Successfully completing the Medical College Admission Test, commonly called the MCAT, is a crucial step for students who are planning a career as health care professionals. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), over 75,000 graduates take this exam every year. Medical school hopefuls must take this exam as nearly all U.S. and Canadian medical schools require MCAT scores as part of a student’s application requirements. Prospective students can also use MCAT scores for application to many graduate programs in other health professions. As MCAT performance affects educational acceptance and eventual career prospects, it is important that prospective medical students take this exam seriously and prepare properly with a study plan, becoming familiar with the exam and developing effective test-taking strategies.
The MCAT is a standardized exam administered by the AAMC. There is a fee to take the exam and examinees must schedule a date well in advance. This computerized multiple choice exam takes nearly six hours and is comprised of four parts: Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning and a voluntary trial question portion. Examinees receive a scaled score based on the number of correct answers in each section. The exam is not graded on a curve and the voluntary trial section isn’t scored. Medical schools and other notable health profession graduate programs use the MCAT score as a predictive tool in determining the student’s likelihood for success during their medical studies and in the practice of medicine. Not only does the exam measure a prospective student’s aptitude in tested topics, it also tests the critical thinking and problem solving skills that are necessary for success in a health profession.
The MCAT requires careful and rigorous study. As the science portions test knowledge gained through pre-requisite college level coursework, it’s impossible to succeed with cramming. Examinees must also familiarize themselves with computer-based testing and verbal reasoning questions. This makes it vital that students start studying well in advance of their test date. Students typically start studying several months to a year before their exam date. Many students choose to sign up for commercial test-prep programs as they provide study schedules, study materials and practice tests. Self-study is also a viable option for students who feel comfortable creating their own study and practice test schedule. Students can use their own college course materials for self-study or purchase commercial study materials. The AAMC also provides content outlines on the materials covered in the exam. While the exact timeline and study plan will depend on an examinee’s personal knowledge level and weak areas going into exam prep, it is important for examinees to create a comfortable study plan that allows for ample review and practice tests.
In addition to studying exam topics, students should ensure that they are familiar with the exam structure and type of questions on the exam. Using retired old exams is particularly effective as students can test their knowledge on actual MCAT questions administered in the past. This helps students determine areas where they need more study and which sections or types of questions they find difficult. Taking practice tests also helps students become comfortable with the format of the questions and testing conditions. Being familiar with computer-based testing and the timing of the exam is extremely beneficial. Proper time management and stamina is really necessary to succeed on the MCAT which is an exhausting examination. Practicing under simulated testing conditions also cuts down on anxiety as students will know just what to expect on test day.
If you’re planning on taking the MCAT, here are additional preparation tips:
Develop a systematic and step-by-step study schedule leading up to your testing day. Even if you take a commercial study course, tailor it further to account for your specific strengths and weaknesses.
Join a study group. This creates accountability and gives you a support system as you prepare for this challenging exam. You may also want to consult with current medical students on effective study strategies.
Practice taking the entire test from start to finish. While practicing specific topics is important, taking the entire exam is a unique experience and something you do not want to experience for the first time on test day.
Ensure that you get proper exercise, rest and nutrition in the months leading up to the exam. While it’s tempting to focus solely on studying, maintaining your mental and physical well-being will help you perform your best on test day.
Do a run-through for test day. Familiarize yourself with every aspect of your examination day from your route to the testing site to the rules on what you can take into the testing room. This prevents unpleasant surprises on your test date and will give you peace of mind during an understandably anxious time.
Remain calm. Not only is anxiety counter-productive to exam prep, it’s important to remember that the MCAT is only one part of your medical school application profile. Admissions committees will consider your other academic and extracurricular achievements when assessing your application.
If you truly feel unprepared as you approach test day and even after taking practice tests, speak with a trusted advisor and carefully consider your options. You may need to determine if it is simply nerves or decide that it is in your best interest to reschedule your exam on a later date.
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Written by Michelle Owen and last updated Jan 5, 2017
Last reviewed by Jay Frank Vijar on Oct 11, 2016