MCAT prep resource request
August 2, 2005 2:03 PM   Subscribe

I have a gifted and motivated nephew who wants to take the MCAT. What resources would you recommend to help him prepare?
posted by Floydd to Education (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite far along in his education is he?
posted by hototogisu at 2:28 PM on August 2, 2005

Best answer: I sat the MCAT in spring, 2004 - it's a beast of a test, but I managed a 34.

My advice really hinges upon what sort of student your nephew is. If he's motivated enough to self-study, then I say to just ignore all those expensive prep-classes. Some of those cost upwards of $1500 and really, you can get the same information online and in books.

Here's what I did:

1) Take all of your pre-req courses just prior to when you want to sit the MCAT. In most cases, it's 14 hours of biology, 8 of general chemistry, 8 of organic chemistry, 8 of physics and 6(?) of english? Just having this course work fresh in your mind helps a whole lot.

2) Flash cards. Review them during commercial breaks, when waiting for friends, whenever you have a spare moment.

3) I found Kaplan's MCAT study book to be quite helpful. Lots of good information in there, but don't get too hung up on their practice tests -- they intentionally make them harder than actual MCAT questions so that you'll sign up for their prep class. ExamKrackers is also a great set of books. Lots of folks swear by those, and I wish I had known about them whilst studying.

4) You really want to take practice tests. Bar none, the best out there are to be found on the AAMC website. This is the organization that produces the MCAT, and their practice tests aren't cheap, but they are compiled from actual MCAT questions that for one reason or another have been retired. As such, you get fairly accurate scoring reports based on how actual test takers performed on those questions. Most people who take all of the AAMC practice tests report an actual MCAT score within 2 standard deviations of their average AAMC practice test score. Pretty decent they tell you exactly what you need to focus on.

5) For most test takers, the hardest section of the test is the reading section. No real way to study here, just read. Read, read, read, read, read. Read dry material in philosophy, myth, sociology and other humanities. Read Joseph Campbell.

6) Start studying early. You can't cram for the MCAT, but if you study a little every day for a long time, you'll do well. I started studying for the April test administration in October.

6) Rest before the test. Test day is brutal -- the test is stressful, and the administration of it is 8 hours. Do all of your studying well in advance, and just relax for the week of the test. Eat well, and eat a consistent diet - you don't want any intestinal surprises on test day.

My personal feeling with regards to test week is that at this point, it's really too late to do anything more than quick review. If you don't know it by now, this week won't help you...and trying to cram will only stress you out. Hit the books with increasing determination up until a week before the test, then hit the brakes.

7) Google is your friend. SO many resources online for MCAT takers. I don't remember the URL for it, but I was even lucky enough to find a java-based set of interactive flash cards for organic chemistry.

8) Don't listen to pre-med students on any MCAT forums. They're a bunch of idiots, and they all want to tell each other how superior they are. If you have questions about medical school, tests, or anything else, then go to the source. AAMC and various medical schools will generally answer your questions.

Tell your nephew good luck!
posted by kaseijin at 2:32 PM on August 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

I work for a test prep company. Hopefully you won't think this automatically biases my advice.

The first thing he can do is call up a local test prep service (The Princeton Review and Kaplan are the two big national services) and ask about taking a sample test. They use previously administered MCATs, so his scores should be indicative of his score on the real deal.

After that he should contact the medical schools that he wants to attend and see what their admissions requirements are vis-a-vis MCAT scores. If he is already scoring in that range than he doesn't really have to do anything except schedule the real exam.

If he isn't getting the score he wants I would recommend signing up for a course. The MCAT is by far the hardest of the post bachelors exams and he'll need all of the help he can get.

If paying for a course is a problem (ethical or financial) there are a variety of books available at any book store that will offer some aid and practice. But this will require a lot of self directed work. Doing well on the MCAT requires more than just natural intelligence.

He should also join his university pre-med society for contacts and support. They are really good at providing accurate information and helping with the process.

Finally, he should contact some current med-school students and ask them what advice they can give. (It helps if you already have a med student in your family/social group. It's not exactly easy to walk up to a stranger and interrogate them.)

On preview.
Kaseijin and I disagree on one or two of the particulars. I'd take his word over mine about the pre-med students. Experience beats theory in this case. But notice that we both agree on two things. Take as many practice exams as you can (However, I disagree that the exams from services companies are artificially difficult). Study a lot.
posted by oddman at 2:46 PM on August 2, 2005

Kaplan practice tests, and lots of them, seconded.

Maybe some snacks (brain food) for the young feller?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 2:57 PM on August 2, 2005

Well, just to clarify some on the attitudes of pre-med students on web boards...

There are quite a few that are helpful, but you have to get quite adept and filtering out all of the noise to find them.

Insecurity often manifests itself as chest-puffery and braggadocio, and you've got here a population of students wherein a significant number have grown up thinking they can do no wrong, and are now being faced with competing against each other. If you're the slightest bit insecure about your own abilities, the pre-med boards can ruin you. If you keep that in mind while searching for advice and tips, however, you should do okay.

Maybe the Kaplan/Princeton tests aren't specifically geared to be harder - it was a theory that several of us had while studying. It might just be that the slight differences in questions make a bigger difference than Kaplan thinks to certain types of learners. I was consistantly 10-15 points lower on Kaplan practice tests than on AAMC practice tests, and I knew other people that were the opposite.

It seemed to me like the major prep-house practice tests were all very heavy on technical detail, memorization and minutiae, which is usually very good drill-work for test taking. AAMC tests (and the actual MCAT, in my opinion), however, seemed more focused on synthesis - how well you could scan a passage for information, and how well you could apply what you already know across several disciplines to achieve an answer to a problem that you may have no experience with.

Might just be a case of different strokes for different folks, though -- if the Kaplan/Princeton practice tests work for you, then dive into them head first. ...Be sure to time yourself on a full test at least once a week, too, for about the last two months leading up to the test. Time is the big killer.
posted by kaseijin at 4:09 PM on August 2, 2005

...adept **at** filtering....

Preview is my friend.
posted by kaseijin at 4:15 PM on August 2, 2005

My two cents on the test-prep debate:
I recommend the Kaplan or Princeton Review MCAT prep course which costs upwards of $1200. It is good for people who are easily distracted or like to procrastinate. For example, I am pretty diligent and motivated in school, but without the class setting, I wouldn't block out 3 hours every day to study for the MCAT.

I knew friends who studied without a class and did just as well. They would take practice tests at Barnes and Noble on scratch paper and timed themselves. It's possible to stay motivated if your nephew has friends who could study with him and are equally motivated and gifted.

Personally, I took the Kaplan prep class, but skipped many classes. I went to their independent-studying room every few days and read their prep books and tests at my own pace. I found those materials very helpful and the score I got on practice tests matched what I got on the real thing. I went up from a 30 on my first practice test to a 38.

Other tips:
1) Get used to sleeping/waking up early 3 weeks prior to test day.
2) Take so many tests that you're comfortable with the timing and pacing.
3) Avoid the new computer-based MCAT tests if you like writing on the test book.
4) Be friends with others studying for the MCAT, so you can motivate each other.
5) Review exam material 30% of your time, do practice questions 70% of your time.. the exam isn't about how much you know, but the ability to apply your knowledge.
posted by alex3005 at 4:16 PM on August 2, 2005

Also... (I need to mull things over longer before posting, so that I don't have like 5 posts!)

Just an addendum to what oddman was saying about getting tips from medical students. I didn't talk to any medical students, and you can see my feelings on the pre-meds, but I got so much encouragement from physicians and residents.

One of the things your nephew will need to do for his med-school application is to spend some time in a facility either shadowing, volunteering or doing labwork - preferably all three.

The docs you shadow and volunteer with are remarkable resources. Whenever I got frightened by pre-med asshattery (oh, lord... they toss around comments like, "you won't get into any medical school with less than a 3.8 GPA"...), the real docs were always there to set me right.

In short... Pre-meds want to thin you out of the competition. Physicians want to help you along, so long as you put the work in. I would imagine medical students fall closer to the physicians in this matter, but that would just be theorycraft.
posted by kaseijin at 4:24 PM on August 2, 2005

Best answer: Practical advice, from taking it last year (38Q, fwiw. Thanks, Biomedical Engineering!) People above have said most of this stuff:

  • Studying should be review of stuff you've already learned in school. Hope you were diligent then, too.
  • Don't cram. It won't work. You can get by with only a few hours a week of review if you keep the material fresh.
  • Pace your review, and tailor it to deficiencies in your practice tests.
  • Your most important purchase will be the AAMC official MCAT practice tests. Save two for the last week or two prior to the test, and spread the others out evenly.
  • The Kaplan book sold over the counter is a decent review of the basic knowledge tested. Supplement with old course textbooks.
  • Kaplan classes oversell organic chemistry, which is probably because it's the place where they can show reliable improvement. Have a friend steal the practice tests.
  • The Kaplan 'MCAT 45' book never helped anyone to do anything, especially not take a standardized test.

    Test day:
    Sleep well. Pack a lunch, water, and some inter-session snacks. Eat breakfast. Show up on time. Relax. Make it a game: serious, but fun to play.

    Answering questions:
  • If you can't answer a question, cross out any answers you know to be incorrect and take your best judgement.
  • Use triage: on the first pass, answer all the gimmes. On the second, answer everything you can conclusively after giving each question a bit of thought. Repeat until no questions remain.
  • Even on gimmes, mark off the incorrect answers and give yourself a brief mental justification. This will aid question proofing, and help you catch traps.
  • If you have time left, proof each question, especially ones where more than one answer seemed plausible, and try to do the above.
  • Hard questions are usually actually logic problems- often, you need no external knowledge to answer them.
  • The above is about 90% similar to what Kaplan and others will sell you- basically time management and common sense.

    Physical Sciences:
  • It helps to be an engineer for this part. Ha ha, sucka!
  • Make sure you can calculate products with exponents, etc. on paper.
  • Reasoning on this section relies on abstracting/applying sets of concepts to the problems at hand. Understand the meaning of what you review, rather than just cramming it.

  • Organic chemistry review does not have to be as extensive as Kaplan says. 'Cookbook' problems will come up, but it's more important to understand the basic semester concepts and be able to apply them- where are the electrons likely to go? You can sometimes reason your way from concepts into a cookbook problem, but not the other way 'round.
  • You will need to be comfortable with a wide range of biological knowledge and concepts. Questions in groups often combine specific knowledge with wider reasoning skills.
  • Logic problem mode is in heavy force on this section.

  • Practice tests will prepare you for this section, but beyond the point of familiarity it's hard to improve.
  • The hardest questions will depend on careful attention to and understanding of nuance in writing. English majors may rejoice until they realize that most sections are technical or scientific writing.
  • The remaining hard questions are often, you guessed it, logic problems. Underline relevant clauses, and pay attention to negations.

  • You can practice for this section, but it's a lot of work for relatively little benefit.
  • No one really cares about this section, including medical schools. Just try to be clear and demonstrate that you are literate.

    Life in general:
  • The MCAT is mostly a bar to pass: 24 or so for consideration anywhere, though 30 is the usual 'no problem' score. Struggling to get two more points out won't usually help you much at all.
  • You make an impression with the rest of your application, especially your essays and interviews. Be ready to demonstrate insight about your motivations and desires related to medical practice.
  • Most of the stereotypical pre-meds are detected and neutralized prior to entry to medical schools by sophisticated mechanisms and their own hubris.
  • Also a lot of nice people who would make excellent doctors won't make it through the process. Be ready for a period of reflection and decision-making, but don't take a negative result too hard.

  • posted by monocyte at 8:59 PM on August 2, 2005

    I work for a test prep company too, but I can certainly say that studying with test prep in a classroom setting eases the studying because you are forced to follow a schedule.

    Also, has he completed all of his pre-reqs already?

    Certainly advise him to take a free practice test first to see where he's scoring... maybe he won't even need to study! (doubt it, but it could happen.)
    posted by k8t at 5:59 AM on August 3, 2005

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