The MCAT is a grueling 7.5 hour exam and should not be approached lightly. However, hearing that you need to devote ~500 hours over 6-8 months can sound overwhelming if you're just getting started. Many struggle, and many many students postpone and retake. But… this is typically due to inadequate preparation or unpredictable circumstances. If you invest 110% you can and WILL reach your goals.
Below is an interview with Nayna, a BA/MD student who worked really hard and scored a 518 as a result!
As you read this don't think ‘Oh I can never do what she did!'
Instead ask yourself ‘What can I learn from this interview and apply to my own personal circumstances?'.
Leah4sci: First of all congratulations! Congratulations again on the 518, that is amazing!
Nayna: Thanks! Thanks!
Leah4sci: When you started studying for the MCAT, what was your target score and how did you choose that number?
Nayna: My target score was 513 which is equivalent to a 33 on the old MCAT.
Leah4sci: Was this the first time taking the MCAT?
Nayna: Yes and no, I attempted the old version (4.5 hour exam) of the test this past January so that I didn’t have to take the new one. However, I was in college and it was difficult to study during the semester so I totally just crammed for 3 weeks during the winter break and Hail Mary’d it. But obviously I didn’t do so well on the old exam. So, I devoted my whole summer to preparing to take the new MCAT.
Leah4sci: When you started studying for the MCAT, what did you feel was your biggest challenge to getting started?
Nayna: The biggest challenge was feeling overwhelmed because I didn’t know the structure of the new test. I felt like I was going in blind. My friends suggested taking a test prep course, so I did.
Before the course I actually just read all of the books, got familiar with the material and highlighted important information. I officially began a course in June and finished mid-August, but I started reading up on stuff in May. The only subjects in the new MCAT that I never took in school was Biochem and Psychology.
Leah4sci: That’s a pretty smart approach to go into your class prepared because then you’re not learning for the first time. You’re coming there with the questions, I like that.
How much time in total did you initially plan to devote to the MCAT? How long did it actually take you?
Nayna: So most test prep companies tell you to study for 3 months minimum
(Leah’s Note: Unless you’re solid with the material and can devote 50+ hours per week, please devote at least 6-8 months for MCAT prep. 3 months will cause the average student to burn out)
I set aside 3 months. But you have to be dedicated. Definitely the hardest thing was trying to figure out what material to cover each day. You have to make a schedule for every day and make it for the entire 3 months so that you know what to study on weekly basis.
(Leah’s note: need help creating a long-term and daily schedule? Book an MCAT Strategy Session with me today)
Nayna: Right..So I planned to spend the entire day studying. I also had an internship at the hospital that took up a lot of my time.
I would actually study from 9am to 6pm. I allowed 30-minute break to eat but that was about it. I would study in my basement since no one was there or just study in the library.
Studying for the MCAT consumes more time than any exam you’ve ever prepared for.
Leah4sci: Did you postpone the exam at any point or was August 21st the initial date you chose?
Nayna: I stayed with my initial date. I registered sometime in May and I decided on August 21st. I knew that THIS – MCAT studying was going to be my summer so I had to test in August.
Leah4sci: 518 is an amazing score. For some students that’s their goal, for others this sounds impossible. Do you have the scores of any practice exams that you’ve taken before. Just a baseline, for people to understand how you got here?
Next-Step Prep exams ranged from 501 to 509
Examkrackers (scored like the AAMC sample test) ranged from 63% to 95% on retake
Leah4sci: Compared to the real MCAT, which practice exams do you feel prepared you the most and therefore the best for the students to use for their studying?
Nayna: The AAMC exam is definitely the closest to the real MCAT, at the same time it’s a little bit misleading. I think that it’s a little bit easier than the actual MCAT. As for CARS, I think the AAMC test was a little bit more straightforward and easier compared to the real MCAT.
Leah4sci: Did you find that questions from the ExamKrackers practice exams were more or less difficult? Did they teach you to think or to overthink? Because one of the concerns with Kaplan is that students report having to overthink, which ends up hurting them on the real MCAT.
Nayna: I think that ExamKrackers teaches you to think but not to overthink. For example, during the CARS section I was overthinking on their practice exam.
I also thought Next Step was pretty good. Their Chem/Physics was pretty accurate. Their Psychology section was very close to the real MCAT.
I found that the Bio on the Next Step was a little bit easier than the real MCAT. I felt the Bio section on the real MCAT was pretty intense.
I’m glad you told me about Next Step and their discount (Get the discount on my MCAT Resource Page) because those were good tests to take, and pretty well priced.
I know there are other practice exams available from companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan, that are just purposely hard and meant to confuse you because you have no idea what to expect. They kinda depress you and destroy your confidence. I know they’re curved on the ‘way to hard side’ probably because they offer a money back guarantee and just don’t want to give you that money back.
I think ExamKrackers and Next Step are the way to go.
Leah4sci: Which books did you use to prepare?
Nayna: I used the old (2014) ExamKrackers books since I already had them. I also had the old 1,001 question sets.
Since I only used the old question pack books, I stuck to what was relevant to the new MCAT. The books were really helpful. They’re not like practice MCAT questions (for new exam), but they have questions to help you understand the material. There’s no need to do all 1,001 questions for each subject. The key is to focus on the questions of the topics that are hard for you and you’ll get to where you need to be.
Leah4sci: In addition to the exams and the bundles, did you use any other resources to practice MCAT style passages?
Nayna: I did the passages in the Examkrackers books and re-did the practice tests. Examkrackers has short half-hour passage sections in the book.
Another thing I want to point out, I think their CARS section was a little bit more straightforward than the real MCAT CARS. So don’t let your head get too big. If you take the AAMC CARS bundles and you think ‘that was really easy’ keep in mind the real exam is harder.
Most of your (Leah4sci) material that had to do with Bio/Biochem was what I focused on.
For example, I had difficulty with amino acids. Between your workshop on PI, your amino acids resources and the cheat sheet, I really got it. I never knew PI until your live workshop.
The books will tell you that you don’t need to know amino acid structure but you REALLY DO.
Also titrations, buffers and pH were topics I wasn’t so good at and your videos really helped.
Leah4sci: Did you follow a particular study method for your MCAT preparation?
Nayna: Examkrackers told us to read every chapter three times.
- As if you’re first reading a book, but you should be highlighting and taking notes.
- The second time try the practice questions as you read
- Read again after class
(Leah’s Note: Books can get boring especially reading 3 times, instead follow these 5 steps to master any MCAT sciences)
I also took notes in a notebook. Don’t waste your time writing everything. For example, I had a lot of biochemistry notes because I never took Biochem, as well as lot more Psychology notes.
On the other hand, I happen to really know the digestive track so I didn’t take many notes on that chapter. I didn’t want to waste my time.
When my class started it was easier because they put me on a schedule.
I don’t know how many of your students are taking an MCAT prep course in addition to getting tutored by you. If they’re taking a class, there’s typically a practice test every 2 weeks (for example with EK course). However, they probably won’t do well on the tests initially because they haven’t learned that much up until that point.
You can always save the practice exams to the end when you’ve learned everything, but I don’t recommend that.
I think it’s a good idea to get used to taking 7.5 hour exams throughout your studying. This way you are not just studying, but also getting to know what to expect from the exam, when you get hungry, what to eat, what to drink, things like that.
Leah4sci: As you’re going through this difficult journey sometimes it’s easy to give up, it’s easy to feel down. Did you have any hiccups and failures along the way? If so, what did you do to just snap out of it and get back to your goal?
Nayna: It was really hard. I think the most important thing is to have a good support system. I know it sounds cheesy because we’re not going through anything huge like someone dying, it’s just studying for an exam. But, it was really helpful to have my parents support.
Basically, I would take a practice test and then cry for an hour. Some days none of my work would pay off and I’d be very sad about it. My parents were very helpful and would say “you know what, we see and know how hard you’re working so if you know you’re putting in a lot of work, whatever happens on the exam you know that you couldn’t have done any better because that’s the hardest you’ve ever worked for anything…”
You know, you can only be proud of the work you did, you can only be proud of whatever score you get because you worked hard. Yet you never want to feel like you could’ve worked harder, that’s why I had to really put the pedal to the metal.
But, if you’re just studying and worrying about what your score will be you are not just studying, you are wasting time worrying. Sometimes I’d catch myself and remind myself to focus on what was in front of me and just do it.
I had to realize that the practice test will come, and the real test will come, but none of that matters if you haven’t studied the things in front of you TODAY that you need to master NOW.
It’s a lot of self discipline and a lot of smacking yourself.
Leah4sci: Do you think that if you gave yourself more than three months to space it out would that have been easier for you?
Nayna: I did an intensive study schedule that is true. At the same time — after two and a half months I was getting to the point where I couldn’t study anymore because I didn’t wanna have to be studying and have the thing over my head. At some point I felt like there’s not much more I can cram, no matter how much I just review my flashcards. Any more studying and I’d be burned out. I kinda think that I’m okay with three months given that I devoted 6-9 hours a day. I would have lost my discipline and started forgetting if I gave myself 6 months to prepare.
(Leah’s Note: I do NOT recommend a solid 3 months of prep if you have ANYTHING else in your life such as family, work, or school. You’re better off pacing yourself over 6-8 months with strategic study and review to ensure you don’t forget anything)
Nayna: It was full time MCAT and the internship. Some days I’d go to the hospital at 4am. I’d come home at 3pm and study till 10pm. It was an amazing internship but I had to put MCAT first.
It was full time MCAT you know…So I , I didn’t have time for fun.
Leah4sci: How many hours do you think you put in given the three months and the amount of hours per week?
Nayna: The days that I had my internship I could only spend 6 hours studying, the days I didn’t have my internship I had like 9 hours. However, I studied close to 7 days a week and went to my MCAT class in the evenings. After a practice test I just had to relax, I wouldn’t even review my answers until the next day.
Over 3 months that probably came up to at well over 500 hours of studying in addition to my class 6-10pm twice a week
Leah4sci: The reason I asked is because when a student looks at this and says, “oh she only studied for 3 months”, I want to put it into perspective. If they can not put in 500 hours in three months it might have to be spaced out over 4, 5, even 8 months.
(Leah’s Note: As you read this don’t try to COPY her schedule. Instead ask yourself ‘how can I apply this to ME?’)
Nayna: Right, so it’s only possible if you’re not at school. If I had my normal college schedule it would be really hard. That’s why I had to do it over the summer.
Leah4sci: Looking back, does anything strike you as ‘oh I’m so glad I did xyz?'
Nayna: A couple of things. From the get go set up your amino acid flashcards. You should make them from the start and review them. Hormones, that kind of stuff.
I think it’s important to make Flashcards with psychology terms and review them from the start. Don’t wait until the last day to cover them.
(Leah's Note: Keep the flashcards in your pocket, and always keep studying. Click to learn more about how to use Flashcards effectively)
Leah4sci: Now, how did you feel the morning of your exam? You’re there, you’re about to start…
Nayna: I was really nervous. Really,really nervous but I also kept reminding myself that I worked really hard for this. Some nerves are good – a little adrenaline to do well, so don’t be super zen.
You can be a little on edge, but I think the most important thing is to keep positive and keep reminding yourself “I worked my butt off for this, I’m about to do what I have been doing all summer which is take the exam in the right about of time, get hungry when I’m hungry”. I had to remind myself to stay calm the whole time.
Leah4sci: How did you manage your stress, if you did feel like you were too anxious or too nervous?
Nayna: Honestly, again this is gonna sound kinda cheesy but I think this technique works really well. Before every session close your eyes for 5 seconds and breathe in, breathe out, and then you are ready to start. And if in the middle of a section you panic just close your eyes again and breathe.
Leah4sci: How did you manage your time on the exam itself?
Nayna: Good question. I think time management is a skill that improves with taking practice tests. I wound up finishing with around 10 minutes to spare for each section. It comes with practice though, I’m not like a super freak you know, I did practice exams. Everyone, if they work for it I think can get it. That’s kinda my message. Because if it looks like I’m a genius from my exam I seriously doubt it, I’m a normal person. I just worked really, really hard.
Leah4sci: I like that you said that, because people will think “oh she’s genius, I can’t do what she did” But you really just worked your ass off …
Nayna: I did. I did well on my SATs and I thought I was good at standardized tests, but the MCAT was the first wall I hit. It made me think that maybe I was not as good of a standardized test taker as I thought. And that kinda hurt my confidence because I thought I was one of those ‘smart kids’. However, for this (MCAT) everyone has to work their butt off. I mean I definitely hate the kids who DON’T work their butt off and still ace the MCAT. But for all the normal people like me – If you work REALLY hard it will happen for you. It will. You know I’m just, like I said, a normal person but I worked really really hard.
Leah4sci: Did you jump around in any of the MCAT sections, or did you attempt all the questions in order?
Nayna: For the most part I took it straight through. But there was one passage I didn’t know and it was making me nervous, so I thought let me just move on and I’ll come back to it. I moved on to the next passage to calm myself down and get my confidence back, then revisited the hard passage.
Leah4sci: Did you understand every question on the MCAT or if you didn’t understand, what was your approach to answering it?
Nayna: Okay, so I think the only time I really was like I had no clue what they were talking about was some stuff on the Bio /Biochem section. When I absolutely had no idea what they were talking about I just did a blind guess. Everything else – if I was between the two answer choices I crossed my fingers and hoped I chose the correct one.
I wish they told you what you got wrong instead of just a score report with a number.
If I didn’t know the answer, I tried to think ‘what do I know?’, ‘what is most logical that has a bit of relevance?’. I tried to find anything in the passage that could help me. But with all the studying I didn’t feel that I had no clue what was going on. All that studying definitely paid off.
Leah4sci: Looking back then, any last minute advice especially to students who are just starting out or in the middle of the grind, what would you say to them?
Nayna: Just keep sticking to your schedule, you really need to map out what you’re going to do and focus on it every day. Put your phone away really study hard and it WILL pay off. The flashcards really come in handy. You don’t need to be making flashcards for every single thing. You should make them for what you have difficulty remembering and have someone test you on them like twice a week so the information gets embedded in your memory and you won’t forget it. For example, make flashcards on amino acids, hormones, psychology terms.
You should NOT be making Five Hundred Thousand MCAT flashcards, that’s a waste. I just made them for the important material I couldn’t remember. You should make some flashcards at the beginning of your studying.
Also don’t just do one whole sitting of physics; mix it up. The way the MCAT is structured you won’t be doing 10 straight topics of physics. They mix it up. One problem can incorporate some bio and physics and chem and… psychology. Start getting into that mindset to keep moving around.
(Leah’s Note: Use my study block method taught in the MCAT Strategy Workshops)
Leah4sci: If students are studying right now and they feel exhausted and burnt out, what advice do you have for them?
Nayna: Oh my Gosh, it’s so hard I know exactly how they feel. And before you think “I hate this girl she scored a 518…”, you can do it. You WILL achieve your score if you keep pushing on. If you feel burnt out take a break. Take a walk to get re-energized.
Some days I’d think: “this just really sucks, I can’t believe I have another 4 hours to go”. So in the middle of the day I’d have a conversation with someone and it would make me really happy. And I’d get back into it.
Also don’t study in the same spot all the time. like If it gets crazy at home or you get bored switch it up. I’d go to the public library for a different setting. Try to stay away from distractions.
Hours are only hours if you let it crush you and freak you out. You’ve taken all these college courses getting to this point. They weren’t easy so you KNOW you have it in you.
Leah4sci: Is there anything that you wished you did differently in your preparation?
Nayna: That is a good question. I’m trying to figure out if I did anything that wasn’t enough, or if I did anything that was overkill but, you know I can’t say I’d change anything. But I wish I had more confidence while going through it and just didn’t let it affect me emotionally so much. As far as everything goes I feel like I did what I set out to do. And I’m proud, not just of my score, but the fact that I was able to push through. I really did devote at least 6 hours a day during my summer and I feel good about it. And I will be doing so much more studying in medical school. So I don’t think I would change anything, except for just having more confidence.