The Most Challenging Medical School Requirement

by Scott Perkins

Before I knew anything about premedical courses, volunteering, research, or clinical experience, I knew that I needed to take the MCAT in order to get into medical school. As it was described to me by a friend in high school, I was scared witless. This is an exam, recently shortened to be only five hours long, that tests you on three years of in-depth science material — which people struggle to remember for even a semester — and that discourages even the smartest students from pursuing a career in medicine.

As a mediocre high school student, I had reason to be a little overwhelmed, intimidated, and unconfident concerning my medical aspirations. However, after surviving my pre-requisite courses and finally taking the MCAT last spring, I’ve learned a few things about the “gauntlet” that is the Medical College Admission Test.

First of all, don’t believe the hype — yes, the test is hard, but by no means is it impossible. With the right mindset and proper preparation, even we public-schoolers can do well on the MCAT. To a certain extent, the test assesses your knowledge of certain specific subjects. But more so, it tests the way you think and reason through problems. With enough confidence and practice, you can learn how to answer these questions without being a science genius. I’ve seen plenty of people with less-than-stellar GPAs perform really well on the MCAT simply because of the way they approached the test.

With that said, how exactly should you approach the test? Although it’s never too early to start laying down the foundation, if you’re a freshman, you certainly don’t want to be stressing about it yet. By “lay down the foundation,” I mean you should definitely be learning the material in your pre-requisite classes well and saving your notes. After all, you’re going to have to remember a good amount of material from your general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology courses. However, the one section of the MCAT that will benefit the most from early preparation is the verbal section.

This often dreaded critical reading part of the MCAT is a collection of seven passages that have absolutely nothing to do with anything you would expect to be on a medical school entrance exam — they can be about everything from politics to art. The nice thing is that all the information you need to answer the questions can be found in the passage, but it’s also the justification MCAT creators use to make the questions rather difficult.

My advice for this section is to start reading challenging books, newspaper articles, and anything else you can get your hands on in order to develop your reading skills. I’m not the strongest reader, so I needed an early emphasis on the verbal section to achieve the proficiency I desired. Obviously, as you determine your strengths and weaknesses, you want to channel your efforts accordingly.

More important than learning the material is becoming familiar with the style of test questions. Like I stated earlier, the MCAT tests the way you think. With enough practice, you will be able to answer questions just by eliminating the answer choices that you recognize as obviously incorrect. In this way, studying for the MCAT is more about studying the test itself rather than studying content material.

The only way to accomplish this task is to take as many practice tests and subject tests as possible and review them afterwards. For instance, once I was done taking a practice MCAT, it would usually take me an additional three hours to see why I got questions wrong,  and just as importantly, why I got questions right. With enough repetition, you’ll start to recognize commonly asked questions in addition to common wrong answers.

A controversial aspect of MCAT preparation that you will undoubtedly encounter is whether or not to take a prep course. These programs can range anywhere from two weeks to four months in length and can cost up to two thousand dollars. If you are willing to spend the money, I would definitely recommend taking one of these courses as they will provide you with all of the resources and guidance you might need to get a great score. For example, Kaplan’s course gives you 18 full-length practice tests and dozens of individual subject tests for you to practice. Additionally, Kaplan often has promotional events and giveaways where you can get free or highly discounted resources.

For those of you who don’t want to pay for an expensive course, you can still do very well on the test so long as you develop good study habits. Moreover, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) allows you to individually purchase past MCAT exams that you can take online for $35 each. Whether you take a course or not, there is no magic solution to doing well on the test: you have to put in a concentrated effort regardless.

Like I said before, confidence and practice are the two things that you’ll need the most to do well on the MCAT. There is no reason to stress about this exam if you know that you have put in your best efforts possible. In fact, the more relaxed and calm you are about the MCAT, the better you are likely to perform on test day. Although this short review of test preparation was by no means comprehensive, it should at least give you a good idea of where to start.