Self-Studying for the MCAT
- More and more people each year study for the MCAT without taking a formal review course. As a little bit of reading around the SDN forums will show you, many of them do quite fine using a combination of home-study materials. We're quite proud to be a significant part of the prep material cocktail that the majority of self-studiers at SDN use and succeed with. Just a little bit of reading will find hundreds of posts raving that our materials are the best for self-studying physics, general chemistry and organic chemistry and that our biology passages are a big part of a successful preparation plan for the biological sciences section. You'll even find a few threads here and there explaining what a pleasant surprise our verbal reasoning materials proved to be in terms of providing additional passages to people who had exhausted the limited amount of verbal reasoning passages on the open market. So given that we are such a significant part of self-studying, it seemed like a great idea to put down a few suggestions and a schedule for studying on your own.
Assessing your Needs
An effective plan starts with honestly assessing what YOU need. Not all of us come from the same educational background, have the same intuition and logic, and pick up concepts at the same rate. Knowing yourself is the first step to establishing the perfect study plan. Counting on a diagnostic exam to determine your strengths and weaknesses is crazy, yet many people do this. For an exam to be truly diagnostic of all of the concepts, equations, and terms on the two science sections of the MCAT would require well over a thousand questions. The other problem with diagnostic exams is that we often miss questions on material we know (and know well) because of the style of the question, not the content. The result is that diagnostic feedback based on one or two questions in a subject area is misleading. Lucky guessing or low question difficulty could give you a false sense of understanding in a trouble spot as much as a careless error or high question difficulty could give you a false sense of need in a strong subject. The bottom line is that you need to assess your abilities, because you know yourself better than anyone. No matter what the one question involving a titration curve on a commercial diagnostic exam tells you about your understanding of titrations (either you know it 100% or 0%), you know best whether or not you know that subject well.
So rather than starting with an exam, start with either the table of contents in the review books or the list of topics from the Official MCAT Guideline released by AAMC. Go through the lists for each subject topic-by-topic and identify areas that have traditionally bothered you, decide how much content review you need (most students overestimate this), consider how good you are at multiple-choice exams, and figure out how well you learn from doing practice exams. From there you can layout a personalized schedule.
Setting a Realistic Schedule
The next step after assessing what you need is setting a realistic schedule based on the amount of time you need to review the material and the amount of time you need to complete and then thoroughly review enough practice exams to feel comfortable with the test. From that point, consider how much time you have to study (in terms of hours per day) and start designing a schedule. It is important that you set this schedule first, and then decide on an exam date. Too many people pick an exam date ambitiously or they pick it based on what other people have done, only to discover they need to postpone the MCAT because they aren't on pace to be ready for the date they chose. Some people can prepare as quickly as four to six week weeks (they start with a solid knowledge base and they don't have many other things going on besides studying for the MCAT), but for the majority of us we need three to four months (especially if we have other things going on in life).
The Importance of Doing Passages
As you learned in school, reviewing lecture notes and doing problems in the textbook is not enough to get a good grade on a midterm or final exam. Going through a previous exam written by your professor pays dividends beyond any other resource. The exact same thing is true with the MCAT, only ten-fold. The MCAT writers specialize in presenting material you know, in a seemingly unfamiliar setting. Success on the MCAT requires the application of concepts, the ability to visualize what is going on in a new situation, and being skillful at the process of elimination when working through their questions. It's unlike school in that showing your work is detrimental (wastes precious time) and multiple concepts are presented simultaneously. The exam at its core is not difficult (the material is completely comprehendible), but the speed with which you must process questions and the sheer volume of material can be overwhelming.
This is why you must do practice passages to get used to the thinking required for success on the MCAT. It's the only way to be truly prepared for any MCAT you might get. Reading text may build confidence in your knowledge base, but information alone doesn't help that much on the MCAT. Doing thousands of free-standing multiple-choice questions will grill you on the subject matter, but again, it's not the simulation you need. It can even be damaging in that it builds a false sense of security that comes crashing down when you sit for an MCAT that looks nothing like what you were studying. You have to practice with passages and passage-based questions. Processing passages to ascertain the main idea (purpose) and filtering out critical data from minutiae and then answering the corresponding questions is the only way to prepare for a test where 81.9% of the questions are based on a passage. Establish a schedule that allows you to average 6-10 passages a day during the first half and 12-16 passages a day in the second half (once you are done with your content review).
The Phases of Practicing
If you have seen Berkeley Review materials before, you'll notice that we strongly suggest doing the homework passages in each chapter in multiple phases. The amount of work that went into designing the passages to fit into the corresponding phase is surprisingly significant (almost as much work as writing the passage, questions, and answers). The first phase of our homework is aimed at reviewing the material and trying some of the strategies we present without the pressures of time. It's like learning a new dance, where you go through everything slowly to build the right habits and get into the flow. The second phase of our homework is aimed at developing speed and faith in your intuition. You'll be pressed for time, and hopefully develop better focus and trust your ability to find a best answer without a 100% analysis. There is great utility in learning to let go of perfection. Often we are compelled to reread answer choices we are not completely sure of before picking a choice. This is a killer in terms of finishing on time. It takes a while to get used to doing this, but if you find that two answers are definitely false, one is correct, and the last leaves you uncertain, then you need to make a choice and move on. You need to pick the correct statement and let go of the anxiety you might feel from not fully comprehending that last answer choice. The third phase of our homework is aimed at perfecting your approach and working with passages that mix many subjects together. You won't know what topic questions will be based on when you take the MCAT, so you'll find that we mix random questions from other sections into the phase three passages.
Our daily planner is simply a model schedule in Excel for you to plug into. It has a day-by-day listing of what to do, but feel free to modify it. Not everyone works the same, so you should customize it to fit your style and needs. If there are topics you know really well, then skip the reading and jump right into passages. For many of you, there will be topics that are best learned by jumping into questions. Reading can often times be passive, as we get into a mindset where we accept everything that is in print without questioning. When you work with passages and questions, the learning is active. Getting ready for all sections of this exam requires thinking, and that's exactly what your preparation should emphasize.
- More will be added to this diatribe over the course of the week, based on feedback and questions.