Preparing for the MCAT® Exam: Advice from a Medical Education Learning Specialist

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Tips from the “Start your MCAT Prep Right with Proven Learning Strategies” Webinar 

In a recent live webinar, Shavonia Wynn, PhD, joined the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) team to discuss effective exam preparation strategies. The “Start your MCAT Prep Right with Proven Learning Strategies” webinar empowers viewers with evidence-based learning techniques to prepare for the MCAT exam and help improve their scores.  

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Preparing for the MCAT exam can be a daunting task, but don’t be deterred. Wynn, a medical education learning specialist, has provided insight into how to effectively study for the exam. Read her tips for preparing for the exam below.  

Familiarize yourself with the exam’s structure and content. 

An important first step in preparing for the MCAT exam is to familiarize yourself with the exam’s structure and content. Learning as much as you can about the exam will create a strong foundation for your preparation and allow you to enter your test day comfortably.  

The structure of the MCAT exam will likely be very different from what most students are used to. You can begin to familiarize yourself with the exam structure by reading the MCAT Essentials. The MCAT Essentials is your guide to the official policies, processes, and procedures for taking the MCAT exam. In short, this document will help you navigate the registration process, test day, obtaining your scores, and more. Think of this document as your starting point toward MCAT success.  

After you understand the exam’s structure, you will want to learn all you can about the content tested in the exam. Wynn recommends starting with the What’s on the MCAT Exam? Content Outline. This resource contains a complete description of the content you are responsible for knowing and the skills you will be required to execute. The outline discusses the exam’s framework, which is organized by foundational concepts, content categories, and scientific inquiry and reasoning skills. The resource is available as a downloadable PDF and as a course in the MCAT Official Prep Hub.  

Set a baseline. 

Setting a baseline establishes a starting point for your exam preparation. It allows you to gauge your current skill level, identify knowledge gaps, and measure progress moving forward. One of the easiest ways to set your baseline is by taking a “cold” exam before you begin any preparation. Taking a cold exam serves two purposes: to accurately evaluate your current knowledge areas and to introduce you to the look and feel of the exam questions.  

Wynn recommends taking the AAMC’s unscored sample exam to set your baseline. While this exam does not provide a traditional three-digit score, it does provide a percent correct. You can then use this percent correct to measure your own knowledge against what Wynn considers a good starting point, which is 60-65% correct.  

Identify your strengths and weaknesses.  

You will want to review your practice exam by grouping content areas together in the content and skills breakdown rather than in the order the content appeared on the test. This will allow you to assess your strengths and weaknesses as they relate to the different content areas covered by the exam. 

A helpful feature of the What’s on the MCAT Exam? Content Outline Course is the ability to keep track of your areas of strength and weakness, ensuring that you do not miss any content needed for the exam. After you have completed your baseline assessment, you can use your results to assign each content area a label of low, medium, or high confidence. You can think about low confidence areas as things you will need to learn, medium confidence areas as things you will need to review, and high confidence areas as things you already know. Sorting the content in this way will help you clearly determine your areas of strength and weakness and indicate where to focus your studying. Your goal after sorting the content in this way should be to turn your low confidence areas into medium confidence areas and your medium confidence areas into high confidence areas.  

Create a study plan that works for you. 

The final step to kicking off your MCAT prep is to create a study plan. The best study plan is one that is tailored to your personal learning style and schedule. But, according to Wynn, there are a few things that should be included in every plan. These are content review and learning, retrieval practice, and practice exams.  

Content Review and Learning: You will want to work a few learning strategies into your study plan that can help you navigate content review and learning new content over the course of your studying. There are a lot of learning strategies out there so you may need to try a few different techniques to see what works best for you. Some learning strategies Dr. Wynn recommends exploring are watching videos, reading textbooks, creating real-life examples of the concepts, making flashcards, and joining study groups or online forums to ask questions and practice teaching content.  

Retrieval Practice: The MCAT exam will ask you to actively retrieve information to answer questions. The best way to prepare for this is to actively practice it during your studying. Retrieval practice is the art of recalling concepts from memory to enhance learning, strengthen connections, and increase the chances that you’ll be able to recall it in the future. The two main methods of retrieval practice are: answering practice questions and spaced repetition review most often utilized in the form of flashcards. The key to spaced repetition is to revisit newly learned materials early and often so that you can easily recall it on test day. Wynn recommends incorporating retrieval practice into your study plan consistently at least 5-6 days per week. 

Practice Exams: Full-length practice exams should serve as mile markers along your studying to measure where you are in relation to your goals. Wynn recommends scheduling practice exams at regular intervals along your preparation journey. These intervals could be after a significant amount of low and medium confidence areas are covered, after a significant amount of practice questions are completed, or after review of weaker areas is underway. Review your practice exam results and update your low, medium, and high confidence areas using the What’s on the MCAT Exam? Content Outline Course.  

A couple other things to keep in mind when creating your study plan are your score and progress goals, the amount of time you have before your exam date, and any obligations you may have outside of studying. The MCAT team has developed a six-step guide to help you develop your own study plan for examinees who are looking for help getting started. You can download the How to Create a Study Plan for the MCAT Exam guide here or access the online version of the guide from the MCAT Official Prep Hub.  

You can watch the entire webinar recording through the webinars section of the Premed Resources website.

If you want to learn more about the study strategies described in this article, be sure to check the What’s on the MCAT Exam? Content Outline, How to Create a Study Plan for the MCAT Exam guide, and other AAMC MCAT Prep resources in the MCAT Exam Prep Hub

Thank you to our contributor, Shavonia Wynn, PhD. Wynn is a Medical Education Learning Consultant for several medical schools and national organizations including the Medical College of Georgia, Morehouse School of Medicine, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), and MedEd Learning.  

These learning techniques have been edited for length and are excerpted from the “Start your MCAT Prep Right with Proven Learning Strategies” webinar on March 12, 2024.  

Third-party test preparatory company names, products, and other trademarks are the property of the respective trademark holders. None of the trademark holders are endorsed by or affiliated with the AAMC.   

This testimonial was selected because it represents an interesting story and perspective. The views expressed herein are those of the presenter and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the AAMC. Any reference in the testimonial to a specific third-party product, process, or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the AAMC of the product, process, or service or its supplier.  

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