The MCAT is undeniably one of the biggest barriers that pre-meds must conquer and destroy before they can apply for medical schools. MCAT, which stands for Medical College Admissions Test, is a multiple-choice examination that consists of three sections: Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences. There is also an optional trial section at the very end that’s essentially a “sneak preview” of the content that will be added to the test spring of 2015, including psychology, sociology, and biochemistry. There’ll be another blurb coming up going in more detail about the new MCAT vs. the current one. Finally, according to the AAMC website, virtually all American medical schools require the MCAT, and many schools do not accept scores that are over 3 years old.
The current MCAT is about 3 and a half hours long and is administered multiple times throughout the year. The exact dates and months that is it offered vary every year, however, so it is important to keep yourself updated on the MCAT Registration Dates page on the AAMC website:
The three sections are broken down as follows: 70 minutes for Physical Sciences, 60 minutes for Verbal Reasoning, and 70 minutes for Biological Reasoning. There is an optional 10 minute break between each section, which I highly recommend you utilize during your test to calm nerves, grab a snack, or take a water break. Unfortunately, MCAT regulations on test day are pretty strict, so be prepared to spend some of the 10 minutes going through metal detectors! Finally, the optional trial section will be administered in 45 minutes; again, this section will not count towards the examinee’s score.
Okay, so now that you’ve had a general overview of what the MCAT is and its format, how do you go about preparing for it? The following are some questions I frequently hear from pre-meds; do take my answers with a grain of salt because some of them are from my own experience and what worked for me might not necessarily work for everybody.
1. Are MCAT classes the way to go?
I personally did not take an MCAT course and ended up with a decent score. That being said, there are definitely many things an MCAT course can offer, including extra practice problems, teachers, and a motivating environment in which you’re surrounded by other people in the same boat. In my opinion, the biggest con of MCAT courses, besides their expensive fees, is that people might rely too much on the sense of security they might have by taking a course. It is important to remember that simply taking a course and attending it doesn’t translate into a good score. You still have to study rigorously outside of the course to reinforce the material in order to do well! In addition, MCAT courses are another block of time you must commit. If you have many other extracurriculars going on already, this must be taken into account.
In conclusion, you know yourself best. If you can afford it and have time for it, and think that a course will motivate you to study harder and allow you to successfully follow a studying schedule, go for it! On the other hand, if you usually do pretty well studying on your own, a good score is by all means possible despite not taking an MCAT course.
2. How much time should I devote to studying for the MCAT?
This really again depends on your study habits, how many extracurriculars you will be doing in addition to studying, as well as how well you have mastered the relevant material in your university courses. Generally, I’d say allott at least 3 months to studying (better safe than sorry), and add onto that if you have other commitments. For example, if you plan to study during the school year, you’ll definitely want to add a month or two versus if you’re studying for it during the summer with little other commitments. Or, if you feel unconfident about certain subjects, such as organic chemistry, you might want to add a little bit more time as well to really master the information before you embark on your MCAT experience.
I studied for my MCAT over the summer while doing research for ~7-9 hours a week, and while I found it rigorous, it was not impossible. I worked 2-3 times a week for 3 hours each time, and studied about 3-4 hours every day for the MCAT. I definitely recommend making a study schedule as soon as you seriously want to begin preparing, since this will give you a good idea of how much material you’ll need to study and thus how much is a good amount for each day. Again, work with your own schedule!
3. What’s the best study books to use?
I don’t have much experience outside the preparatory books I’ve used, but I recommend The Berkeley Review for physical sciences and organic chemistry, and ExamKrackers for verbal reasoning and biology. One thing I did notice on my MCAT was that there was a lot more experimental biology than I was expecting. I’ve heard that The Princeton Review has some good information on experimental biology so supplementing with that might be a good idea. I’ve also heard good things about ExamKracker’s 1001 Questions series, if you’re looking for additional practice.
4. I haven’t taken the courses for all the subjects tested on the MCAT. Am I going to be okay?
Yes, you’re going to be okay. Like I mentioned above, if you aren’t comfortable with certain subjects on the MCAT, just add the appropriate time to your studying schedule. Of course, be reasonable! Don’t attempt to take the MCAT if you haven’t taken any of your prereqs yet, or have only taken 1 or 2. This question usually applies for people who have only 1 class that they have yet to take.
I took the MCAT with a very poor understanding of electricity and magnetism (Physics 8B material) and found that using the MCAT books prepared me just fine!
5. What about classes that aren’t directly tested on the MCAT but might be helpful (biochemistry, upper division physiology, etc.)
Obviously more knowledge won’t hurt, but if you’re in a situation where you have to take your MCAT before you are able to take those classes, then I would say just go for it.
6. Whats the hardest section? How do they compare to classes at Berkeley?
The questions you’ll be facing on the MCAT are, for the most part, a lot more conceptual than those on the midterms for courses at Cal. So in my opinion, it was easier (as long as you prepared well and understand said concepts).
The hardest section for me was actually Biological Sciences because it was very experimental and not what I was used to. In general, though, Verbal seems to be pretty difficult, since you have to digest the passages and answer many questions in a short amount of time. Physical sciences was not too bad for me (MUCH easier than Cal classes), but again, this depends on what you’re historically good at.
7. What will I be provided at the exam? What do I need to bring?
Bring a photo ID and snacks or drinks if you want, but you won’t be allowed to take those into the examination room, so they’ll be for the 10 minute breaks only.
A calculator is prohibited, as are cheat sheets and your own pencils (yes. You have to use their pencils, and you’ll have to memorize all the formulas for all the things). Since it’s generally conceptual, though, don’t freak out too much about not being able to memorize some of the more obscure, complicated formulas. Obviously, do know the important ones though!