MCAT Blog - Valeriya Ragozina
Undergraduate institution: University of California, Riverside
Exam Score: 527
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: 132
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: 131
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior: 132
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills: 132
Time spent preparing?
6 months, about 4 hours per weekday. Additionally, I took about 10 practice full-length exams on Saturdays - monthly at the outset, then bimonthly, then finally weekly for the last month before test day.
Overall study approach?
I like to come at the same thing from multiple angles. Read about it, watch videos, draw it out if applicable, do questions from multiple sources, and fortify it with mnemonic or other memory aids if applicable. I checked my understanding early and often with practice questions and full-length exams, going in order from those I found least similar to the real thing (Khan Academy) to official AAMC materials as I approached test day.
Some applicants also have specifics to share about their approach to individual sections:
a. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: Graphs and tables.
b. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills: Spend a little time analyzing what types of questions you are getting wrong and see if there is a pattern. It can be harder to apply lessons learned from past mistakes in CARS than it is in other sections, but finding your weak spots can at least help you pay more attention when you get a question that you know may be tricky. If there is a subject that reliably trips you up (philosophy, anyone?) consider doing outside reading in that field to get more comfortable with it.
c. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: Tables and graphs. Also, amino acids.
d. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior: A fun way to study for this section and up your overall reading at the same time maybe to check out a popular science book about topics in psychology - they explain things in a way that isn’t stuffy but still teach you a lot of facts. Overall, I found this section to be a vocab game more than anything else. It is also a subject that should be easy to relate to your own life, so lean on that and think of situations that exemplify the topics you want to memorize.
Top 3 tips for preparation
I would do a quick deep dive into the science of memory before you start. I happened to know from my psychology classes which strategies are proven effective and it really came in handy. These topics are briefly covered in the memory section of MCAT Psych review books, so maybe just read that topic before any other, but in a nutshell - Interleave different subjects! Come up with your own mnemonics if the ones presented don’t stick! Find a way to relate the thing you’re trying to remember to your own life! Spaced repetition and active recall over everything!!!
If you don’t currently read anything other than textbooks, start! Ideally, a few months before you start other formal MCAT studies. It’s a habit that will improve your life in so many ways and give you a leg up on the MCAT. Firstly, just being able to read a bit more quickly is a huge help. I’m not talking about skimming, just that if you read often you will get more fluent at it. Less reading time = more thinking time. You don’t have to read scientific journal articles (though that is what most closely approximates both CARS and the passage-based questions in the other sections). News articles, novels, or even poetry work. No need to do formal review questions on your extracurricular reading unless you want to; if you’re engaged, you will naturally notice the author’s argument, stylistic choices, themes.. All of which will come up on CARS.
Tables and graphs should be your best friend. There are so many of them in the passages. Read the axis labels and units. It may be a good idea to start paying attention to statistical or tabular representations you see in real life and practice asking yourself what information is being represented - most of the questions that directly reference these figures boil down to variations on that simple assessment.
Top 3 traps to avoid
Don’t study passively. Re-reading and highlighting will make you feel familiar with a topic because you’ve seen the same thing multiple times, but it won’t actually make it stick in your head the way active recall does. Try to save re-reading only for when you don’t understand or have completely forgotten something.
Don’t feel compelled to stick to a schedule or method that doesn’t work for you, or to use someone else’s tips and tricks if they don’t fit your learning style. Don’t be afraid to switch it up for different subjects - maybe videos help the most with psychology while drawing out pathways is the best for biochemistry.
Don’t forget to enjoy it a little! Have your favorite beverage on hand, watch videos that explain concepts in an amusing way, spend a little extra time drawing out a figure to your satisfaction, and be proud of yourself for the time you’re putting in and the progress you’re making.
What types of exam prep was the most useful?
Practice questions, 100%. Even the ones that weren’t as true to the real deal, i.e., Khan Academy. I would honestly do every practice question you can get your hands on that’s of decent quality. It's the best way to identify gaps in your knowledge - facts you thought you knew but couldn’t apply under pressure, or question framings that trip you up. I kept a document of things I had missed and reviewed it often (if I were to go back now, I would use Anki for this). Pro tip: you will likely only pay for materials from one test prep company (if any) plus the AAMC, but check the websites of every company you can think of for free offers of question sets or even full-length exams.
What challenges or obstacles did you face?
I had a test date scheduled that I ended up canceling. I hadn’t kept up with my study schedule and, a few months out, I had to call it and admit I wasn’t ready. The exam I actually sat for was almost a year later. The second time around, I chose to start my studying during the summer so that I would already be in the groove once the fall quarter began (my exam was in January). Preparing for the MCAT takes more than factual knowledge; it is also a test of your time management, self-discipline, and grit. Like anything else, these are skills that can be improved. Don’t be discouraged if you find yourself shaky on some of them during the course of your studying - see it as an opportunity to grow!
Feeling Nervous Vs. Feeling Ready
You have to know yourself. If you know you get nervous on test days, do what you can to destress - practice self-care and don’t let studying feel like the only thing that matters. When taking practice exams, simulate test day by sitting somewhere quiet, wearing similar clothes as you would to the test center, taking the same breaks, and working out what combination of snacks works the best. Also, keep track of all your practice scores so you don’t lose sight of how far you’ve come. This way, when your scores are within range of your goal, you can trust that you did everything possible to prepare and really are ready!
Is there anything that you would’ve done differently to prepare?
Everyone says this, but I wouldn’t spend as much time as I did on passive content review. Like many people, my undergrad workflow was to do the assigned reading, take meticulous notes, and then go to lecture to cement the information. But I think taking notes on my MCAT prep books was a waste of time (especially because most of the content is a review of topics covered in UCR pre-reqs). Now, in medical school, notes are nonexistent for me unless I need to draw out a concept to understand it. I just listen to lectures and/or third-party prep videos and use flashcards (Anki) to learn, then use practice questions to test my knowledge – so nothing but active retrieval from the moment I somewhat understand a concept. I wish I had taken a similar approach to the MCAT - read review books and/or watch videos, then start the active recall. I did use flashcards for the MCAT, but I hand-wrote several hundred of them - do not recommend that at all. Anki is great because of the algorithm that tells you when to review what based on how well you’ve been remembering it. Plus, there’s likely no need to make (more than a handful of) your own cards as I’m sure there are pre-made MCAT decks available to download. I think this style of studying would be the definition of working smarter not harder, plus it's a great preview of a popular med school studying workflow.