The MCAT will be the single most important test that you will take up to this point of your career. Students are partially ranked by the medical school admissions committees on the basis of their MCAT exam scores. From the admissions committees’ point of view, the MCAT is the only way to objectively compare you to applicants from other undergraduate schools.
It deserves to be treated with at least the same amount of preparation that you would use to prepare for any other test. Far too many students don’t bother to prepare for this important exam and they cite various reasons such as lack of time and the perceived impossibility of reviewing 4 one-year science courses: biology, physics, chemistry, and organic chemistry. (Introductory calculus is not tested on the MCAT, although some med schools prefer their applicants to have a firm grasp of calculus. Joint MD/PhD applicants in particular should certainly have a thorough understanding of calculus.)
WHEN TO TAKE THE MCAT EXAM
We advise our clients to take the MCAT in the spring of their junior year of college – and lighten up on their course load in that semester if at all possible. The sophomore year summer and winter holiday break also provide some additional time for preparation. Try at all costs to do well on the test the first time you take it. It is much better to answer “one” for the question “Number of MCATs taken” on the AMCAS form. The admissions committees will notice that the first time you took the exam you did horribly and then you did average or better than average the second time.
SELF STUDY VERSUS A REVIEW COURSE
The choice between taking a review course or self studying should be made based on your self discipline. In other words, if you can stick to a schedule on your own and you have good materials to help you stay organized and focused and you fully understand the answer explanations to the practice questions, you may fare as well as if you took a review course. Granted, that is a long list of “ifs,” but the downsides to a traditional review course are that (1) the pre-specified times and locations will decrease your flexibility and (2) you may want to allot more or less time to a particular part of the test than the course dictates. It’s worth noting that the advent of online MCAT courses has made a review course much more flexible in terms of both time and location.
MCAT PREPARATION ADVICE
There are many tips and strategies that you can, and should, employ for this test. The best way to do this is with a book of previously-asked MCAT questions and an “unofficial” guide that prepares you for the different test sections. Practice taking this test under the actual test conditions. Simulation is a very powerful technique.
Most test takers report that their biggest difficulty is answering questions within the time limits. Recall that medical school is primarily challenging due to the voluminous information you must absorb each year. Additionally, if you are working in an emergency room, you must think very quickly to diagnose a problem and determine the proper course of action. As a result, it should not surprise you that the MCAT is designed to reward those students who can complete the problems accurately and rapidly.
We also have some MCAT book reviews you may want to peruse.