MCAT Blog - Nick Alegre
Undergraduate Institution: University of California, Riverside
Major: Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology
Exam Score: 518
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: 129
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: 130
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior: 131
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills: 128
Time spent preparing?
I probably spent around 300-500 hours studying for the MCAT. I initially planned to study over a 3 month period but had to push back my MCAT due to a personal issue that came up. I then adjusted my studying time and spread it out over a 6 month period, which I found was much more manageable. I definitely feel the 3 month period was very short and stressful, so I highly recommend starting early and setting up a plan of when you want to study.
Overall study approach?
I first started off taking a sample diagnostic MCAT with no preparation whatsoever. This allowed me to get a sense of how prepared I was, and which topics I should focus on. After that, I set a time of around 6 months. For half that time, I focused on content review, reading through Kaplan MCAT books, and online material. Based on my practice MCAT scores and overall knowledge, I would skim through topics I knew well, and heavily read and take notes of topics I didn’t. Essentially I did not give all the topics the same amount of study time, as it helped me to maximize my time.
After the first half of studying, I began to do MCAT practice questions and exams. This included AAMC paid practice materials, Khan Academy’s free practice, and Kaplan materials from my books. In the last 12 weeks, I would perform a practice MCAT every week to build up endurance and familiarity with the controls. For the last 4 weeks, I used official AAMC practice MCAT exams to get the most accurate picture of my score. Within two days of taking a practice MCAT, I would go over all the questions, including which I got right and which I got wrong, to ensure I understood the material. If I noticed I was weak in a section, I would go back over it in the books.
Some applicants also have specifics to share about their approach to individual sections:
The key to success in these topics is practice. You don’t get an equation sheet on the MCAT, and memorizing all the equations is hard. If you practice enough, the equations become second-hand. Do as many practice problems as you can, pull up notes from your old textbooks or classes, and practice, practice, practice. Mnemonics and tricks like the right-hand rule for physics or RED-CAT for Chemistry can be helpful to memorize concepts and equations- try to look up online if people have developed any.
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills - I would recommend reading a lot, especially dense articles or poetry written in old english. The passages you will have in CARS can be any topic, from snippets of novels to the history of railroads in America. Having a good comprehension of literature will allow you to understand CARS well. Additionally, I would sign up for a daily CARS practice such as Jack Westin. They can send you a passage every day that you read and answer questions to, which I found to be good practice.
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems - Try to go for understanding rather than memorization. Of course some topics like the citric acid cycle will need to be memorized, but a lot of the time the answer can be deduced from critical thinking and understanding. This is a common theme in many of the sections of the MCAT as well.
For parts that needed straight memorization, I heavily utilized mnemonics. For example, the mnemonic SNOW DROP helped me to distinguish between Southern, Northern, and Western blot tests. I tried to make my own mnemonics when I could, as they helped me to memorize it better.
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior - For this section, I feel that the advice for Biology and Biochemistry applies here as well. Try to get a good understanding of how to read and interpret psychological experiments. Because I did not have a strong psychological background, this was where I typically didn’t do as well during practice MCATs, so before the real test I utilized lots of flashcards for this section.
Top 3 tips for preparation
- Create a plan/schedule and stick with it. Having a good plan at the beginning will make studying easier and more organized.
- Identify your strengths and weaknesses to maximize your use of time. It’s important to understand the material, but also make sure you don’t leave any topics neglected.
- Search online for materials- other students most likely have posted an explanation for a practice MCAT or a topic.
Top 3 traps to avoid
- Be wary of taking days off- one or two days off is fine, but be careful not to let it become four or five days off. It becomes very easy to say “I’ll restart tomorrow.”
- Do not neglect your mental, emotional, or physical health when studying. This will make it all the more stressful, and interfere with your studying.
- Be wary of what you read online. It can definitely be useful at times, but also be aware that sometimes online forums like Reddit or Student Doctor Network can become demoralizing or unhelpful.
What types of exam prep was the most useful?
I personally utilized Khan Academy’s material, a Kaplan program that included books, questions, and practice MCAT exams, and the AAMC official MCAT material. All of these were helpful, however, I found AAMC’s materials to be most accurate. Kaplan MCATs tended to focus a lot on small details, and the scores they gave were heavily deflated. I only utilized the AAMC materials in the final 1-2 months of MCAT prep, that way I could most accurately see how I was doing.
I felt the practice MCATS were probably the most useful to my studying. Regardless of whether it was Kaplan or AAMC, doing a full practice MCAT at the time you would take your actual MCAT helps you to build up the endurance needed, the right mindset, and familiarity with the keyboard controls (like highlight and strikethrough). Also, make sure to use all the time you have. Even if you have 30 minutes left, keep going over your answers. You may realize you read a passage completely wrong or missed a word that changes the entire question.
I probably took about 11 practice MCATS in total. The first practice MCAT exhausted me, as I had never taken a 7+ hour-long test before. However, by the time I was taking my last one, I had built up enough stamina that it felt like any other test. If you can, try to purchase a note board booklet and a wet-erase marker, as those are what you can use to take notes when you take the real thing.
What challenges or obstacles did you face?
Personally, I struggled with the mental aspect of studying for the MCAT. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself, and the MCAT exacerbated this. I always had done well in my classes but found the MCAT material a bit more challenging due to the amount of things to study and how the questions were formatted. It really is unlike any other test I have ever taken. To overcome this, I heavily recommend taking an hour of your day to make sure you walk, or meditate, or do something you enjoy. If you commit yourself to study just MCAT and school, the pressure can quickly become overwhelming.
Feeling Nervous Vs. Feeling Ready
I definitely felt nervous for my MCAT, and in my opinion, unless you are scoring 528 on all your practice MCATs, I don’t think that nervousness will go away completely, but it can be managed. At some point, I just told myself that I gave it my all and to be satisfied with the score I got. This also goes back to the mental aspect that I mentioned earlier- if you can overcome that mental hurdle, then I feel that the nervousness should go away. However, if you are not scoring near your desired goal in practice MCATs, consider rescheduling it if you can. It’s better to push it back than to get a score you are unsatisfied with and have to take it again.
Is there anything that you would’ve done differently to prepare?
If I had the opportunity to do it again, I think I would have started earlier and stuck to my schedule more. Additionally, I would have practiced CARS and Bio/Biochem more in the month before my actual MCAT. In my practice MCATs, those were my strongest sections, and so I focused more on Chem/Phys and Psych/Soc in the final weeks before the real test. While I did get a score I am satisfied with, I sometimes wonder if I could have done better if I had studied them more.
As one last side note, make sure you remember that MCAT scheduling is done on eastern time. I distinctly remember getting ready for my next class, suddenly realizing that the scheduling time said eastern, and dropping everything to find an exam time. Although I was able to find a time in a location I was comfortable with, you might not be so lucky, so remember this!
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems