10 Top Tips for Preparing for the MCAT

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You know you'd be a great doctor. You were confidently slapping bandages on your kid brother's boo-boos at age 10. As an undergraduate, you aced all the science courses. And you look smashing in scrubs and a stethoscope. But there's at least one more tiny detail in your path to a career in medicine: You have to get accepted to medical school.

You can greatly improve your odds for receiving that precious letter of acceptance with a strong performance on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). The MCAT has been around in various forms since the 1920s, and has evolved into a standardized examination with multiple choice questions and a writing section that measure your scientific knowledge, problem-solving abilities and writing skills [source: AAMC].


The test's sections focus on physical sciences, biological sciences and verbal reasoning. These sections are scored from 1 to 15, and a writing section is scored on a letter scale of J to T. The average score is 24 O, but you'll probably need at least a 30 and a P or Q to get into your school of choice [source: Miller and Bissell].

There's no getting around it: the MCAT is a high-stakes test that can shape the rest of your medical career. But it's not an impossible challenge. Starting on the next page, find tips that can help you go into your test day with increased confidence and odds of success.

10: Create a Plan of Attack

The MCAT is not the kind of exam you can ace with an all-night cram session. You'll need at least three months of preparation, and that time should be used wisely. Sit down as soon as you can and draw up a step-by-step study plan. Make a promise to yourself that you'll follow it meticulously. Figure out what you'll need to review, what materials you'll require, who will be in your study group, what kinds of practice tests you'll need to take and whether you'll need any remedial assistance, such as a speed-reading clinic offered by your college guidance program.

Also, get a daily calendar (or use the calendar function in your phone) and block out exactly when you're going to do your prep sessions. Set aside time for healthy meals and an exercise regimen, too.


"School is a full-time job," notes William J. Rapaport of the University of Buffalo. "And managing your time is important.... Your education should come first" [source: Rapaport]. Look at the MCAT in similar fashion: It's a test, it's a course, it's a full-time job.

9: Dig Out Old Textbooks and Class Notes

A young man stands holding a large stack of books.
All those books that you kept around just in case you'd need them again? Dust 'em off.
Gary Houlder/Lifesize/Thinkstock

Some MCAT candidates invest $1,000 to $2,000 on cram courses offered by private tutoring schools, but research suggests that those courses don't really have any significant effect on scores. The reason may be that the courses mostly concentrate on the methodology of test taking rather than on the subject material. And that critical subject material is all information you should have learned in a solid undergraduate pre-med program.

Instead of trying to cram your head full of unfamiliar knowledge at the last minute, systematically review the content of your undergraduate science and biology courses. Dr. Thomas L. Pearce, a University of Virginia medical school faculty member, advises medical school hopefuls to review "all their class notes (and) every page of their introductory texts in biology, inorganic and organic chemistry, and physics" [source: Brown].


Dig out your old math, physics, biology, general chemistry and organic chemistry textbooks and test yourself on some of the material. You'll quickly identify some of your strengths and weaknesses in the process. Plus, this initial review will help you focus your study efforts, making the most of your time.

8: Practice, Practice, Practice

All the information you learned in class and spent countless hours committing to memory during your college career is coming back to you now. The big challenge is something you don't have as much recent experience with: the exhausting, unnerving task of taking a seven-hour, high-stakes exam.

You're not a total test-taking newbie. The fact that you're even thinking about medical school means that you probably did well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). But Michael Phelps doesn't go the four years between Olympics without participating in a few swim meets. For $35 a pop, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) offers an assortment of online practice exams made up of actual questions from past MCATs, plus a free practice test that you can take an unlimited amount of times.


Robert Harrax Miller and Daniel M. Bissell, authors of "Med School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Medical School Experience," suggest that you plan to take several practice tests. At first, take one as a diagnostic tool. This initial test will help you determine which areas to focus on the most in your preparation. If you're a little rusty taking marathon tests, don't focus so much on the score this first time around. Instead, use it as a reminder that you need to put in some work to score well. Try to simulate the actual testing-day conditions as much as possible. For example, you're not allowed to use a calculator on the actual test, so don't use one in your practice exams [source: Miller and Bissell].

7: Post-Mortem Your Tests

Since you'll be studying a few post-mortem subjects in medical school anyway, you might as well get started by looking over your expired tests. Remember, tests don't stop with the grade. There's a lot to gain from examining your finished work. Go through every practice test, identifying the questions that you got wrong and analyzing why you didn't know the right answer. If you drew a blank, for example, on the more arcane details of the citric acid cycle in cells, that's a tipoff that you might have dozed off during that lecture in freshman biology and need to brush up on that subject [source: Miller and Bissell].

The Baylor College of Medicine's Web site offers this useful suggestion [source: Baylor College of Medicine]:


On the other hand, if you misinterpreted the question or were tripped up by its wording, that may be a sign that a certain question format is your Achilles' heel. The MCAT uses various question types. If you can identify the type that gives you trouble, then you can come up with tactics for handling those questions.

6: Get in Shape Physically

Diet & Exercise: Legs and Hips
Boost your mental and physical fitness by learning simple exercises that you can do at home (or in your dorm room) with little to no equipment.
Discovery Health

If you're really committed to doing well on the MCAT, you may cut out things like exercise, proper meals and full nights of sleep so that you can spend as much time as possible studying. But test-taking authorities warn that if you follow that approach, you're setting yourself up for failure on the big day.

For example, a 2007 study by researchers at St. Lawrence University found that college students who pulled at least one all-nighter each semester actually had lower GPAs than their classmates who spent those nights in bed. Furthermore, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that adults who spent five days straight getting by on just four hours of sleep each night had faster heart rates and less heart rate variability than normal sleepers on the following day, which indicates interference with the interactions between the heart and brain [source: Yahalom].


Don't give up exercise, either. If you don't have good physical stamina, your powers of concentration will diminish in the last few hours of the nearly day-long exam. To stave off a potentially disastrous brain crash, make sure you do some sort of aerobic exercise -- swimming, running, tennis or cycling, for example -- for 30 to 40 minutes, five times weekly [source: Baylor College of Medicine].

5: Get in Shape Mentally and Emotionally

A student hunched over her books and notes at night.
Pay attention to your brain's cues -- if sitting down and studying at night makes you tired even when you're getting enough sleep, try to shift your schedule so that you can study during the day.

You're not just taking a test; you're also testing yourself. After making sure all those facts find footholds in your brain, you'll need to ensure you're clear-headed to perform your best. Many students suffer from test anxiety, with symptoms ranging from headaches and sleeplessness to irritability and memory loss. Mental and emotional strain can present a very real threat to your MCAT success [source: Muskingum].

While researchers estimate that 20 to 30 percent of American students are affected by test anxiety, some students continue having these test-taking problems from elementary school through college [source: Strauss]. Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to address these feelings. Just as baseball players visualize hitting home runs, you can visualize performing your best on the exam. Be positive and reaffirm your lengthy test preparation to yourself [source: Muskingum].


Just closing your eyes and taking deep breaths can help, too. Michele Krouse, a guidance counselor at Galaxy Elementary School in Boynton Beach, Florida, teaches students meditation practices and yoga-style breathing [source: Strauss]. Of course, everybody's different. Find out what helps you relax best and develop a strategy to apply those tricks and techniques while you're studying and during the exam.

4: Find a Study Buddy -- or Several

A group of four students studying together in a library.
A study group of four to six people can net better test scores -- and emotional support -- for everyone involved.

Studying by yourself has its perks, but a study group can often produce better results than a solo effort. You can review more topics, share answers and compare notes. Plus, it can be fun. A group of like-minded, supportive students will explain concepts to each other and spend time figuring out why they reach different answers to the same question, all of which add depth to your study experience. It's possible that you might even spend more time studying than you otherwise would have because of a good group dynamic [source: CollegeBoard].

But remember that when it comes to study groups, the smaller the better. A Harvard study reported that smaller groups led to more engagement and individual participation. When the grades of students studying by themselves were compared with those in studying in groups of four to six, researchers determined that students who studied in such small groups did better than students studying alone [source: Fiske].


Don't forget why you're all assembled, though. Making sure your study group stays productive is easy: Establish a time limit to keep everybody on task [source: CollegeBoard]. Knowing there's only a certain amount of time to review the material will set a focused tone for your sessions.

3: Check Out Other Exams

Yes, you're taking the MCAT. Still, it won't hurt to look at some other exams for practice. You might be surprised at the similarities between the MCAT, the LSAT and the GRE. These graduate-level exams are all produced by the same company, so the verbal comprehension sections of any of these tests can be great review tools for the MCAT.

Sift through the shelves of your school's library for older versions of these exams. Familiarizing yourself with the language and style of the MCAT is what's important, so even dusty GRE and LSAT tests could be a big help.


On the morning of the exam, take a couple of verbal tests. Take your pick from your practice test pile. This will give your brain a mental warm-up, ensuring you're fully alert as you start the MCAT [source: Sassani].

2: Think Ahead For a Good Test Day

After logging long hours at study sessions and finishing countless practice tests, it's important to culminate your study efforts with a well-planned test day. Scrounging for your coat at the last minute or grabbing a candy bar for breakfast isn't going to help your chances on the test. After all your hard work, you deserve a better finish than what that kind of morning will provide.

When does the test start? Where is the test located? How do you get there? What materials should you bring? Make sure to consider these questions well before the test day. Whether it's driving to the test location or picking out your clothes, simplify every step of the process that could potentially cause a stressful distraction.


Also, your mother was right: Eating a good breakfast is a big deal. Be sure to eat a healthy, balanced breakfast with proteins and complex carbohydrates for long-lasting energy [source: ManhattanGMAT]. And bring a water bottle and a healthy snack as alternatives to candy or coffee in case you get hungry during the day. A classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, bag of trail mix or couple pieces of fruit will do the trick.

As far as attire goes, be comfortable. Old sweatpants, sweatshirts, flip-flops and slippers may not be appropriate for most outings, but if that's what's most comfortable to you, wear it on your test day. Remember that the testing center may be warmer or colder than you anticipate -- wear layers to keep yourself at a comfortable temperature.

1: Consult Your Colleagues

A doctor holds a patient's hand during surgery at the University of Miami Miller school of Medicine hospital-Haiti as they help the people injured during the massive earthquake on January 26, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Learning how to bond with others, especially during stressful situations, will help you throughout your career as a doctor.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Think about all the people you know who may know something about the MCAT. You've been studying practice tests with other students. Your professors sometimes teach to the test material. It's possible that your friend's uncle's cousin has taken the MCAT. Basically, you're surrounded by living, breathing sources of information as you prepare for the exam.

Whether they've taken the MCAT or a comparable standardized test, you can reach out for advice on what to expect. There's much to be gained from studying the materials, taking practice tests and reading through informative guides like this list. Still, the face-to-face exchange of ideas with an experienced professor, doctor, upperclassman or friend presents an excellent learning opportunity.

Many times, this mentoring can put your mind at ease. In a 2007 nursing program study, students reported that the bonds they created while confiding in their colleagues helped them relieve anxiety and address frustration [source: American Nurse Today]. Other students may also be struggling with an exhausting schedule, and sharing those gripes can bring about a strong, supportive bond of camaraderie. It can be helpful to know that other people may have taken different paths to success and experienced similar struggles. Preparing for the MCAT -- and taking it -- are solitary experiences, but you're not alone. Joining forces to prepare for the exam may be one of the most effective and healthy steps you can take to ensure success on the big test day.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • "About the MCAT." Association of American Medical Colleges. (March 5, 2010) http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/about/start.htm
  • Baylor College of Medicine. "Preparing for the Medical College Admissions Test." (Dec. 20, 2011) http://www.bcm.edu/studentdiversity/index.cfm?PMID=8962
  • Brown, Sanford J. "Getting Into Medical School: The Premedical Student's Handbook." Barron's Educational Series. 2006. (March 5, 2010) http://barronseduc.stores.yahoo.net/0764145975.html
  • "Creating a Study Plan." Association of American Medical Colleges. (March 5, 2010) http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/preparing/creatingstudyplan.htm
  • "MCAT Scoring." Princeton Review. (March 5, 2010) http://www.princetonreview.com/medical/mcat-scoring.aspx
  • McGaghie, William C. Ph.D. "Assessing Readiness for Medical Education: Evolution of the Medical College Admission Test." Journal of the American Medical Association. 2002. Vol. 288, Page 1085-1090. (March 5, 2010) http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/288/9/1085
  • Miller, Robert Harrax and Bissell, Daniel M. "Med School Confidential: A complete guide to the medical school experience." McMillan. 2006. (March 5, 2010) http://us.macmillan.com/medschoolconfidential/RobertMiller
  • "Preparing for the Medical College Admissions Test." Baylor College of Medicine. Sept. 14, 2009. (March 5, 2010) http://www.bcm.edu/studentdiversity/?PMID=8962
  • Yahalom, Tali. "College students' performance suffers from lack of sleep." USA Today. Sept. 17, 2007. (March 5, 2010) http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2007-09-16-sleep-deprivation_N.htm
  • Sassani, Alex. "Thirty MCAT Tips." California State University, Fullerton. 2009. (Dec. 12, 2011) http://www.fullerton.edu/health_professions/Application%20Process/MCAT_tips.htm
  • Belluck, Pam. "To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test." The New York Times. Jan. 20, 2011. (Dec. 13, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/21/science/21memory.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all
  • Rapaport, William. "How to Study: A Brief Guide." Nov. 22, 2011. (Dec. 14, 2011) http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/howtostudy.html
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  • Muskingum University. "Learning Strategies Database." (Dec. 12, 2011) http://www.muskingum.edu/~cal/database/general/testprepd.html
  • Southwestern Law School. "Bar Exam Preparation Essentials." 2011. (Dec. 14, 2011) http://www.swlaw.edu/studentservices/registrar/barrequirements/bar_exam_resources/barprepparation
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  • American Nurse Today. "Nursing student support group eases stress." May 2010. (Dec. 13, 2011) http://www.americannursetoday.com/article.aspx?id=6654&fid=6592