These questions are from a recent Q&A with the fantastic pre-med society at BYU-Idaho. We wanted to be sure to give each question its due attention for their benefit and for any others with similar questions.
Is the MCAT really the hardest part?
I don’t know how else to say this. The MCAT is not the hardest test you will take, but it is one of them. It’s not the biggest obstacle you must overcome, but it is the first.
The MCAT may not be the gatekeeper that it used to be with a handful of schools no longer requiring it. But as a general rule in medical education, never do something (or neglect to do something) that will limit your options for the future. Keep all doors open to you. This starts by scoring well on the MCAT.
The MCAT does not tell programs who will be a good doctor. All it has ever shown is that if you do well on the MCAT, you will likely do well on Step 1. And now that Step 1 is pass/fail, one could argue that it’s even less useful now. But, you absolutely need to know how to assimilate large amounts of information and perform well on standardized tests. That is at least 60% of medical education. If you can do well on standardized tests and are an almost normal person, you will get through medical school no problem.
What was most helpful for the MCAT?
Full disclosure, we are many years removed from the MCAT. But we are not far removed from studying and taking big scary tests. And that’s really the question you are asking.
I have been a tutor for almost 6 years now. I have helped a number of students fine tune their approach to learning challenging subjects. I have seen what methods tend to work well and what methods generally suck.
Everyone is different and has unique strengths and challenges and blah blah blah whatever. There are several evidence-based ways of learning new material. If you want to experiment with something, use these.
- Note: reading is not studying, it may be part of the process, but it is not the process. That’s like seeing someone jogging on the street and saying, “oh look, they’re playing soccer!”
Dual coding: Utilizing multiple forms of media to learn a topic. For example, you watch an animated YouTube video on a topic, then you read a chapter on the topic, then you listen to a lecture or podcast on the topic. The thought here is that if you code a piece of information with different sensory pathways, you improve the ease of recall.
Interleaving: You essentially work on multiple topics concurrently and switch between them at short-ish intervals to prevent losing interest, burning out, and scrolling Instagram for 8 hours instead. You might study organic chemistry for an hour and a half and then switch to biology or physiology for a while, then switch back. It helps you study for longer stretches of time. Some people incorporate Pomodoro timer apps with this method as well.
Elaboration: Now we’re getting closer to where the money is. This includes things like the “Feynman technique” and concept mapping. Essentially, you study and then regurgitate the information. Usually by teaching someone else or writing it out on a whiteboard from memory. By synthesizing the information, you find the gaps in your understanding and go back and study that information. Rinse and repeat until you have command of the material. Good to use in group study situations. I attribute my success with O-chem, BioChem, and physics on the MCAT to these methods.
Concept mapping would be similar, only you would try and verbally connect new material with old concepts you already understand well. Making connections between similar concepts leads to stronger neural connections and more efficient retrieval.
And the holy grail of evidence-based learning…active recall and spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition: If you haven’t heard of Anki yet, you will as soon as you get into medical school. It’s a spaced repetition software that does all the work for you and presents your own flash cards to you at increasing intervals that have been proven to stave off the forgetting curve. You will just retain everything you study with Anki like some kind of savant. Only effective if you use it for longer than 4-6 months though. The longer you use it, the more effective it will be. You can do this yourself by creating review schedules, but it’s a lot of work and they just don’t work unless you’re an ultra-dedicated reviewer. In which case you were always going to score a 520 no matter what.
Active recall: Similar mechanism to elaboration but more targeted with tighter feedback loops. You force yourself to retrieve information only from memory and each time you do this, the connections within your neurons get strengthened and more robust. You are creating a need for all that information in your brain, so it is converted from short term to long term memory. This includes things like closed book summaries, flashcards, question banks, end of chapter quizzes, practice tests, etc. Even peer to peer quizzing. This has been studied and taking one practice test led to better retention than re-reading a chapter four times. Article here.
You absolutely need to purchase review materials. I’m admittedly too far out of the game to give you an exact recommendation. I’ll look into it and maybe get back to you. I used Examkrackers and took about 6-7 practice tests. I believe Kevin used the Altius course. I also used a 5th grade math iPhone app to learn how to do math in my head. I had another MCAT question bank app that I used infrequently; I don’t even remember what it was called. Main resource was Examkrackers review books.
You don’t necessarily have to enroll in a review course, but these do provide a structure that can be helpful. Whatever you do, make sure it includes a healthy amount of practice questions and full-length practice tests. You have to be able to sit for 7 hours without losing focus or control of your bowels. That takes some training my friends.