly test your knowledge.

Although I did not use them, The Princeton Review offers very similar test prep resources to Kaplan – their book set comes with 3 full-length practice exams, and the MCAT Workout book has information about the MCAT in general and lots of strategy tips.

I purchased one full-length practice exam from the company Exam Krackers, since I’d heard good things about these tests on the MCAT subreddit. However, from what I remember, I didn’t like their online platform as it was really different from the other companies (which try to simulate the actual MCAT software as much as possible). I’m not sure if this has changed since then!

I also purchased the 2 AAMC full length practice tests that were available in 2017 and completed those on May 8th (514: 126/132/129/127) and May 15th (516: 127/129/130/130), close to my actual MCAT exam. These practice exams were highly predictive of my actual score.

In total, I completed 13 practice tests before my actual exam.

Other helpful resources

The Leah4Sci MCAT blog was immensely helpful for chemistry and physics review (areas I was seriously lacking in). Leah’s website is perhaps the most helpful resource for learning tricks to do math without a calculator on the MCAT. I definitely would have been lost without this!

I’ve heard good things about the Jack Westin free daily MCAT questions, although I personally did not use this resource when studying.

The MCAT subreddit is an great community and I spent a lot of time here when I was studying for the MCAT. On this subreddit you can find posts about helpful mnemonics, explanations for particular questions on practice exams, and reaction threads for exam and score release days. I found this a great learning resource, and it also gave me a sense of community where I could connect with others who were going through the same thing as me.

My good friend Chris (now finishing his 3rd year of med school) has a wonderful website, aptly named the Ultimate Premed Package, with all of his MCAT study notes and advice for medical school applications in general. He also has a great podcast called Pluripotent Premed that has tons of information for pre-med students in Canada, including interviews with medical students at different schools!

Are you currently studying for the MCAT? Got any suggestions for future posts? Let me know in the comments or contact me! I’m always happy to hear from you. ?

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