Because people keep asking me and I figured it’s easier to send a link than to poorly rewrite this every time. Spoiler alert: I got a 526 (132/132/132/130).
*Note: I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about the MCAT (that go beyond how I studied for it) that I wasn’t sure if I should include in this or not. Ended up deciding to write those up separately and I’ll add the link here once it’s up.*
The following does not cover the basics of the MCAT. For more general information, visit the r/MCAT wiki or the AAMC Guide on the MCAT.
How long did I study?
Exactly 3 month. I started studying the day after Christmas (Dec 26th) for my exam scheduled at 3pm on March 26th. Prevailing wisdom (from r/MCAT and otherwise) is to limit studying to 3-5 months so you don’t start forgetting what you learned in the beginning. I decided on 3 months because I had to take my last few prerequisites my junior year fall so I only wanted to start studying after that, and because I was also applying that year so I wanted to give myself enough time after I took the MCAT to start working on my application.
What classes did I take before the MCAT?
Biochem (the most important), gen chem, orgo, physics, cell bio, neurobio. The semester I took the MCAT I was also taking orgo lab (which helped a surprising amount) and genetics. Biochem was easily the most useful to have already taken, followed by orgo lab, gen chem, cell bio, and physics. I didn’t take psych or soc, but I did AP out psych (and gen bio).
How did I do content review?
I primarily used Kaplan review books and pre-made Anki decks. I went through the Kaplan books in this order: Chemistry, Physics, Orgo, Biochem, and Bio. This order was based on my perceived comfortability/experience with the subject (weaknesses first) and based on my initial diagnostic half length from BluePrint (scored the worst on Chem/Phys). I didn’t use the other Kaplan books.
For Pysch/Soc, I used the u/fVANILLA document, which is a version of the 300 page Psych/Soc doc floating around on Reddit. It is slightly longer than the 300pg doc (which is probably sufficient), but I chose to use the Vanilla doc over the 300pg because I was not very confident in my PS knowledge and my diagnostic indicated I needed more work on it. I started my content review with PS because it was the most content/memorization heavy, so I wanted to get started on that first and get Anki going on that first.
When I began studying, it was winter break, so I focused on reading the Kaplan books/Vanilla doc for about 7-8 hours a day, including doing the review questions in the books. I had about 14 days of full-time studying before I went back to lab and cut my studying down to 1-2 hours a day.
I supplemented reading the Kaplan books with Anki. Anki *was* the reason I scored well on my MCAT. I did it religiously every single day, I used a 15 min, 1 day, 4 day interval. I would set no limits on new cards or reviews. I used the MileDown deck for every subject besides P/S (for which I used Jacksparrow). I unsuspended cards as I covered the material in the Kaplan books, and that would translate to about 100 new cards a day. I would try my absolute best to do all of my reviews everyday, but even if I didn’t get through everything, I would do at least something. Some days were reserved for “Anki catch-up” days. I would edit and add Anki cards as needed if I needed more reinforcement on certain subjects.
It took me about a month and a half to get through content review. By the end, I was going so slowly and it was so torturous that I decided to not read the Biochem and Bio Kaplan books and instead just do the end of chapter questions to see what my content gaps were. I had a strong foundation from my prerequisites so I was able to cut myself some more slack with the content review.
How did I approach taking practice exams?
Consistently taking practice exams was the other big reason I did well. I took an initial Blue Print half length diagnostic the second day into my studying. I got a 511 (125/128/130/128). After that I worked backward from my test day and took a test every Saturday, starting with 4 Blue Print full lengths, the AAMC Sample, and the 4 AAMC scored full lengths. I would take it as close to possible as test conditions (no phone, correct breaks, take almost the full time for the sections, etc) and Sunday/Monday I would spend reviewing and making Anki cards based on questions I got wrong. It is important to note that I started taking these practice exams even as I was working through content review, with the understanding that I would continue to improve as I kept studying. I didn’t want to wait before starting practice exams because I knew myself and I knew I would just procrastinate and not end up taking as many or as seriously.
My practice exam scores are below:
1/23/21: Blue Print (BP) Full Length (FL) 1 - 517 (129/129/129/130)
1/30/21: BP FL 2 - 517 (130/127/130/130)
2/6/21: BP FL 3: 516 (130/128/129/129)
2/13/21: BP FL 4 - 513 (129/126/129/129)
2/20/21: AAMC Sample - 525 (131/131/131/132)
2/27/21: AAMC FL 1 - 527 (132/131/132/132)
3/6/21: AAMC FL 2 - 524 (132/130/132/130)
3/13/21: AAMC FL 4 - 526 (132/130/132/132)
3/20/21: AAMC FL 3 - 525 (131/130/132/132)
How did I review practice exams?
Reviewing practice exams was as (if not more) important than taking the practice exams. I made a Google spreadsheet (you can view and make a copy here - warning, it has spoilers for each exam I took, but each are separated by sheet, so I recommend you only look at the first sheet after you have taken the Blue Print diagnostic and use the other sheets only as a reference for after you have taken the other exams) and meticulously go through each question, whether I got it right or wrong, to make sure I understood my thought process. Any question I was unsure about/guessed on/got wrong, I would make a row for, and write down as much information as I could about the question. Blue Print has some great tools/analytics to better understand the types of questions you are missing and I tried to take as much advantage of that as possible. I wrote a lot about my thought process and tried to make sure I never made the same mistake again.
What did I do after content review?
After I decided to be done with content review, I stopped reading the Kaplan books, but continued to do my Anki every single day. Every weekend I would be taking and reviewing my FLs and during the week I would study an average of 30mins to 1 hour a day (I was working in lab about 30-35 hrs/wk plus taking 9 credits of classes).
I focused on UWorld for about 3 weeks following content review (I had done a few questions here and there towards the end of content review but started in more earnest - 10-30 questions a day - in the following weeks). I primarily focused on doing UWorld casually, in non-test taking conditions. This meant I would spend about a min per question, not review my answers, really just take the questions to see the content and find the gaps. Most of my time regarding UWorld was spent reviewing the questions, especially the ones I wasn’t able to immediately get right, to bridge content gaps and get in the passages+questions mindset. UWorld has amazing answer explanations that are worth much much much more than the questions themselves, so I split my time accordingly.
The last few weeks of my studying I focused pretty much exclusively on AAMC material. I bought all the material, but only ended up having time to get through: the flashcards (which are not really flashcards, but short content based questions), CARS Qpack 1, all 3 section banks, and about 60% of the CARS diagnostic.
Other resources I used?
I had made this OneNote MCAT Notebook with a bunch of resources and notes that I had crowdsourced from the internet/Reddit and occasionally referred to them. (Shoot me an email if you want a copy of that notebook, happy to send it over.) I did Jack Westin sporadically, and when I was trying to refine my CARS strategy I used Jack Westin a little bit more to try out different things to see what I was most comfortable with.
How did I approach CARS?
I am a big big reader, I always have been, and so that definitely shaped my CARS strategy. Because I read a lot for pleasure, I noticed that as I read CARS passages I would just glaze over them super fast and not actually process what I was reading. So I had to force myself to slow down and I did that by forcing myself to highlight constantly and consistently. I highlighted any quotations, tone/opinion words (yet, however, etc), proper nouns, names, dates, places, and anything I thought was relevant to understanding the content of the passage. By the time the test rolled around I would find myself anticipating the questions and realizing I had highlighted potential answers in anticipation. I highly recommend using the CARS diagnostic early (but not too early - maybe about 4-5 weeks in) and often. I waited until too long to start it and couldn’t get through it all. It was really helpful and had great answer explanations, and helped me crack the logic of the CARS section.
How did I approach the science sections?
I approached CP, BB, and PS generally the same. I would read through each passage, seldom highlight, and then go through the questions in order one-by-one. CP I would highlight maybe a little more and read a little less carefully because I found a lot of the passages were not as put together and the questions were not related to the whole passage but instead to discrete parts of the passage that I didn’t need as full of an understanding for. BB passages resembled scientific papers, which I was already very comfortable with because of my research background, so I would find myself analyzing the data as it was presented and drawing my own conclusions naturally. I focused more on understanding the main idea of those passages and reading them as whole works, as I found the questions often relied on a more complete understanding of the concepts. With BB, I also noticed that while some questions could be answered using just discrete knowledge, the answer could also be inferred through the passage - I was comfortable with scientific reasoning already so I felt like I could slack on the content of BB a little more because I could pick up the slack wiht my reasoning. With PS, I didn’t spend that much time reading the passage and focused primarily on terms that would repeat/stand out. Oftentimes the questions were not super related to the passage and so I felt I didn’t want to spend as much time on the passage.
How did I approach test day?
I had taken so many practice exams that by the time test day rolled around it just felt like another practice exam. I had scoped out my test center on Google maps the day before and from reviews, I sort of understood what the process at that particular center would look like. This definitely eased my initial anxieties. It’s harder said than done, but I tried to not think about how important the test was to my future and just banked on getting the average of my AAMC practice exams. I took some time during the tutorial section to gather my nerves and assess and organize my surroundings at my testing cubicle.
How did my work in lab help me with the MCAT?
My research experience was the third reason I did well on the MCAT (aside from Anki and practice exams). The skills I learned over several years of designing, planning, conducting, and analyzing experiments and data, as well as reading countless papers, were pivotal in my ability to reason through passages on the MCAT, and not just the BB ones. It felt very natural to read passages and to analyze them, because that’s what you do when you read papers. At its core, the MCAT is a reasoning exam, and my research had drastically improved my ability to reason through science topics. Even if you’re not doing research, I highly recommend reading research papers to get your mind in the mindset of analyzing data and reasoning through conclusions to help with reasoning through the passages on the MCAT.
I took the MCAT during COVID years when I was living at home with minimal distractions, so it was easier for me to focus on lab, school, and MCAT. There wasn’t much FOMO, nothing pulling me away from my priorities, my parents were cooking my meals for me, etc, so it was a perfect storm of an environment that 100% played into my success.
I knew going into it I was a pretty good test taker so I cut myself more slack - as long as I was hitting my goals in practice exams, I took it easier than I should have with studying.
I really really focused on hitting my weaknesses during my prep. It’s really easy to fall down the hole of continuing to review/do problems on stuff you are also comfortable and confident in, but it’s important to ignore that call and focus primarily on your weaknesses. It’s not going to be pretty because you’re going to do poorly at first, but facing those weaknesses is the only way to improve. I essentially spent 10% of my study time on bio and biochem because I was already
so comfortable with it, and 50% of my time on CP because I knew I hated it and was bad at it.
The entire time I was studying I was casually on the MCAT subreddit, learning through memes and also through answering other people’s questions. I found it helpful and even if you don’t want to regularly look at r/MCAT, if you have any question related to a particular practice exam question, just search for the question on Reddit through Google (e.g. AAMC FL 3 P/S #15 MCAT Reddit) and you will find some great discussions/explanations.
I’ll continue to add to this if anyone else asks a question that I think the answer belongs here. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out by emailing tanzerina at gmail dot com.
As always, thanks for reading :)