Thursday, April 25, 2013

How to get into medical school: the MCAT

There is a four letter word that burns the very soul of most pre-meds... and it's spelled M-C-A-T. Yes, "MCAT" a profanity for most pre-meds, as it was for me when I was studying for it (sort of like "USMLE" will become when you're in med school). Whether it makes sense or not, the MCAT can determine which schools you can get into, and in some cases, whether you'll get into medical school at all. Dumb, I say. But I don't make the rules.

I despise standardized tests. I know many folks who wanted to go to medical school, but just couldn't get good scores. To me, this is just not fair. Are you a great test taker? Then, kudos to you, and why are you still reading this post? You have better things to do, so go play video games or watch Kim and Kourtney take Miami.

Not a great test taker? Read on! Many in the medical profession are not naturally stellar standardized test takers, but do make outstanding physicians (and many excellent test takers make horrendous physicians). So do not fret, my friend. I have a few tips that I hope can help some of you.

1. Set aside dedicated time to study
Are you doing your honors thesis while in championship season for your varsity sport and writing a book all at the same time? Then this is NOT the time to study for the MCAT! Most people will do best if they can set aside at least 2 weeks to focusing ONLY on the MCAT. I wanted to take my MCAT during the school year, but I ended up taking it the summer after my senior year (I took a gap year to apply to med schools and finish my research project).  I studied off and on in my final quarter (mostly off), and then went home to my parents' house to study for about 2-3 weeks. I literally locked myself in a room for about 4 - 6 hours a day. Think of it as a way to solidify all that knowledge you crammed into your heads in your pre-med courses. It really ain't so bad.

2. To take a course, or not to take a course...
I took the Kaplan classroom course, which was expensive, but overall pretty good. I'd recommend you do save up to use either Kaplan or Princeton Review (I'm sure there are other good preps but I'm not familiar with others). If I had to do it over, I'd sign up for the online course, which is much cheaper and has the same price. If you're the type who needs to ask questions to understand a concept, then the classroom might be better for you.  If you learn well by reading and understand most concepts, you could probably get by just buying the course materials.

Don't be scared. You've already learned most of it!
I think these test prep courses 1) condense the info into a much more digestible format, and 2) all your competition is taking them, so in order to be competitive, you probably should too.

*I have no financial or romantic relationship with either Kaplan or Princeton Review.

3. Do NOT pull out your notes from your pre-med courses
The MCAT is a test that is, believe it or not, limited in scope. Your physics course at your university probably has some overlap with the MCAT material, but unless you want to waste your time studying stuff that's not going to be on the test, stick to MCAT specific test prep material. And if you look at the above pic, you'll see it's plenty to look over.

4. Practice tests!!!!
The single most effective way to study (after you've reviewed and understand the basic concepts) is to take practice tests. Try to take an official test about once a week to gauge your progress. The AAMC practice tests are expensive ($35 each currently), but they are real tests that can probably give you a good estimate of what your actual score should be, plus or minus a few points. I also think doing practice questions from an MCAT prep book every day after reviewing the material can be helpful and also break up the tedium of reading.

If you really want to develop a panic disorder in a day, start going onto pre-med forums and reading about how everybody in the world got a 39 on their MCAT. How 99% of pre-meds score in the top 0.1 percentile, I don't know. Actually, yes I do. THEY LIE. THEY WANT TO INTIMIDATE YOU. THEY WANT YOU TO FREAK OUT. So don't go there. Just don't. And do you have a pre-med friend who's also studying the MCAT? I'd say stay away from them until AFTER the test. Then throw yourselves a party and forget about it (believe it or not, I've forgotten how painful studying for the MCAT was).

6. Try to stay normal when you're studying
To be as productive as possible, you want to be as healthy as you can when you're studying. This means getting as much sleep as you need, exercising daily, not eating crap, blah-bi-di-blah you know rest.  Take breaks when you do things you enjoy. You're smart. You've gotten this far. Don't become stupid by pulling all nighters and while cracked out on Adderall and Krispy Kremes and coffee. Not cool, and not helpful either. If you find yourself doing this, then consider pushing back your test date. And this almost goes without saying, but please go to bed at a reasonable hour the night before the test. It is a known fact that zombies suck at the MCAT.

7. Relax a bit. The MCAT isn't everything. 
Many folks with horrid MCAT scores have still gotten into medical school. Why? Because they made themselves irresistible to med schools in other ways.  Develop your own research question and do an original research study (it's a lot of work but in my opinion, way more meaningful that taking on somebody else's project!). Join the Peace Corp. Work at Disney World. Teach science to 3rd graders. Run a marathon. Focus on succeeding and standing out in other ways. Many med schools appreciate people who are more than their test scores.

8. Good luck! I hope you all do great! 


  1. Hi Katherine! If you don't mind sharing, how did you end up doing after taking the course? Thank you!

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  3. Thank you. Coming up on my Senior Year of undergrad, finals are just a big ole week of second-guessing everything! So Thanks for this!

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  4. Katherine, thanks for writing this. I'm a nontrad, 26 year old new dad, applying this summer. Since I'm coming in a little older than others, I used to look at student doctor forums for advice. It was terrible! I can't believe how much anxiety those punks can create. Stay away from those forums everybody! You can find all the information you need from your school, a premed adviser, admissions at medical schools (they've been great), and helpful blogs like this one. Good luck everyone! Thanks again Katherine!

  5. Katherine Bell Hill, you are awesome!

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  10. You guys are so LUCKY!!!!!! I am from India and myself a 1st year med student. Here we get into med school right after 12th grade and MCAT seems like a cakewalk compared to how much i had to study... !!!
    PS- been through these books...

  11. Holy crap! This has been the most uplifting post about mcat prep..takin mine next week!!!!

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  13. thank you. this is the kindest thing i have read about the mcat. doctor forums are scary. anything they say is discouraging. they diss programs, they diss others. you just feel worthless and scared. they'll even talk about how their practice did no good and they scored lower or something. either way, nothing POSITIVE or actually helpful. thank you again, and good luck with everything.

  14. I've talked to some people who have literally spent months studying for the MCAT full-time. It's kind of sad to see people devoting a portion of their lives to a test, but it is what it is. You can't always change the system but you can do your best to succeed in it. At the end of the day, it's probably a good thing that we have high standards for our doctors since they are performing life saving procedures on a regular basis. Thanks for your blog, good read!

  15. MCAT 2015 will have a new format and this is making preperation for medical school admissions an even more nerve wrecking experience. I wonder if studying for medicine will be as tough mentally as preparing for MCAT.

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