How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MCAT
Alright, I don’t actually love the MCAT, but I’m not a student who hates the MCAT either. Each summer, thousands of students are stressed about the MCAT. Most test takers will have never such an important test before. This test alone may prevent you from being admitted to medical school.
Not only is it a test that forces to remember broad concepts and numerous facts, this test will also challenge your reading comprehension and writing skills. Most people I know who went into the sciences, did so to escape essay writing. As if things aren’t bad enough, the MCAT is marked on a bell curve and your final grade is all relative to other test takers. That means even if you answered many questions correctly, if someone did better than you, your score will be graded lower. 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 taken it once. I didn’t go to a prep class – I borrowed MCAT review books and studied for the exam by myself. Before taking the MCAT, I had not taken my organic chemistry class yet.
Somehow I did alright, and I know a big part has to do with the right attitude.
I have made a list of advice and things you can do to keep your stress levels down and hopefully make the process 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 who you are. You are bigger than this test. The next time you catch yourself thinking this test is the too important to do poorly on – take a deep breathe and pause. Take a step back and realize 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 poor performances. I imagine the worst case scenario and see what it would be like. For the MCAT, if you don’t get a good score realize that nobody dies. Your parents still love you and the earth will still be spinning. You might be temporarily upset and disappointed but you can always 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 your fears were.
- 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 study for several hours each day by myself. But as you study, you will go through many emotions. Find people that will encourage you and be your cheerleaders. 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 session.
- Stay Healthy - Keeping your body in good shape directly affects your test performance. You want your body to be rested and ready for test day. 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. I tossed and turned for 3 hours during my test day and ended up going to the test with 4 hours of sleep, I wish I gotten more.
- 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 (even if it’s only temporarily). Close your eyes and take in a deep breath – try this right 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 begin to lose focus. Take 5-10 minute breaks where you can rehydrate, 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 some weekends to go to the beach or travel and not feel guilty.
- 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 terrible 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 beating MCAT, everyone who succeeds puts in their time. The more consistently you are with your studying, the more likely you’ll get what you deserve.
- 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.