I didn't take the MCAT.
It was still dark outside on the morning of January 19th when I arrived at a Prometric testing center, 90 minutes early, hands shaking, smack in the-middle-of-nowhere, Georgia. After two years of studying, I felt prepared. Not ready, but prepared for the best. Lots of pressure, three quick snack breaks, a couple of strained eyes, and 8 hours later, I earned the MCAT score of my dreams. Earlier this year, I sent that score off with the rest of my medical school application and officially began my journey to medicine.
No, I didn't take the MCAT. I made the MCAT work for me.
I don't have an answer to what will or won't work for you. Through successes, trial, error, and downright failure, I have learned what worked for me and why. I've divided the journey into three parts in order to share my experience, in hopes that it will help and encourage other future docs who are in the very difficult and intimidating application phase. This part, Part 1, is about preparation. I didn't go into college with no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a doctor. Actually, I had plenty of doubts. Chiefly, that I might not be able to handle the pressure of the "big test" that you had to take in order to get into medical school. Now, I know that "big test" as the MCAT, and I also understand that my fear had a purpose. Being nervous about the test pushed me to begin studying very early. My study journey started two years before I actually took the MCAT, when I started using the Kaplan MCAT Complete 7-Book Subject Review Series to study for my science and math courses. Although I was fearful of the test, I knew in my heart that I wanted to serve others as a doctor. My fears diminished in the midst of this vision of who I could be- so I fought for it. Beginning to study a couple of years in advance didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary, if it meant that I would be prepared for the MCAT when my fears just weren't big enough to be used as an excuse.
During my sophomore year of college, I identified the courses that I had to take in order to graduate, and those that were required for acceptance into most medical schools. Being connected with the Health Careers Program at my school really helped me to know what medical schools would be looking for in their applicants, even though I didn't yet know which medical schools would be on my list. I worked closely with my health careers advisor allowing her to guide me in looking at different classes that I was genuinely interested in, but would also satisfy the medical school prerequisites. This planning process was absolutely essential to studying for the MCAT because I was able to see how my regular classes would prepare me for the test. The classes that medical schools want you to take in college are the ones that will allow you to be successful in medical school, and the MCAT is a test that determines if you were able to synthesize the information that you learned in these required classes. If you feel that you started studying for the MCAT "too late," think about how you've engaged in your courses thus far. Have you taken prerequisites for medical school seriously? Would you be able to tutor a student who is in a class that you took a few semesters ago? If you have fully invested in your studies throughout college and are working to combine that knowledge with training in standardized test strategies, the MCAT will reflect your work.
When thinking about what it means to study for the MCAT, ditch the visual of studying for a midterm or final and think about how studying can be incorporated into your entire life. I took the Kaplan books to class and used them to supplement my textbooks, but I also paid attention to interactions between people around campus to study for the psychology and sociology sections. The review books highlight the concepts that the exam will ask you to understand, which is really important to streamlining your intensive study time closer to the exam, but your life is the ultimate study session.
One year after I made my master plan based on medical school course prerequisites, detailing the courses that I would take for the rest of my undergraduate career, everything changed. I began my Masters of Science in Neuroscience as a junior in college, and I could not enroll in some of the undergraduate courses that I wanted to take because my schedule was suddenly filled with graduate-level courses required for my qualifying exams. I had to rework my schedule in order to make room for my neuroscience courses, which made my MCAT review books even more important to keep up with the basic science content I would need for the test. I primarily used these books in order to supplement the college courses that I still needed to take during my junior and senior years, but I also transitioned to using them as standalone resources. I committed to using the chapter summaries to refresh my knowledge base, and also used them as I continued to tutor in subjects like cellular biology and biochemistry.
Usually, if a student wants to go into medical school immediately following graduation from college, he or she would take the exam during their junior year because the entire application is a year-long process. My combined degree program requires one year following graduation from college to complete and defend my thesis, and I would have to defer my acceptances to medical school if chose to apply during my senior year of college. At the beginning of my junior year, I actually registered for the MCAT- paid for it and all. I also received a scholarship to take an MCAT Prep Course from the Princeton Review. Oftentimes, I am asked if the MCAT prep course was helpful, and my verdict is that the most helpful component was receiving lots of study tools that, eventually, I was able to use on my own (endless online content, and a brand new set of MCAT Review Books!). However, I knew that I was the kind of student who needs independent self-directed study time. Although I successfully completed the MCAT Prep course and was advised to take the test as soon as I finished the course, I decided to cancel my test and postpone it for the following year. I cancelled it, not because I felt that I was unprepared, but because it was not the right time.
I made a plan to use the winter holiday break during my senior year for my 10-week intensive study phase. That way, I would be able to apply and interview during my year of full-time Masters research, following graduation (I will detail how I created this 10 week study schedule in Part 2 of Making the MCAT!). Although my original MCAT study plan stopped short, I was able to orchestrate a new plan that allowed me to have the time I needed and apply as a stronger candidate. I had a plan and almost a year of studying completed when a great opportunity presented itself and, in order to earn my Masters degree on a full scholarship and stipend, I needed to change the trajectory of my study plan. Although the MCAT does give medical schools an idea of your capabilities as a student, they also look at many other personal and academic qualities that you might be able to offer. Do not feel pressured to sign up for the MCAT for any reason. Only you will be able to say when you are prepared, and timing is incredibly important.
When I cancelled my test, I was tempted to label the decision as a failed attempt. However, I learned that knowing how to say "no" in bad timing is just as important as saying "no" when you feel unprepared. I created a study plan that would allow for a strategic year of reviewing content and learning how to efficiently work through standardized tests. Instead of buying lots more books and flashcards to carry around when I knew that I had all the materials for content review that I needed, I decided to purchase only practice tests. That allowed me to spend more on full-length practice tests, which proved to be the most helpful part of my study journey. As I prepared for my final year of studying, I wrote down major guidelines for myself in order to remain true to my long-term goals:
Never make excuses for being distracted during MCAT-specific study time. If I am committed to studying for a certain period of time, approach that time with the intention to immerse myself in the content that I need to internalize. If I am distracted and not ready to study, cancel the time and double it later.
When I have long periods of time during which my social commitments will conflict with my ability to stay on track with my study schedule, guilt tripping is not the answer. Rework the time and remain true to the revised schedule.
The 10 weeks leading up to my exam is protected time. Be transparent with family and friends prior to the 10-week mark, and communicate that I will be less available.
I will not study for the MCAT. I will study for my future patients.
Visualization is important. I can see myself as a doctor, and I will do what I need to do in order to make my dreams a reality.
Review materials that I collected during my "study-prep" phase included...
Preparing to study for the MCAT, writing guidelines for yourself that you will stick to throughout the process, is beneficial because it will set the momentum for the remainder of your application process. Some of the guidelines that I mentioned I also used while I was in an intensive writing period for my secondary applications. What I did not anticipate, however, were the consequences of not establishing mental and emotional guidelines for my study journey. While I was busy writing schedules and drawing up formulas for study success on a logistical basis, I neglected to really envision the type of person that I wanted to be during this journey. Yes, I studied hard and I earned the score that I wanted, but I paid for it with my spirit and my mental health. I discovered anxiety that I did not know I had, and did not have the tools that I needed to address those issues in real-time. I assumed that, because I was a good student with pretty high-level memorization capabilities, I wouldn't need to think about what I would do when I crashed, or when I felt that I didn't have what it took to succeed.
Sometimes we don't think about preparing to study as a true component of studying; in order to make the MCAT, however, fully exercise academic, physical, mental, and spiritual preparation. Yes, make schedules, and understand your prerequisites, talk to your advisors and protect your study time. Most importantly, however, sit down with yourself and have a meeting about what matters and what kind of person you want to be when the test is conquered- what kind of doctor you want to start to become. You may not create the MCAT, but you make it what it is. Your response to each question is more than a multiple choice selection- it's the manifestation of how you made your preparation and study time work for you. Whether you are just beginning to think about the MCAT, just registered for your test date, or getting ready to take the test in the very near future, don't take the MCAT. Believe that you will make the MCAT your own, and know that you will make it through.