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How Do I Prepare for the MCAT?

Preparing for the MCAT will require a great deal of time, effort, and dedication. The strategy you use to prepare will depend on factors like your past test performance, time constraints, and how long it has been since you've completed your pre-med coursework. But, whatever you do, DON'T TAKE THE MCAT COLD! The test is simply too long, too complicated, too comprehensive, and too important to be taken lightly. Even if you have a history of acing standardized tests, it is still critically important that you spend some time understanding the scope of the information covered on the MCAT and the structure of the test. Remember: Preparing can only improve your scores, which will in turn improve your candidacy in the highly competitive medical school admissions process.

You should start preparing for the MCAT and developing a study plan several months ahead of the time that you anticipate taking the test. This should give you sufficient time to become familiar with the test itself, to identify and work on any weaknesses you may have, and to avoid any last minute cramming. In addition to beginning your preparation early, you should also make sure to devote enough time to preparing each week. As a general rule, you should spend at least enough time studying for the MCAT as you would for a difficult course at Hamilton. Reserve blocks of time each week that are reserved only for studying, and make sure you stick to your schedule!

Before you even begin preparing for the MCAT, you should take a diagnostic test to determine your strengths and weaknesses so that you can see what areas you need additional study in. The AAMC offers a free full-length practice test on its MCAT Website (click here) that will automatically generate a diagnostic report for you. It will also benefit you greatly to read the AAMC's MCAT Essentials, a document that will give you a good understanding of what's on the test, how to register for it, test day procedures and regulations, score reporting, and much, much more. You can download this document from the MCAT Website.

You should then begin preparing for the MCAT in earnest by becoming familiar with the concepts you will be tested on. The AAMC's MCAT website offers outlines of the content tested on each test section as well as advice on how to prepare for these sections (click here to go there). Read over this material to get an idea of what you will need to study for the exam. Ideally, your pre-med classes will have prepared you for what's covered on the MCAT, so, hopefully, everything listed on the website will look familiar to you. Unless you have saved all the notes from these classes or are currently enrolled in them, you may wish to borrow a MCAT review book from Leslie North's office or buy one of your own to review this material, particularly if it has been a while since you last took one of your pre-med courses.

While studying for the test, you should try to reinforce the material beyond simply reading it. For example, you should write down key concepts on flash cards and regularly quiz yourself with them. Moreover, because they're flash cards, you can bring them pretty much wherever you go and pull them out whenever you have a few minutes of free time. If you use a review book, then it will likely contain content-specific questions. Use these questions to not only test your mastery of specific concepts but to also gain some experience in understanding how these concepts will be incorporated into test questions and the types of passages you'll encounter.

Studying for the Verbal Reasoning and Writing Sample sections is a little trickier because, unlike the science sections, there aren't specific concepts you can study. Fortunately, a well-rounded liberal arts education at Hamilton should give you good preparation for these sections. If you have taken the prerequisite science courses, as well as classes in the humanities and social sciences, you should be skilled at reading and writing about a wide range of material. You may also wish up to take up some light extracurricular reading to expand your vocabulary, develop your reading pace, and increase your familiarity with texts and arguments in various disciplines. As with the science sections, try to do practice Verbal Reasoning and Writing Sample questions in tandem with your studying so you can see the types of questions you'll be asked and the types of skills you'll need to answer them. This is especially important for the Writing Sample because few people can write a good essay in 30 minutes off the top of their head without some practice doing it.

While studying the material that will be covered on the MCAT is important, it should comprise a relatively small amount of your overall preparation time. You do not want to focus the majority of your time simply learning or memorizing content. Rather, you want to spend the bulk of your time on applying the content to practice questions/passages. Indeed, the single best way to prepare for the MCAT is to take as many practice tests as possible. The AAMC offers several full-length exams from past years on its MCAT Website for $35/test. Review books and commercial prep courses also frequently offer full-length practice exams they've developed on their own. After taking each practice test, make sure to check which answers you got right and which ones you got wrong. For those questions you got wrong, make sure you take the time to understand why you got them wrong and what the correct answers are. Identify the areas you are weak in and spend some additional time reviewing that content. Of course, make sure to periodically review the areas you are strong in as well so that they don't become weak areas too.

The MCAT is a long test, so you may need to initially build up your test-taking stamina by practicing shorter, focused tests first to increase your accuracy before you're able to tackle full-length ones. When you are able to take on a full-length test, try to simulate test day conditions as much as possible. Minimize distractions and complete the test all in one sitting within the time-limits imposed on each section. You should also try to take the sections in their proper order (Physical Science, Verbal Reasoning, Writing Sample, and Biological Sciences). If you need to take a break, do so during the designated 10-minute break periods between sections. Furthermore, focus on taking computer-based practice tests that simulate the interface of the real MCAT (such as those offered by the AAMC). This is not to say that paper practice tests aren't helpful, but rather that you don't want something as trivial as not knowing how to use the computer interface to trip you up on test day. Using computer-based practice tests will also help to train your eyes to be able to look at a computer screen for long periods of time as well as assist you in learning to use the interface's functionality, like highlighting, striking out, and skipping around between questions, prior to test day.

Hoping to improve their scores, some students enroll in MCAT prep courses offered by commercial firms. These prep courses can be very helpful as they usually offer comprehensive study plans, large question banks, and multiple computer-based practice exams. They are particularly well suited to people who find it difficult to stick to an intensive study schedule on their own. Yet, at the same time, these courses can be quite expensive. The material provided on the AAMC's MCAT Website and in a relatively inexpensive review book (remember, you can also borrow one for free from Leslie) coupled with your rigorous Hamilton education should make enrollment in these courses unnecessary, especially if you're a self-directed learner who can stick to a study schedule. In fact, according to the AAMC, one large study indicated that gains derived from commercial review courses are small and could be due simply to the time devoted to reviewing the relevant material. Furthermore, some review courses imply that they will give their students the opportunity to see and study questions that may appear on the MCAT exam. The AAMC, however, states that it makes strenuous efforts to ensure that this is not the case. Ultimately, enrolling in a prep course is a personal choice that will depend on your personal circumstances.

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