Last month, a science counselor at my university asked me whether I felt that taking the MCAT after 1st year would be beneficial for some students. For those of you who don’t know, I decided to take the MCAT last summer after my 1st year of undergrad biology. I knew I wanted to do a NSERC summer research placement after 2nd year, but also felt that I did not have the discipline or work ethic to successfully study for the MCAT at the same time. And I also knew I wanted to apply to medicine starting in the fall of my 3rd year. So I gave the MCAT a shot that summer after 1st year, and fortunately ended up with a decently balanced 34 T.
So would I recommend taking the MCAT after 1st year?
The short answer is yes and no, and to be frank, the best time to take the MCAT varies from student to student. In my opinion, taking 1st year physics, chemistry and biology, as well as 2nd year organic chemistry, help tremendously in making studying for the MCAT easier. The MCAT has become a critical thinking test more so than ever, and so any other courses on top of that are just gravy, in my opinion. So assuming no other summer distractions (i.e. no research or other jobs), I honestly believe that taking the MCAT after 2nd year is probably optimal for most science undergrads (in fact, most Canadian premed students do this already anyways). Not only will you have experience with all the essential science knowledge already, but in terms of test-taking skills, you would obviously do better the older you are. Taking your MCAT after 3rd year is also an option, but I think doing so after 2nd year is slightly better since the science courses will be a bit fresher in your mind.
What if I want to do both summer research and the MCAT?
I realize many students (like myself) want to have completed the MCAT as well as one summer of work (e.g. research) after two years of undergraduate studies. If this is you, there are several routes you could take:
Route #1: You do both summer research and your MCAT after 2nd year. I think this is the most common scenario for students in this boat. The main pro of this are that you have the core science background completed. The big con is the lack of time. It is easy for students in this position to work 9am-5pm in the lab, then go to their 3 hour MCAT prep course, and then get home by 11pm without having studied at all! It is definitely possible to do this and do it well, but it takes a ton of discipline, sacrifice, work ethic, and time management skills. If you have these traits, by all means, go for it. If you’re like me, and can’t quite handle the excessive workload, then you might want to try Route #2 or #3.
Route #2: You do summer research after 1st year, and your MCAT after 2nd year. I actually think this is better than Route #1, since you will have ample time to prepare for the MCAT. The only con is that, in general, it is more difficult to find a professor willing to hire you in the lab, since there is a plethora of older, more experienced undergraduate students who make better candidates to work for them. In addition, some universities (like York) only offer NSERC summer research awards to students who have finished at least 2 years of undergrad, so if you value a summer research award, this route may not work for you.
Route #3: You take your MCAT after 1st year, and then pursue summer research after 2nd year. This is the route I took, and honestly speaking, I don’t feel most people should take this route unless you are confident in your test-taking skills. The pros are that you get the test over and done with early, have the whole summer to concentrate on the MCAT, and have a whole extra year to retake if you screw up. The major cons are that you will likely score lower than if you were to have taken it after 2nd or 3rd year, since your test-taking skills would be worse, and your science knowledge base is lower, particularly with the lack of Organic Chemistry. That being said, if you are confident in your work ethic and test-taking skills, I definitely think there is merit to this route. I am very sure that a few of my friends who are now balancing the MCAT and summer work would have benefited from this route.
So in short, when you should take your MCAT depends on a few main factors:
(1) Your test-taking abilities and your confidence in them
(2) Your time-management skills, work ethic, and discipline
(3) When you want to apply to medicine (e.g. 3rd year, 4th year, or beyond)
(4) Whether or not you want to have other commitments for the summer, that affect how much time you can spend preparing for the MCAT
(5) How many MCAT-suggested courses you’ve taken (e.g. physics, chemistry, etc.)
Anyways, I hope this helps you realize that there are many options, and that you shouldn’t base your decision on when to take the MCAT on popular opinion (e.g. after 2nd year). Everyone’s situation is different, and you need to find the method that is best for you and only you.
If you need advice on when to take it, feel free to leave a comment on your situation, and I’ll let you know what I think.