How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MCAT
Alright, I don’t actually love the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test), but I’m not a student who hates the MCAT either. But around this time each summer, thousands of students are stressed the hell out about the MCAT. For most, they have never written a test that will be weighted so heavily. This CAN be a single test that will prevent you from being admitted to a medical school. The MCAT will test you on a broad range of sciences, from physics, chemistry, bio orgo, and admittedly most students will be weak in at least one subject, if not more. Not only is there plenty of different concepts and facts to remember, this test will also challenge your reading comprehension and writing skills. And most people who went into the sciences, did so to escape the dreaded essay writing they did in high school. To top it off, your marks are bell curved and graded against other test takers, so even if you answered the majority of questions correctly, someone out there could have done better and your score will suffer because of it. Each year, only around 20% of test takers will receive a competitive score of 30+
I’m not an expert at taking the MCAT. I have only had to take it once. I didn’t go to a prep class, but instead, I borrowed the books from friends who had a Kaplan and The Princeton Review class and self studied off them. I had not taken organic chemistry yet, so I borrowed a 2nd year orgo textbook. Lastly, I got my hands on some AAMC, TPR, and Kaplan Full length practice tests and worked away at them. This summer, I landed a job with Kaplan teaching students how to prepare for the MCAT. With the experience of having written the first batch of computerized tests, and subsequently watching my friends study for this beast, I have made a list of advice and things you can do to keep the stress down and make the process more pleasant and maybe even enjoyable?
- Put things in Perspective – Calm down and realize that this test is not your life. Billions of people wake up everyday, eat, go to work and don’t give this test a single thought. Don’t let this test define you and be your identity. You are bigger than this test. Every time you think that the world will end if you don’t get a good score on this test – breathe, see things realistically, and know that there’s more to life than medical school admissions. The MCAT is only your priority up to a point, don’t let it control you.
- What’s the worst that can happen? - This is an exercise I like to do whenever I feel nervous about any decisions. I imagine the worst case scenario and see what it would be like. For the MCAT, if you don’t get a good score nobody dies. Your parents still love you, the earth still keeps spinning around the sun. You might be upset and disappointed about your performance, but you can study and rewrite. You might not make your top school’s cutoff, but you might make the cutoff for plenty of other schools. And more often than not, you’ll realize how irrational our fears can be.
- Have a support group - For the first part of my MCAT summer, I made the mistake thinking I could ace the MCAT on my own. I planned to several hours each day by myself and then kill the test. But as you go on studying, you will go through many emotions. Find people that will encourage you and be your cheerleader for the test. If you have friends taking the test, form a study group that can help each other out with questions, share resources, and occasionally have a complain/whine/bitch session.
- Stay Healthy - Keeping your body in good shape directly affects your test performance. You want your body to be rested and sickness free on test day. Your mind will be sharper and more awake too. So don’t study to an extreme where you neglect to feed yourself properly, exercise and get some fresh air. Try to get some sleep the night before the test, even though I tossed and turned for 3 hours and ended up going to the test with 4 hours of sleep.
- Stretch - This is my favorite thing to do while studying. When stuck on a passage or question, push your shoulder blades back and arms towards the skies and feel the burdens being lifted from you (if even only temporarily). Close your eyes and take in a deep breath (Try this now even if you’re not studying for the MCAT, it’s very relaxing)
- Take Appropriate Breaks - Don’t study for 3 hours straight. Break it down into smaller sessions. I find my optimal study time for me lasts from 45 minutes to 90 minutes. Any earlier and I cannot dig deep into the materials, and any more I start to lose focus. Take a 5-10 minute break, rehydrate, chat, check your email and then get back to the task at hand. Also, don’t study for too many days in a row without a break. Remember, if you are taking this during the summer, this is your SUMMER! Study hard and take a weekend off to go to the beach or travel and not feel guilty about it because…
- Study when you should – This will save you the mental anguish in the long run. If you are procrastinating, STOP! Control yourself! You will feel like crap for setting out a schedule to study and not following through with it. When you’re at the library studying, don’t waste your time chatting or looking at other people study. Remember there’s no easy path to beat the MCAT, everyone must put in their amount of hard work. The more consistently you study when you should, the more likely you’ll get your intended score.
- Simulate Test Day – After covering all the subjects and feeling comfortable with the content, you MUST do practice tests. For one, they will be the best indicator of your test score and will help you prepare in the most realistic way. You will also develop the stamina and concentration needed to write a 4-5 hour long test. There will also be test taking skills you should master, such as eliminating answer choices, skipping difficult passages for later, quick calculations, and pacing. For the last two to three weeks leading up to test day, I ended up doing more than ten full length tests. By the end of it all, I had enough confidence to walk into the centre and know I would do well. You’ll never feel fully prepared and there will always be more material you could have learned, but you have a limited timeline to study. Work in the most efficient way, you must do practice tests.
- Enjoy the Process – The process of studying for the MCAT climaxes on test day. Try to enjoy the entire journey as much as you can. You will have bad days when nothing seems to stick. Other times, you’ll celebrate minor victories, such as when you finally get a 10 in VR. See the MCAT for what it really is, just another step in the medical school admission process. It’s significant, but no the be all end all.
- Have Clean Clothes- This last piece of advice is anecdotal. Lay out the clothes you will be wearing ahead of time, it will save you some stress on test day. I remember taking a shower on the morning of test day and realizing I had run out of clean clothing. I had been studying so much that I had not done my laundry in two weeks. Needless to say, I a bit stressed out on the morning of test day finding clothes. Prepare for the test, map out how you will get there, what you will wear, and most importantly, how you will enjoy yourself after the whole ordeal.
Feel free to add your own advice, tips, and things that worked for you in the Comments below for others to benefit from.
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