Da'Kuawn Johnson

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CARS [Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills] was my weakness. I read a lot of stuff outside of science, things that were artistic or political.

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Undergraduate institution: University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Major: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Exam score: 511
    Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: 129
    Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: 128
    Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior: 128
    Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills: 126
Time spent preparing: Thirty-two weeks. I started during the summer and was doing a summer internship at the same time, so 4 hours a day during the week and 6 hours a day on the weekends. During the fall semester, 14 hours a week. December into January, 45 hours a week.

As of June 2019 

Where are you now (school, year)?

MD-PhD student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine second year medical student, Molecular Microbiology and Immunology graduate program.

How’s it going?

Medical school is tough! I think as an MD-PhD student, I really had to adjust to medical school. I believe the most difficult part for me was realizing that succeeding in medical school required a different set of skills than succeeding in graduate school. Although medical school is tough, I have enjoyed the challenge, the exposure to patients, and learning how the human body works. It has also taught me a lot about my learning style and overcoming some of my weaknesses related to my learning style.

How did studying for the MCAT® prepare you for medical school?

Studying for the MCAT® exam prepared me for medical school by allowing me to create a clear, actionable study plan and be consistent with studying over a long period of time. From my experience, keeping up with the material in medical school tends to be the most difficult part for many students due to the fast pace. To combat that issue, it is necessary to have a clear study plan and be consistent with it so that you do not fall behind. An aspect of medical school that I did not expect the MCAT exam to help me with is physical and mental endurance for long exams. There were courses in my curriculum that had 6-hour multipart exams, and the ability to maintain your mental and physical stamina were important for performing well.

What else should people know about applying for and/or attending medical school?

Make sure you put your best foot forward as you prepare for the MCAT exam. It does not dictate whether or not you will be an amazing physician; however, it does provide insight on the likelihood you will be able to competitively perform on the standardized exams ahead (Step 1 and beyond). Those standardized exams unfortunately do carry weight and can impact your career trajectory.

Medical school is tough! Do not be ashamed to ask for help when you need it! I believe many high achievers develop the false notion that asking for help makes them appear weak, or exposes their struggles, or even makes them look stupid. However, when you decide not to ask for help you force yourself to carry a burden alone that others would easily and gladly share. You also deprive those around you (your academic support team, your classmates, your friends, etc.) who would love to assist you with the opportunity to play a role in your success. We are definitely able to accomplish a lot more together than we ever could alone. Don't try to tough it out, just ask for help.

Overall study approach

I broke my studying down into different sections. I bought the AAMC Sample Test and took it as a diagnostic. For the sections I did most poorly on, I went through each question, looking through each of the options to see why each answer was correct or incorrect. I then made an extensive outline, focused on my weaknesses, and went on to review the things that I was strong on. I used a set of Kaplan books and textbooks and notes from my classes. I also reorganized my class notes to blend disciplines. For example, I had to rework some of the things we did in physics. Physics classes typically don’t address the biological impact or implications of a physics concept, so I’d rewrite notes to include biological elements.

I approached all sections the same way, but CARS [Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills] was my weakness. So, I read a lot of stuff outside of science, things that were artistic or political. Now I tell students that they should read and read broadly. A friend who scored better than I did on the CARS section told me about the Collegiate Readership Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You get free access to daily newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Top Tips for Preparation

  1. Study smart, not exactly hard. A diagnostic is really important to start your process. Then, focus on things you’re weak on. If you have a time crunch, focus on your weaknesses.
  2. Make a plan. How are you going to tackle all the weaknesses, what resources and time do you have? Prioritize them.

Traps to Avoid

  1. My biggest warning is if you don’t do your Practice Exam 1 exactly how you will do it on test day, you probably won’t perform exactly the same. Friends who didn’t do it that way got fatigued during test day because the MCAT exam is lengthy. Make sure that you really prepare yourself physically. So, for example, if you know the exam starts early in the morning, get up at the same time you’ll get up for the real thing, wear what you’ll wear, eat the breakfast you’ll eat, sit down in a quiet room, so that test day has familiar elements, and you won’t feel as much anxiety, and you won’t be as tired.
  2. Even though you may be strong in some areas, it can’t hurt to brush up. It’ll make you a better student.

What types of exam prep were the most useful?

I think they were all equally important. The AAMC Sample Test was a good diagnostic to figure out where I was weak. Notes from classes gave me more information necessary for the exam and jogged my memory. The Kaplan books gave me tips on test taking and how to break things down.

Did you encounter any challenges or obstacles, and how did you overcome them?

It was mostly time. As a student who gets scholarships for research, a key part of my time is expected/required to be in research. So, during summers, I do 40 hours a week of research. I need to research, prepare posters, prepare talks, and set up experiments even if I’m tired. So, the biggest obstacle was time management. Lots of college students struggle with that. Taking a full course load, volunteering in a hospital, doing research, and then studying for the MCAT was a handful.

Would you have done anything differently?

Yes. I wish my plan had been clearer. In hindsight, breaking things down section-wise was a learning process. But now that I have seen multiple full-length tests and actually taken the MCAT exam, I know which tools are there. I’m more aware of the information available and where I can find the topic content.

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These students’ testimonials were selected because they represent interesting stories. The views expressed herein are those of the students and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the AAMC. Any reference in these testimonials 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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