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.
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.
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!