HOW I SCORED IN THE 89TH PERCENTILE AFTER 1 MONTH OF STUDY
As Cristina mentioned in a previous post, there are two general approaches to studying for the MCAT: 1) taking a course offered by a professional test prep company and 2) using a combination of books and online materials to study on your own.
When I took the winter 2016 MCAT, I had just a 1-month window between my fall semester’s final exams (I took the last one on December 15th) and my January 19th test date. Waiting until April or May, when I would be 8 or 9 months pregnant with my third baby, just wasn’t a viable option. In my mind, this predicament made the On-Site Winter Bootcamp offered by The Princeton Review (TPR) seem like a necessary purchase. Yes, the $2,500 price tag of this course was a hard pill to swallow. But, when I considered the amount of time and effort I had already put into applying for medical school, this expense seemed like a worthwhile investment toward making the best score I possibly could. The winter boot camp isn’t available in every city, so I was lucky that it was offered in Austin. I totally understand that this route is not for everyone, due to financial or scheduling reasons, so I’ll go over a few pros and cons I experienced with TPR and also mention the free or low-cost resources I supplemented with.
Benefits of going with an in-person review course:
- A clearly defined schedule that you are forced to stick to (lest your investment go to waste), plus books and other online materials you’d pay for à la carte otherwise.
- In-class practice passages designed to teach you to avoid common MCAT traps.
- Teachers who have all taken at least one MCAT exam, and who stay for office hours to answer questions. My TPR instructors were, on the whole, pretty helpful.
- Strength in numbers. The friends you make in your MCAT class will be your buddies from the trenches: Everyone is stressed but also happy to help explain a concept you don’t get.
- Access to several full-length exams that were, in my experience, more difficult than the official AAMC practice exams and were more representative of the real thing.
Downsides of classes like my TPR boot camp:
- The content and schedule are not customized to your strengths and weaknesses. For example, I needed a lot more Gen Chem help early on, which was not scheduled until late in the course. This greatly affected some of my early practice test scores.
- Not all teachers are created equal: Several of the instructors I had at TPR were great (our physics teacher was especially effective), but if you get a weak teacher on your weakest subject, you will be making up for it in your “spare” time.
- Fatigue. Chances are you’re doing this course on top of (or between, like me) some hard pre-med classes. You’re tired of being lectured and the extra in-class time can sometimes be tedious.
- They are expensive. The cost of the one-month course I did was roughly as expensive as a whole semester of pre-requisites at UT Austin.
Hopefully the information above helps you sort out your priorities. You should pick the organized course option only if it makes sense for your budget, timeline, and learning style. Although I supplemented with other resources, TPR helped me achieve a 129 on both CARS and Psych, a 128 on Bio, and a 127 on Chem/Phys (my weakest section by far), for a total score of 513.
Free or low-cost resources that can really help:
I made flashcards using Anki. If flashcards have worked for you in the past, I highly recommend upping your flashcard game to pro status with Anki. My husband and I share a paid version of the app so we can review decks on our phones, but there is also a free version for computer. This flashcard system uses a spaced repetition algorithm that delivers you the cards you need to review, in a manner that will help you learn faster and retain the information longer. My TPR books suggested that flashcards weren’t helpful for the MCAT, but making and studying Anki cards for the concepts that I missed on practice exams did seem to help me improve.
Khan Academy’s MCAT prep offerings were developed with input from the AAMC and, considering they cost NO MONEY, they are Internet gold for pre-med students. I can go into more detail about how I used Khan Academy in a future post, but if you’re not using Khan Academy yet for physics or o-chem, you should definitely check it out for the MCAT.
Finally, AAMC puts out its own set of print and online prep materials at a moderate price. You can see the full suite of options on their website, but this Complete Bundle is probably worth the $240 they charge for it. Their full-length tests are good practice for test day, but on the whole I found them easier than the real thing. From what I’ve heard, the questions within the section-specific Question Packs are more representative of questions you will actually see on the exam, so you shouldn’t just buy the official sample tests and call it a day.
Good luck structuring your MCAT studies and, of course, best of luck on the exam itself. As you’ve heard about so many other skills, “practice makes perfect” on the MCAT, so do as many practice passages as you can. Happy to answer more questions in the comments section!