Can you study for the MCAT by yourself?
Do you think MCAT preps course offered by Kaplan, Princeton Review (TPR), Prep101 are expensive and time consuming? If you’ve ever had doubts about them, prep courses may not be the best option for you. Surely, there MUST be a better way to study for the MCAT. In the next few minutes, I hope I can convince you that self studying for the MCAT is a viable way and successfully way to prepare for this test.
My MCAT story
When I first started preparing for the MCAT, I had no clue what I was doing.
I didn’t take a prep course. I missing important courses such as including organic chemistry and biochemistry. I had not yet taken many classes that would have been helpful such as genetics, cell biology, anatomy, and physiology. In fact, I wrote the MCAT after only one year of university classes.
However, in the two and a half months I used to prepare for this test, I was able to work full time in a research lab (40 hours/ week). I studied mainly on evenings and weekends.
I spent a minimal amount of money. The only real cost was the mandatory registration fee.
Despite these unusual circumstances, I was able to successfully prepare for the MCAT on my own. I scored a balanced 36Q (97th percentile) on my first writing and was admitted into medical school the year after.
The point of this article is not to boast about my accomplishments or make others feel bad. Instead, I want to show you how you can replicate my success and do well on the MCAT
Reasons not to take a prep course
I want you to realize that prep courses are not intrinsically bad – many students have found them helpful. When I took the MCAT there were no courses available in my city so I had to study on my own.
However, the benefits of studying on your own include a flexible schedule. You don’t have to show up to lectures that might not help you. You control the pace of your learning – skipping familiar content and slowing down on difficult concepts. You can study wherever, whenever and however you like. Best of all, you’ll save a lot of money – the average price of a prep course is $1500. With this in mind, I will outline the steps you need to study for the MCAT on your own.
For more reasons, check out Why studying for the MCAT on your own is better than taking a course.
The approach to self studying for the MCAT
- Learn about the MCAT and Register
- Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses
- Get the Right Materials to Study From
- Get Practice Tests
- Set and Stick to a Schedule
- Track your Progress
- Simulate Test Day
- Time Management
- Find Discipline and Motivation
- Write the MCAT
1. Learn about the MCAT and Register
What is the MCAT? – Before you start studying for the MCAT, you have to know what the MCAT is. You should read about how the test is administered and what subjects will be tested. You should get an idea of what’s a good a MCAT score. Learn all you can about the test before you prepare for it.
Read the official AAMC website and ask people who have already taken what their experience was like, how they prepared for it and any pitfalls to avoid. A simple search will provide with you with more than enough resources for the basics of the MCAT including this one by the AAMC essential information for the MCAT (free pdf).
Commit to Writing the MCAT – After you get a sense of what the MCAT is like, finish reading the rest of this post and register for the test. Pick a good test date that gives you plenty of time to prepare. Choose a test-center that is nearby. Register early as spots fill up quickly due to the limited spaces at each test center. Once you have registered and have committed to writing the test, your MCAT self-study regiment begins.
2. Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Know Your Study Habits – Every person has a different learning style. Each person starts at a different point in their knowledge and preparation. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses – find out what you know and what you don’t know. Are you a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner? If you have never taken a science course before, it might not be in your best interest to study for the MCAT by yourself, let alone attempt to write it just yet. If you are strong in sciences and weak in critical reading, do you have enough time to improve your verbal reasoning? Do you have the discipline to create your own schedule and stick to it or do you need a teacher to motivate you and keep you on track.
Do a Diagnostic Test- The best way to assess your strengths and weaknesses and how much studying is needed to be done is to take a free MCAT Practice Test. The test takes approximately 2-3 hours to complete but the diagnostic results will provide you with invaluable information for creating your study plan. Other free diagnostic tests are available at Princeton Review. After you have done a diagnostic test, you should start to get the right materials to study from and formulate a schedule.
3. Getting Resources to Study From
What do you study from? The next step is to get the right materials to study from. The MCAT’s content requires you to know four science subjects of Gen Chem, Organic Chem, Biology and Physics. As well, you need to be able to critically read verbal passages and write MCAT styled essays. Using your undergrad textbooks and course notes is NOT a good idea. They will most likely have unnecessary details or complex concepts that won’t be tested.
Test Prep Companies aren’t all bad – The best materials to get are books specifically designed for preparing to write the MCAT. Every year, test prep companies spend thousands of dollars analyzing the content and format of the MCAT. They have proven information of what is needed to getting a good score. They know exactly which subjects will be covered and what information can be omitted. They have developed test-taking tips and neat tricks for memorizing facts. The best materials to study for the MCAT are the materials that were designed for the MCAT in mind. No science textbook or professor’s notes will be able to outdo MCAT prep materials.
Obtaining the materials – The easiest and cheapest way to get prep books is from someone who has taken a prep course before. You can also find the books at any bookstore and online from Amazon.com. Before the CBT (Computer-based Test) MCAT, all prep companies would give all their students books to study from, one for each subject (PS, BS, VR) along with books filled with practice passages and questions. But since the switch to CBT, most prep companies now provide the bulk of their content online with only a few books used in the classroom. Regardless of whatever version or year you find, prep books that were made within the last 3 years will still be relevant and helpful.
What I used – I personally used The Princeton Review for the biological sciences because I borrowed it from someone who had taken the course before. Any of the test prep companies will suffice for the BS portion because it mainly consists of rote memorization. I found books with diagrams easier to learn from. Be sure to check out several different books. For biology the concepts covered will not go into much depth for each topic making this section a test of breadth more than of depth.
On top of the test prep books, I also used an Introductory Organic Chemistry textbook to learn the basics from. I used this resource as a reference because I had yet to take Orgo and my understanding was limited. I found it hard to get a good grasp of O-chem concepts through the prep books alone, since they were mainly review notes, so I turned to a traditional textbook for extra help.
When to Use Textbooks – I believe this exception applies mainly to Physics and Organic Chemistry, the two more conceptual subjects. Since many of the concepts and mechanisms are more difficult and complex, if you have not yet learned them, a prep book may not be sufficient. However, if you have previously taken these courses , a good prep book should be good enough. Similarly for Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Anatomy, Physiology and other memory-intensive subjects, you don’t need to use a textbook. I did not take a any of these courses before writing the MCAT but found the prep books more than sufficient for the biology section.
Similarly, for VR section I borrowed a Kaplan book from the library and found their strategy much better than TPR, though it pretty much comes down to a personal preference. Their explanation of the writing section was clear and the examples they provided were helpful.
ExamKrackers (A Better Choice) – The last prep company you should definitely consider is ExamKrackers. Although I have not used their products personally, many other MCAT takers have said many good things about it. They come out with a whole series called 1001 Questions for each subject and I have many friends who found their physics material excellent.
Audio Tapes – Some people also use an audio series called Audio Osmosis which comes in a set of CDS. They are quite convenient if you are an audio learner, as you can then listen to them while commuting, exercising or even showering.
Websites – Another neat site I stumbled upon was WikiPremed which is a an open access website that has most MCAT topics free! It includes all the major topics covered on the MCAT and I often used it as a quick review session after I had finished a section. I’m sure if you look around, there will be tons of sites out there offering free information, feel free to share your favorite. But be careful to avoid bad websites with wrong information, always get your facts from a reliable source.
4. Get Practice Tests
A different sort of test – The MCAT is unlike any other test you’ve taken. It’s not a math exam and it’s not like first year biology finals. It is a MCQ styled test with no “show your steps” questions and contains few straight recall type questions. If you do not do a MCAT-styled practice test before writing, you will do poorly on the real thing.
Format, Stamina, Pacing – That’s because the MCAT has a unique format you have to become familiar with. You have to be comfortable with the critical reading and application of concepts to passages format. Furthermore, you have to train both your physical stamina for the exhausting 4-5 hour test and your pace in order to finish all the questions on time. It is of utmost important that you get your hands on practice tests, without them, it is unlikely you will get a good score.
Where to get Practice Tests – The easiest way to find practice tests is to from people who have prepared for the MCAT before; most people who did well on the MCAT will have practice tests. The official AAMC published practice tests #3-#10 and they are the most realistic practice tests available because they include actual administered questions. However, you will have noticed that it’s quite pricey to purchase each one separately. Most prep courses include access to all AAMC practice tests in their packages. Ask your friends if they have copies of these tests, hard copies were often given out in the courses. Some people may also have these tests on their computers and may be willing to share, so be sure to ask around. If you do decide to buy from AAMC, all of the $35 tests added together it is still cheaper than a course.
Simulate Practice Tests – There are also other practice tests out there, including custom tests created by TPR and Kaplan. These practice tests were designed by the prep companies separately from AAMC, so their questions may not necessarily reflect the true difficulty of a real MCAT. Some people have found them easier than the real thing, some have found them harder. However, with all the research spent by both companies, these tests will provide realistic enough questions so you will not be disadvantaged if you do use them. The upside to these practice tests are that they are fairly easy to find and there are many of them, so you can practice as much you want.
5. Set and Stick to a Schedule
Have an Aim – Setting a following a schedule is where most students who decide to self study fail. They have no clue where to begin. After hoarding study materials and practice tests, they have no plan of action for success. They waste their time reading over material that isn’t helpful to them. They do the passages and questions without retaining anything. And this is the main reason why still the majority of students choose to follow a prep company. These companies are paid to do the strategy planning and all that’s left is to simply follow instructions.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Setting up an efficient and effective schedule to suit your needs is very simple. In fact, everyone can create a study plan that is as good if not better than the ones that are being marketed. All they need is a 2-3 hours of dedicated time and genuine commitment to create a structured MCAT timetable that works for them.
Measure your time – The first step is to see how much time is available. When is your test date, how many weeks of study does that leave you with, What other commitments do you have? [My personal opinion is that most people will need at least a minimum of 4 weeks but not more than 6 months] Do you have a full-time or part-time job? Do you have any other classes? Extracurricular involvement? Vacation? Time to spend with family, friends and significant others?
Take out a piece of paper and Write it down!
Begin with the End in Mind – Create a MCAT calendar to plan your study time. First fill in all the days you won’t study on (holidays, trips, prior commitments). Starting from the test-date and counting in reverse, write down for each date how many days left before the MCAT. This helps you constantly know how much time is left and creates a sense of urgency that will motivate you to study.
Theory and Practice – You also want to split your time between reviewing material and doing practice tests. However, don’t waste time doing practice tests before you’ve gone through all the material. Choosing which days you do your practice tests on is crucial. You want to do them regularly enough to build up your endurance and pace, but not so frequently that you exhaust yourself.
What I did – Find the halfway mark of your study period and set that as your first practice test. I went by a schedule of at least a practice test each week after my first one. The last two weeks before the exam, I did 2-3 practice tests a week. Aim to do a minimum of four to five practice tests before the real one; doing more is always better. However, don’t set the practice tests too close to each other because you want adequate time to review each practice test. Doing too much too soon also increases the likelihood of burnout. Additionally, leave time in between your practice tests so you can study the subjects you did poorly in on the practice test. Focus on the areas where you can have the most improvement.
Prioritize your time – For the first half of your study schedule, refer back to your strengths and weaknesses. An important aspect of doing well on the MCAT is to ensure the entire breadth of content is covered. Covering all the content will increase your chances of doing well on more passages. Being a jack of all trades is much better than being a master of one in this case.
Work on your weaknesses first. Don’t spend time reviewing the physics of chemistry you already know but have gotten rusty in. You can brush up on those skills later. Tackle the subjects you have never studied before or the ones you are receiving low scores in. If you don’t know any physiology, do that first. If your physics is weak, start on it early. This will again, maximize the areas you are competent in. You don’t have to be the best at it, but you have to be at least comfortable with it. If you’re really bad at verbal, go through verbal passages everyday. Create objectives to finish, focus your studies and be productive.
An Sample Schedule (Week 1) : For a physical science background student weak in bio and verbal, who has no day time commitments
- Monday – Cover Genetics/Biochemistry from prep book, Do 3 VR Passages
- Tuesday– Do Chemistry Practice Problems, Cover Renal System, Do 3 VR Passages
- Wednesday– Cover Nervous System, Orgo naming, 3 VR passages
- Thursday– Organic Rxns, Refresh on Physics Equations, 3 VR Passages
- Friday– Organic Rxns, GI system, 3 VR passages, Practice Writing
- Sat – Look over previous week’s notes
- Sun – day off
Explanation: This schedule has a strong emphasis on bio and verbal. It sets specific and achievable targets everyday. Each person will have a different schedule. The beauty of self-studying is you can come up with something that works for you! If you don’t have a job, you can study more. If you have something to do in the day, you can lessen the load. Many of the test-prep books will also come with schedules of how to study and you can take what you like from their schedules and incorporate it into your own. If you find out what you’re doing isn’t working out, change up your objectives. There is no perfect way to study for the MCAT, each person will approach it in their own way.
ExamKrackers has a sample study schedule you can get some ideas from. I don’t like allotting myself time slots to study like 4-5pm biochemistry. I much prefer studying by objectives and going at a pace that ensures I understand all the material well, though use what works for you. I am also much more likely to complete my study schedule if I go by objectives rather than time constraints.
Rest – Furthermore, remember to take some off-days just to get your mind off the MCAT. Hang out with friends and have dinner with family. The time off restores your mental function and keeps you in a better mood.
6. Track Your Progress
Monitor your Progress – A disadvantage of studying on your own is tracking your progress is your job. In a class, the teacher gives you feedback and helps you cater your plan according to your results. When you study by yourself, it’s your job to look over your exercises, practice problems, quizzes and practice tests and assess how you did. Tracking your progress also gives you a realistic idea of how you’re doing so far and how prepared you are for the test.
Keep track of Right and Wrong Answers – Whenever you do practice passages, record down how many questions you answered correct/wrong. On your subsequent practice questions, see if you have an improvement. The activity where you will learn and benefit the most is from reviewing your answers. See where you went wrong. Ask, why did I get this question wrong? Is it because I did not know the material or is it a test taking mistake. Did I interpret the question incorrectly, did I not understand the passage or did I just have a calculation error.
Find all your mistakes – Every mistake you make now is one you won’t be making on test day. It is a time consuming process to go over each of your answers but it will save you tons of time in the long run. A fool does not learn from his mistakes. A smart MCAT taker does.
The Value of Tracking – You’ll find tracking your progress very useful when you do your practice tests. What I did was create an excel chart where I just listed my scores on each section and how I did as time went by. I had different sheets for different subjects and would jot down any test taking mistakes I would make. I also made notes on which subjects I had a hard time with and what type of mistakes I would do most frequently. By constantly keeping track of these errors, when I did more practice tests I made less and less errors and my scores kept improving. It also helped me identify weak areas and subjects I needed to spend more time with.
7. Simulate the Test Day
Perfect Practice makes Perfect – Whenever you do your practice tests / passages, always work under test-day conditions. That means eliminate all distractions, turn off the music, and make sure you’re in a quiet place where nobody can disturb you. If possible, do the practice on a computer but a paper copy is fine too. Always time yourself with the same test-day timing and never let yourself go over the time limit. Always stop once time runs around. You want it to be as close to test day conditions as possible.
Always answer all the questions – Timing your practice tests helps in several ways. The first is to ensure you are answering the questions at a good pace. You want to set a pace that will allow you to answer all the questions with enough cushion space at the end to go over those few tricky and uncertain questions. You want to find a balance between reading the passage and answering the questions that will work for you. You will also learn to skip hard questions for later and maximize the number of easy questions answered. The second aspect is that your endurance for the test will get stronger. You will be able to focus for longer periods of time and not grow tired with fatigue. Your concentration will be more acute and your performance will be better. Lastly, simulating a test day scenario will give you confidence for the real test. By the time you write the real MCAT, you would have done so many practice tests that the real one won’t seem any different and you will be confident in your answers.
8. Time Management
Your most valuable resource when you study is your time. During each study session, you want your time to be productive. Every person can always improve how they manage their time. Here are a few things I found that helped me get the most out of my study time.
Find a good place to study – It should be away from distractions (like the TV, computer, internet) If you have to go on the computer to study, turn off all instant messengers, music players, browsers. Unplug the Ethernet cable or turn off your wireless if you must. Don’t get distracted. Get all the necessary materials (books, paper, pencils) before you begin so can glue yourself down to the seat once you have started. When you study, really study. Don’t chat with friends (that’s why I like to study alone) and don’t go to the library just to end up sleeping.
Set specific breaks – My optimum study period lasts roughly 45 to 90 minutes (1.5 hours). Any less and I found I could not grasp and synthesize the material. Any more and nothing would stick. Even if I haven’t finished a section, I usually take a break at the 1.5 hour mark and resume afterwards. I found that the content stuck a lot better when I was refreshed. Find what works for you. At the end of every cycle, I set a 10-20 minute break to check my email, chat with friends, watch tv, stretch, eat, relax, before I began again. Be strict with your breaks. Treat them like test day breaks, don’t let your mind or body wander too far.
Studying can be done anywhere and anytime – After about a month or so of studying, the MCAT will seem to consume your life. You will always feel like there is not enough time. During the last month, when I really felt the crunch, I studied everywhere and anywhere. I squeezed in an extra 10-15 minutes on my commute to work each day. While I was at the bus stop waiting, I would pull out flash cards I had created and would start memorizing certain terms and concepts I knew I had to know. At work, whenever there was a wait-time for the experiments (Gel, PCR) I would pull out a book and read. Or if I had set time, I would do a practice passage here and there. In the evenings, I would schedule it so that I would eat dinner, make phone calls, check email, read news, do laundry and any other household chores all at once; this would than leave me with a large dedicated chunks of studying time.
9. Find Discipline and Motivation
This is inevitably one of the hardest parts of studying for the MCAT, regardless of whether you take a course or not. Finding the will and motivation to continue studying after you have studied for 5+ hours will be hard. Being consistent with your schedule and sticking to it is hard. I failed countless times. There were days where I would just sit at a desk and get nothing done. I would feel like crap afterwards knowing I had to do twice the amount of work to catch up. Each person will have to face the problem of discipline and motivation, there’s no escaping it. There were a few things that I discovered that helped with motivation and discipline.
Have Support – A support group can be your family, friends or fellow MCAT takers. Find someone who can be your cheerleader and will encourage you when things get bad. Have someone you can complain about the MCAT with. Even having them cook you a meal or do your laundry once in a while really does make a big difference. These people will ground you in reality and will stop you from stepping off into insanity. They will be your morale booster, a source of inspiration.
Read – Read something totally non-MCAT/ science related. Let your brain do some thinking outside the boundaries of this test. Whether it be the newspaper or a novel, reading will remind you that not all people write ambiguous and vague passages that are meant to test your critical thinking. People will write to tell funny stories or offer advice. Reading might even help you alleviate some stress and make you more disciplined. Besides, it won’t be a complete waste of time. At the very least it will help out with the VR and WS.
You don’t have to read books either. It can be an online blog (like this one) or motivational quotes. A few fantastic posts for motivation can be found at the Student Doctor Network. I have listed two threads that I drew a lot of inspiration and ideas from.
Remember why you’re writing the MCAT – You want to be a doctor (or vet) and a good one too! The MCAT is just another test you have to pass on your way there. It’s not impossible, many others have gone before you and many will after you. It’s just something you have to do. You won’t be any less of a person if you don’t do well on the test. You may just have to rewrite the test and show your perseverance. If you can answer deep-down why you want to be a doctor and why it is the right profession for you, that will be your greatest motivation for studying.
10. Write the MCAT
Prepare yourself for test day – Find out how to get your test center, set your alarms, set another one just in case. Pack your snack/lunch items. Make sure you have all your identification. The day before the test, don’t spend too much time learning new stuff, by then it’s already too late. Spend that time reviewing some key concepts, common mistakes you might make, etc. Relax and make sure you get enough sleep!
Write the test – with enough preparation and practice, the real test will seem like any other practice test. If you did your homework, you’ll do great.
Celebrate and wait – Waiting for your results can be even more nerve wracking than the test itself. After you’re done, try to forget about it and have some fun! You deserve it. When you get your test results back, check to see if your score is good enough to apply to medical school. If you need to rewrite your MCAT check out my guide to Retaking the MCAT.
Good luck with your studying. I will be periodically updating this article, making it more precise and relevant. If you found this guide helpful or have some tips to add, please leave a comment. I appreciate the feedback