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This past Friday, I completed a milestone – perhaps the milestone – in my slow, steady march toward medical school. Although I know that acceptance into a school is merely the start of an even longer journey than the one that I embarked on in 2012 when I entered NYU, I can’t help but see it as a kind of finish line. Maybe it’s a self-defense mechanism as I attempt to comprehend that my collegiate life is still less than half over. In any case, I’m nearly there.
This milestone was taking the MCAT (or the “MEDICAL COLLEGE ADMISSIONS TEST” as it was dauntingly displayed on the screen in front of me), the seven-plus hour test which put me through my paces on the topics that the American Association of Medical Colleges deem important for future doctors to master before being admitted into a medical program. It’s said that this newer and longer test will more accurately predict performance on the USMLE Step 1 assessment (the first of a pair of tests that occur during medical school). Final scores in each of the four sections are scaled against how everybody else performs, which is hardly comforting when taking the test in a center with around 50 others.
I’ll talk about standardized tests in general in a follow-up to this post (I have no doubt that many HOSA members who find their way to this page are gearing up for the ACT and/or SAT), but I’d like to focus on the MCAT for now as it’s so fresh in my mind and it can be so overwhelming for many pre-med students.
The first thing to realize about this test is that you don’t want to take it multiple times. Scores can’t be canceled after test day and schools receive every score you’ve earned regardless of whether you improved or did worse. Registration in itself can actually be very competitive in highly populated areas, so it’s wise to know when you want to take the test in advance of registration opening (I believe it’s in October for the earlier dates of the following year). Unless you take it initially and feel that you can perform much, much better with only one more attempt (for example, by realizing you need to study very hard and possibly take a prep course before your second attempt), it’s wise not to repeat the MCAT. With this in mind and knowledge of my own weakness with time management, I decided to enroll in a prep course with Kaplan. These courses are expensive and still require some measure of self-motivation, but provide a structure that encourages you on your way to test day (or as Kaplan imposingly refers to it, Test Day – are you seeing a theme here?) and give you helpful tools that will allow you to find direction in your independent study. I don’t like reading but can watch videos all day, so Kaplan’s video series helped me master content with which I was lacking knowledge. Khan Academy offers a similar resource for free (!!!).
Speaking of content, I highly encourage college freshmen to begin planning their four-year class plan as early as possible. This new test essentially requires General Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Organic Chemistry, and Biochemistry. At NYU, both semesters of Organic Chem must be completed before taking Biochem, so students wanting to avoid a gap year (and who must therefore take the MCAT Spring/Summer of their junior year) should front-load those subjects as much as possible. I waited to take Organic Chem until my Junior year, and so am taking a gap year (more on that in a later post!). Of all the content areas on the test, biochem appears in the most sections, making it imperative that you’ve mastered that content before test day (ideally by taking the course!). On the other hand, specific subjects that students commonly have trouble with, such as organic chem or physics, can often be reduced to manageable chunks of content, which any review book or course worth its salt will demonstrate. Of course, the ultimate way to determine if you’ve mastered the concepts and facts that you need to know for the MCAT is by practicing.
Practice is the most valuable thing that you can do before test day, but it must also be rationed. The AAMC provides limited resources (many of which must be purchased but which are a must-have in my mind), and so most early practice should again come from a review book or course. The MCAT is in essence a critical thinking test, and therefore requires not only knowledge but very high level reasoning skills as well. The passages that accompany nearly every question provide clues as to the correct answers, but these clues are very often hidden behind the complexity of the passage or other information designed to pull your attention away from the correct information. Many pre-med students are experts at test-taking who don’t often have to prepare for tests, but the MCAT’s passage-based structure as well as its tricky questions require effort and practice from everyone. The highest-yield but most exhausting type of practice is the full-length test. The AAMC has (as of now) released two full-length exams which should serve only as final practice; one provides a scaled score (and is thus the best predictor of how you will perform on the real thing) and one without this score. Taking a seven hour test was unlike anything I’ve ever done, so I highly encourage that when you take full-lengths, you treat them as if they are real (i.e. only prescribed breaks, all at once, in a computer lab, etc.).
The score that you receive on the MCAT is only one piece in a medical school application; however, it’s one piece that must be sufficiently strong if you are to be successful. Areas of strength may make up for some areas of weakness, but the MCAT score stands alone. Don’t take the test lightly – it’s an important milestone and you should feel well-prepared when you walk into the testing center. If you do, then you’ll feel much better when you walk out.