Step 5: Making the Most of Your MCAT Study Time

At this point, you should understand what the MCAT is all about (Step 1) and have a daily/weekly study scheduled mapped out (Step 4).

Stumbled onto the Ultimate MCAT Prep Guide? Click to Start at the very Beginning.

Now that you have your schedule and even know which subjects to cover,
HOW do you cover that material effectively?

Some thoughts that may be racing through your mind may include,

“Can I even cover everything in time?

There is SO much material, where do I begin?”

Many of my tutoring clients come to me after trying different methods on their own.

One such student complained, “I’ve studied for three months and I’m still scoring a 490 on my practice exams!”

She WAS studying, but not very effectively.

Quality studying means actually receiving value for the time invested.

Content is Only the FoundationContent Is Only the Foundation

As discussed in Step 3, the MCAT is an exam that tests your reasoning, analysis, problem solving skills, and more.

Content is the foundation, and it’s ONLY the foundation.
It is simply the beginning.
You cannot spend all of your study time on it.

You must start with building a solid foundation but the closer you get to the exam, the more you must transition from content to practice passages and full length practice exams.

I recommend breaking up your MCAT study into three distinct phases.
These phases are broken down in detail in this: MCAT Prep article.

Phase 1 is primarily content.

While you’ll still study content in Phase 2 and 3 by this time it’s more of a refresher/review for storage into long-term memory.

Let’s quickly summarize the phases here:

Phase 1: Content Foundation

You learn the information while getting comfortable with concept-based practice problems.
You take a limited number of full lengths in this phase, ideally once a month.
You will build the foundation that allows you to fully benefit from intense practice in Phase 2/3.

Phase 2: Practice and Review

You implement what you’ve learned by doing lots of passage-based practice.

This includes a full length every two to three weeks.

This is NOT a no-content phase.

This phase will help you clearly identify strong/weak areas.
As you miss questions, go back and restudy the topic, chapter, equations.

This way you don’t miss this topic again.

In Step 3, we discussed how your specific resources were not largely important because of this very reason: missing content will be identified in practice letting you know what you still have to review.

Phase 3: Exam Review

This is the final and most intense phase.

Your goal is to take one weekly exam and then spend the next few days reviewing and learning from your review.

At this point you’ve unofficially completed your MCAT prep.
You’ve studied content, practiced passages, and nearly/fully completed AAMC questions.

Your focus is now on taking and reviewing full-length practice exams. You should have nearly reached your target score if not exceeded it.

Phase 3, as your final four weeks, will help you to fortify all your hard work and learning.

These weeks are spent on fixing any last-minute weak areas to help you gain just a few more subject points here and there.

This phase will ensure you’re ready on test day no matter what.

By taking weekly tests in this phase, under real-testing conditions, this phase helps the MCAT process feel familiar. It may almost feel repetitive!

For a more in-depth look at the three phases, including how much time to dedicate to each one, read: MCAT Prep: How Much Time Do You Really Need?

How To Make Study Time Effective

How To Make Study Time Effective

Let’s tackle this idea first by discussing what is NOT effective:

  1. Reading your book cover to cover, without stopping, to ensure you “really get it.”
  2. Watching a tutorial video but zoning out because you’re distracted as you check email and browse Facebook at the same time…
  3. Watching back to back videos, even if paying close attention but not pausing to absorb/review.

It’s not about how much time you ‘clock in’ for studying!

It’s what you actually master during your study session:

quality over quantity is key.

When you sit down to tackle a chapter, you MUST set a goal:

  • understand the chapter well enough so that you can repeat and explain concepts.
  • be comfortable enough with the material to answer logical and concept-based questions.
  • create a detailed list of equations/terminology/pathways to memorize.

I’m not referring to hard-core memorization –this will be accomplished slowly over time through daily or weekly Active Writing.

It’s okay if you don’t remember everything right away, but you must have it ON your memorization list.

Here’s a good example of knowledge vs understanding:

I love asking students to explain SCIENTIFICALLY what happens at boiling point.

The common answer: Temperature is high enough to convert liquid to a gas.
The well-studied answer: Vapor pressure is strong enough to overcome atmospheric pressure.

Both of these are correct answers, but they tell me you’ve memorized the information.

What I really want to hear is something along these lines:

Fact: Boiling point is the temperature at which a liquid is converted to a gas, GIVEN THAT temperature is a measure of kinetic energy.

Why: When there is sufficient energy to overcome the intermolecular forces binding the liquid molecules to each other, they will let go of their liquid “buddies” and float away as a lone gas molecule.

The temperature that provides sufficient energy IS the boiling point.

Now, don’t worry about having such a precise explanation for every concept.

It’s more about understanding the material so well that you can explain what is happening in your own words rather than simply regurgitating equations, names, etc. that you’ve studied.

More importantly, you need to ‘get it’ to the point where you can APPLY what you know to tricky, thought-provoking, MCAT-style passages and questions.

MCAT prep guide companion workbookWhat are some habits you have that prevent your studying from being effective? Let’s work through these and how you can overcome them in the Companion Workbook.

Five Tips to Truly Mastering MCAT SciencesFive Tips to Truly Mastering MCAT Sciences

There’s ‘learning’ by getting through the chapter.

Then there’s learning to the point where you know, understand, and have the ability to apply what you’ve learned.

1. Learn the concept from a video teacher

Start with a good learning resource.

I’d much rather watch a video where someone breaks down the information and EXPLAINS it to me.

I already shared with you in Step 3 how video saved my rear in undergraduate calculus:

When the book made me want to rip my hair out, I turned to the patrickjmt’s Youtube channel and learned the concepts before reading the associated text.

He even worked through practice questions allowing me to see the information in action. That’s why I suggest starting your study sessions with videos.

In fact, patrickjmt inspired me to start my own Youtube channel.

Remember→ No matter how good the video is, chances are it missed something! Or YOU missed something.

Ever watch a movie three times and catch something new EACH time?

The first time you watch a tutorial video, you get a good sense of the concepts.
The second time you watch, you catch even more information: you are familiar with the bigger picture of the video.
The third time around, you’ll get so much more out of it that you’ll start asking yourself, “Why didn’t I catch this detail last time?”

2. Skim the book to verify that you’ve learned it all

Don’t assume that you mastered every required topic by watching a video.

Since you’re not as active when watching a video as compared to reading text, it’s easy to miss important information.

Books are extremely helpful by giving you hands-on visuals and words you can physically highlight and circle.
You can write all over the margins and dig deep by working through the examples.

Books may even be less distracting for some students:
the book lays before you, just the two pages sitting open;
they are your focus for the moment – no social media notifications popping up in another window vying for your attention.

Also, as we mentioned in Step 3, MCAT books usually have a table of contents that help you know if you’ve covered all the material, either by book or video.

3. Review & Reiterate out loud

Sure, the information may sound right in your head.

Perhaps you feel like you really understand it.

But there’s a world of difference between thinking something in your head and fully understanding it.

Nothing sets the information in your mind better than being able to teach it!:

I started as a cellular and molecular biology tutor at my school’s learning center.

While I had to earn an ‘A’ in the class to qualify for this position, having that ‘A’ didn’t mean that I completely understood all of the information.
My average in this really tough course was just under a 90, but thanks to a ridiculous curve and some extra credit, I came out on top.

But did that mean I knew the information well enough to teach it?

Not exactly!

As a tutor, I made sure to attend the lectures, read the book, and essentially study as if I were preparing for exams again.
Not only that, but when students asked a question and I wasn’t 100% sure of the answer, I looked it up.
I also did extra research and I came up with other ways of explaining the information.

I learned more about cellular and molecular biology in the three years that I was teaching it than what I learned when I received an ‘A’ in the course!

Am I suggesting you take on a three-year tutoring gig at your school’s Learning Center??

Not quite!

But I am suggesting that you take the time to articulate OUT LOUD what you learn.

Listen to yourself.

When you say the information out loud, you’ll hear if you’re stumbling, hesitating, inventing, or if you’re simply not confident enough with the information.

Does it sound like you’re making sense or does it sound like you have no idea what you’re talking about?

Can you teach it?

Even better than sounding it out loud for yourself is finding a captive audience.

Perhaps take turns in your MCAT study group to teach each other the information or explain concepts you’ve worked through.

This is one of my “secrets” for doing so well in Organic Chemistry the second time around.

The first time I took the course I was going to fail, so I withdrew.

Devastated, I created a study group the second time around. We spent hours explaining reactions and mechanisms to each other to ensure we knew the material well.

Captain my Congo African Gray ParrotI also had a dumb parrot who loved attention.

I’d place him on a chair facing me and explain the concepts to him. He’d cock his head like he was listening and respond with appropriate comments (Hello!) and probing questions (Hello?) to show me he was following along!

This works great with stuffed animals (not kidding) or any pet who likes verbal attention.

This also works with young babies who will benefit from hearing the sound of your voice!

Instead of thinking, “I can’t study while looking after my three-month old,” think, “this is a great opportunity to bond with my three-month old!” As you hold your baby, explain concepts to him/her while pacing back and forth.

4. Practice Questions – Can You Apply  it?

Perhaps you think you know the material.
Perhaps it may even sound like you know it.
But you don’t really know it until you successfully answer questions on the topics you’ve studied.

As discussed in Step 3, when you’re just beginning to learn the information, you want SIMPLE questions.

For example,

Questions asking how to create a pH 5 buffer using sodium acetate, find the buffer zone of ammonia on a graph, or calculate the half-equivalence point when given a starting concentration and pKa value.

These are simple, straight forward, “do-you-get-it-enough-to-apply” type of questions.

As your foundation strengthens and you progress through content, you’ll want to beef up the level of your studying and move on to practice passages.

You have no business working through the AAMC question bank for example, if you’ve barely mastered the concept of buffers and titration in the middle of Phase 1.

You should leave the AAMC passages until Phase 2, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start doing passages!

Start simple and work your way up to the more difficult practice.

See Step 3 for some ideas on where to find simple passages with free practice, such as Khan Academy.

But, students who’ve taken the MCAT say these simple passages are much easier and not quite like the real thing… So why waste your time practicing them?

As a student recently told me, “The more I practice, the more I realize the MCAT is about MORE than just content.”

Because, when you’re just starting out it’s more about the fact that you ARE doing practice passages and less about WHAT practice passages you work through. It’s about gaining experience, honing your style and getting comfortable with passage based practice.

The best way to excel at passage-based questions is to DO passage-based questions.

How NOT to utilize practice questions:

I’ve seen students get to the questions at the end of chapter and do this:

  • Read the question
  • Say, “Oh crap, I don’t know this!”
  • Look up the answer
  • Sort of memorize the answer
  • Move on

Noooo!

Think of these practice questions as the “Go” space in Monopoly.

When you get to “Go,” you collect $200.
If you get a “Go to Jail” card, you do not pass “Go,” you do not collect $200.

How do you pass “Go?” By answering the question correctly!
You cannot pass “Go” if you don’t answer correctly!

You can’t simply look up the answer and move on; that defeats the entire purpose.
GO TO JAIL!

Well… perhaps not quite jail, but you can’t simply move on just yet!

How to best utilize practice questions:

Instead, ask yourself the following:

  • “Why did I miss this question?”
  • “What concept in this chapter wasn’t clear to me, causing me to misunderstand?”
  • “What equation have I not mastered that caused me to freeze?”
  • “Did I think the problem through or was it just a careless mistake?”
  • “How should I have studied this information so that I would not have missed this question?”

You work through practice passages for two reasons:

  1. To get comfortable with passage-based questions
  2. To help you identify your weaknesses

The first reason is obvious — practice, practice, practice.

But second is less obvious: identify your weaknesses.

As you get further along in content, even if you stick to the the long-term retention strategies, you’ll forget information.
Or there will be information you’ve never seen or mastered.

There may even be information that you understand at face value but have trouble applying to practice questions.

This is where the practice passages come in handy.

It’s actually YOUR WAKE-UP CALL!

If you’ve mastered genetics (heavy on MCAT), but realize you have a hard time extracting passage data to answer a hereditary question… guess what?

GO BACK AND REVIEW before moving on.

This time, study in a way that you won’t miss a similar question.

You’re easing into this during the content phase (Phase 1).

But once complete your time will be split between full lengths and review, and practice passages in Phase 2.

After working through easy level practice questions, such as Khan Academy, use your additional practice passage resource (not yet AAMC) you determined in Step 3, that will test you at a more difficult level and do more of the same.

For example:

A Phase 2 physics block may start with physics passages + review. Spend the remaining time reviewing and brushing up on the information you don’t know or may have forgotten

5. Prepare for Long-Term Solidification

If you’ve mastered a topic today, how can you ensure that you’ll still know it well in two weeks? or two months down the line?

This is the biggest challenge for students.

The key is to make regular small investments of time to help keep the information fresh every step of the way.

  1. Audio Summary- Take 10 minutes at the end of your study session (the final 10 minutes of your block) to create an audio summary of the information following this strategy.
  2. Flashcards- Take another 5-10 minutes during a scheduled “review” session to create flashcards and write out cheat sheets to keep in your pocket following this strategy.
  3. Equations Notebook- Take time AS YOU STUDY to write down equations in a special notebook and review them during your 10-15 minute equation sessions following this strategy.

The steps are simple and the application is simple.

But it’s a long-term commitment.

You’ll have to do this regularly to ensure you really and truly master the information.

And even when you do master the information, you’ll still come across material you should have known but somehow missed or forgot.

That’s okay, that’s why content review doesn’t end after Phase 1.

Go through your own check-list in the Companion Workbook to start good habits and get the most out of your focus and studying.

What Order to Study InWhat Order to Study In

If you’re just starting out, I recommend creating an outline as a study guide.

As mentioned in Step 3, use the AAMC Official Guide as a resource for exactly what you need to cover, not as a textbook.

Keep in mind that the AAMC outline follows exam categories rather than sequential material.

For example, electrochemistry comes before atomic structure. I don’t believe that’s helpful as a study order.

Grab your book resources listed in your Companion Workbook for Step 3 and go through their table of contents.

Match the chapters to the AAMC outline to ensure it covers everything.
–Or simply begin studying the chapters and when you’ve been through them all, verify with the AAMC outline that you’ve covered everything.

Then, start in order. Many subjects build upon each other so it makes sense to master them in order.

For example,

Your MCAT physics book likely follows this general order:

  • Vectors
  • Kinematics
  • Forces
  • Work
  • Energy
  • Power

You need vectors to study kinematics, and force has velocity in its equation. Work involves force, and energy involves work, and… you guessed it, power involves energy.

Some subjects are different.

For example,

You don’t have to master genetics (biology) in order to study the circulatory system (biology), so which do you do first?
It really doesn’t matter.

Keep it simple and go by what your book teaches first.
Or start with what excites you most.

Keep track of your progress

Keep track of your progress

If chapters are close in length, figure out how many chapters you have in total. This will count as 100% progress for this book/topic.

Book = 100%.

Divide by the number of chapters. This gives you the % progress for completing each chapter.

MCAT prep guide companion workbookStart on this now! In the Companion Workbook, calculate your progress and see how many weeks you have to complete each subject.

For example,

If your MCAT biology book has twelve chapters then each chapter is worth 8.3% progress.

I recommend keeping a journal and logging your progress on a daily and weekly basis.

If you’ve completed two and half biology chapters after two weeks (8.3% x 2.5), log 21% completion by the end of week two.

This is important for four reasons:

1. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,”

said Peter Drucker. I love this quote because it’s so true.

You need to keep track of your studying to understand your progress.

This doesn’t mean you should fly through the material for the sake of being able to check off topics.

But this is a great way to quantify of how much you’ve truly mastered over time.

2. Not every subject will take the same length of time.

Naturally, you’ll be faster with the topics that are easier or more enjoyable to you and slower with the topics you find most difficult.

For example,

One of my students is a biochemistry major.

As you can imagine, she got through any biochem related topic (biochem, bio, orgo) relatively quickly, however, she despises physics so it took her considerably longer to complete.

I had her send me percentages to measure progress and was surprised to find her favorite topics were at the 60-80% completion level when physics was still under 40% complete.

Then there’s some topics that simply have so much more information: such as the amount of biology to be covered compared to very little sociology.

But that’s okay!

Keeping track of progress will help you identify when you’re speeding through or falling behind in one topic as compared to the other topics on your schedule.

3. Course Correct Every Step Of The Way

If you do find yourself speeding through a certain subject over 10% faster than another, adjust your schedule.

For example, do half sessions.

I had my biochemistry major (above) combine the original biochem study block and make it half biochem and half orgo.
Then, I had her devote the former orgo block to an additional physics block.

I also had her devote half of her biology block to physics review to help speed up her physics progress.

This was just the study blocks.

Next, I convinced her to add Physics Study Hall videos into her morning gym routine once she discovered that treadmill + cell phone + wifi = bonus review time.

As discussed in Step 4, there are many opportunities for bonus study time in addition to your hard core study blocks.

As you can imagine, my student quickly caught up in a matter of weeks by following this method.

MCAT prep guide companion workbookUse the Companion Workbook‘s MCAT Weekly Percent Progress Tracker to be sure you are on track every step of the way!

4. Minimize Panic

The fourth reason is more mental than anything else.

When first starting out, you open your brand new set of books and realize that you have thousands of pages of information to read, learn, master, and overall remember.

If you don’t feel a small tinge of panic, perhaps you don’t fully realize how much you’re expected to learn!

Panic is normal.

Wondering, “how on Earth am I going to master it all?” is NORMAL!

But don’t guess!

Evaluate to find out exactly how!

Spend a week strictly following your study schedule with the goal of completing ‘just as much as you can’.

If you realize that you can get through an average of 5% per topic per week, you’ll have very clear expectations.

Five percent per subject per week is twenty weeks.

Be sure to add in a few buffer days just in case something happens (as covered in Step 4).

At this rate you can expect to complete content in about 5 months.

With a full-time MCAT schedule, you’ll hopefully get through as much as 7-10% per week. That’s 10-15 weeks or 2.5 – 4.5 months for content.

By the way, IT’S OK IF YOU DON’T COMPLETE AN ENTIRE CHAPTER EACH STUDY BLOCK!

If you block out three hours to study physics, you won’t necessarily get through the entire chapter in that time.

This is part of the reason why I recommend three months or more for JUST content review.

If you’re a smarty pants and simply have to skim the chapter to refresh what you know, then yes, you can complete content in a month or so.

But the average student winds up relearning the material from scratch.

Some chapters can take two to three full study blocks.

A chapter on vectors or kinematics can take less than three hours. I salute you if you can master optics/mirrors/lenses in that same amount of time.

When the three hours are nearly up, find a logical stopping point, and mark your progress. You can mark the page or video minute in your progress journal or log.

Or, keep it super simple. Use a paperclip or Post-it note to mark the exact line (books only) you stopped.

Trusting (using data) that you will cover all of the material in time will give you enough peace of mind to forget about how much you still have to complete.

You can then focus solely on your objectives for the current week and the current day.

And yes, you can still follow the study tips outlined above for long term retention to keep you on track for the bigger picture.

When to use your most valuable resourceWhen to use your most valuable resources:

Once you’re two to three months out and you start seeing significant progress in your exams, give yourself permission to tackle the AAMC practice questions and passages (details on the MCAT resources page).

Why?

As I have said above, these are written by the same people who write your exam AND they are reported to be the most similar to exam style questions.

They are the BEST AND MOST REALISTIC PRACTICE MATERIALS you’ll come across!

DON’T WASTE THEM by doing them when you are not yet confident with your basics.
SAVE THEM until you’re able to get the most out of them.

DON’T just do passages to see how you score.

LEARN from the content and concepts of every passage.

DISSECT the answers, ask yourself why you missed it.

“Did I not know the information?
Did I have trouble understanding the question?
Did I have trouble following the logic or reasoning?
Did I have trouble with the table or graph?”

Really study the nature of where you’re falling short and work on improving yourself one question at a time.

Look for patterns in the questions and answer style, figure out exactly what it will take for you to NOT miss a similar question on a future practice and of course on the real thing.

The same style review applies to your full lengths which we’ll discuss later, in Step 8 (coming this Fall).

Now that you understand how to get the most out of your schedule and studying, let’s see how to hone Phase 2 and 3 to make the best of your practice passages and full length practice exams. This and more in Steps 6-10.

→ Take me to Step 6 (coming late July).

And if you haven’t already…

Be sure to download the Companion Workbook to help you keep track of your progress, estimated future progress and study tips learned in this chapter.
Download the Ultimate MCAT Prep Guide Companion Workbook by Leah4sci

Comments

  1. Syeda Sharifi says:

    great article!!! Thanks for sharing the patrick youtube site!

    • Thanks Syeda, do keep in mind that you don’t need any calculus for the MCAT. I simply shared his site because his channel is amazing and helped me survive calculus

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