MCAT: Friend Or Foe?

by Lorien E. Menhennett

“The MCAT is your friend.”

This is what Richard Levy, who runs, is very fond of saying about the Medical College Admissions Test, which is required to get into medical school. His philosophy is a good one. Befriend the exam, and the process of preparing for it, or succumb to what he calls FUD – “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” And if you fall prey to that, you are less likely to do well. Which can kill your chances of getting in.

I don’t plan on taking the MCAT until next April or so. But I have decided to start studying, slowly but surely, beginning now, in my own effort to make the MCAT a dear friend. Why? Because this exam tests your knowledge, comprehension, understanding, and ability to analyze and synthesize four year-long college science courses: General Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Physics. That’s eight (count them, 8) semesters of hard-core, scientific material.

The test is divided into four sections. For each section, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) posts a content outline that describes what you’re supposed to have learned in your courses. Below are the test sections, with links to the content outlines on the AAMC’s Web site.

1) Biological Sciences (BS)
2) Physical Sciences (PS)
3) Verbal Reasoning (VR)
4) Writing

That’s pretty helpful information, at first glance. But if you take a closer look, things can easily become overwhelming. The Biological Sciences PDF outline is a whopping 17 pages long, and the Physical Sciences PDF is 10 pages. Quite a bit to know! And the exam doesn’t just test your recall – you are presented with passages to read, and then questions associated with those passages. So you really have to understand the concepts, not just have memorized equations or defintions.

The BS, PS, and VR sections are each worth 15 points, for a top possible score of 45. The writing portion is graded on a letter scale, between a J (the lowest) and a T (the highest). In 2010, according to the AAMC, the mean MCAT score was a 25, and the 50th percentile writing score was an O.

That score likely won’t get you into medical school. You really need around a 30 or so, at least, to be competitive. Upper-tier schools such as Harvard probably won’t give you a second glance without a score in the mid-30s. For MD/PhD programs, which I am seriously considering, the mean score of accepted students is about a 35, from what I have read. That’s a tough score to achieve. Hence starting to study now.

In terms of preparing, myriad options exist. There are several test prep companies that offer formal courses (which can put you out as much as $2,000). Yikes. Another way to go is the self-study route, which is what I’m doing. Many companies put out MCAT study books on the various subjects, including practice questions. However, these books are not cheap. Luckily, I have a dear friend who took the MCAT a couple of years ago and saved her study books – more than a dozen of them – and gifted them to me. This saved me hundreds of dollars, literally. And I can study at my own pace. This might not work for everyone, but I am a very self-motivated person, and good with utilizing my free time. So I think I will be OK.

I’m also a good test-taker, fortunately. While I get nervous like everyone else, it doesn’t affect my score – once I get in there, sit down, and have the exam in front of me, I can focus and get the job done. In addition, I did very well (straight A’s) in all of my coursework so far, and hopefully a good bit of that material has stuck. I’ve taken everything except Organic Chemistry, which I will take this coming year. So this summer and fall, I will be reviewing what I took last year (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics).

But more than that, I will be learning about the MCAT itself, what kinds of questions there are, how to approach the exam in terms of time management (you have just over a minute for each question!), that sort of thing. So that hopefully, when April comes, the MCAT and I will indeed be friends of the most familiar sort. That’s the goal, at least. I’ll keep everyone updated on my progress.