How do you study for the MCAT, and how do you know your prep is working for you?
Today, I’m joined by Rachel Grubbs, Vice President of Operations at Next Step Test Prep. We’re going to talk about her discussions with premed students, their struggles with the MCAT, and what they wished they would have known years before going into the MCAT.
Getting into medical school is more than just doing well on the MCAT. It also involves writing a great personal statement, interviewing well, and more! Be sure to listen to The Premed Years Podcast for more helpful information about medical school application.
We’re in a little bit of a transition phase here at The MCAT Podcast. Stay tuned for next week’s episode as we’re going to tell you about some changes on this podcast.
Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
[01:50] A Little Background About Rachel
Rachel has been in the test preparation and admissions industry for almost 20 years now. She had served as an educational adviser but she enjoys working directly with students the most.
Rachel had always hoped to have a job that had an impact on education but didn’t have the structure of just being in the classroom all day. Ultimately, she found her way into the test prep world.
[04:30] Why Picked Next Step
Rachel explains that having a lot of test prep company choices in the mix can keep everyone on their toes. What was appealing to her about Next Step was the focus on personalization. This is not only limited to one-on-one tutoring but also includes self-study resources.
Students get to access their personal strengths and weaknesses. Next Step provides analytics to make sure students are making the most efficient use of their study time.
MCAT can be intimidating to the general public. It’s a big, scary test with big, scary, smart students and big, scary smart teachers.
And sometimes, teachers think that if they don’t know a lot, the safest thing to do is to give the students everything. If you struggle to get a B in Physics the first time, then you know that’s going to take you a lot of time to review.'If you're rocking biochem and you're really struggling in physics then why waste a lot of time in biochem. Just review it to be sure you know it and move on to your weak areas.'Click To Tweet
[07:05] Common Feedback from Students
When students are in the middle of MCAT prep, they’re flustered they have to relearn the material instead of reviewing it.'A lot of students will work to do really well in homework and quizzes and even get an A in the class. But a year or two later, they don't actually feel like they know it.'Click To Tweet
Rachel explains this comes from the way colleges encourage students to study. This could be because they had a professor they struggled to understand but they were good at completing their work on time. Or maybe it was one of those classes that they had to take in the summer just to fit in their schedule.
Obviously, it’s important to have a high GPA, but you can’t be fixated on that numerical point. You need to really try to learn it the first time and commit it to your working memory. The MCAT is not an exam you can cram but final exams are also not tests you should cram.'It helps to avoid cramming and think more about really learning.'Click To Tweet
[09:22] Ways to Make Sure You’re Really Learning
Make sure you’re using active learning. Most premeds are very good at reading books with dense science material and then understanding them and being able to regurgitate that information.
But the ultimate test for really learning it is if you could close the book and teach it to a friend. It’s important that you just don’t have it memorized for now but that you actually understand it. It’s a lot harder to talk about something in a genuine way than it is to just repeat something word for word.'The ultimate test for really learning it is if you could close the book and teach it to a friend.'Click To Tweet
Particularly, many medical students find that their study groups are really important to success. This is especially true for the MCAT. It will hold you accountable and it strengthens the skill set. There could be topics that someone can teach to you and vice versa.
More importantly, say it out loud. There’s power in saying stuff out loud versus just reading it.
Everyone should be able to come up with some form of a study group for free. Find those who are good at the subjects that you are not good at. Find around 4-5 different people who are each strong in different sections and then you teach each other as you go along.
[13:15] When to Buy MCAT Books
Rachel doesn’t think you need to buy MCAT books while doing the prereqs. You could just go to the AAMC and download their topic outline for free.
That being said, think about which part of what you’re learning in your college courses are you going to see again.
A good analogy is that a college-level science course is like scuba diving, you don’t go very far but you go very deep. Whereas the MCAT is like water skiing where you cover a lot of territory to it but it’s pretty shallow.'Sometimes that depth of knowledge isn't actually going to help you, it's more just remembering which topics are going to come up again.'Click To Tweet
So should you be buying books early? Go for it if you want to. But Rachel doesn’t think everybody needs to invest $200 in a set of books in their Freshmen year. At least get a list of topics from the AAMC at no cost.
Then just cross-reference. Look at your syllabus at the start of each semester and highlight which ones are going to be on the MCAT again. This way, you know these are the ones you’re going to see a second time.
[15:40] The AAMC Wants to Test Your Reasoning Skills
All good test prep companies are using AAMC topics as their curriculum guide. That should be true across the board. And if it’s not, then you didn’t pick the right company.
But that doesn’t mean that by knowing the AAMC content forward and backward that you would already know all the science you see on the MCAT. The AAMC is attempting to test your scientific reasoning skills so they want to know what happens when you’re given new information on the spot.'The AAMC science passages will present new information that you're not supposed to have studied before.'Click To Tweet
Rachel adds that the reasoning skills aspect is the one that often gets ignored. People just forget that being able to recite it and being able to problem-solve about stuff you haven’t seen before aren’t the same.
Next Step Test Prep provides score reports that will show you for each question what content topic or what skill was supposed to be used. If you’re taking the test with a third party, look at your score report and see what stuff did it cite.
Look at your own percentage correct on the stand-alone, discrete questions versus passages.
If you’re mostly getting the discrete questions right and you’re missing on passages, it probably means that it’s more of a comprehension and reasoning issue than it is a knowledge issue.
A lot of people want to just drill on questions. But drilling on passages is ultimately going to be a better measure of your success. Long before you’re taking practice tests, you should be doing lots of practice passages.
[20:23] Biggest Feedback From Students
Rachel says the biggest piece of feedback from most of their students is wishing they had learned how to problem-solve earlier. This is not an easy skill to dramatically change in three months. That being said, it can be done.'Studies that the AAMC has done show that Humanities majors tend to perform pretty well on the exam compared to other majors.'Click To Tweet
AAMC studies show that Humanities majors do better on the exam than other majors since they are using their critical reading skill set all the time. Obviously, anyone who takes the MCAT has also got to be great at science.
If you’re three months out, you’re still going to make it better. But it’s a different way of approaching it than if you’re two years out from the test. Think about taking philosophy, theology, and classics. Those are great courses that train your brain to think hard about logic and assumptions.
The MCAT is a reading test. For many years, people have misunderstood it to be a science test. But it’s both science and critical reading.
Rachel personally believes it’s not about talent or ability but about recency of skills. For instance, you may have taken really hard AP Lit classes in high school. But then you haven’t really worried about your humanities courses in college because your brain has been so focused on science and math. As a result, you have let your critical reading skills rest at the expense of your science and math skills.
[23:40] When to Take the MCAT
But you’re probably better at critical reading than you think you are. That said, don’t sweat it too much.
Rachel thinks it’s more important to take the MCAT when you’re ready than over a certain timeline. Take a gap year if needed because in the grand scheme of things, one year won’t really make a difference.
Moreover, you can enhance your reading skills without having to take classes. Longreads.com, for example, has got a whole lot of news articles that are long-form journalism ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 words. MCAT passages are shorter than this. But if you become adept at reading 2,000-3,000-word articles that are challenging reading (not just straight-up news), this is going to improve your brain a lot.'Recognize that you've already committed to spending 200 to 300 hours on MCAT prep. Some of those hours should be about improving your reading skills.'Click To Tweet
[26:00] How to Become a Better Reader by Reading
There are different ways to practice to become a better reader. You can try to summarize it to your stuffed animals. See if you can find any assumptions in the article that you think are proven.
Again, study groups are really helpful. Join a Longreads club and agree with your group to probably read one article each week then debate that out a little. Turn your Longreads articles into practice MCAT verbal passages and just thinking about it in the same way the CARS passages are asking.'It's important to be able to learn how to take in data and think about what you're getting and not just absorb it wholesale.'Click To Tweet
Ultimately, the MCAT is trying to test your ability to problem-solve. By reading, you’re taking in data and figuring out how to process it and where to go from there.
[28:40] How Much Prep Time Do You Need?
Another common feedback Next Step Test Prep gets from students is the lack of time they had for studying. Three months is about the sweet spot for most MCAT preppers.'A lot of people either underestimate how long they're personally going to need to improve or sometimes they're just overestimating how many hours in the day. 'Click To Tweet
Just be honest with yourself about your limits. Then map out your timeline accordingly. Rachel recommends working from the test backwards. Acknowledge to yourself that you should take it when you’re ready as opposed to by some prescribed deadline you’ve given yourself.
Most MCAT test-takers report spending about 300 hours studying, although it’s not a magic number. It’s not a rule.
[31:50] Other MCAT Trips and Tricks
Another important thing to take note of is the quality of how you study. You need to be shutting off your phones and other distractions to make each hour more effective.'Focus hard and then allow yourself breaks.'Click To Tweet
Students should also remember that it’s okay to take breaks and naps. It’s okay to spend an hour on Netflix. But do your four hours of studying.
Stay positive. This is the idea of the study group. It’s a free thing you can do whether or not you invest in a prep.
Rachel says that the people she has seen who had the best MCAT prep go into it knowing it’s going to be really hard, but they’re mentally prepared for it.
Keep a gratitude journal. Go for a run. Spend time with friends. Whatever it is that you need to do to feel better, make little time for that.'Whatever it is that you personally need to do to feel better in your life, make a little time for that during MCAT prep.'Click To Tweet
[36:00] New Changes on The MCAT Podcast
I would like to announce that Phil is my new co-host on The MCAT Podcast. He has been with Next Step Test Prep for a long time.
Phil came on The Premed Years podcast to drop some knowledge bombs about Psych/Soc. 20% of his students get perfect scores in Psych/Soc.
Phil has been working for Next Step for some years now. Phil was enrolled in the MD/PhD program. He did a large part of it but he ultimately realized that this was not the passion for his life.
He has brought all the medicine and skills to his teaching. He’s been teaching and tutoring the MCAT for 5 years.
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