How the MCAT Works

Preparing for the MCAT

Tip number one: Start early. Give yourself as much time as reasonably possible to prepare for the exam. The first step is to familiarize yourself with each section of the test using information on the AAMC website and in the free bulletin, 2010 MCAT Essentials.

The next step is to take a free practice test. The AAMC offers a free online version of the full MCAT exam through its online store: The Princeton Review Web site also provides a free online practice test. By taking a practice test, you can familiarize yourself with the computer-based testing format and get an idea of your strengths and weaknesses.

Now it's time to hit the books. The AAMC publishes detailed content outlines for each section of the test. The Physical Sciences guide, for example, is ten pages long, listing every scientific principle and topic within general chemistry and physics that may be covered in the MCAT. There are similar content outlines for Biological Sciences and Verbal Reasoning. For the writing section, the AAMC provides a list of over hundred sample essay prompts from past exams.

All of the science content on the MCAT should be material that you studied in one or more of your undergraduate courses. To study, you can either use your old textbooks and notes or you can purchase an MCAT study guide. The AAMC sells the Official Guide to the MCAT Exam, or you can choose from dozens of other titles from test prep companies like The Princeton Review and Kaplan.

Don't overlook the Verbal Reasoning section and the Writing Sample. A lot of people think these sections are the easiest, but they can cause problems if you're not prepared.

The AAMC recommends that you study with a partner. You can help motivate each other to stick to regularly scheduled study sessions and you can compensate for each other's weaknesses. As you prepare, continue to take practice tests to gauge your improvement. The AAMC sells online practice exams for $35 a piece or you can buy books of practice questions and practice tests.

If you feel like self-study isn't enough, you can sign up with a test prep service. They offer individual and small-group tutoring, classroom instruction and even live online tutoring. Classes and tutoring sessions cover the core scientific content areas, critical thinking skills, strategies for extracting information from passages of text, techniques for increasing speed and endurance and computer-based practice testing to familiarize yourself with the format [source: Kaplan].

These courses aren't cheap. Classes can cost more than $1,800 and private tutoring can be as much as $6,000. But many of them come with a money-back guarantee if your score doesn't improve or if you're simply not satisfied with your performance on the real exam.

After all the studying is done, there is one last bit of preparation to do: getting ready for test day itself. Read all about it on the next page.