MCAT Blog - Ethan Tanchoco

Ethan Tanchoco

Undergraduate institution: University of California, Riverside

Major: Microbiology

Exam Score: 520

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: 130
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: 130
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior: 130
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills: 130

Time spent preparing?

I spent Fall and Winter quarters (~6 months) studying. The first 3 months, I was much more passive in my studying and only started studying fully in the second 3 months.

Overall study approach?

Personally, I took the Blueprint MCAT online course as my main content review. For every content module in the course, I made Anki decks as a form of taking notes and a way to look back at information without having to re-watch videos. However, I made the Anki cards more like slides than flashcards. As someone that has gotten used to the PowerPoint slide format of learning information, I really needed to organize all the content into concise bullet points and pictures/visuals. While this did compromise part of the active learning that is built into Anki, I felt that the spaced repetition aspect was most important to me. The active learning came from practicing passages.

While doing content review, I sprinkled in practice through Uworld problems whenever I had extra time. Personally, this was just to constantly remind myself what the passages were like. I wouldn’t stress too much on getting a lot of them done. Just do some whenever you have the time. CARS practice should be your priority since it takes a while to improve in but get some practice in for the other sections as well.

After two months, I finished content review and moved into dedicated practice. The first two weeks were spent on practice passages from Uworld and the AAMC CARS Diagnostic before moving onto the official AAMC section banks. I took one official AAMC full length each week during this month as well. Lastly, I would review as many of my Anki cards as possible every day. 

I have outlined my specific approach to each below:

a.     Uworld: As you probably have heard while searching online, the Uworld practice passages are more for learning than they are an accurate reflection of the exam passages. As such, you can be fairly liberal in your approach. Some days I treated them like actual sections and went through 5-8 timed passages in a row. Most days, however, I opted to do 1-2 passages at a time and checked my answers immediately after while my reasoning for each question was still fresh in my mind.

b.    Section Banks / CARS QPacks 1+2 / CARS Diagnostic: I’ll just set expectations for this part out the gate. I found a lot of the official AAMC CARS material much more difficult than the actual exam. However, they are still extremely useful because of the AAMC logic that comes with the questions. While you still want to try as hard as possible on the questions, the true value comes from understanding the way AAMC wants you to think. Therefore, I always did one passage at a time before going back, checking my answers, and internalizing the explanations for each question. Also, take your time on these! They aren’t meant to be taken in the same amount of time as the real exam. In regards to CARS, I just skipped UWorld CARS and went straight into official AAMC material. Week 1-2 was for the CARS Diagnostic and Week 3-4 was spent on CARS QPacks 1+2.

c.     Anki Deck Review: My approach to Anki review relied heavily on the spaced repetition aspect of the program. For the first week of reviewing, I changed the settings so that I could get through 1/6th of all my cards every day. This initial run through was just to get a feel of the cards I made and remember vaguely what was in each. The next three weeks of review, I went through 1/4th of my decks every day. At this point, I would look at the topic on the card, mentally visualize as much as I could about the topic, and then review the card.

d.    AAMC Official Full Lengths: I found these exams representative of the actual exam. Because of this, I really recommend treating them as your actual exam. Mimic exam-day conditions as close as possible to get the most out of them. Additionally, be sure to spend time reviewing every question at the end! Always read the AAMC explanations and internalize their reasonings like you do with the section banks.

Some applicants also have specifics to share about their approach to individual sections:

  1. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (C/P): Time, time, time. Of all the sections, I had the most time management problems in C/P. It really came down to me spending way too much time on the calculation problems.  You have to make sure you don’t fixate on problems you are struggling with. My rule of thumb is if you read a question for more than two minutes and don’t have an idea of how to approach it, flag and move on! It is way better to miss one difficult question than it is to run out of time and miss 2+ easier questions you could have gotten right if you just had the time.
  2. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS): I say this half-jokingly, get the vibe of a passage. I think one of the biggest assets in answering CARS questions lies in understanding the theme and position of the author. Identifying what the author does and does not believe in is critical for most of the questions and sometimes, a feeling of the author’s views will be your lifeline in really difficult passages. Is this wishy washy? Absolutely. But so is CARS. Additionally, this section is probably the one where understanding AAMC logic will be most helpful. Read enough AAMC explanations of CARs questions and you’ll start to notice some patterns in the way they want you to think. In other words, practice!
  3. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (B/B): When it comes to B/B, the biggest help was knowing when to use information from graphs and tables and when to use information from the passage itself. Oftentimes questions that require graph/table information say, “Based on graph/table X” or “Based on information from the passage.” With this in mind, I often approach B/B passages by reading through without interpreting the graphs/tables. I’ll get an idea of what information I can find in the graph and understand what experiment it relates to but won’t analyze the graph until a question asks me to. Often, questions will help lead you in analysis by telling you what to focus on in a graph. So, you’ll save a lot of time by waiting for questions, especially in the odd passage that gives a graph but asks nothing about it.
  4. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (P/S): Traditionally, the impression for P/S has been that it is primarily a vocab and memorization section. Know all of the terms from P/S Khan Academy and you’ll be fine. While this is still true for the most part, I noticed in the newer AAMC Full Length #4 and my actual exam that this was slowly becoming less true. A couple times, terms would appear in questions that appeared nowhere in my own notes and the Khan Academy document. In such cases, I had to rely on ‘process of elimination’ and the passages to help. If anything, I just thought of P/S as a blend of CARS and B/B. Discrete knowledge is important but do not discount the passage itself!

 Top 3 tips for preparation

a.     Consistency… – I feel like the biggest increases in your MCAT preparedness come from many small victories over time. In other words, focus on making incremental progress in content review/practice rather than going for huge chunks at a time. Of course, this really depends on your learning style and schedule but, you only have so much mental bandwidth in a day. Try to get as much MCAT studying done as you can during portions of the day when you’re at your peak.

b.    But not at the cost of sleep and mental health! -- While I do say consistency, don’t sacrifice your health for it. It’s just counter intuitive. Trust me. If you feel overwhelmed or exhausted, take a break for the sake of improving the quality of your study later. Sometimes, a break day is what you need to ensure that you last throughout the entire marathon. I can almost guarantee that at some point down the road, you will be behind in your schedule. That’s totally okay! Do just a little bit extra everyday to catch up, but don’t over do it. You will most definitely burn yourself out that way.

c.     Make your anki deck if time permits – If you plan on using anki, please try your best to make an anki deck for yourself if you have the time. I understand that not everyone’s timeline will permit undertaking this very time-consuming process. Furthermore, there are plenty of decks out there like MilesDown’s which are already made and highly regarded by many. However, remember that the only person that knows your struggles and strengths the best is you! Half of the benefit from anki was in making the cards and wording concepts in ways that were intuitive to me. I tried multiple decks prior to making my own and while each had its benefits, I realized that none of them were a perfect fit. This is simply because the cards were worded in a way unfamiliar to me and they didn’t always emphasize the information that I needed.

 Top 3 traps to avoid

a. The lure of books– In my experience, looking up suggested materials for content review led me to the conclusion that none of the various review books out there was the best solution. The trap here (that I fell into) was that this is assuming you are a book learner! Never in the past have I ever found textbooks as useful when studying for a test. It just doesn’t work for me. My mistake was thinking that all of a sudden, that would change and the books would lead to my success. Of course, it didn’t and 2 months after starting, I had to go back to square one and look for alternative learning modalities; until I came upon Blueprint. Before starting, think about the way that you have successfully learned in the past! If you find books haven’t worked for you in the past, don’t do it now. Similarly, if you have never found video lectures as effective, don’t do it! There are resources of all kinds out there so find what works best and keep an open mind if what you initially chose doesn’t work or feel right. If you feel a study method isn’t working, it’s probably a sign that it isn’t working and that it’s time to move on to something else.

b. Thinking you need to know every detail— Out of all the advice I have given in this post, this is probably the most important. The MCAT is not a test about extensive detail. Please, please, please remember that you will be doing a lot of information filtering during your studies. Contrary to what many books and prep companies may want you to think, you probably don’t need to know 30 pages worth of information about the reproductive system (for example). In the MCAT world, there is a ton of information bloat. Sure, some abstract, advanced concept was tested on an actual exam in the past. However, the AAMC probably wanted you to get that abstract detail from the passage rather than from your own discrete knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, there is a TON of information to know in the MCAT, but it rarely goes beyond basic foundational concepts. With whatever content review you choose, always ask yourself if a certain piece of information is important. Do I really need to spend time memorizing this very specific part of anatomy? Will I really need to know all the information from a 7 minute video about a single cell type in the nervous system? I can help you by saying most likely no, you don’t.

c.     Goals are great, but expectations can be killer – Now, when it comes to target scores, I think it’s always great to have some type of goal in mind. It serves as a benchmark that measures your progress and gives you something to work towards. But, please don’t set really high bars for yourself! Of course, we all want the highest score possible and yes, a high score will make your med school application more competitive. However, when you set a high goal, it can be very demoralizing when you don’t perform as well as you want, and small improvements seem less impressive to you because you aren’t at the goal. Please remember that the MCAT is just an exam, not a measurement of your worth. Very high scores are good but NOT necessary to get into medical school, as I’m sure Amber and Charlie have probably mentioned to you before. This may sound a little hypocritical given my score, but what I’m trying to get at is I genuinely believe I never would have scored as I did if I kept aiming super high. My scores started improving massively and my study experience was much better after I stopped letting the exam (and my expectations) overpower my life. To conclude, talk to your mentors and advisors about your individual situation and establish realistic, healthy goals!

 What types of exam prep were the most useful?

In my experience, the Blueprint online course was the best solution for me. The self-pacing was crucial for my erratic schedule and the videos felt leagues better than the books (Kaplan and Princeton Review if you were wondering; also see my previous note that I am not a “book learner”). The online course sets up an editable schedule for you with video modules for each topic on a day by day basis. Most importantly, each video cut down a lot of the information bloat I saw in the books, focusing on core knowledge using tons of diagrams (the graphics being super important for my learning style). I felt that a lot of the information was reasonable to know and that I could confidently use the concepts to reason through unfamiliar information on the exam. I understand that not everyone has the resources to enroll in an online course such as Blueprint, but keep in mind they regularly offer discounts for the course making it one of the cheaper options out there. Khan Academy may be a useful, free video alternative if the cost is still too steep. (You will be doing A LOT more information filtering with Khan however).

 What challenges or obstacles did you face?

   Personally, I started studying with a high score in mind. After my first full length exam, I was devastated by how far I was from the goal. It stressed me out day and night, only amplifying my anxiety towards the exam. However, I was able to get out of this loop by talking to Amber and others who were able to ground my expectations and help me develop a healthier mindset. At the end of the day, you have to be happy with your own personal best as this test doesn’t define you. Having to study for the exam in the middle of the school year also of course didn’t help and balancing all my other obligations was overwhelming. However, at the end of the day, it all came down to setting a schedule that worked for me that wasn’t too rigid so I had the room to take mental breaks when I was struggling.

Feeling Nervous Vs. Feeling Ready

I honestly never felt ready. This is a big, big test with a lot of pressure and even more material. It’s only natural to feel anxious and nervous before the exam. But, not to belabor this point any further but, I believe having a positive mental outlook on the situation helped reduce my anxiety and improved my performance on the test. Yes, I felt stressed to do well and yes, the prospect of not knowing something was frightening. However, at the end of the day, I was at peace with the amount of work I had done up to that point. I spent so many countless hours studying and I was proud of that, regardless of the outcome. Cheesy, I know, but it did get me through the test!

 Is there anything that you would’ve done differently to prepare?

I feel if there were maybe slightly different situations, I would have liked to have started studying earlier. Trying to prepare for the MCAT during the school year was difficult for me and a lot of effort could have been saved if I had simply started in the summer. I felt that since so many people spend a lot of time planning their study schedule, I had to invest an equal amount researching and such. Honestly though, I wish I just picked something and started. You’ll adjust your study plan as you go so there wasn’t any need to draft a pristine plan before starting. I also would have done more practice questions/tests while in the middle of content review, but that feeling will probably always be there since you can never practice too much.