I surely don’t need to tell you how important the MCAT is. In a forest of applicants with 3.6 cumulative GPAs, MCAT scores offer one important way for admissions committees to compare apples and oranges (or in the case of non-traditional students like our post-bacs, a way to compare persimmons with kumquats).
There are plenty of websites, online study guides, and of course the Khan Academy’s free MCAT video collection that you can use in your preparation. Many of our students choose to study on their own, using books like The Berkeley Review, Exam Krackers, Kaplan, Princeton Review, and others. Others take courses, either online or in Rochester; still others hire an MCAT tutor. These resources do a great job of helping our students prepare.
In my post today, I’d like to focus on a topic that you may not have thought through fully: deciding when to take the MCAT. It’s an important consideration, and one that requires more deliberation than you might think. If you take the MCAT too soon, you risk being not fully prepared, which can be disastrous on the exam. If you wait too long, you may begin to forget the materials covered in your science courses, meaning that you’ll need to expend even more effort in an already challenging review process.
For post-bac students, timing is perhaps more complicated than for students who take the MCAT while still undergraduates. For post-bac students, the issue is more than simply waiting until you have completed the necessary coursework. The dilemma for post-bacs involves balancing how long you will need to prepare against your desire to begin medical school as quickly as possible. You need to keep in mind that MCAT review is not easy. Unlike tests of scholarly aptitude (like the GRE), the MCAT offers questions about specific concepts you must master in order to do well on the test. Don’t remember the viral life cycle? Go back and review, because this is fair game on the test.
For a post-bac student planning to take the MCAT, here are some essential things to keep in mind:
- The MCAT is only offered approximately 20 times each year. If you’re feeling ready to take the exam in the middle of October, that’s great—but you will need to wait until January at the earliest to take the exam. Keep in mind that most students take the MCAT during the year prior to applying to medical school. You can find the 2016 MCAT dates on the AAMC’s website
- The MCAT should be your first priority. It’s very difficult to study for the MCAT while working full time or being a full time student. If you’re going to attempt to balance these activities, then you need to allot more months to study.
- MCAT preparation is not something you can do quickly. Most of our students take at least three months of intense study to prepare for the exam.
- Under NO circumstances should you plan to take the MCAT before you are ready, as a “practice run.” Medical schools will see these scores, and each school has its own method of using earlier, lower scores. Some schools may average the scores, others may decide only to use the most recent scores. It makes sense to plan to take the MCAT only once. Obviously, if the exam does not go as well as you hope, then you can always take it again. But going into the exam without sufficient preparation seems foolhardy.
- Practice exams are helpful, but do not necessarily predict how you will do on the actual exam. One thing I have heard repeatedly from students—high scorers and low scorers alike– is “But I did so much better on the practice exams!” There’s many reasons why this could be the case, ranging from nerves to practice tests that are not rigorous enough.
- It takes approximately 30 days to receive your scores. If you take the MCAT in September, your scores will not arrive until October. That’s quite late in the admissions cycle. Unless you’re a superstar, it’s probably a good idea to hold off and apply during the next application cycle. It’s much harder to get into medical school as an October applicant than as a June applicant, due to the rolling admissions process.
MCAT timing is a highly personal decision for students. I strongly encourage post-bac students to discuss their plans with a qualified adviser who can help them consider the pros and cons of when and how to prepare. If you’re reading this advice as a prospective post-bac student, I encourage you to find a program with an adviser whom you trust, who can help you set a reasonable plan in place (along with a plan B in case things take more time than you anticipate). Don’t rush into the MCAT. It’s only one part of the medical school admissions picture—but it’s a very important part.
- You’ve got an hour and a half. There are 53 questions to complete during this time.
- The questions are all based on writing passages. The passages themselves are relatively short—approximately 500 to 600 words. You can expect some tricky vocabulary and challenging writing.
- There will be no passages based on science. Half of the passages are based in the humanities and the other half are based in the social sciences.
- The questions are designed to test your powers of critical analysis and your reasoning skills. Approximately 30% of the questions will be based on comprehending what you read. The other 70% will be based on reasoning within the text and reasoning beyond the text. Thus, you won’t only be asked questions about what the passage means. You can expect to be asked to evaluate and analyze word choice, imagery, and rhetorical devices, to extrapolate ideas and apply them to new contexts, to consider how new ideas and information might impact the text’s argument.
- These questions will not focus on your personal opinion. Keep your judgments focused on the text itself—even if you don’t agree with the arguments being made.
- If you read a passage about a topic you know well, use particular care in your responses. Your answers should be based solely on the passage and the new ideas and information introduced in the questions. If you happen to know obscure (or even not-so-obscure) facts that might contradict the arguments in the passage, keep them firmly out of your mind.
Want to know more about the Critical Analysis section? Check out the American Association of Medical College’s description of this section here.
After posting the last two entries about Jay Baruch and Rita Charon’s upcoming talks, a recent article in the New York Times offers thoughtful opinions about why narratives are important in the field of medicine. Take a look at Peter D. Kramer’s article and let me know what you think.
October is a great time to be on campus. Sure, there are midterms and falling temperatures–but there are also some amazing talks happening. Here’s one that promises to be incredible–and it’s free and open to the public.
Annual Human Values in Health Care Lecture
Wed, Oct 22, 3:30 – 5:00, in Goergen Hall 101, (Optics and Bioengineering) on the River Campus
Narrative Disaster Zones: Story Pearls and Pitfalls in the Emergency Department
Presenter: Jay Baruch, MD, Associate Professor, Emergency Medicine, Alpert Medical School, Brown University
Jay Baruch, MD is Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, where he serves as the director of the Program in Clinical Arts and Humanities, co-director of the medical humanities and bioethics scholarly concentration, and director of the ethics curriculum. Dr. Baruch’s short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous print and online medical and literary journals. His academic work centers on the importance of creative thinking and creative writing skills in clinical medicine.
This event is sponsored by the Division of Medical Humanities and Bioethics in the School of Medicine and Dentistry and the University Committee for Interdisciplinary Studies Human Values in Health Care Cluster.
For further information, contact Mary Fisher, 275-6435; firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope to see you there!