Performing your best on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

Most medical school admission processes require completion of a standardized exam to facilitate candidate selection. In the United Kingdom, there is the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT). Similar exams in Australia include the Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test (UMAT) and the Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT). The North American version is the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). We will focus on the MCAT, but similar information and resources may be available for other medical admission tests.

Do you want to do well on the MCAT? Well, you are in good company. Together with your GPA, your MCAT score is the primary determinant of your academic competitiveness to most medical schools. In 2015, the MCAT underwent a significant change. The new MCAT now includes content from the fields of psychology, sociology, and biochemistry. These changes can be a source of additional anxiety for those aspiring to become medical students. Do not fear! Fundamentally, the MCAT has not changed; at its core, it is still the same long multiple-choice test it has always been.

Since tutoring for the MCAT in 2010, I have seen many students achieve success and have deduced the habits that work. My goal here is to inform you of the strategies that are conducive to success and make you aware of resources that are available.

Start by reading the MCAT Essentials document 4 and the outline of the entire exam 5. These two documents are produced by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) and will give you a good understanding of every topic and competency you will be responsible for on the MCAT. Use the second reference to guide your studying.

The MCAT is like a two-headed beast. First, there is a massive amount of content. Second, it requires precise reading and problem-solving skills that only come by actually practicing MCAT style questions. I have had many students who focused all of their time on content review and did not practice any problems. Do not make this mistake. Practicing questions is just as important as studying. The Critical Analysis and Reading Skills section (CARS, previously called “Verbal Reasoning”) is an excellent example of the “problem solving” nature of the MCAT. It requires zero “content” knowledge. The only way to get better at CARS is to practice CARS passages. Similarly, the ability to solve other MCAT questions relies on practice.

At the very least, you should consider reviewing: (1) the official MCAT guide, (2) any AAMC full-length tests that have been released, (3) all the question packages that the AAMC has produced, and (4) possibly additional full-length tests from a test preparation company. The Khan Academy is an excellent free resource with video lectures on all the content material of the MCAT, along with sample passages and questions with solutions. The Khan Academy has now officially collaborated with AAMC to develop new MCAT material. As such, the Khan Academy has around 100 passages for each of the three science sections on the exam, and additional passages for CARS. You may also consider obtaining content review books from a test preparation company. If you do purchase review content material, check with the AAMC outline to make sure that you have studied everything that may be on the MCAT.

Once you have collected all your study supplies, you must make a schedule. It will help you develop a pace at which you can get the most out of your prep material. Some suggestions for your study plan are to:

  1. Put your test date on the calendar and mark the day before as a rest day.
  2. Set one or two rest days each week.
  3. Every week, assign one full-length test (e.g. the AAMC full lengths, or others produced by prep companies). The next day will be dedicated to reviewing the full-length test just written.
  4. Dedicate the remaining study time to studying chapters from your content review books and your question books (e.g. the AAMC question pack). This will form the bulk of your schedule.
  5. Your schedule will vary depending on the material you have, preparation time, and your study style. I have outlined the basic framework. Do not worry if you are not able to complete the goals that you have set for yourself initially. Rather, you can and should revise your schedule based on your performance on practice tests. I made an example of a table that I produced with one of my students. 6

Key things to remember:

  • The MCAT is an essential prerequisite to medical school admission in North America. It is also accepted by other medical schools (such as Australia and the Caribbean) for North American applicants.
  • Thoroughly read the information about the MCAT that the AAMC provides (the MCAT Essentials document and the official guide).
  • The MCAT tests both your knowledge and your problem-solving. You should do enough practice problems and simulated full-length exams.
  • Develop a study schedule and map out your exam date, simulated full-length exams, daily question sets, lectures to watch/read, and rest days. This will ensure that you are well prepared before your test date.

4 Association of American Medical Colleges. MCAT Essentials.
5 Association of American Medical Colleges. MCAT Content.
6 Sample study schedule. Click Here

This blog was adapted from Your guide to get into Medical School

Check out more free resources on acing the MCAT:
Top 5 Tips for Navigating the MCAT
Top 5 Tips for Studying for the MCAT