How I Prepared for the MCAT in Only a Month

The MCAT is a rite of passage to medical school. Everyone takes it. It is a formidable barrier that many spend months or even years preparing to overcome. I prepared for a month.

To give a little background, I didn’t know MD/PhD programs existed until the March before I applied to medical school. As I was preparing to take the GRE so that I could apply to graduate schools that fall, I came across the program as I looked into where I would like to do my PhD. It seemed like a program that would allow me to do all that I hoped to do with my life and over the next month, I solidified my decision to apply.

In the mean time, I took my GRE and my chemistry GRE the month after just in case I ultimately decided to not try for the combined degree. I signed up for the soonest MCAT I could once deciding since I wanted to apply that year but not too soon that I would not have adequate time to study. As I came to my decision in April, my next option was later in May but I had finals and a trip planned before then. Therefore, I opted for the late June test date.

I survived finals and then I took off for a week in San Diego to visit my aunt. I came back on May 20th and the next day I started studying for my June 21st MCAT.

 ~

The Goods

With only a month to prepare and being a poor college student, any prep course was out of the running. As more of an independent studier anyway, I preferred to do it on my own.

I searched on Amazon for MCAT prep books hoping to find one that was comprehensive and cheap, and I ultimately decided on Barron’s MCAT prep book. Not only did it include study materials for each subject and practice tests but it also came with a CD-ROM of practice tests that mimicked the screen display of the actual exam.

Barron MCAT

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The Plan

I knew that making a study schedule would help me keep on track and use my month to its greatest potential. Therefore, I split up the time before my test to make sure that I covered everything in my prep book with plenty of time to spare to run through practice exams.

To get through all of the information quickly, I decided to do one subject a day. One day was physics, the next general chemistry, the next verbal, the next organic chemistry, then biology, and finally the essays. While going through each subject, I would do the practice questions pertaining to that subject as a way to gauge my understanding. I took a week off of working in my lab and focused all of my energy toward getting through as much material as possible. While I didn’t quite keep to my goal of a subject per day, I had given myself plenty of leeway to fit everything in.

~

The Grit

After reading and taking notes on all of the information, I then put my focus on doing practice exams. I never did an entire practice exam in one sitting, instead doing a section at a time then grading it and going through the questions that I got wrong. This last part was the most important step. I used the exams to diagnose what areas I needed to work on and then I would do my best to look up as much information about them as necessary until I were comfortable with it. By really trying to figure out why I got a question wrong and how I should look at a similar question the next time, I was able to learn from my mistake before I made the same one on the real exam. I did each exam multiple times to make sure what I was learning was really sticking.

~

The Final Countdown

Over these few weeks, my scores on the physical sciences and biological sciences sections rose quite a bit and I was happy with how well I was doing as I became more familiar with the exam. Nonetheless entering the last week before my exam, I was still not doing as well as I hoped on the verbal. I decided that I needed more practice questions to go through so I caved and purchased The Official MCAT Self-Assessment: Verbal Reasoning. While this is normally an assessment to use prior to studying for the MCAT, I used it as my final practice because it offered me many passages to read and 120 questions to run through and become more familiar with the kinds of questions that will be on the real test.

~

The Calm Before the Storm

I spent the night before my exam not even thinking about science. I left lab early and went to an aunt’s house who lived close to my testing center so that I didn’t have to drive in rush hour traffic for at least an hour in the morning. I hung out with my aunt and uncle as well as my aunt who was visiting from San Diego. We watched a baseball game and relaxed, and I tried to not think about the morning’s exam. I went to bed early so that I was well rested in the morning though nerves made it hard to fall asleep.

~

The Day Has Come

The morning of my exam, I woke up early and ate the largest breakfast I have probably ever eaten. My uncle made me eggs, toast, and bacon. He even put rosemary on the eggs because one of my aunts said that rosemary would help with memory (if it does, this was a little late for it). I also ate the power bar and bananas that I brought for breakfast not realizing that I would have breakfast made for me as well.

I enjoyed a short drive to the testing center, took a sniff of fresh rosemary that my aunt made me bring, not because of its supposed memory boosting ability but because I simply like the smell.

After waiting some time until it was my turn to enter the computer lab, I was scanned with a metal detector and had my fingerprints taken before taking a seat at a computer. Then, for the next five hours or so, my complete focus was on the exam. While we were given 10-minute breaks between sections, I did not stop – I had information in my head and I wanted to get it out. Plus I didn’t feel like just sitting there for 10 minutes at a time with nothing to do.

Everything was going smoothly until the writing section when, despite eating such a large breakfast, all I could think about was how hungry I was and what I wanted to eat when I was done. As someone who normally can get by with little food until dinner, this was rather strange. I tried to ignore those thoughts and finish my writing alas forgetting to save one of my two writing samples before time was up (seriously, no auto save?)

I sped through the last section partly because I was confident in my answers, partly because I wanted food, and left with half my time still remaining. The proctor seemed quite surprised that I was leaving the room because I was done and not just going to the restroom.

After stocking up on food and eating my fill, I entered a sort of loopy tired state. It seems the test had mentally worn me out without my even noticing. What followed was probably the best nap I have ever taken. Ahh, the test was behind me.

Sleeping Cat

~

The Aftermath

After the test, life went on. I continued to work full time in my lab and the time I once spent for studying was redirected toward my personal statements (an ordeal of its own). Finally after a month of anticipation, scores were released. I had my goals set to a perhaps unrealistically high score and yet I was decently satisfied with my score despite a low writing score from forgetting to save. Nonetheless I had my personal statements and my GRE writing score to back up my writing abilities and offset that lower writing score. Ultimately, it worked out. I got accepted. And that’s what matters.

More on the blog: Study tips for the MCAT

This is just the beginning!

If you like my writing, please consider following my blog. There’s a link near the top of the side bar to do so. Also, feel free to like my Facebook page, MD, Phd To Be, and follow me on Twitter, @MDPhDToBe. Any questions, comments, or requests for future blog posts can of course be directed to me from any of these locations or directly emailed to me at mdphdtobe@gmail.com. Thank you for reading!

Featured image source: “Studying” by Steven S. | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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Hanna is a MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois and an aspiring physician scientist who aims to specialize in hepatobiliary cancers. She is also passionate about teaching, leadership, and advocacy. The energy she once used to pep up crowds as a college marching band member is now directed toward exciting and educating others about science and medicine, especially through her tweets at @MDPhDToBe and her blog at www.mdphdtobe.com.

Posted in Pre-med
22 comments on “How I Prepared for the MCAT in Only a Month
  1. Funmi says:

    Hello MD/Phd, it seems like you had an ample amount of research activity in your undergrad. What year did you start? Freshman year or sophmore? Also, when did you get the time to volunteer in a hospital or get clinical experience? thanks in advance 🙂

    • I started in my first research lab the summer after my freshman year. I was sort of a lab tech, not really doing my own project but assisting with any lab work and getting good at the protocols. Then in the beginning of my junior year I switched to another lab where I had my own project. I didn’t get paid for my work in the second lab, so I actually took a job working overnights (that I could study during) so that I could still do research during the day. I also took online classes to free up time.

      As for hospital/clinical experience, I started early (as a 15 year old), so my hours added up over many years. Most of the time I only volunteered in the summer for 4 or 8 hours a week. For my last year of college though I did one 4 hour shift each week at the hospital while taking classes just to keep my experience at the hospital going. Since I only did a little bit each week, it wasn’t too much of a problem to add it on top of everything else.

  2. Lucy says:

    Hello!
    I’m in a similar position to you – I have 1 month to study for the MCAT, how did you do on the MCAT (if you don’t mind sharing your score that is)?

  3. KB24 says:

    Hey Hanna! I’ve been studying on and off for the past few months, even restudying the material but as of late have gotten lazy….the exam is in mid sept; any tips? my current plan has over 2 months left so i dont think ill be able to finish the current plan and i dont want to prolong the test any longer either!

    • Do some practice tests to figure out which areas need your greatest focus. For example, are you great at biological sciences but poor at physical sciences? Then focus on physical sciences. By studying what you’re most uncomfortable with, you’ll get the most out of the time you spend studying. A major challenge of the exam is not the material but rather the style of questions and time management, so the more practice questions/tests that you can do, the better! Best of luck!

  4. Logan says:

    Hey Hanna,
    Great Job! How many hours did you study total for the MCAT? Did you work as well while studying? I’ve been studying on and off for a couple of months and buckling down this last month, but I’m also working full time. Thanks.

  5. I’m not sure the total hours, but it was a lot. I took the first week off from lab to study but after that, I worked full time in my lab, volunteered 8 hours a week at the hospital, and worked overnight shifts for 14 hours a week as an apartment building receptionist. I was able to study during my downtime in the lab (I was primarily doing 45 minute HPLC runs and only needed to collect samples for ~5 min of it) and I was able to study the entire time that I was working as a receptionist.

    • stephanie Ama says:

      On a daily average how many hours per day and how many days per week did you study? When you started doing practice exams how many hours a day would you say you invested? Was redoing the practice exams beneficial since you already reviewed the answers?

      • I studied every day during any time that I could get. The first week, I took off work and studied at least 10-12 hours a day. Then I went back to working ~40 hours/week in my lab, volunteering 8 hours a week at the hospital, having concert band rehearsal 3 hours a week, working overnight as a receptionist 14 hours/week, while still making time for my boyfriend and friends. Luckily, my entire time as a receptionist was free for me to study plus I had a lot of downtime in lab to study as well. I have no idea how much actual time each day was devoted to studying, but it was a lot.

        There was a pretty seamless transition to doing practice exam sections, since I was continuing to review in between practice exams (using the results from the practice exams to guide my studying), so the time spent each day on stayed the same.

        Redoing the practice exams (and going over my answers each time) was probably one of the most beneficial things that I did! I went through so many questions/studied so many things that I didn’t always remember the answer a few days later. By going over the questions multiple times, I started to become more and more familiar with the type of thinking required for the exam from a limited number of practice exams, and thus, I started doing better though I always got some questions wrong.

  6. stephanie Ama says:

    Hi Hanna I noticed you stated you never did a whole exam in one sitting. How did you work on your timing for the exam by doing this method? Did you do each section under normal time constraints? And do you have any detailed tips on improving on verbal?

    • Yes I did each section with a time limit so that I could work on my timing. Doing all of the sections in one sitting is more to help you get the endurance to sit through an entire exam (which is really long!) but from studying endlessly throughout undergrad, I wasn’t worried about my endurance. Plus I wanted the material to be fresh when I went over the answers so that I could remember my reasoning and see how that compared with the answers given.

      As for improving verbal, I honestly don’t have that detailed of tips other than to just do a lot of passages. Basically, just read a lot and work on not only being able to identify things stated directly within the passage but really work to understand the author’s perspective since there’s questions that ask you to extrapolate from the writing to predict what the author will believe about something else. In addition to the passages given with practice tests, reading longer articles in magazines like the Economist can also helpful.

  7. F.B.A. says:

    Hi!
    I have a month till my MCAT and have been studying on an off for the past few months. I will be finished with content review in 2-3 days and will start taking practice tests right after. I was just wondering what your scores looked like on each section of the practice tests from the time you began taking them to the time you had your actual exam (if you’re comfortable sharing them).

    I also wanted to let you know that this post has really inspired me to push through this last month. I appreciate you sharing your experience with us!

    • I’m glad this post has helped! I don’t remember my scores on my practice tests too well. After completing my first practice exam in the Barron’s MCAT book, my total score was a 27 or so (8 below my final) and I know my verbal was stuck at 7 or 8s for quite some time (and I got a 11 on my actual test). Depending on the source of your practice tests, they may be harder or easier than the actual exam, so take that in to consideration when scoring your exam (for example, I know Kaplan’s tests are harder than the real thing). Good luck!

  8. omair says:

    Hi Hanna, I am taking the MCAT in January and have this month to study. I’m really really glad I stumbled upon your article because almost everyone has been telling me that I should have started studying months ago. While I know I’m not the strongest student, I feel as though I can learn to master the art of test taking. I mostly wanted to wait until I finished all my pre-med classes, which I have finally completed as of yesterday! Thank you for the boost of confidence! 🙂

  9. Cho says:

    Hi Hannah!
    I am on the same boat as you. I am attempting my second MCAT which is going to be in less than a month. I did poorly on Verbal the first time and so as Biology because both of them required excellent reading skills. With that say, do you have any suggestion on what should I focus on in this month? Also, when’s the best time to start the practice tests? Thanks!

    Best,
    Cho

  10. […] a year ago to the day, I wrote my highly popular blog post “How I Prepared for the MCAT in Only a Month.” I wrote it with the intent to show others that the MCAT does not have to be as scary as it […]

  11. anna thomas says:

    Is this the book you purchased: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/listing/2671048716987?r=1&kpid=2671048716987&cm_mmc=GooglePLA-_-Book_45Up-_-Q000000633-_-2671048716987

    or http://chipublib.bibliocommons.com/item/show/8320062081_barrons_new_mcat

    The reviews on the site were bad, so I wanted to make sure I got the same publication year as you.

    Thanks for your help! I love this blog!

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