Undergraduate institution: McMaster University, Canada and currently getting my master’s degree in Health Research Methodology at McMaster University
Major: Life sciences; Minor: Biochemistry
Exam score: 516
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: 129
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: 129
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior: 130
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills: 128
Time spent preparing: For my first and second attempts, I studied all summer, which was four months. For my last and most successful attempt, I studied for one month. For my first and second attempts, I studied 5 days per week for 7-8 hours a day for four months. For my third attempt, I studied 6-7 days per week for 4 hours per day.
Overall study approach
From day one, I started by using an Excel sheet to write what to do every day. I started by including days to take practice tests. Then I filled in what to do the other days by working backwards from the practice test dates. I learned content starting at a grade 11 level for life sciences. I didn’t assume I knew anything. Once I developed a skill set, I began taking practice exams. By my third attempt, I knew the content, so I focused on taking practice exams.
The first time I studied with a partner. The second and third times I studied alone. I didn’t have an advisor. I don’t think that’s a Canadian thing.
I cannot stress enough how important the practice exams are. My scores were almost identical to the actual exam scores. The practice exams are quite predictive unless you have a breakdown or panic while testing, like I did for my second attempt. The panic got to me. The exams test your thinking, so it is worthwhile to retake practice exams again, even if you may recognize the content. If you remember the answers, then think about why each wrong answer is wrong. That helps you understand the content more and squeeze more out of each practice exam. Doing this and having that confidence set me apart.
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
For my first attempt, chemistry was my worst section. On my second attempt, I improved three points by doing practice on chemistry content each day for an hour. I tried to forget and relearn all my prior knowledge, beginning with elementary content review, then moving to practice problems.
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
For CARS, I got advice from peers, but also from the Prep101 course I took during my first attempt. The advice I received was to treat the passages like you wrote them; it helps you pay more attention to it.
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
This was my strongest subject because of my undergraduate education. My content knowledge was fine, but I didn’t do many labs. I had to get good at interpreting results because things like western blots were not something I’ve had to do, so I partnered with someone with experience in lab work. Working with someone with different strengths than me was key. And lots of practice.
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
I used Khan Academy for this section. I focused on testing on definitions because some terms don’t mean what they sound like they mean. So, I used a lot of flashcards for this section.
Top tips for preparation
- Be resilient. You are probably going to have a terrible score when you take your first practice exam. You may even have terrible scores near the end of your practice. You are improving, but sometimes it’s just not visible. It’s a marathon.
- Know your weaknesses. That’s what bites you in the butt later on. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you will miss those questions. Figure out what you don’t know, and do it early. The best way to do this is by doing tons of practice.
- Take care of yourself. Find a support system who knows what you are going through. If your family and friends can’t relate, find an online community. Having a network who understands what you are going through helps you come up with tangible strategies, not just general advice.
Traps to avoid
- Studying for the MCAT exam will eat up a lot of your time. Gain experiences that help you ensure that medicine is for you before taking the exam. Don’t take it the first year of undergrad.
- This is going to be emotionally taxing. If possible, put off other responsibilities until you are done with the MCAT exam. It’s doable but other things may need to go on back burner. You have to know it takes priorities over other things in your life. If you have kids or responsibilities it will be tough to do both. I was working on my master’s degree (taking 3 courses, doing research, and TA’ing 2 courses) while studying for my third attempt, it so you should know it can be done with many responsibilities, but you should avoid that if possible.
What types of exam prep were the most useful?
I used all AAMC materials and highly recommend them. I used a Prep 101 course for my first attempt and used Examkrackers books and NextStep practice tests and question banks for all three attempts. I liked to do tests online because the actual test was online. My crib sheets were printed so I could have them anywhere.
The CARS section was my biggest hurdle, and the biggest reason for my retaking the exam. AAMC CARS Question Packs provided the best practice for this section. The best CARS advice I got was from my Prep 101 instructor, who said to be fully present while reading. They said to treat the passage like your own dissertation, like you wrote it. Then you can pay more attention to each passage, not glossing over the details of it. The NextStep practice tests seemed harder than the actual MCAT exam, so taking them gave me more confidence for the actual exam.
I also used the PDF version of the What’s on the MCAT Exam Tool, to cross check that Prep101 was covering all the content. I spent a lot of money on that class so I wanted to make sure they went over everything. I used the “What’s on the MCAT Exam” as a checklist of topics to go through and if I couldn’t explain it, it went on the crib sheet for more review.
The gap in preparation material was not having summary sheets at the end of each chapter during my content review, so I self-created these crib notes when I got to the end of each chapter. I also made notes for topics that tripped me up. For the MCAT exam, you just have to know it all, and it’s better to focus on what trips you up, not the supposedly “high yield” content. I made my crib notes for my first attempt and used them throughout all three of my attempts. I also then shared them with friends and printed them and put them in clear laminate sheets.
What challenges or obstacles did you face?
I took the MCAT exam three times. My first attempt was after my third year in undergrad, my second attempt was after my fourth year, and my third attempt was in January 2019 while working on my master’s. I’m currently getting my master’s degree in Health Research Methodology at McMaster University, and applying in October to Canadian medical schools and to American schools in the spring.
Feeling Nervous Vs. Feeling Ready
I don’t think anyone ever feels fully prepared for the MCAT. There will always be something you can’t quite grasp or remember off the top of your head, and that’s okay because I don’t believe that’s the correct definition of readiness. Feeling ready for the MCAT is not how you feel right before the exam or even the days leading up to the exam but your long-term progress over the many practice exams you’ve (hopefully) taken by test day. An upward or consistent trend in [practice test] scores or consistently meeting your score targets is how I would define “readiness.” In my opinion, unless you are absolutely unprepared (using the metric above—have not done practice exams and/or have not covered the content), you should not postpone your test. Yes, [medical] schools see all of your test scores when you submit an application, but what’s worse than a “poor” MCAT score (speaking in relative terms) is living with the thought of having cancelled an exam for which you might have been ready. As long as you assess and measure your readiness like a long-term progression rather how you “feel” the week before, you’re likely going to make the right decision. No one feels prepared the day of the exam—don’t let a false definition of readiness sway your confidence. I, for one, felt very unprepared the day before my test—but looking back, my scores were consistent (generally upward trending, in fact), and I knew I covered heavy hitting topics—and still I felt very nervous. If I had appraised my nervousness as unpreparedness, I would not have written the exam and done well. Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment and use the evidence of previous practice exams to guide your decision making.
Is there anything that you would’ve done differently to prepare?
For my first and second attempts I wish I would have come up with a strategy to keep myself calm during the test. I knew the content, but I had too much anxiety while testing. You should find a strategy and then practice that strategy while doing AAMC practice exams. In my last attempt, my strategy was to write down, “you can do this” at the top of the blank page you receive during the exam. I would also count backwards from five when I felt anxious. The actual strategy you use doesn’t matter, but it’s very important to practice that strategy for the test.
The most important thing is getting yourself in check mentally, including the dread that comes with retaking the exam and working through that. You did it once and you can do it again. You can take time off between attempts. The exam is a test of content knowledge and your stamina. I took a year off between attempts and forgot everything. If you are retaking because you didn’t know content, take lots of time to review content before retaking. I believe you need less time off before a retake if you just had test anxiety, granted you find tangible ways to work through that anxiety. Use the resources again. You may see inflated scores but use them in a different way such as explaining to yourself why you got the answer right and why the other answers are wrong. For each question, you get four chances to teach yourself and understand content and tricks better (one for each multiple-choice option).
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