What are Strategies for Students Who Struggle with Testing?

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ADG 243: What are Strategies for Students Who Struggle with Testing?

Session 243

Can this student take a gap year to apply to medical schools while also ensuring they have enough time for themselves before medical school starts? We also talk about some common MCAT mistakes students should avoid.

Ask Dr. Gray: Premed Q&A is brought to you by Blueprint MCAT. Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

The episodes in this podcast are recordings of our Facebook Live that we do at 3 pm Eastern on most weekdays. Check out our Facebook page and like the page to be notified. Also, listen to our other podcasts on MedEd Media. If you have any questions, call me at 617-410-6747.

Question of the Day:

“I’m a rising senior premed student and I plan on taking a gap year before applying to medical schools. I’m concerned about preparing for the MCAT. 

I consider myself a bad test taker and I’m unsure about how to collect the right study materials and effectively absorb the content. How do I focus on learning how to study instead of just how much to study?”

A: We partner with Blueprint MCAT, formerly known as Next Step Test Prep, which is a popular choice among students. However, it’s important to note that according to the AAMC’s matriculating student questionnaire data, the majority of students don’t use formal test prep like courses or tutors; they self-study.

If you’re going the self-study route, there are several resources available. Khan Academy is a fantastic resource. A couple of years ago, there were rumors that Khan Academy would stop hosting the AAMC’s MCAT material, but thankfully, that didn’t happen.

The AAMC also provides its own MCAT material, including a free full-length test. Most test prep companies, including Blueprint MCAT, offer free accounts that give you access to a diagnostic test and a full-length exam. Additionally, these companies usually sell sets of books that can be very helpful.

Mastering the MCAT: Avoiding Common Mistakes

One of the biggest mistakes students make while preparing for the MCAT is focusing too heavily on content study. It’s common for students to immerse themselves in reading and note-taking, often overlooking the importance of full-length exam practice.

The MCAT is not just about assessing your knowledge, but also how well you can take the test itself. Therefore, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the test format and conditions by taking full-length exams. Some students go into the MCAT having taken only one or no full-length exams, which can result in underperformance.

“The big mistake that students make is they focus too much on content.”

Mimicking Real Test Conditions

To effectively practice for the MCAT, you should take full-length exams in standard testing environments and adhere to the actual test timing. This includes starting at the same time of day as the real test and following the exact timings for each section and breaks. This approach ensures that you’re well-prepared for what you’ll experience on the actual test day at a Pearson testing center.

Balance Between Content and Test Questions

While content study is essential, it should not overshadow practicing test questions and honing your test-taking skills.

For instance, the CARS section requires the ability to read and analyze passages effectively, understand the author’s tone and intention, among other skills. These are best developed through consistent practice with actual passages, rather than mere content study.

Mastering MCAT Prep

The cornerstone of effective MCAT prep is taking and reviewing full-length exams. While content review is essential, the majority of your study time should be dedicated to practicing with full-length tests.

Reviewing your full-length exams in depth is just as crucial as taking them. This involves understanding why you got a question right or wrong. The aim is not merely to know the correct answers but to understand the reasoning behind them.

“The best way to prep for the MCAT is to take full-length exams.”

Identifying and Addressing Knowledge Gaps

By categorizing each question and looking for patterns in your performance, you can identify areas where you struggle consistently.

Whether it’s amino acids, lens physics, or any other topic, recognizing these patterns allows you to tailor your study plan accordingly. Focus on improving your understanding of these particular areas over the next few days.

Understanding Question and Answer Structures

Sometimes, you may know the content well but still get tripped up by the way questions and answers are framed.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the MCAT’s common tactics designed to test your attention to detail and comprehension. By doing so, you can avoid falling for these easy traps and improve your overall performance.

Cracking the MCAT Code: An Immigrant Student’s Success Story

I once worked with an immigrant student who initially struggled significantly with the MCAT. Despite learning the language and adapting to a new environment, his scores were stuck around 505. He temporarily disappeared from our sessions, only to return with a surprising 522 score.

His secret? He had figured out how the MCAT test writers wanted him to think. By diligently taking practice exams, analyzing questions, and spotting patterns, he cracked the code, akin to Neo in the Matrix. Crucially, he mimicked testing conditions during practice, which helped him handle the stress and timing of the actual test.

“You have to do it under those testing conditions because the timeing of everything – the stress of everything – is really what gets you.”

Navigating the Extracurricular Aspects of Medical School Applications

Q: “I am a senior premed student and I’m concerned about the extracurricular aspect of my medical school application. I understand its importance, but I’ve had limited clinical experience in my early undergraduate years. Most of my time was spent on unpaid non-clinical work and holding leadership positions on campus. 

However, I recently started my first clinical job in May this year after gaining certification from the hospital where I work. I enjoy my role as a Patient Care Assistant (PCA) on a busy orthopedics floor. I’m planning to apply for medical school in May 2024 for the 2024-2025 cycle. But I’m worried that medical schools might see my late start in gaining clinical experience negatively. Will one year of consistent clinical experience be sufficient?”

A: Your concern is valid but rest assured, having a year of clinical experience before applying is commendable. The key is to continue with some form of clinical experience throughout the application cycle. 

It’s a common mistake for students to stop their clinical work after submitting applications. This could give the impression of lack of interest to the admissions committees. As long as you demonstrate consistency and use the “anticipated hours” feature on AMCAS, it should reflect positively on your commitment to patient care and clinical environments.

Understanding the ‘X Factor’: Authenticity Over Perfection

Q: “I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an applicant stand out in the medical school application process. From your previous videos, I understood that non-clinical volunteering or service work can demonstrate passion and initiative. 

If I take up leadership roles or pursue a passion within my school environment instead of outside, how would that look on my application? We have a close-knit community dedicated to helping others in our institution, and I feel I could make a significant impact here. So, would it be a disadvantage if all my leadership or community service work is associated only with my school?”

A: Your concern reflects a common tendency among pre-med students to overthink the application process. You seem to be operating under the assumption that there’s a ‘perfect applicant’, which isn’t the case. Instead of trying to mold yourself into what you think medical schools want, focus on being authentic and pursuing what genuinely interests you.

The X Factor I often mention is not about ticking certain boxes; there isn’t a specific ‘X Factor’. It’s about telling your unique story through your application. Medical schools are looking for genuine applicants, not perfect ones.

Shadowing Experience vs. Authentic Interests

Q: “I’ve managed to accumulate around 50 hours of shadowing experience solely in the surgical field, specifically orthopedic surgery. I didn’t plan on spending 10 hours a day shadowing, but that’s how it turned out. My concern is, if that’s all the shadowing experience I have on my application, would admissions committees interpret that as me being only interested in this specialty? Or worse, would they think I didn’t bother exploring other specialties?”

A: It sounds like you might be overthinking this. There’s no ‘perfect’ way to gain clinical experience or shadowing hours. Yes, you’ve spent a lot of time shadowing in orthopedics, which could indicate a strong interest in that field. Is that a bad thing? Not at all.

Some medical schools might prefer applicants with a broader exposure, but you can’t control their preferences. Your application reflects who you are and what you’re interested in. Could you try to get some primary care shadowing experience to show a wider interest? Sure, if you can manage it.

Remember, finding shadowing opportunities can be challenging. The important thing is not to strive for an unattainable ‘perfection.’ Do what you can, pursue what interests you, and present your own unique story through your application. Medical schools may like it, or they may not – that’s just part of the process.

“Every medical school is looking for something different. So why not just be yourself and know that there will be schools out there looking for someone like you.”

I have had this conversation with multiple Deans and directors of admissions who say, “Stop asking us at conferences, ‘What are you looking for?'”. Students keep asking the medical schools, “What are you looking for?”, as if there’s a cheat sheet. But the reality is, just be yourself and tell us who you are. We’ll either like it or not.



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