Month: May 2014

The Biggest Test You’ll Ever Take (In College)

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my MCAT day, and I’m feeling a little nostalgic so I thought I would make a post about how to tackle this test. For most, including myself, the MCAT seemed like the biggest hurdle in my way to get into medical school. It seems so daunting, and there is so much pressure to do well, but it does not need to be nearly as intimidating as most make it out to be. So, here is some advice on the Medical College Admissions Test:

First of all, you must understand that this test is a marathon, not a sprint. It tests not only your understanding of basic science knowledge, but also your ability to study for a huge standardized test, since you will have to take a bunch of those in medical school. If you know all of the material cold, you could probably manage a 30 (this is the old scoring. I don’t know how the 2015 changes will affect what is considered a “good” score). Anything beyond that requires the ability to take this test specifically. Therefore, my number one piece of advice to score well on the MCAT is to TAKE PRACTICE TESTS. The AAMC offers a number of them for a small fee on their website. Take all of them. But only take them after you have studied. While studying, find a good study source that has lots of practice questions built in (I know the Berkeley Review is essentially 50% practice questions). The AAMC practice tests are the best metric to tell you how you will do on the real thing, since they are the ones who make the test. They will also help you get a feel for how the real thing is structured.

Secondly, give yourself plenty of time to study, and don’t take the test until you are certain you will hit your target score. The AAMC recommends 300 hours of study time. This works out to about 4 months of studying for several hours every day. Personally, I studied for almost 5 months, 6 days a week, with a few days off here and there. This is how long it took me to feel good about how I was scoring and got me into my target score range, and I was very happy with my score. It is a big time commitment to study for this test, especially while still in school. What helped me the most was to make a study schedule, so all of my studying every day was extremely focused and I never felt overwhelmed by the immensity of all the information I was expected to know.

Finally, I have some tips and tricks for the whole MCAT and for each of the sections on the current MCAT. I don’t know much about the new social science sections, but I can tell you from the experimental passages I got on my MCAT day, the questions were a lot of common sense and information you could absorb from any into to sociology/psychology class.

MCAT day: Try to arrive at the testing center early. You don’t want to add any stress that comes with being late to this already anxiety-ridden day. It takes a little while to get checked in, and I found it nice to be one of the first ones in the room. You can’t take anything except your ID into the room with you, and everything else goes into a locker, so keep that in mind as well. They will give you a pencil and a piece of scrap paper for you to use, and you can ask for ear plugs, which are nice since not everyone starts and takes breaks at the same time, which means the constant sound of movement and the door opening and closing can be annoying and distracting. When I first sat down, I wrote down “66, 58, 50, 42, 36, 28, 20” at the top of my paper, which represented how much time I had left in the section I was on after I completed each passage. After I finished the passage, I would cross of the number and move on, which helped me gauge how much time I had left. Time seemed to move pretty quickly, and I know a lot of people have problems getting through the sections, so make sure you pace yourself. Don’t skip any questions because you might not have time to come back, and you don’t lose points for guessing. Most importantly, don’t get too hung up on a complicated question, because they’re all worth the same amount. After all, you could get three easy questions correct in the amount of time you spend trying work out a complex problem.

Physical Science: The hardest part of this section for me was working through the problems quickly and without a calculator. To help prep, try not using a calculator during your chemistry and physics classes, especially on the simpler problems, and absolutely do not use a calculator while studying for the MCAT. On my MCAT day, someone showed up with a calculator and was sorely disappointed when he found out he couldn’t use it (and I bet he was pretty disappointed with his score, too). For this section, I also took a couple of minutes at the beginning of the section to write out some of the chemistry and physics formulas I thought I might use (Henderson-Hasselbalch, kinetics equations, etc.).

Verbal Reasoning: This section was pretty easy for me to study, since I was an English major and spent a lot of time reading sections of literature in the arts and humanities. For this section, what is most important is seeing the passage through the eyes of the author, not your own interpretation of the material. This can be especially difficult for science majors who spend a lot of time searching for the objective “Truth.” There will probably not be just one right answer for a lot of these questions. In fact, all of the answers may be correct, but you must find the one that is most in line with the author’s own view. I didn’t waste my time with some of the strategies that test-prep companies advertise. The most helpful thing for me was to time myself while doing practice problems (I think I used Exam Krackers verbal book. It had a ton of passages.) Also, as with everything else with this test, practice problems will make the difference between a great score and a good score.

Biological Science: This section is much less memorizing material and much more interpreting research results. I think the general consensus is the questions in this section are more like what you will find in AAMC practice tests 10 and 11. It will be helpful to have a lot of science classes done before taking this test, especially cellular bio, genetics, and microbiology. I didn’t spend too much time studying Organic Chemistry beyond what had direct application to biology (for example, I didn’t look at synthesis problems). This tends to be everyone’s best section on the MCAT, since we are all going into a biological science field, so don’t stress too much over this section beyond taking lots and lots of practice problems.

As I said before, the MCAT is a marathon. Begin studying as soon as you get into college by doing your very best in your science courses and aim for mastery of the material, not just a good GPA. The less learning you have to do come MCAT prep time, the more efficient your studying will be. This is one of the most important chances you have to make yourself a competitive applicant for medical school, so take it seriously. For some, this can make or break your application. With that said, if you aren’t happy with your score, don’t be afraid to retake it and know that this test is not the only part of your application that medical schools look at.

In closing, I apologize to those taking the MCAT in 2015 and beyond. This advice does not encompass everything you will have to go through in your studying. It also looks like your test will be much longer (almost twice as long, in fact) than the test I took. I wish you all the best of luck in this stage of your journey to become doctors. 

Let the Games Begin! And May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor…

Well today is the first day of a new application season so I thought I should post a few tips for those getting ready to fill out the application. Remember, you want to make sure this is the best representation of you as an applicant, so spend as much time as you can getting this perfect.

  1. Apply Early. And I mean it. I believe you can submit June first. Do it. Spend this month filling everything out and get that application in ASAP. You would not believe how busy the people at AAMC are around mid June. This year, for those who submitted mid to late June had to wait 8 weeks for their applications to be processed. Also, a mediocre early application has a better chance of getting you an interview than a stellar late app. In addition, after you submit your primary AMCAS or AACOMAS app, start prewriting your secondaries. Each school will require you to write 3-7 school-specific essays and the prompts don’t change much year to year, so scour the Internet and see if you can find them (a great place is studentdoctor.net).
  2. Apply Broadly: Medical school admissions are pretty much a crapshoot for the average applicant. Roughly 40% of all those who apply get accepted, which is why it is necessary to apply to a lot of different schools. I heard somewhere that the average number of schools applicants apply to is 15. With that said, don’t apply somewhere you can’t imagine yourself going. You don’t want to have your only acceptance at a school you hate. My best advice is buy the MSAR for MD schools as take a look at the school information on the AACOMAS website, along with going through the specific schools’ websites. You will find a wealth of information and hopefully get a sense of whether or not you will fit in, although most of that will come from your interview day. You also need to look the scores and types of experiences that this school looks for. Do they emphasize research or community service? Is their average MCAT a 28 or a 34? Be realistic with yourself on your chances of getting into a school, but don’t be afraid to reach for the stars. Remember, you will hopefully only do this once.
  3. MCAT: Try to schedule your MCAT so you will have your scores by the end of June; that way, if a retake is necessary, you will still have time to take it again without a horribly late application. The MCAT is a big test, so make sure you are prepared when you take it because you really only want to go through that stress once. A great way to see if you are prepared is by taking the practice tests offered by AAMC. They are extremely predictive so you’re actual score will probably be within 1-2 points of your averages on the practice tests.
  4. Letters of Recommendation: Before getting these, think about who has gotten to know you the most. You want to find people who can really show the admission committees that you deserve to go to their school and you will work hard. So when you do ask for those letters, ask them if they think they can write you a GOOD letter; if they say no, it’s better than a bad letter ruining your app.
  5. Extra Curricular Activities: You are given space for 15 ECs. You do not have to use every single one. For each one, you need to concisely explain what you did and why it’s relevant. You may also choose up to three to be your “most meaningful” activities. For these, you are given extra space to explain. Choose these wisely because medical schools will look these at more carefully.
  6. Secondary Applications: As I said before, each school will require you to write specific essays for them. Try to get some of these done ahead of time, especially if you are applying to a lot of schools. The general consensus seems to be to get these turned around in less than two weeks, so you don’t want the pressure of getting 30 essays done in less than two weeks. Schools take these very seriously, so make sure you have several people look over them and give them your very best effort.
  7. Relax. This is an extremely long process full of “hurry up and wait” moments. You will rush to get your app in and then wait several weeks to get it processed. Then the secondaries from schools will poor in and you will get those turned around and then wait months for interviews. Then you will wait more to get a decision. But it will be worth it when you finally have that acceptance letter in your hand. Just try your best not to check your inbox every 5 minutes for the second half of the year like I did and enjoy your last few months before school starts.