How to Train for a Marathon—or the MCAT Exam

Sunny Nakae, MSW, PhD, assistant dean for admissions, recruitment, and student life, and assistant professor of medical education at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, likens preparing for the MCAT exam to training for a marathon. Just like a marathon takes training and preparation, you won’t be able to wake up one day and take the MCAT exam. Dr. Nakae highlights four principles to help you tackle the MCAT exam.
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There are four elements to tackling the MCAT exam. I like to think of it as training for a marathon, because many of the same principles apply: you have to take it seriously, and you can’t just roll out of bed and try to pull it off, or you might get hurt! If you train well, you’re more likely to be successful. So here it goes: your MCAT training secrets.

Get your attitude right. 

If you want to be a doctor, you’re going to need to master standardized exams. Period. No amount of complaining, labeling yourself a “bad test-taker,” or dreading the test is going to change the fact that you need to tackle it. Just like marathon runners, you do not have to be a top finisher, as the field is wide open with room for all sorts of runners. You need to successfully train and finish the race at your full potential (if Oprah ran a marathon, you can do this too!). 

Be positive with yourself about all aspects of your preparation. Pay attention to your self-talk. Instead of “I’m not a good test taker,” say to yourself “I’m learning to master taking exams.” Or instead of “My future will be determined by this test,” remind yourself that “The MCAT is an important step toward my goals.” 

Plan and prepare.

Plan to take the exam when the timing is ideal for you. If you have a heavy semester coming up, that may not be the best time. Look at all the factors and set yourself up for success. A marathon is not a race! Once you have established an ideal timeline, create a preparation plan. There are guides on marathon training that gradually increase mileage, include critical rest days, and map out how to ensure you’re ready for 26.2 miles. Even folks who are not athletic can succeed at completing a marathon if they are disciplined in following a preparation plan tailored to their needs.   

Assess your strengths and weaknesses and be real with yourself. Plan the content and skills you need to tackle, emphasizing weak areas. As humans we tend to pursue activities that make us feel good, so it’s tempting to only practice the areas where you’re doing well. Resist! Train weaker muscles first. I recommend studying six to eight hours per day for a minimum of six weeks (six hours per day for six weeks will yield more progress than 12 hours per day for three weeks). Your brain needs time to absorb information and create new neuropathways. Also remember to take breaks and stay balanced. Cramming is generally not effective for long term gains, and you want to retain all the skills you build for the MCAT exam for medical school and your subsequent licensing boards (trust me on this!). The MCAT exam is the first of many exams in the career of a physician.

Problem solve like a boss.

If you hit roadblocks in your preparation, take a step back and re-assess what you need. A very common mistake students make is to study like a robot for the planned amount of time and then take the test, no matter what. Students sometimes get very bogged down in thinking that deadlines they set for themselves are absolute. When it comes to your timeline, be willing to adapt to your needs. If you aren’t ready to perform your best in July, regroup and reschedule. Maybe that means you apply the following year, and that’s okay. Rushing through the process or sacrificing performance for speed is not likely to pay off. In the end, you want your score to reflect your best efforts. That yields the best odds of eventually getting a seat in medical school—which is what it’s all for anyway.

If you’re flat-lining on practice tests, consider finding a private tutor, preparation programs, or peer study groups. Find resources online, like Khan Academy, to help you reach that next level. Here’s the bad news: I have never talked to a student who scored higher on their actual test than on a practice one. That is to say that if your goal score is a 510, you should be exceeding your goal score on practice tests before you decide to sit for the real exam. Think about it in marathon terms. If your mile splits are 9:00 minutes during marathon training, they will not magically become 8:30 minute splits on race day. You bring with you exactly what you spent the last several weeks achieving during training.

If you take the MCAT and you’re unhappy with your score, the first step is to accurately assess what went wrong. I tell students not to turn around and take the test again in hopes that their first score was a fluke. I reviewed more than 1,000 applications this season and I saw many MCAT exams one to three months apart that were exactly the same scores. Understanding what is not working is the first step to fixing it. Did you run out of time? Did you incorrectly interpret questions? Did you let your nerves impair your performance? Did you lack content expertise? Address the problems directly before you decide to sit again. Remember every MCAT score appears on your application and this can have an impact on your candidacy.

Confidence.

If you do the previous three things, then go into that testing center with confidence. Tell yourself that you’re prepared. Calm your nerves by reassuring yourself that you’re ready for the task. Set your goal high and go for it. If you’ve invested the time in preparation and overcoming obstacles, you will hopefully be able to genuinely feel confident in your abilities. Stay focused on yourself. Do not let other test takers throw you off your game or shake your confidence. If you don’t feel confident about taking the test, ask yourself why. Are there areas you still need to address? Have you prepared in a diligent and disciplined manner? Are you performing consistently on practice exercises?

Remember that you are not your MCAT score. Admissions committees know that there is far more to a candidate than a number. We’re looking for future physicians who will translate the discipline, positivity, problem solving, and hard work put into training for the MCAT exam into a training regimen for medicine that will ultimately benefit patients. 

On your mark, get set, go!

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Sunny Nakae, MSW, PhD, is the assistant dean for admissions, recruitment, and student life, and assistant professor of medical education at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the AAMC or its members.

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