How I Studied for the MCAT Without a Prep Class

I took my MCAT on Saturday 05/11/19, almost 5 years to the day since I graduated from Arizona State University with my undergraduate degrees. Since I work full-time and support myself financially, an MCAT prep course was not a feasible option for me. I did all of my prep with a $300 set of Kaplan MCAT prep books, a free NextStep MCAT prep bundle, and 2 official MCAT practice tests from AMCAS. My score report came in the morning exactly a month from test day: 509!

Figure Out How to Study

Before you start doing anything, I recommend you take the VARK Assessment to figure out how you learn. You need to study the best way for you. I have a pre-med friend who tried studying by taking notes, but she’s an auditory learner so the information wasn’t sticking. She had to stop wasting her time on the “traditional” study methods and develop a method that was best for her.

Familiarize Yourself with the Test

The MCAT is a long test. You need to understand the format, the timing, and the way the test is designed before you tackle studying the content. Strategy is important too!

Develop a Study Schedule

I used NextStep MCAT prep’s free bundle to develop a daily schedule. They also had a half-length diagnostic test to better design my schedule to focus on weak areas. I didn’t stick to it as well as I should have, but it was an important tool.

STUDY, STUDY, STUDY

This is not your average standardized test. There is a ton of material to learn. You need to study smarter and harder. In addition to a serious amount of content, you’ll need to develop strategy and build stamina.

My exact study plan took several days to work through any one chapter of my prep book. I would read a chapter, highlighting as I went. The next day I would take detailed notes and go through the practice questions within the chapter. The day after that I watched and notated Khan Academy videos. On any one day I would usually be working on a portion of any two chapters under different subjects. Spreading out each chapter and switching between subjects helped keep the information in my memory.

Another important tip I learned was to track my “demon list.” A demon list should contain concepts with which you regularly struggle. For instance, I tended to confuse microtubules and microfilaments. Keep track of these concepts and review frequently.

Take Practice Tests

The best way to get a feel for the real test is to take practice exams, mimicking conditions on Test Day. Dr. Ryan Gray’s MCAT podcast suggested around 6 tests. I took a diagnostic half-test with an initial score of 489. I then took 1 full-length Next Step MCAT test (provided for free). The Kaplan books come with 3 full-length tests. I finished the final two weeks of prep with 2 official MCAT practice exams.

The MCAT is a massive test. Pre-meds tend to place a lot of emphasis on obtaining the highest score possible. Keep in mind that a bad MCAT score isn’t the rest of the world. Before you consider skipping the prep classes, take a realistic look at your schedule and your study habits. If a class is what you really need, I don’t recommend skipping it, but know that you can get a good score with the right tools and hard work. Good luck!

The List

Compiling a medical school list is as much of a strategy as studying for the MCAT. After months of research, studying, and comparing requirements, I have a tentative list of medical schools to apply to for the upcoming cycle. The AAMC application opens on May 1, 2019. Though I don’t have my MCAT score, I have a general idea of my personal stats.

Applying to these schools is expensive, so I’m limiting myself to 13-15 schools for this cycle. I’m still debating on whether I want to apply to the Texas Application System.

Factors I Considered:

  • Location
  • Accept All Types of Credits (online, AP, community college)
  • Global Health Component
  • School’s Preference for In-state/Out-of-State Students
  • Team-Based Care
  • Problem-Based Learning

Factors I Did Not Consider:

  • School Rankings
  • Residency Matching
  • Underprivileged Students Programs (I don’t qualify)

I looked for schools where I have support systems and where I felt I could live without too much “culture shock”, if you will. This means many of my schools are located around the Southwest. Being located in the Southwest does not guarantee admission of course. A school in Utah stated that they basically left only 8 slots for out-of-state students. I’m not applying there with such slim chances.

Being a non-trad also changes my profile. My classes come from a variety of backgrounds, which some schools do not accept as pre-requisites. I took time going through MSAR (AAMC’s cheap service with all of the AAMC school statistics) eliminating schools that didn’t accept my credits. For example, Johns Hopkins expresses a strong preference for traditional applicants (in addition to high GPA and MCAT preferences). They do not accept online courses, so I can’t apply there. (Their admissions team was rude to me anyway.)

Here’s the List:

  1. University of Arizona Phoenix
  2. University of Arizona Tucson
  3. Chicago Med- Rosalind Franklin College of Medicine
  4. University of Colorado
  5. University of Southern California
  6. University of California San Diego
  7. Baylor University
  8. University of Kentucky
  9. Wake Forest University
  10. Tufts University
  11. Thomas Jefferson University
  12. Albert Einstein College of Medicine
  13. Duke University

Schools 10-13 might be considered “reach” schools, but I have reasons for choosing them. There’s always a chance that I score high enough on my MCAT to make it past the admissions filters.

I’ve got 2 Texas schools as well, which I don’t think makes it worth it to apply to the separate Texas application service… Of course, the list might change once I get my MCAT scores, but we’ll have to wait until June before I know anything.

What do you think of my school list? Are you applying to any of the same schools? Share your lists with me!!

Happy Holidays, You Might Have Cancer

It was the day before Thanksgiving. The menu was planned, the shopping done. I planned on baking pies and chopping vegetables once I got home. Only a few patients to see that day, one a new patient. Usually my NP doesn’t see new patients, as initial evaluation is left to the physician.

She was flustered about seeing this patient she’s never met. Rushing into clinic to see the NP usually means something is urgent. This particular patient was highly symptomatic following a procedure by another provider. Unable to provide an explanation for her sudden shortness of breath, that provider referred her to our clinic.

The sudden onset and change in her symptoms frightened the patient and her husband. A young woman who enjoyed exercising was panting after walking less than 10 feet. Looking over the results from labwork, procedures, and imaging didn’t reveal a clear picture. She looked at us, pleading for answers with big, round eyes. She held her hand tight as her husband helped answer questions so she could catch her breath.

Imaging showed an abnormality, not explained by the most common diagnosis. The suspicion arose for cancer, though more testing would be needed. By the way her face fell, she had obviously not considered such a disastrous possibility. Her procedure was supposed to be simple and easy. From a cardiac perspective, it had been successful. Now she and her healthcare providers were forced to contemplate more malignant causes.

Despite working in a medical clinic, I’m not accustomed to seeing my patients die. We primarily see patients with atrial fibrillation, a treatable and manageable disease not likely to be the sole cause of death. The interventional team has to worry about death from heart attacks, while the heart failure team deals with high risk transplant candidates or LVAD patients. Cancer is usually handled by outside physicians specializing in other bodily systems and/or oncologists.

Right before the holidays, even the most remote possibility of cancer seemed devastating. It was difficult to hold myself together for the patient’s sake.

One of the research physicians suggested that I begin hospice volunteering. Despite all my research and reading book after book about death, I have little experience with confronting the ultimate partner to medicine. Perhaps it’s best I heed his advice.

The Dreaded MCAT

The MCAT is the standardized test required for entrance to medical school. After major revisions a few years back, the test is now an anxiety-inducing 8 hour trial, testing the major sciences, psychology/sociology, and reading comprehension. Pre-meds dread this test. If your score is “too low” you might start to worry about your “stats”.

I’ve never struggled with standardized tests, but after a recent experience I’m starting to understand their concern. The other day I signed up for the free Next Step MCAT bundle, which provides diagnostic testing. (Prior to diagnostic testing, I recommend you do your research about the test, your learning style, and the resources available). Without doing much studying, I scored a 493.

I should definitely mention that I haven’t actually started studying for the MCAT. I took the diagnostic exam without a proper review. This is definitely not going to be close to my score once I actually start studying. I wanted to know which subjects to focus on. My CARS is quite strong. My psych/sociology needs a bit of review, but I’m comfortable with that area as well. Unfortunately, my biological and chemical systems section scores were dismal.

My concern is that I need to spend more time preparing for the exam than I expected. I was going to start my study plan in January 2019 for my May 2019 test date. Considering I got an email from the Next Step team warning me about my score… it looks like I’ll need to move up the time table. Right now I’m starting with the backlog of MCAT practice questions in my email. Hopefully I’ll be able to find more specific areas within the sciences to focus on. Then I’ll start the Khan Academy videos and prep books. Ultimately I intend on a Next Step prep class. What I need is a schedule. Does anyone have any study schedule recommendations?