How to study for the MCAT (and do well) – Part 1


On the first class of my MCAT prep course, the course instructor wrote on the board:

“The MCAT exists to _________ me.”

He then asked us to fill in the blank. There was silence at first, and then one student bravely said “to screw me”. Funny chaos ensued for a few minutes as others piped in “to kill me”, “to ruin me”, and so forth.

The instructor stopped our laughter by shouting “Wrong!”, and then said, “The MCAT exists to help you.” He explained that since it was May, we only had one summer before med school applications were due. Extracurricular activities and good reference letters often require long-term commitments, so there’s not much you can do in these last few months. The school year is over, so is any chance of changing your GPA. The only thing left that you can use to improve your application at this point is the MCAT.

This post is the first of two personal heart-to-hearts on how to prepare for the MCAT. I admit that the downfall of this article is the fact that it is derived from the experience of a sample size of just one. I managed a 37R with this advice though, so I hope it helps!

Psyching yourself

Why are you doing this? Before you start ruining your summer with MCAT studies, it’s important to remind yourself why you are writing the MCAT. Other than the fact that hitting the cut-offs will complete your application, you should still aim to get the best score that you could. There are 3 reasons for this: 1) having an amazing score gives some kind of “wow” factor, which may come in handy in your application; 2) it feels great to have a score that you can be proud of and say “this is what I gave up my summer for”; 3) it’s good to have some leeway to make sure that you do make the cut-offs. The MCAT is important.

40 hours per week is the number of hours you should ideally be spending on MCAT studying. (Yes, you heard me right.) For a lot of us, a MCAT “full-time” job is very hard to pull off, and you will have to be prepared for the fact that you may not hit your best score possible. I wrote my MCAT in the summer of my second year while doing full-time research. On the rare good week, I’d get my 40 hours per week by studying 20 hours on the weekend and the other 20 over three weekdays. It depends on you, really. If the MCAT is not that bad for you, it’s definitely a good idea to continue doing extracurricular activities and research on the side. If you find the MCAT to be very tough, it may be a better choice to concentrate on it full-time.

It’s hard. I’ve heard some people say that the MCAT is easy, or that there’s a “trick” to the MCAT. The fact of the matter is that the MCAT is hard (of course, I am discounting exceptionally smart students when I say this) and there is no easy trick. The MCAT fits all its test-takers into a bell-curve and it’s mathematically easy to fall on the curve’s bad side. I realized this when I got a score of 22 on my first mock MCAT, and that motivated me to take the MCAT very seriously.


Just to get a feel for what the MCAT was all about, I wrote my first mock test (with no studying whatsoever) in the summer of first year, where I got my 22. I didn’t touch the MCAT until the summer of second year, when I got a 29 on another mock test. The second year of undergraduate courses was enough to buy me an extra 7 points, which were purely based on content knowledge in biological and physical sciences. My point is that content knowledge matters.

My background in biochemistry prepared me extremely well for certain content portions of the test. In particular, my 2nd year courses in genetics, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, and metabolism gave me an extra edge over test-takers who weren’t in my biochemistry program. First year physics also helped a lot. On the other hand, I had never taken a course in anatomy or physiology – so I was learning completely new material for the test.

Verbal Reasoning

Verbal reasoning is usually the most feared section of the typical science student. This is the section where you most often hear horror stories like “Oh, I know a guy who got 15-6-14”. Not only is Verbal Reasoning scary, but it is also one of the hardest to improve in. Simply becoming more familiar with the format and timing will often result in a 1 or 2 point increase from your baseline (score that you get with no studying whatsoever). Baselines reflect your innate reading comprehension skills, which are affected by how much you’ve read and what type of materials that you often read.

Improvements in 3 or more points from baseline are rare unless you adopt and perfect a strategy – different prep courses encourage different “tried and true” strategies. Strategies frequently involve learning a new way of approaching passages, taking notes, and tackling questions. Often they feel unnatural and are time-consuming to adopt. You’ll find that your score actually drops when you first try using the strategies, but will pick up again later, leading to an overall improvement.

Personally, my baseline score was a 9, which improved to 10/11 after a couple of weeks of practice. To get to that point, I did one timed full verbal reasoning section per day, and went over the questions that I got wrong. I was frustrated with my prep course’s strategy, and as I was content with a 10/11, I simply didn’t seek to improve it further. However, I have friends who had baseline scores of 7s, and after an intense summer, got 11 or 12, so it’s possible!

Stay tuned for Part 2 – writing sample, study tips, and test day.

Deciding when to write the MCAT? Check this article here.