5 Reasons Why Studying for the MCAT on your own is Better than taking a Course

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Ever feel like Kaplan’s and Princeton Review’s MCAT courses are a rip-offs? Did you ever found your MCAT teachers/tutors/classroom experience not helpful at all or a waste of time? Every summer, thousands of keen pre-med students will sign up for these MCAT courses in hopes that it will help them do well on their MCAT. The worst part is that these people who sign up for courses often do no better than their peers.

Whether you’re taking the MCAT again or planning to write the MCAT for the first time, I hope I can convince you that studying the MCAT on your own, without the help of a review course or tutors, is a viable and excellent option. If you want to learn HOW to SELF STUDY for the MCAT, check out my post on the steps needed to do it here. (How to Self Study for the MCAT)

I personally believe that studying for the MCAT on your own will save you money, will be flexible to your schedule, will be tailored to your strengths and weaknesses and will get you results that you want.

1. Costs (It’s a lot cheaper!)

Let’s be realistic and forget all the premed delusions for a second, the MCAT is an expensive test to take. Registration costs $235 + additional fees. Some people say it’s a small price to pay for the chance to be a doctor, but I know of hundreds of things I could do with that money that would be much more fun and way less painful. Taking a look at Kaplan’s courses and The Princeton Review’s courses, prices range from $1500-1800 at Kaplan, $2000 at TPR and $7800 (wtf?) for Kaplan’s MCAT Summer Intensive.  Even Examkracker‘s course runs for $200!

That is a lot of f***ing money.

They might give you a lot of textbooks and electronic resources. They might have simulated exam situations and a teacher you can ask to answer your questions. But you don’t need that to do well on the MCAT. Q: How much money did I spend studying for the MCAT on my own? Other than the registration fee, A: ZERO DOLLARS ($0). Less than $50 bucks totals if you want to include notebooks, highlighters, transportation to the library. And I got by just fine, wrote it once in August 2007, got a 36Q and was accepted into medical school.

Now everybody doesn’t have to be as frugal as me. I used a lot of borrowing resources (old tests, prep company books) from friend’s who had taken the MCAT, checking out books from the library and free internet resources. Yes, you can spend money to study for the MCAT, go buy some workbooks or even an online course which though will run you several hundred dollars, will be a lot cheaper.

The point is: You will save lots of money studying for the MCAT by yourself. Use that saved money and take a vacation after you write that grueling test that ruined your whole summer. Lots of my medical student friends did it on their own, and look where they ended up! Not in purgatory hell as these test prep companies would want you to believe.

2. Convenient and Flexible Schedule

Did you ever want to skip your MCAT classes because your friends were holding a nice summer BBQ with lots of friends and good food, but couldn’t because you had this guilt that you paid so much money already that you might as well go to class? I never did.

The flexibility and convenience of studying for the MCAT by myself was that is it was on my schedule! This was my favorite aspect of it. I never had to commute to a center to be taught or go to a classroom to simulate a test situation. I could do it at home, or at the library, or wherever I liked, whenever I liked.

Granted, the schedule I devised for myself wasn’t a breeze. I gave up many weeknights and weekends studying, but I got to choose which ones I could take off also. Because I studied for the MCAT by myself, I was able to work that summer and even fit in several weeks of traveling.

I created a schedule at the beginning of the summer, but I was able to modify my schedule along the way. I would move days around, change topics to study and have breaks or extra study sessions as needed. If there were important events going on, I would make sure that my MCAT studying would fit around my life, not the other way around. In the end, I still covered everything that needed to by studied without having to sacrifice as much as if I did take a class.

3. Individualized and tailored curriculum

Just like wearing a fine suit (or dress?), having a MCAT study plan specific to your strengths and weaknesses made studying that much better. I didn’t have to alternate to some schedule set out by a company that only knew my credit card. I could tailor my studies to the areas I needed most.

For example, I had just finished my physics and chemistry courses in school, so I knew that I was a lot stronger in those sections. As a result, I focused most of my early studies in my weaker areas of biologic sciences and verbal reasoning. In fact, I spent over 80% of my time in those two sections because I knew from my diagnostic test that those were my lowest marks.

I did what worked for me. I studied the hard stuff or did practice exams in the evening when I was most alert. I checked my answers in the afternoons when my mind was more lazy and passive. You have to do what works for you, and you know yourself better than these test prep companies.

4. Control and Autonomy

I believe that external motivation factors (such as grades, deadlines set by others) are not as powerful as internal motivation factors (self-actualization, setting personal goals and achieving them).

From the start of my MCAT studying, I was in control. I took ownership over my studies. If I did bad, I had no one to blame but myself. If I did well, I wanted to know how I did it and how I could replicate it.

I had to analyze why I would get some questions correct and others wrong on my own. As a result, I figured out early in the game what pitfalls I had to avoid and which type of questions I could breeze through quickly. Once I had identified my problems and solved my common mistakes, my studying technique and scores improved quickly.

Test prep companies offer you an “analytical breakdown” of your scores and what subjects and type of questions you got wrong. But they often offer you generic advice that really doesn’t help you in the end. I know because I’m guilty of telling my students, when I worked for Kaplan, that they had to use the “methods” we taught them. I would say something like “you’re falling into the 3 most common mistakes with reading passages” and then spew some stuff I didn’t quite believe myself. You begin to care less when you have 30 students in your class all on different levels. Especially in verbal reasoning, which still doesn’t make any sense to me, I think you should just come up with your own strategy to tackle the passages and if it works, it works.

5. Results

But the real bottom line is results. I think you can get great results from creating a study plan for the MCAT by yourself. You get to choose resources that you find useful. You get to focus on what you need to do to improve, not a generic package that is given to hundreds of students.

However, if taking a prep course works for you, go for it.

It’s hard to know if one way is better than another. I don’t think there’s any randomized control study out there that would figure this out, I would hate to be in the treatment group. Everyone studies for the MCAT differently, so if you believe one way will give you an advantage by the time test day comes around, do it.

WARNING:

Studying for the MCAT by yourself isn’t for everyone. You need a certain degree of self control, motivation and work ethic to study for the MCAT on your own. The people who do are usually independent learners who can create their own schedules and find the right motivation to study without anyone pushing them. There’s nothing wrong with taking a MCAT course, and if you believe it will help you, go for it. I am in no way looking down on those who do, in fact at  Kaplan the party line (and I did believe it) was that we provided a useful service to those who wanted it.

This post was mainly on WHY you should study for the MCAT by yourself. For HOW to study for the MCAT on your own, please refer to my guide (How to Self Study for the MCAT)

Best of luck to people studying/writing the MCAT. Would love to hear your feedback in the comments below. Let me know about your experiences with prep companies, your own success stories of personal perseverance and ways to study the MCAT on your own! 

42 Responses to 5 Reasons Why Studying for the MCAT on your own is Better than taking a Course

  1. […] (See related: Why Studying for the MCAT on your Own is Better than taking a Course) […]

    • Teresa Rusin says:

      How do you feel about the use of games in studying? Ex. Picmonic, Firecracker, Scrub Wars

      Do you think that using interactive gamified study tools could prove eventually become staples in the “self-study” method?

      Thank you!!

    • Samie Azad says:

      How do we study now that the test is changing? Isn’t there a scarcity of older workbooks that can be checked out or found online? Are there any key methods to getting these materials for free?

  2. Joe says:

    Very informative post. What I typically tell others is that if you come from a non-science background, the courses are more useful for getting down the basic concepts. For science-background students, the only use the course would be is for the practice exams (but you can purchase those or borrow from friends/peers!). Of course, like you mentioned, discipline and motivation is also a big factor.

    • medaholic says:

      I agree, for most people who have taken their science prereqs, a lot of the material in the prep courses are overkill. However, if you really haven’t learned it at all or it’s been a while, there’s value to taking a MCAT class.

      • Jay Cutts says:

        I’m glad to see your advice. Even though I have taught MCAT for over 20 years, I do believe that there is absolutely nothing magical about reviewing the science. If someone really doesn’t trust themselves to organize their time, they can pay someone $200 to stand over their shoulder all summer (figuartively speaking)! You can also pay a tutor for an hour of their time when you need someone to go over a concept with you.

        My focus in working with MCAT students is strategy. This is the one area that is very difficult to learn on one’s own. I would say that most of my students already know enough science to get a good score but they are missing many questions because of poor strategy for timing, test taking, scientific problem-solving, and the Verbal Reasoning. Much of my strategy instruction is now in the Barron’s MCAT Prep Book (I was the lead author) in the editions for October 2011 and after. The earlier editions don’t cover strategy and are not particularly comprehensive with science.

  3. Sarah says:

    This is totally true. IF you lack the motivation, it just won’t work. I tried self-studying last summer. The only reason it didn’t work was because I lost motivation because I really was unsure I wanted to do med. I had given up my entire summer (I was doing nothing but MCAT), which made me totally fed up with MCAT and anything related to medical school admissions. The year following (my 3rd year), I did some soul searching and realized I DID want to do med. I’m studying again this summer (this time with a prep course, but honestly, I feel like it may be a waste of my money, but I just don’t want to take another risk and do poorly again, I am just not self-disciplined enough to force myself to turn off all distractions). So the point it is, you gotta have every ounce of self-drive and motivation and work ethic to pull it off. (like you stated).

  4. Sarah says:

    by the way medaholic, how long did you self study for? (the whole summer?) And you were working full time too? How did you avoid burn out?

    • medaholic says:

      Studied three months (May, June, July), wrote my MCAT in August. Tried to study at least 1-2 hours a day, though I had a break or two every week.
      Was working full time, ~37.5 hours/week, however down time between experiments allowed me to study in between.

  5. Gagan says:

    Hey Medaholic, good advice! I took a course, and the only thing that was useful was all the mock MCAT tests they gave us. Besides that, I wish I had done it on my own (although I won’t have to rewrite it).

    Another tidbit of info: the aamc, the official company that administers and makes the test, says that there their studies show that people who take a prep course, on average, do no better than those who study on their own. If the people making the test say this, than it is probably true!

    • medaholic says:

      yet there is still an endless supply of people who will pay exhuberant fees for a sense of security

  6. Discipline, as is the norm in most education, is the key ingredient to success. No one, Kaplan included, can jump inside your body and make you take a Saturday to do a practice exam or get up at 6:00 AM to do practice verbal passages before work.

    I’m self-studying for the exam this summer. I’ll try to post some of my experiences along the way.

  7. Jon says:

    I feel like a lot of these problems are solved with some other MCAT courses that are being offered lately. For example, I know M Prep (formerly MCAT Question of the Day) recently started offering an MCAT course at a substantial discount to those of TPR, EK, and Kaplan. I haven’t taken it myself but the reviews seem positive and being online it’s pretty flexible. My impression is that the class sizes are small so you get personal attention. I foresee a shift in this direction for MCAT courses being both affordable and effective. Definitely a great alternative to dropping 2 grand for students who need a bit more motivation to keep studying!

    • Jon says:

      I probably should have specified that the site is http://www.mcatquestion.com

      • Jon says:

        Do not ever take this course. It is a sham. In addition if your score does not increase as per their guarantee they will not refund your money.

        I repeat avoid this course at all costs! It is a sham!

        • M Prep says:

          “Jon”, we appreciate past students sharing their experiences with our course — both positive and negative so that prospective students can determine if our course is right for them. However, there is a line between opinion and libel. The statement you have made “in addition if your score does not increase as per their guarantee they will not refund your money” is simply false.

          Our terms and agreements are short and simple. They clearly indicate that if your score does not improve, you will receive a full refund. They also clearly indicate that you must have taken the MCAT before and have valid scores for comparison. Given that we have only had this issue once before (a single incident in the last 4 years), I’m confident I know your identity (however, to protect it, I will not discuss the details of your case here). Having a score that has been invalidated by the AAMC is not an acceptable baseline score as per our terms and agreements. The reason for this is straightforward: invalidated scores are not adequate representations of your performance and it is not reasonable for us to use inadequate scores as a metric for improvement.

          We urge all students to make informed decisions that are right for them. We provide a full week refund period when first registering into our course. The refund period is unconditional — you can withdraw for any reason or no reason whatsoever and receive a full refund. This is in addition to our higher-score guarantee. We’re committed to making our course as accessible as possible to students and to making it as easy as possible for students to try it out and make sure it’s right for them.

          Please visit our website to learn more at http://www.mcatquestion.com or contact me at alec@mcatquestion.com with any questions or concerns.

          Alec Lee
          Co-Founder, M Prep

  8. sara says:

    yaa,its a amazing post.we should study by ourself.

  9. sara says:

    medaholic plz tell me Is admission in private medical colleges is beneficial than when you get admission on yourown.plz reply

  10. Alex says:

    Just wondering if you took a preliminary MCAT exam and what your score was before studying. I am trying to see how much of an increase in score I can expect. Thank you.

    • medaholic says:

      Hi Alex, I think my preliminary score was in the low 20’s, with VR being the lowest. After the first month, my PS scores went up considerably, so I focused on just BS and VR for the last few months.

  11. Sequoia Kam says:

    I completely agree with you that studying on your own is better, especially after watching my friends that studied on their own drastically outscore the ones that took prep courses. I think by studying on your own, you take complete responsibility for your own score and put yourself in a dominant psychological mindset instead of a passive one. I made my own study plan and am posting my notes for anyone who wants them at http://everythingmcat.blogspot.com/ I show step by step how I made my study plan in case anyone wants a detailed break down. My notes have links to information sources or cool videos from the National Science Foundation. I didn’t notice http://mcat-review.org/ had already made a study guide following the AAMC content outline, until after I started my blog, but mine is a compilation of various review books, personal knowledge and up to date information I found online. Anyone who wants to post there study plan on my blog to make it official is welcome to do so.
    Good luck on the test everyone.

  12. Roscoe says:

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  13. woot says:

    If one has the self-discipline and is internally motivated/a self-starter, then doing it by oneself works well. If not, then a prep-course may be useful. I studied on my own, but was not doing well on my tests. Then I signed up for a Princeton Review course; so far, my scores have improved. Another reason for taking a prep course is that they give me access to more sample practice tests to take; I already had the AAMC tests, but I wanted more. I also have practice tests from other testing organizations. Also, the verbal ideas put forth have been helpful. Even though I was a humanities and biosciences majors (two degrees from two different universities), I thought I needed help. I have not “written” the MCAT yet, but will soon. Note: most people I know say “take the MCAT” but in your blog and the previous blog, you say “write the MCAT” — perhaps it is a peculiarity to Canadian premeds? Not sure of this.

  14. woot says:

    I also found the mcat-review.org site useful as the poster here mentioned. I have been using it as a guide to my MCAT study and not the Princeton Review guides, which while good, deviate from the AAMC guides somewhat.

  15. M. Griffin says:

    For me I’m not taking the prep course simply because I can’t afford it. I have a (non-science) masters degree and have worked in my field for 10 years. Originally I wanted to attend medical school, but for many reason opted for a different path. Now years later I regret I didn’t go to medical school and am now looking into going back to school to become a doctor. My delimma is I’ve not taken any science courses in many years, nor is my undergraduate or graduate degree in a science related field. That said, what is the best way to study for the MCAT, particularly if you don’t have a science background? I don’t want to spend a lot of time wasting time. If you know what I mean. Are there any self-guided study exams that help with that or am I just wasting my time and should give up my dream of returning to school to become a doctor?

  16. Caroline Hernandez says:

    I plan on studying on my own for the MCAT. Although I still have two more years until I .eed to take the test, I want to begin gathering review books. I understand that you did not purchase any of your reviewing material but I was interested in which websites you used and which review books you believe prepared you the most for MCAT. I plan to start studying early and often so that when I have to take the exam, the content will be well rehearsed and understood.

  17. Lee says:

    Hey Medaholic!

    Thanks for the informative post. Would you recommend taking a practice mcat before beginning to study in order to find out your weaknesses?

  18. Ugo says:

    Hi Medaholic,

    I really find truth in what you were saying, even though I am yet to take the MCAT. I do understand that it depends on the individuals, and besides the prep courses are so expensive to the point that some people work hard to pay the money but unluckily flunk the exam. Im planning to take the mcat before they actually change it next year, and I am not looking forward to doing the prep courses. Now I wanted to ask, what review tetbooks would you recommend me buying, to stimulate my studying, I have TPR vR, Kaplan’s VR and Barrons Flashcards. Please I need your suggestions ASAP. Thanks!

  19. Lauri says:

    I received this email after requesting information…”Thank you for your interest in Wayne State University School of Medicine. To be eligible to apply, you must have completed one academic year of each of the following courses:
    General biology or zoology (with lab)
    General or Inorganic chemistry (with lab)
    Organic chemistry (with lab)
    General physics (with lab)
    English
    The Admissions Committee strongly prefers to see the prerequisite science classes taken at a 4 year university rather than community college.”

    Does this mean I have less chance of being accepted if I study on my own?

    • medaholic says:

      These are prerequisites for admissions, a completely separate issue from the MCAT. You are requires to have completed these courses in order to apply.

  20. ogai sadiq says:

    I find your post really helpful but i was wondering if you could post some of the resources that you found online. I was also wondering if you’d have any info regarding the averages that med school accept. and is there a possibility that you could be accepted with a 75-78 average but with a high MCAT score?
    Thank you!!

    • Kim Lewiw says:

      Hey Ogai,

      I used Master the Content (https://masterthecontent.com/medical-college-admissions-test-2) to study for the MCAT as I didn’t have thousands of dollards for a prep course…paid roughly $200 for an annual subscription, and had unlimited access.

      In regards to stats that you are looking for you can find them through the following site https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/mcat/

      • Jarvis says:

        Hey Ogai,

        I agree with Kim. Loved Masterthecontent.com, I took time off work and in addition to my textbooks I purchased their 3 month plan (roughly $100.00) and studied hard every day. In the end I scored above my desired score (34) and got accepted to the school I wanted to go too. They are surprisingly affordable and effective…don’t get caught in the bubble of paying thousands of dollars!

    • medaholic says:

      Unlikely. A high grade average will always be more important than the MCAT score

  21. Al says:

    very helpful. if you could read my blog here, Read Here!

  22. Paul says:

    Kim and Jarvais stole the words out of my mouth. Studying for the MCAT is stressful enough, and to have to dish out the big bucks these larger companies are charging is ridiculous. The $200 annual subscription was my golden ticket into law school, and it helped me get into one of Americas’s top programs!

  23. Russell Mellors says:

    I should talk to you here. Which is not some thing I do! I quite like reading a post which will make people believe. Also, many thanks permitting me to comment!

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