MCAT Prep: Why Simply Taking a Practice Test Isn’t Enough


MCAT Prep: Why Simply Taking a Practice Test Isn’t Enough

The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is a daunting, lengthy test of seven and a half hours. This test is more than an assessment of knowledge – it also reflects your endurance for future tests in medical licensing. As such, it is crucial that students prepare for this exam academically and strategically. For many applicants, MCAT prep means taking multiple practice tests to plan for breaks, snacks and lunch, and ultimately to build endurance. One of the most common obstacles students face in preparing for their test is a ‘score plateau’ or reaching the limit of their scoring either on practice passages or tests. While a lot of students take many practice exams through various test preparation companies, a common mistake not taking the time to review the tests or not reviewing the test thoroughly to derive common mistakes and patterns. This article will discuss how to approach reviewing a practice test and describe common mistakes that applicants make.

The Number of MCAT Practice Tests Required for MCAT Prep

For each student, the number of practice tests will vary in preparation for the MCAT. Some students focus their time on practice exams and utilize a thorough test review as a bulk of their content review for the exam. Other candidates only take a few, opting to spend their time reviewing content or taking individual practice passages. It is important to figure out what works best for your as a learner. Many students need to create a practice testing environment so that they are more mentally prepared for exam day, while others can grow fatigued from taking too many tests. 

A good rule of thumb for many applicants gearing for MCAT prep is one or two practice tests per week with about 100 days for total preparation. It is also important to be mindful of how close you schedule your last practice exam to your test date because poor performance on a practice exam can impact your confidence and performance on test day or lead to exam fatigue. 

Controlling Your Testing Environment

During MCAT prep, it is important to take the exam in a similar environment to your actual testing day. This means taking each section timed and with the breaks as scheduled. I would recommend even considering planning out the details such as your ear plugs, bathroom breaks, snacks and lunch similar to that on test day so you can see how you feel with a meal or snack and ultimately prevent irritation, fatigue, caffeine or sugar crashes. Timing your MCAT prep and practice tests will ultimately prepare your body for a long day just like training for a marathon, but also helps you develop a rhythm and work out any kinks prior to test day. It will also give you a more accurate score report on your practice test, as one of the more common complaints from students is that they run out of time at the end of a section. 

After completing MCAT prep, students should develop a method of evaluating their performance prior to seeing the score report and after. Noting unpreventable events such as having the flu or getting interrupted are important because they can impact performance. This process will allow students to develop a system where they can internally assess their own performance on other practice tests and on the actual test day. It is crucial to complete this process before and after viewing the practice score to eliminate the bias of blaming a bad score on the situation or feeling good about a test that was somewhat inflated by good guesses but in actuality filled with uncertainty. This strategy can assist students in recording how they honestly feel about a practice exam and allow them to assess their progress leading up to an exam. Many students use this as a metric to determine whether they should reschedule their MCAT for a later date.  

Tracking Your Progress

Similarly, it can be helpful to track your progress throughout your test preparation with an excel sheet. Excel sheets looks a little different for each student, but the majority record at least the date, individual section scores, and composite score for each practice test. This can be helpful to track your progress over time and see which sections are improving or need more work. Some students will also research how similar each practice test is to the actual MCAT through online forums. This can be a helpful practice to determine if the composite score is a true reflection of future test day performance or if the practice test score is an overprediction of test day performance. This is important to assess, since many practice exams are not written by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). However, proceed with caution, as some students can get discouraged by reading online forums and comparing their progress with others. Each applicant approaches the MCAT differently and there is no perfect approach to the test. 

In tracking and reviewing their performance, many students will identify a weakness by section. Targeting the weaker section on your practice test the following week in your study schedule can have great benefits. Most programs view a balanced score or similar scores across sections of the MCAT as an indication of a well-rounded applicant. It is important to keep this in mind and not focus too strongly on any one section while neglecting others. Each student will have different weaknesses. For example, early on during MCAT preparation, many students struggle with the timing of the Critical Analysis and Reading section. An example to raise the score for this section would be to increase the number of practice passages the student takes throughout the week. For the other sections of the MCAT, this may be accomplished with additional practice passages or may require increasing content review through reading MCAT preparation books. 

Reviewing Your Strengths and Weaknesses

After assessing your overall performance on practice exams and the MCAT prep process, it is important to get down into the details of the test. It is crucial to review each question along with each answer choice, especially in the beginning of test preparation. This can take anywhere from a half of a day to a whole day depending on the content knowledge of the student. The time required to complete this often decreases later in the course of MCAT preparation because the baseline understanding of content increases for most students. Many students are frustrated by this process because it is exhaustive. However, the students who are thorough in their test review often are among the highest scoring percentiles because they are willing to go the extra mile and deeply analyze their performance. 

In reviewing each question, it is important to think about what the question states and what test makers are truly asking in that question. In reviewing each answer during your MCAT prep, think about a question that would be correct with that answer or what concept that answer is trying to illustrate. Work to develop an eye for common test writing patterns such as the distractor answer or questions with a least, except, or not clause. As you go through the test, it can be helpful to identify each answer type under a common question category and assess if there is a type of question you miss most frequently or an answer choice trap you commonly fall into. This is another metric you could consider tracking within your excel sheet. 

During MCAT prep, it is common for students to see concepts that are unfamiliar or that they struggle to understand. A helpful habit can be developing a Word document, or a written list of concepts missed in practice passages or tests. This list can also be developed into flashcards or another study tool if the student prefers an alternative medium. I would recommend that the applicant use this as a daily review. This allows the student to consistently strengthen concepts that otherwise remain weaknesses. Confronting these weaknesses makes them strengths. Additionally, this list can serve as a review on the days leading up to the final exam, allowing students to review their weaknesses a final time and hopefully perform well on those concepts. 

After reviewing tests, students are often compelled to recycle or retake old practice tests that they have previously encountered earlier in their test preparation period. While it can be tempting to retake old MCAT practice tests, I would argue that this approach is a big investment of time with little return. If you are successfully completing the strategies listed above, you have already accessed and analyzed the content provided in these tests and are really only gaining another opportunity to practice timing or simulate a testing environment. You are much better suited to take a new practice test and identify concepts or mistakes that were not identified on previous tests.  

While there is not a one size fits all strategy for students engaged in MCAT prep, following a regimented approach for creating a testing environment and reviewing exams can benefit many students in actually getting ready for the test. The most helpful strategy in preparing for and taking a test like the MCAT is an awareness of what your common mistakes or weaknesses are and how to tackle them. 

About the Author
Jordan Salley is a senior MCAT instructor for MyGuru, a boutique tutoring company. For more information on MCAT prep, MyGuru’s approach, and MCAT tutors, click here.


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