The MCAT is now just 5 hours and 45 minutes. Is this better or worse than the 7+ hour exam?
I've heard arguments for both, but choose not to weigh in, because regardless of how I feel, I cannot change it.
Instead, I look at it this way:
This is how it is,
and if there’s nothing you can do to change it,
what can you do to conquer it?
Regardless of the situation,
How can YOU best prepare for these specific circumstances to ensure you perform YOUR best and destroy this current obstacle on your way to medical school?
As per the AAMC, this is the format for 2020 only,
but I’ve heard speculation that this may continue in January 2021.
(I will of course update you as I learn more).
In speaking with premeds after each and every test date,
I’ve been taking careful notes on their advice and feedback,
looking for patterns and trends,
and especially looking for helpful information to pass on to you.
Below you will find information compiled
from dozens of students who’ve taken the shorter MCAT.
– Study Hall members and Leah4sci subscribers.
– Students who were ready and confident
– and students who went into the exam panicked and unsure.
– Students barely passing the 480s in practice, all the way to the 520s.
Understanding all of this,
please review this article with an open mind.
Instead of asking ‘How can I do exactly what they did?’
I want you to consider, “What can I learn from this information,
and how can I apply only the best tips to my own MCAT prep?”
The Shorter MCAT Duration
As I share in my AAMC Pandemic Updates Post,
the current MCAT is just 5 hours and 45 minutes.
This comes from removing the field test questions, and reducing/removing the ‘admin’ tutorials and end-of-day survey.
Students typically use the pre-exam tutorial time to get settled mentally,
to meditate and calm down, and some (against my advice) to quickly write out equations.
From one surprised student:
“I would have mentally prepared myself more before entering the testing room.”
Do all of your mental prep prior
so that when you sit down and the exam starts within just 30 seconds,
you’re ready to hit the ground running.
Practicing for the shorter exam
In response to the shorter start time,
many third party companies like Blueprint, Altius, Kaplan and more
have created shorter versions of their exams.
The AAMC exams are still only offered as the longer 7+ hour version.
In my How To Practice AAMC Exams in 5:45 For the Shorter MCAT video,
I walk you through three different practice options to replicate the score and duration.
My students prepared by doing all shorter exams, all longer exams, or a mix of the two.
Students who only practiced with 7+ hour versions:
The feedback from students who only practiced with the longer version surprised me.
This is why I always speak to students who’ve been through it recently, and always keep an open mind!
I never want to assume that I know best,
DESPITE my years of experience as an MCAT/premed advisor.
By taking 7+ hour practice tests,
students felt they had built up much greater stamina.
If they knew they could mentally hold out for over 7 hours,
focusing for less than 6 on test day was a breath of fresh air.
Testing with the full version also helped avoid confusion of how to adjust for the shorter exam duration, or how to accurately account for their scores when taking a partial exam.
This surprised me.
A few students came out of the shorter exam feeling overwhelmed.
Having only practiced the longer version, having less time made them feel more pressured.
By being used to starting a section with 90-95 minutes to go,
seeing the clock quickly dip to under an hour was unnerving.
Additionally, some students who mastered their timing and pacing on the longer exam were flustered by the shorter version and scrambling to figure out how to adjust their timing strategy.
Leah's note: I still recommend testing with the longer version. Go in prepared to account for the differences and you should be okay. Or perhaps do MOSTLY longer versions, with 1-2 shorter exams to get a feel for the changes.
From one student-
“I figured the extra stamina would help me. I did make sure to convert my “check points” to the shortened exam. I normally make sure to be on question #20 with 60 mins left and #40 with 30 mins left. So for the shortened version I changed that to #20 with 45 mins and #40 with 15 mins left.”
“It could have been due to adrenaline, but I felt the test went by a lot quicker and I didn't feel as tired at the end of the test as I did during practice exams. However, I wish I familiarized myself a little better with the timing of the shortened exam.”
Students who practiced with shorter exams
I’ve had students utilize the shortened non-AAMC exams,
also with mixed results.
A shorter practice exam is mentally easier, and over faster.
For a busy student with little extra time,
finishing the exam with a bonus hour+ to relax was a welcome break.
If you’re the type of student who needs to run through the exam exactly as it will be,
this is the perfect opportunity to replicate the test day experience.
There’s also no guesswork involved in converting your longer exam score to the shorter version.
Many of the third-party companies have scrambled to adjust their exams to the shorter format.
Without enough time to study the changes and properly vet their scores, I’ve seen some crazy ranges that can only be attributed to the haphazardly adjusted scoring system.
For example, I've seen many students jump +5 on a practice test in Phase 2,
when the typical increase is 0-2 points.
This provides a false sense of confidence, followed by feelings of negativity and frustration
when their AAMC exams drop by 5 points despite active efforts to improve.
So what do you do?
That’s ultimately your decision.
First, watch my video to truly understand the three simulated testing options.
Then, review the advice above to mix and match for YOUR ideal routine.
Various MCAT Start Times
Unlike the standard 8am start time,
the current MCAT begins at 6:30 am, 12:15 pm, or 6:00 pm.
There are some testing centers with even more varied start times. (I’ve seen 8am, 11am…)
There are pros and cons to each start time.
Ultimately the best MCAT start time is the one where YOU show up to your exam well rested, fully alert, but not too worn out from having been up for too many hours prior, nor exhausted from not getting enough sleep.
1. First, choose your exam start time based on what is ideal for you
(and what’s available for your target date).
2. Then review my video How to Stay Alert for the 6:30am, 12:15pm and 6pm MCAT.
I’ve worked with students who’ve successfully adjusted to each start time.
“My exam was also at 6:30 in the morning, but I knew I had to start getting up around 4 am to eat by 5 am, and be out of the door by 5:45 with my brain fully on.”
“The shortened exam is great in terms of burnout during the test. I had a 12:15 exam and I did not feel myself tire out during the exam. “
“I took the test at 6pm which was best for me because I'm a night person.”
As much as we’re trying to ‘move on with our lives,'
we can’t forget that there’s still a global pandemic raging in the background.
Testing centers are taking every precaution to help keep you safe as you take your exam.
This comes with a mix of added anxiety and understandable annoyances.
“We had to scan our palms for the sign in, and after every student, they would wipe it with disinfectant wipes.”
The most annoying (but critical) change,
is the requirement to wear a mask.
Wearing a mask for 6 hours,
especially in the summer, is NOT pleasant.
Get used to it prior so that it’s not a distraction on test day.
Wear a mask during your practice full-lengths,
and wear it properly so you get used to it.
If your mask is uncomfortable, play around with options.
Try different mask styles paying attention to breathability, comfort, heat retention, and how badly it fogs up your glasses.
Leah’s note: As a glasses wearer I find that if the mask is open at the top so that I exhale into my glasses, they fog up. If I can get a tight seal at the top, and perhaps create an opening below, I can funnel my exhaled air downward so as not to interrupt my vision. I’ve also seen suggestions to wash your glasses with soapy water, as the soap creates an anti-fog barrier.
Important note from one student on this:
“That they make you take off your mask to take a picture and I had taped my mask down to keep my glasses from fogging up. I almost panicked because I thought it was going to be messed up and I'd be distracted during my exam.”
The upside is that there will be fewer students taking the exam with you.
Fewer people moving about, breathing, coughing, sneezing… means fewer distractions!
“I only was in a room with 2 other students and this was absolutely the best scenario! I had to of course wear my mask while being in the lobby to get signed in, but once I got into the cubicle I was able to take the mask off.”
I had a student get away with moving her mask below her nose while testing,
BUT I had another student get yelled at for moving her mask.
And let me tell you, getting yelled at while you’re concentrating on a difficult physics passage is guaranteed to throw off your concentration.
For the most part, Pearson Vue employees are there to help you, but they are also looking to feel safe at work so they can go home to their families every day.
“Computers and lockers were wiped down before and after students were finished with their test. For breaks the test proctors would wave you out the room then go in and enter their information so you can just hit login when you returned to continue testing vs them walking in with you to sign back into the computer.”
The Actual Exam
When the AAMC announced the new shorter version of the exam,
they promised that the exam itself wouldn’t change.
They removed field questions (that were never counted towards your scores anyway) but kept the rest of it the same.
In speaking with many students, this has held true.
Students have found Blueprint (formerly Next Step)
and Altius exams to be the best third-party tests for prep,
but nothing compares to the AAMC.
With four official AAMC exams (and one unscored sample)
students rank them as follows: AAMC 4 > 3 > 2 > 1
Where #4 is the most difficult but also closest to the real thing,
#3 feels difficult but scales high, #2 is on par, and #1 is easiest.
The CARS passages on the real thing felt longer compared to the practice exams.
MCAT Prep Resources
These students used a wide variety of resources to prepare.
This ranges from my program, the MCAT Study Hall,
to mostly free resources such as YouTube and Khan Academy.
Students used books ranging from Kaplan and Examkrackers (recommended) to Princeton and Berkeley review (not recommended).
Ultimately, which books you use DOES NOT MATTER as content is only the first step,
and meant to get you 70-90% proficiency as I explain my 5 Steps to Mastering MCAT Sciences article.
The key is to learn the material and then do practice.
“I think the most important thing that I didn't know before is that this exam is a lot more strategy and practice than it is content, so I think it is very important to focus on strategy and practice when preparing for the MCAT.”
Leah’s Note: This is why I break MCAT prep into three distinct phases.
Content is a critical foundation, but Phase 2 is where you really dig into strategy.
My students have used everything from Khan Academy practice passages (okay) to UWorld (highest recommended), to the Q-banks offered by the different companies.
And of course AAMC passages, which I recommend saving for later in Phase 2 and Phase 3 given that they are THE best resource to prepare for the MCAT.
For CARS: students have used Jack Westin’s daily passages, and the Examkrackers MCAT Reasoning Skills: Verbal, Research & Math book.
Students are of course forbidden to share what was ON their MCAT,
and so I cannot openly talk about anything I may or may not have heard.
However, a few things came up over and over.
- Amino Acids: They are tested on every exam, in many different ways. Know them cold!
- Non-Calculator Math: Be prepared to work through calculations quickly. If you can’t solve a problem in 30 seconds, GUESS AND MOVE ON! It’s not worth running out of time on a full passage for ONE math question.
- Lots of organic chemistry tested in the C/P section
- CARS passages felt longer than the AAMC practice tests
- High vs Low Yield questions: Many expected high-yield topics didn’t show up at all, while there were tons of passages and questions on unexpected low-yield topics.
“I was a little bit frustrated with the content, which I know no one can control. I felt like I knew a lot of the high yield content inside and out, such as – – – – , and there was barely any of that on the exam. The content I was confident about was not tested.“
Reducing Test Day Stress
No matter how well you prepare for test day,
you WILL still be nervous.
This is normal,
this is human,
and this is to be expected.
The key is to understand the difference between
‘This is such a big deal, of course I’m nervous because of what is riding on this exam’
‘I don’t know/haven’t proven to myself that I’m ready to test
and so I’m nervous because I’m scared of a negative outcome.’
Which describes how YOU feel?
If the latter, read Am I Ready for the MCAT? How to Evaluate.
If the former, do whatever you can to remove any additional stressors so that you’re as calm as possible on test day.
Remove all potential variables on test day.
If you can test it or prepare it in advance, do so.
Let your MCAT be THE only unknown on test day!
Do a dry run (or two) to your testing center to get a feel for the distance, traffic, parking, and any other travel related considerations.
If testing on a weekday, make sure to drive on a similar day to get a better feel for potential traffic.
If possible, go inside for an even better lay of the land.
Experiment with your test day nutrition in advance:
Consider bringing two sets of snacks.
A filling meal if you are hungry,
and quick/easy snacks if you’re too nervous to eat.
Go for higher fat/protein and limit the refined carbohydrates.
This will help you focus longer while avoiding a big crash.
I’ve seen great improvements when my students swapped their sandwiches and oatmeal for eggs, avocado, fruit, CLEAN energy bars, or a simple nut-based trail mix.
Chances are you won't be able to sleep much the night before test day.
But if you go into that night without a sleep deficit, you should be okay.
Use this tutorial to plan for this starting about a month out.
Practice full lengths using a mouse and the proper scratch paper.
Many students take their full-lengths on a laptop or touchscreen.
Try to take your full-lengths on a computer,
or at least a laptop with a mouse to replicate the testing experience.
Don’t use regular paper for your scraps.
The MCAT provides a spiral noteboard with a clunky wet-erase marker.
Use something like this MCAT Prep Erasable Notepad
to get comfortable with the style and format.
“I was surprised that it had grids on it, but it sufficed. The pens were annoying and it took me a minute to get the ink flowing on mine.”
Soon as you get your pen/noteboard, test the pen right there so you don't waste precious exam time if it doesn't work.
And most importantly, from a Navy Seal premed student:
“You have to believe you are going to succeed. You may not know how, but believing you're capable of shutting out the voice that says you're not going to make it is more than half the battle.”
What Helped Them Prepare
“Practicing CARS early on, but wish I had done more strategy earlier. Practice helps but without the “techniques”, you only get so far.”
“I really evaluated why I got things wrong on my practice exams and passages. I had to spend a lot of time on that to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake. Then I wrote the concept on a flash card and reviewed them daily.”
Leah’s Note: Use this to help- 3 Steps to Raising Your MCAT Scores With Full Length Practice Tests
Their Advice To You
“If you feel like you didn't do great on a section, don't let it affect the rest of your test. Move on with confidence. The two sections I found most challenging and slightly discouraging during the exam ended up being my best scores, and the ones I thought I did great on were the lowest. So just execute the entire thing with confidence.”
“Don't think about how you are doing/did during the exam, it will only distract you. Once you're done with a section, push it to the back of your mind and gear up for the next section. Dwelling on how you are doing is futile because there are way too many unknowns for it to be of any use. Take all your breaks to give your mind a break.”
“I would say make sure to take into account the time it takes to get into and out of the testing room, getting your food/drink out of your locker, and walking to wherever the bathroom is in the building when you are practicing full lengths. It can take more time than you think.”
“Again, I didn't need to be perfect. So for the few questions that were brutal, I'd move quickly through it, take my best guess and keep my head held high. This allowed me to remain composed. I really, really want to emphasize that! Remaining calm and collective is key for this exam. YOU DO NOT NEED A 528! This is hard for a lot of pre-med folks to grasp. But do not let a few brutal questions rattle your entire section or exam.”
Critical but so hard to do:
“Take a few days off before it, you’ve worked your butt off and at that point there’s not much you can cram in those last few days. So just relax. Take a brain break.”
Let me know what you think in the comments below!