Some MCAT study survival tips

So, I was at Starbucks yesterday enjoying a post “getting my line of credit approved” celebratory frap (with soy – my new lactose intolerance sucks in the most subtle of ways) when I noticed that the person at the table next to me taking notes was doing so from a very familiar book.

MCAT Prep from The Princeton Review (specifically ochem, because of course).

Ah, the memories that hit me at that sight.

And yes, a lot of them were horrible.

My MCAT prep experience went like this: I took three months in the summer of my third year (going into forth year) to study.  The first two I worked full time and then went to a prep course in the evenings and weekends.  The third month I took time off from work and studied for about 12 hours straight a day, for a whole month.

The third month, naturally, was hell.

But I suppose it was worth it – I got a score that was decent enough that I didn’t have to take it again, and that I was satisfied with.  That said, I’m not sure if I’d had to take it again I would have done it the same way.  I basically crammed for a month straight, and that’s not an experience I’d wish on anyone.  So, with that in mind, and given that this is probably crunch time for a lot of people trying to avoid the dreaded 2015 revisions, I thought I’d list a few study tips that did help me prepare for the test.

1) Study schedule: A prep course is up to you, but a study schedule is a necessity.  There’s a ridiculous amount of material to cover in preparing for the MCAT and if you don’t find a way to plan how to allocate your time, you will drown on dry land.  Make a list of everything you need to cover, how much time you have and a realistic idea of how much you can do per day, and the try to stick to that plan.  It really helps, and it makes you feel less like you’re spinning your wheels.

2) Only take one practice test a week: Getting your hands on practice MCAT’s is easy. But don’t let the volume of those make you think you have to do one once a day.  First off, there’s no way you’ve taken in enough new info in a day to see a noticeable change and so that will get you down.  Also, these tests are long, and those 4 hours could have a much better use than sitting and taking a test repeatedly.  Once a week is good – you should have been able to take in enough info to see an actual measurable change, and it’s less likely to burn you out like taking one a day will.

3) Do take the practice test as if it was the real one: If you are going to take a practice test, make it as real as you can.  Take four or five hours, in a quiet place, at the same time as your actual test, and write the practice one.  Take the rest breaks as prescribed.  This is a good way to see where you ebb and flow on the real test.  If you burn through the physical but are exhausted once you get to the biological, then you know you have something to work on. It’s ok if you want to take a verbal day and just do verbal and then take just the verbal section as a test, but remember that isn’t the test you’re taking, and you have to be mentally prepared for the whole thing.

4) Possibly consider only doing 6 verbal passages: This is a strategy the Princeton Review has, and I think it’s a good one.  Verbal is the hardest part of the MCAT (not ochem as you might imagine), mostly because of the time constraints.  It’s 7 passages in 60 minutes, and it’s not really designed to be completed in time.  There will always be one “killer” passage, so skim through them quickly at the start and find that one.  Put in the letter of the day (mine is always C) for all answers and then focus on the other six passages.  If you have a few moments when you’re done to look over that one, go for it, but this is the best way not to find yourself with ten minutes left and three passages, because you got stuck on one “killer” one.

5) Sleep: Now I know this one is not always under our control (it’s rarely ever under mine), but sleep is SO important.  I didn’t sleep well before my test, as a result, although I could do 7 verbal passages on my practice exams and have time, I was too wiped on the real deal and had to settle for doing six and marking off the killer one.  I suffer from exam anxiety, though most of mine is unconscious.  I can’t sleep.  I have weird dreams before an exam. I have cramps. Strangely though, I’m never nervous actually at the exam (the MCAT was an exception to this rule).  Bottom line though, whatever it is that you need to do, whatever tricks you have, use them to make sure you are as rested as is possible on the day.  Tiredness is an MCAT killer.

6) Do take time for a break: Make sure in that study plan you allocate some fun time.  An evening for a movie.  A dinner out.  An activity or a work out a day.  An hour a day on something just for recreation  Anything that makes sure you don’t burn yourself out studying, because it can happen, and you don’t want to have to rewrite and take all that time again.

7) Remember to keep it in perspective: The MCAT is a big, scary test.  This is true enough.  But it ISN’T the end of the world.  Study smart and do your best, but if you have a bad day and don’t do so well, you can rewrite it. A bad or even an “average” (there’s that word again) score won’t keep you from your dream and mean that you’ll just die poor and lonely.  Don’t let the MCAT become your whole life, and don’t let it make or break you.  It’s just another step you need in the pathway to your dream, and (not to psych you out) but (especially if you are Canadian) it’s not even the biggest step of them all.

So yeah, those are my tips for surviving the MCAT.  Just remember to breathe, do your best, and don’t let this stupid test scare you away from your dream.  You are bigger than this test, and you can defeat it.

Also, don’t let your father drag you out to an IMAX movie four hours after you’ve returned home, exhausted and dealing with the stress aftermath of the test.  I woke up and was so groggy I could barely tell if my head and neck were still attached.  I’ve never taken drugs, but I imagine taking LSD and that experience might have something in common.

Needless to say, it’s possible I didn’t enjoy Captain America quite as much as I could have.


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