With eight different subjects on the MCAT and countless topics within each subject, how do you ensure that what you study, you actually learn, understand, and remember 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months later?
You cannot simply tackle the material with a ‘let me get through this’ mindset.
This strategy will lead to frustration, procrastination and a longer study schedule as over time you will get caught in an endless cycle of study, review, move on to next topic, forget, go back, review again, repeat.
The key to getting through the MCAT material is MASTERY of each subject. Of course, this task will be much easier if you’ve taken all of your science prerequisites BEFORE your MCAT.
But every student’s situation is unique, and if we’re realistic about things, many students might have to completely self-study a subject or two without having taken the prerequisite class.
Do you find yourself in this boat?
Are you terrified of self-studying a subject that you haven’t taken yet,
or maybe one that you took ages ago?
If so, take a minute to watch this video before continuing.
In this article I’ll walk you through my 5-step process to mastering a topic within the MCAT sciences for long term success.
I often hear this question from my tutoring clients:
“… I really like your MCAT strategy but HOW do I actually master a topic before moving on? How do I study so that I know I know it?”
That's the million dollar question!
Sure you can ‘get through the material' by reading books and watching videos, but where do you draw the line to know that you've mastered it?
How do you ensure that the time invested was worthwhile?
How do you know that you're ready to move on?
Here is my simple 5-step approach for mastering a subject. Time-intensive, yes, but simple!
Step 1 – Find a good resource to LEARN the material.
I happen to be a very visual learner, which means that when I learn I prefer a video, or someone TEACHING IT to me rather than reading boring text on page. I need to see, hear, watch it get broken down. For this, I recommend videos, such as my YouTube videos, my MCAT Study Hall bootcamp videos, Khan Academy, or any other academic Youtube video you find helpful.
Step 2 – Don’t Watch Passively
Have you ever sat in lecture or watched a video and had the words simply flow right over you without you absorbing it? Passively watching videos is a waste of time and will give you a false sense of security:
“Yes, I watched 3 hours”
but did you learn in those 3 hours?
As you watch a video, pay attention!
- Pay attention to the video as if the teacher is speaking directly TO YOU!
- Try to predict terminology, phrases, equations as the video plays out
- Pause and rewind if a concept wasn’t 100% clear
- When questions arise, pause the video, attempt to answer them on your own, and then watch for the solution and explanation.
If the video covers a tricky topic, adopt a 2-view method.
- Watch the video all the way through and attempt to understand
- Watch again and this time apply the tips above
Step 3 – Skim to Ensure You’ve Covered Everything Within Your Target Topic
Even the best videos will have mistakes, or miss a key term or concept. That’s where your MCAT books come in. I recommend Kaplan books for the new MCAT (Details on my “MCAT Resource Page”). Yes, books are boring and yes, they are tedious, but they are important as your secondary learning tool.
After watching a video and feeling like you have mastered the topic, open your MCAT book to the related chapter and SKIM to ensure you have not missed anything.
Go through the book paragraph by paragraph noting if you’ve covered the topics, concepts and equations.
If you have, great, spend two more seconds on it.
If you have not, perhaps the video did not cover it, or you zoned out during that portion.
Slow down and read/study that paragraph or topic to ensure you understand the material. Take the practice quizzes and sections offered in the end of each chapter to test your understanding of the material. It's important to test yourself continually through practice quizzes so that you can make sure you not just understand – but are able to apply your learning to answering questions.
Step 4 – Reiterate, Enforce the Material By Saying It Out Loud
There is a difference between ‘getting it' and ‘knowing it'.
One of the most powerful methods my students have found to really ‘learn' the material is by teaching it out loud.
I discovered this tactic by accident. During undergrad, I had a pet parrot and felt bad neglecting him during my hours of study. So, I would place him on the back of a chair and talk science to him as I studied. Being the silly creature he was, he would cock his head to the side like he was listening and add in an appropriate ‘what?’ and ‘oh’ every now and then.
Having the audience gave me a reason to study out loud. Studying out loud forced me to slow down and formulate my thoughts into words. I heard the confidence in my voice when I knew the material, and heard the doubt when I did not fully..
So, find a willing baby, dog, teddy bear, mirror… anyone or anything that will qualify as an ‘eager audience’ and SAY IT OUT LOUD! One of my students has a newborn baby; he says this method does wonders for father-daughter bonding and calms the baby down to hear her daddy’s voice.
This approach forces you to slow down and master the material while helping you identify your weak areas.
Why not combine step 4 with the Audio Summary Strategy?
Step 5 – Did You Really Get it? Don’t Guess, Test Yourself!
How many times did you close a book and think ‘I got this’ only to stare at your quiz or exam thinking ‘what the…?’ The best way to verify if you’ve mastered a topic is to test yourself by doing practice questions.
Think you’ve mastered orgo functional groups? Well, can you answer questions about it?
Think you’ve mastered the kinematic equations? Try some questions and see if you get them right.
Every MCAT book will have short questions scattered within and at the end of the chapter.
These are short and easy questions designed to answer one question. “DO I KNOW THIS?”
How well do you KNOW the material? Gut feelings will only get you so far. We want numerical data to back it up! And that's where the 70% rule comes in.
As you work the questions, proceed as follows:
Did I get at least 70% correct? Great! Move on to the next topic or chapter.
Did I score less than 70%? Or maybe just don't feel 100% confident? Go back and review! NOW, while it's still fresh in your mind, figure out where you went wrong and master that concept.
The ideal score is between 70 and 90% of the questions correct. But even if you scored that, you might still want to go through each question you missed and try to understand why you got it wrong. What am I not yet understanding about this question that I need to go back and review?
And what's more: If you consistently score above 90% correct… Well, first of all, congratulations! BUT you're probably going too slow. You're wasting TIME studying what you already know!
Not what you expected to hear, I'm sure. But again, the amount of effort it takes to master between 90 and 95% is so high that you can actually make better use of your time getting through the next chapter more quickly.
Need some help figuring out how to make the best use of your time?
How can you get the benefit of starting over on MCAT content while also doing a more speedy review of the topics you already know? Watch this video for my exact strategy.
Bonus Step Practice what you've learned MCAT STYLE!
Knowledge of material is just the first step in your MCAT subject mastery. The MCAT will ask you difficult questions hidden in complex passages among research data, graphs and more. Prepare for this question format by doing MCAT style passage based practice on the topics you have studied.
Be Warned though, to master the passages you must first have the foundations and THEN learn how to read/extract data from the passage. If you jump to passages prior to mastering the material you'll find yourself frustrated and wasting precious study time. When you get to phase 2 of your MCAT prep – the passage phase, I recommend working through the AAMC topic bundles
Take Your Studies to the Next Level with Full-Length Practice MCATs
As you get closer to your exam you should be doing full length practice tests. In addition to working on your endurance strategy, these full lengths will teach your brain to think through multiple topics presented in the same passage, at the same time. This is key to preparing for the grueling 7.5 hour exam.
Since the AAMC has limited full length resources for the new exam you will have to turn to the major test-prep companies and utilize their resources.
In polling my students for the 2015 MCAT, I have started ranking the exams from these companies and will continue updating my feedback-based-suggestions on my “MCAT Resource Page” along with AAMC bundles and passage books from different test-prep companies.
How Does This Study Strategy Fit the Two Topics per Day Goal?
Your goal is NOT to get through EVERY topic daily. Instead, aim for around 2 topics per day to make progress in each subject weekly, or even twice a week.
If you work through each topic using steps 1-5 above, you will notice that it takes more than a few hours per topic. But if you only devote 2 hours to a given science on any particular day, how can you master the material in time?
Here’s a sample day showing a 2-hour biochemistry study block on Monday morning, and another on Thursday.
If it takes more than 2 hours that’s ok, focus 2 hours this Monday, 2 more hours Thursday 2 hours the Monday after that, and make progress every week.
Sample Biochemistry Monday:
9:00 – 10:00am Biochemistry glycolysis bootcamp video
10 minute break
10:10 – 11:10am
- skim glycolysis in book (~10 minutes)
- Follow audio strategy and record steps into phone (linked) for review while commuting later in the day (~20 minutes)
- Work through short in-chapter questions + review
Take another break and proceed with your next scheduled topic or task
Sample biochemistry Thursday:
9:00 – 10:00am quick skim/review of glycolysis concepts to refresh what was studied last week
10 minute break
10:10 – 11:10am Glycolysis related practice passages + review
Take another break and proceed with your next scheduled topic or task
What do you think?
Can you see yourself following this plan to master MCAT topic after MCAT topic? Let me know in the comments below.