The MCAT Experience


I took the MCAT August 21st, 2014 and spent the entire summer studying for it. The MCAT prep course I took through KAPLAN officially started on May 18th. Throughout this long process, I seeked advice, most of which I thought was good, but few I found actually prepared me for the MCAT experience. And that’s the first pivotal change everyone should make in their minds. It’s not just some test you take on some random test day at some random time at some random place. It’s not a singular event, and the score you get is not random. It’s a process. It’s a journey. It’s a self-exploring experience.

Why should you listen to me?
I didn’t do exceptionally well on the exam. But if we are going to be realistic here, most of us aren’t going to be in that coveted top 1%, or top 5%, or even top 10% of test-takers. And that’s why I think my advice is valuable. This advice isn’t coming from someone who got a great diagnostic score, someone who is a great standardized test-taker, or someone who is a genius. But that doesn’t mean you can’t set a (reasonable) goal for yourself and reach it. I’m not revealing my score because I’m unhappy or ashamed about it. I’m not revealing my score because I don’t think it matters in the context of this conversation. If you want to find someone who absolutely destroyed the MCAT and get advice from them, there are plenty of posts I came across over the internet. But if you are in the majority of pre-meds trying to get a balanced score and/or trying to get at least the average accepted MCAT score (30-31, top 20%-25%), then I think you will find my perspective worthwhile your time.

The MCAT is more than just a test!
At some point in your study, you will likely hate the MCAT. You will think to yourself, “How is the MCAT a fair indicator of my ability to become a doctor?” The question can be scientifically phrased as, “How is the MCAT a fair indicator of my ability to excel in medical school?” And then, there is real statistical evidence for it. For those nagging inner-cynics, I’ve linked a professional study on the matter.

Don’t waste your time fiddling with the paper. Just understanding the history of the MCAT will provide enough evidence, in my mind. Back in the 1920s, dropout rates in American medical schools was as high as 50%! So a standardized test was developed, and drop out rates decreased to just 7% in 1946. Now, drop out rates are below 1%, largely due to competition, but also because the 1992 MCAT (administered until 2015) is such a strong predictor for medical school success. And that’s why medical schools care so much about the MCAT. They don’t want you to drop out of their program. They want all of their students to succeed.

This intrigued me. How in the world does 144 multiple choice questions predict how well you will do in medical school? And the answer is elusive. It doesn’t. There is no way 144 multiple choice questions can ever predict your success over the course of 4 years! Every medical school has a different curriculum and different core philosophies, different teachers with different teaching styles. And yet, here we stand at a conundrum. How does the MCAT predict your success in medical school? I realized it indirectly tests your work ethnic, determination, persistence, attitudes, desire, and personality.

There were so many days I wanted to just give up, throw in the towel, and actually have a summer break. AAMC recommends at least 300-350 hours of studying outside the regular school course-work, and I would say this is a low-ended estimate. I would estimate that I studied about 400-500 hours for the MCAT over the course of 95 days to get to where I wanted to be. That translates to about 4-5 hours per day. It might not seem so challenging, but when you aren’t getting the score you want on those darn AAMC practice tests, it can make you feel like you are wasting your time. And that’s how the MCAT tests your personhood. It will weed out the people who sort of want to become doctors from the people who really want to become doctors. It will filter the people who will easily give up in the face of adversity from the people who will rise up to the challenge. It’s not a question of, “How well can you answer these questions?” It’s a question of, “How badly do you want/how hard will you work to answer these questions correctly?” And if you find that a score of 29 is too high or not worth getting, then perhaps medical school isn’t right for you. Perhaps that isn’t what you truly want in life.

To summarize, I recommend thinking about the end goal in my mind in order to motivate your studies. I just thought about becoming a doctor and improving people’s lives, and it helped me to keep on studying.

Keep the numbers in perspective
I listed 29 as the number to strive for because below 29, your chances of getting into medical school really tapers off without some compensating factor, such as a high GPA or stellar extracurriculars. But if your only interest is in becoming a practicing physician, then you should consider osteopathic medical schools (as opposed allopathic medical schools), which will accept lower MCAT and GPA scores. For osteopathic medical schools, you should be looking to hit 26-27, at least a 25 to remain competitive.

This is an extremely reasonable mark to hit. 24-25 is typically the mean score for any given testing year. Even the 29 mark is top 25%-30%, which shouldn’t be impossible if you’ve made it this far and maintained a respectable GPA at your university. When setting your goals, don’t arbitrarily choose a really high number just to brag about it or make yourself feel better. I recommend choosing the number based on what schools you are looking to go to. Look up what their average acceptance MCAT is and aim for a bit higher. If the MCAT score seems impossibly high, then it is time to re-consider what medical schools you should apply for.

Also, take a diagnostic test from a test prep company (or simply use one of the AAMC practice tests) to get a feel for your starting point. If you’re in the thirty’s, then it’s not reasonable to expect more than a 10 point increase, without substantially increasing your study time (300-500 hours over 100 days). If you’re in the twenty’s, then it’s not reasonable to expect more than a 15 point increase. If you’re in the ten’s, then it’s not reasonable to expect more than a 20 point increase. My diagnostic score from KAPLAN was in the twenty’s, and I got a score that was 7 points higher.

How to beat the verbal section
My diagnostic score for the verbal section was a 5. Had I gotten that on the real MCAT, this would have put me in the bottom 15% of test-takers. I ended up with a score that puts me about top 15%. The verbal section is often quoted to be the section that is the most difficult to improve, since it is not based off of any scientific information you can study beforehand. While this is true, it is for that exact reason why verbal can experience the most drastic improvements. It’s all about strategy. Switch to a better strategy, and your score will improve overnight. I personally found the KAPLAN reading strategy to be most helpful, but I know other methodologies exist from other study prep companies. In the end, it’s up to you to find what works. If you aren’t getting the score you want, experiment with a different strategy, but make sure you do this experimentation early on in your studies. Once you lock-in on a particular strategy, don’t change it last minute. Stick with it, and practice to get your score to where you want it.

If you have a good plan in place, you will be able to get at least an 8. You shouldn’t really be aiming for anything under since medical schools like to see balanced scores (the same or similar scores in every section). Also, this may come as a shocker, but I found actually reading magazine articles from Scientific American helped pass the time without making me feel guilty about not studying. It’s a great way to take an indirect break from your MCAT study.

The importance of a support system and attitudes
I found I did better on the KAPLAN practice tests than on the AAMC practice tests, so when I transitioned into taking the AAMC practice tests, I was naturally discouraged and frustrated. I started doubting myself, excessively checking my answers (and therefore running into time trouble), and fell into a vicious cycle of continually lower/stagnant results and a steadily declining self-esteem. Fortunately, I had a support system in the form of my KAPLAN instructor and family. They told me something as simple as, “You are the hardest worker I know and you deserve to get a good score on the MCAT.” I can’t stress the importance of surrounding yourself with people who want to see you succeed and believe in you. Chances are, the MCAT will break you down at one point and there’s nothing better than the words of encouragement to mend the spirit. Also, don’t double check your answers. Take as much time as you need to be confident in your answer, but don’t double check it. Be confident. Assume you got it right. Move on to the next question. Whenever I ran into a hard problem, I thought to myself, “Hmm… this is a very interesting problem, but I know it is beatable. I think I will have fun solving this problem!”

Root yourself in a supportive environment, and be flat-out cocky if need be during the test. It helps you perform better come test day. Perhaps there will be those who will be too cocky and need to slow down their pace, but this is the attitude I had on my best practice tests. I didn’t worry about the future or the score. I just thought about the problem at hand and assumed my best was good enough to answer the question correctly. You can do it! You really can.

Schedule enough time between each practice test you take
Taking a million practice tests will not improve your score. Chances are, you will actually get worser scores, especially if you aren’t giving yourself adequate time to physically rest between each practice test. A practice test takes about 4 hours to complete, so it really is a time-draining and mentally-intensive undertaking. There are so many other things you can do with this time and energy, such as reviewing previous practice tests, solving discrete problems that test science knowledge, tackling verbal/science passages one at a time, or keeping your memory sharp by using flashcards. Utilize all of the resources you have available to you in order to optimize the improvement you make test to test. If you are pacing your practice tests correctly, then they should indicate progress over the timeline of weeks.

How do you know when you are ready to take the MCAT?
The most obvious answer is when you are getting the scores you want on the practice tests, but I personally knew I was ready when I didn’t feel like studying more was going to help me. If you find yourself freaking out couple days before the exam, you probably are either overly insecure (refer to “The importance of a support system and attitudes” section) or you haven’t done the preparation needed to feel confident. Take the test (for real) when you are ready. AAMC likes to play mind-games with you and gives you the option to void your score once you’ve taken the exam (but only at that time). Don’t void the score unless you felt physically ill, faced extreme administrative problems, or ran into serious time trouble during the test. It can be costly to reschedule (upwards of $300) but medical schools will see every MCAT score you get, so it’s a worthwhile investment for your future. Remember to keep the end-goal in mind!

Can you predict your actual MCAT score from practice exams?
Yes and no. I did not expect my sub-scores (higher verbal, lower physical), but the composite score was within 2 points of my average AAMC practice tests and my average KAPLAN practice tests. My score was higher than the average of my practice tests (should make sense since the average practice score includes tests in the middle of my preparation). I scored lower than my best KAPLAN practice test, and I scored the same score of my best AAMC practice test.

The changing MCAT in 2015
I wouldn’t have written this had I thought this information been outdated after the MCAT change in 2015. I still think the general rules apply. The MCAT is more than just a test–treat it as such. Make sure you keep the numbers in perspective to pick an achievable goal. Experiment with different strategies for verbal. Read relevant magazine/newspaper articles in your spare time. Surround yourself in an uplifting environment. Be cocky when you take the test. Schedule practice tests so that you can utilize multiple resources. Don’t void the test just because you thought it was hard.

Final words
I was super stressed out in that last month leading up to the MCAT, and there’s nothing I can say to remove that anxiety. Half of all applying pre-meds across the country will not matriculate into any of the medical schools they apply to. But I’ll leave you with this final thought. If you were meant to be a doctor, then the MCAT will not stop you from living out your dream. It’s in your hands, and it’s all up to you. Go make it happen!

Best of luck,
Kevin Tae

2 thoughts on “The MCAT Experience

  1. Great reflection on the MCAT, Kevin! I’m so happy things worked out; all the work you put in this summer was definitely not in vain.

    One thing to emphasize about the MCAT to all prospective MCAT test-takers is that it will not majorly hinder your chances of getting accepted into a medical school if you score one or two points below a school’s average. At the end of the day, your MCAT score is just a rough estimator. Things that I think could matter much more are your GPA, extracurriculars, and your essays.

    To give some perspective, I scored a 35 cumulative on my MCAT, which is roughly 1.5 points lower than my AAMC average and within my expected range. I also scored an 8 on verbal, which completely shocked me.

    The point is, although surprises are inevitable, when it comes down to your application, no one score (subsection or cumulative) will entirely make or break you. If you scored well enough (30+), your time is often better spent preparing for classes, improving your extracurriculars, enjoying life, and being done with this monster exam once-and-for-all!

    • Hey Will! I’m glad my post found you. As you know, it was a bumpy road for me, so I too am happy with the way things went. Thanks for being there for me 🙂

      I am surprised to hear that you got an 8 on verbal considering our thoughts on the test afterwards. But obviously, your score is still phenomenal, and I’m sure you could write a very good reflection on your MCAT experience. I’d for sure read it!

      I agree with everything you said in the comment and wished perhaps I gave more emphasis on the holistic approach to the application in my post. Time is not infinite, and time spent away from the MCAT could be time better spent. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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