Hi, my name is Alexa Smith and I am a premedical student who graduated from Case Western Reserve University with degrees in Biology and German. I took the MCAT (the Medical College Admission Test) in July of 2019. This was the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I was fortunate to score a 522 on the MCAT, which is in the 99th percentile. In this article I will describe my study process, and hopefully give you the information needed to help you succeed on your MCAT.
Table of Contents
What Is the 99th Percentile for the MCAT
MCAT scores range from 472 to 528. They are the total of your scores on the four sections of the MCAT, each ranging from 118 to 132.
The percentile represents how well you did in comparison to the other students who took the MCAT. Being in the 99th percentile means that you scored better than 99% of other MCAT takers.
Since the percentile score is based on how well you did relative to other students, it can vary slightly from year to year. The scores from the past three years determine the percentile ranges.
The table below shows which scores fell under the 99th percentile for the past six MCAT years. You can see that in more recent years there has been a slight increase in which scores are in the 99th percentile. Each score corresponds to a different percentile.
|MCAT Year||99th Percentile Score|
|May 1, 2015 to April 30, 2016||521 to 522|
|May 1, 2016 to April 30, 2017||521 to 522|
|May 1, 2017 to April 30, 2018||521 to 522|
|May 1, 2018 to April 30, 2019||521 to 522|
|May 1, 2019 to April 30, 2020||521 to 523|
|May 1, 2020 to April 30, 2021||522 to 523|
How Hard Is The MCAT
The MCAT is well-known as a difficult and lengthy entrance exam. It is a 7 hour and 30 minute long exam (including breaks) with over 6 hours of time spent answering questions. The MCAT contains 230 questions over four subsections (note that the MCAT is currently shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Aside from the length, the MCAT is so difficult because it covers so much content. The MCAT covers: biology, chemistry (both general and organic), physics, math, psychology, sociology, and biochemistry.
The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section (CARS) tests your reading and comprehension ability, and does not require prior knowledge.
This content stems from at least 11 semesters of college courses, so it is a lot of information to review and know. On top of that, you are not given any formulas, equations, or even a calculator on the MCAT. This makes it more difficult than many undergraduate exams (particularly for physics and general chemistry).
The MCAT, however, is not the only medically-related entrance exam. The Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT), Dental Admission Test (DAT), and Optometry Admission Test (OAT) are exams required for pharmacy, dental, and optometry school.
In the table below, you can see that the MCAT is the longest exam by 120 minutes. The number of questions on the MCAT is comparable to the other exams. The depth of the exams is similar, with the other three exams also covering topics like general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, physics, and critical reading.
|Testing Time (excludes breaks)||375 minutes||220 minutes||255 minutes||245 minutes|
MCAT Study Plan
Here, I will share with you all what I did to study for the MCAT. I spent around 250-350 hours of dedicated study time for the MCAT. This does not include the many hours that I spent listening to a podcast about the MCAT.
Where to Begin
I started getting into MCAT-mode in April of 2019, almost four months before my test date. I took a free diagnostic exam to get an idea of where I was starting, and I set a goal for myself based on that. My diagnostic score was around a 506, and my goal score was 515.
I also started listening to the MCAT Podcast around this time. I cannot overstate how much this podcast helped me. They provide useful information about the MCAT as a whole, and they also delve into specific problems. I ended up getting through all the released episodes by the time I tested.
I purchased the Official Guide to the MCAT Exam from the AAMC to learn about the logistics of the MCAT. Using all this new information, I registered for a test date. It is important to sign up for a test date so that you have a deadline holding you accountable. Make sure to pick a date that allows for enough study time beforehand.
I ended up ordering the Kaplan MCAT books for my prep. There are a lot of different books out there, but from what I understand, any of the books from major prep companies will be useful. There is no magic formula of which books to use to get a good score. The books are important, but your study habits and practice are far more significant in determining your score.
There is a lot you can do early on before getting into more rigorous prep. Taking a diagnostic, learning all you can about the MCAT, and buying prep books are all good ways to get started while you might not have the time for dedicated studying.
When to Start Studying for the MCAT
I started intensely studying for the MCAT starting in mid-to-late May of 2019, about 10 weeks before my test date. During this time, I spent around 30-40 hours per week studying.
I think that this was an adequate amount of time for myself, however, I would have liked two more weeks for dedicated practice problem time.
When people consider when to start studying, it is more important to examine how many hours you have rather than weeks. Eight weeks with 50 hours of studying each week could be more beneficial than six months only studying five hours a week. MCAT studying is very taxing, so make sure you leave yourself at least a little time for other things. Don’t push yourself to the point where you stop improving.
It depends a lot on the person, but I think that planning for 250-400 hours is a fair starting point. Keep in mind how you normally study for exams. If you regularly require a lot of time to learn concepts, then I’d lean towards more hours.
You also need to be realistic about what time you can actually dedicate to studying. Studying for the MCAT during an academic semester is very difficult. I tried and ended up holding off on MCAT prep until the semester finished. Be realistic about what time you have to dedicate to studying.
In a survey of Johns Hopkins students who did well on the MCAT, the majority of students studied for over 5 hours a day. Students recommended studying for 2-3 months for a summer test date, and 4-6 months for a test date during the semester.
When it comes down to it, the more you study, and the earlier you start, the more success you will have with preparing for the MCAT.
Fitting MCAT Prep Into Your Busy Schedule
Finding time for MCAT prep is not easy. I did the vast majority of my studying over the summer. I was still working full-time in my research lab, so I had to make time outside of working hours in order to get in the prep that I needed.
After finishing my workday at around 4:30 pm, I would go straight to the library and study. Usually I would finish one chapter in this time, which took me about 2 hours. I would then go home and continue studying there after dinner.
On weekends, I took full-length practice exams on one of the days, and used the other day to have a little free time while still getting a few hours of prep in.
It is hard to sacrifice so much leisure time to study for the MCAT, but it is necessary to get a good score. You have to be strict with yourself in holding yourself to your study schedule.
Make sure to plan out exactly when you are going to study. If you are studying during the semester, treat the MCAT like another class, and do not let other assignments and exams sidetrack your progress. If you are studying over the summer or other times, plan out what hours you will study and follow through. Even hour-long blocks of time are useful.
For the majority of the time when you study for the MCAT, that needs to be your only focus. Remove all distractions to get the most out of your prep. For me, the MCAT Podcast was an amazing way to still get some preparation in during my work days over the summer. I was fortunate that a good amount of my research was easy enough that I could listen to the podcast while working.
If you have minimal time to dedicate to the MCAT, use that for in-depth content review and practice problems. Try to find other small portions of the day for other things, such as flashcard review. Bring your flashcards to work or class and flip through a few during breaks or lunch. Be creative to get in the prep that you need to succeed.
Making a Study Schedule
Study schedules can be very useful for MCAT prep, but don’t be afraid to update them as needed. They should provide a framework of what you need to be doing to stay on track. However, if you realize that certain things are not as useful as you originally thought, then you can always adjust your schedule to reflect that.
When I was first starting to study for the MCAT, I made a study schedule for April through July based off of the official AAMC MCAT topics. However, the Kaplan books (and probably all review books, for that matter) are not organized by MCAT concepts and topics, but rather by subject.
So, after receiving my MCAT books, I redid my schedule to reflect the books I purchased. My original schedule was to start with a couple of chapters a week in April during the end of the semester. I did not end up doing any content review in April, so come May, I had to rework my schedule again.
This left me with only about a week after finishing content review before my test date. This was not ideal, and did not leave a lot of time for practice problems. The chapters also tended to take longer than I planned for, as I am a slow reader.
What I wish I had done sooner was to reevaluate my schedule when things were taking longer than planned. I knew that practice problems were important, but I was so focused on finishing the content books. While content review is very important, I would say that practicing is even more useful. You can always look up and study concepts that you miss when you do practice problems.
Overall, making a schedule is important so you know if you are on pace with studying or not. But you should constantly reevaluate your plans to make sure you are doing what is best for your prep.
In terms of my actual schedule, I cycled between the different Kaplan books. Each book corresponds to a different subject covered on the MCAT. Some books had longer chapters than others, so I tried to pair lengthier subjects with shorter ones. This allowed me to complete two chapters per day.
An example of what my schedule looked like during a typical week is in the table below.
|Review Full Length
Biochemistry and Organic Chemistry
|Biology and Physics||General Chemistry and Behavioral Sciences||Biochemistry and Organic Chemistry||Biology and Physics||General Chemistry and Behavioral Sciences||Full Length Practice Exam|
How to Study
Once you successfully set aside time and plan out what you are going to do, you have to actually get down to studying. The most important thing is to study actively rather than passively, to the best of your ability.
By active studying, I mean that you should take notes, highlight, draw out concepts, go through flashcards, etc. Passive studying is more of just blankly reading over the chapters without doing anything else, and it can be easy to lose focus that way.
An important aspect of studying is that you get used to the environment in which you study. Testing in that same environment can help you do better. This means that you should try to study in conditions similar to the actual MCAT.
I would go to the library every day after work and sit in a quiet location. I rotated through different spots so that I didn’t get used to studying in the same place, since I would not be able to take the real exam in that exact place. After a quick break, I would put my phone away to minimize distractions, and then I would study.
While going through each chapter of the Kaplan books, I read with a highlighter and pencil close by. I had a different highlighter for each subject, and I would highlight important sentences or definitions as I went. It is important not to highlight too much, otherwise what you highlighted doesn’t stand out.
With the pencil I would try to make quick notes about important or confusing concepts. If appropriate, I would draw out diagrams depicting what was just discussed. I would try to write down mnemonics or note what information would need memorizing.
At the end of each section of the chapter, I would complete the concept check questions (without looking up answers) and then check my work. At the middle and end of each chapter I would write a very brief list of what concepts I had learned so far.
Outside of reviewing the books, the main other practice I did was flashcards. I made flashcards for important general chemistry and physics equations, since those are not given on the exam. I had a few other sets with some metabolism definitions and other topics that I found challenging. I went through flashcards mostly on weekends or at the end of the day.
The most important flashcard set to have is amino acid flashcards. With rare exceptions, the amino acids will be on your MCAT, maybe even multiple times. These are easy questions if you’ve learned them, but if you haven’t you have to guess. Do yourself a favor and memorize all the amino acids, along with their single-letter abbreviations, three-letter abbreviations, structure, and basic properties (nonpolar, basic, charged, etc.).
Taking Practice Exams
The single most important thing you can do to prepare for the MCAT is to take full length practice exams. These are invaluable for many reasons.
- You get used to sitting for over six hours of testing
- You learn how to pace yourself
- You learn which sections you do well on and which need help
- You identify specific concepts that you need to review
- You can track your progress by looking at your scores
I took five full length practice exams, but more would be even better. I first took a Blueprint (aka NextStep) full length, which is accessible for free. After that I worked through all of the AAMC full lengths (I believe they have added another since I tested). The AAMC also has a sample test, which is a full length that is not scored, so you don’t see how you did.
I took a full length every Saturday leading up to my test date. I saved the sample test for the final week before my MCAT. This way I had no score to look at to throw me off in my final week of studying. Your scores will fluctuate across the practice exams, and I didn’t want a random low score to rattle my confidence in the final week.
In terms of which practice exams to use, you need to use the AAMC full lengths. The AAMC creates the real MCAT, so their practice exams are the absolute closest you will get to the real thing. One could say that you are not ready for the MCAT if you have not taken all of the AAMC practice exams.
In terms of any additional practice exams, I used Blueprint because it was free, but I am sure all of the main prep companies have good practice exams to use.
After taking your exam, you need to review it. Go over every single question, whether you got it right or wrong, and review why the correct answer is correct. I took notes for each exam on how many questions I got right per passage, what concepts I needed to review again, strategies to work on, etc. You can learn and improve a lot by reviewing your full lengths.
Even more so than when you study, you need to simulate test-day conditions when taking practice exams. Get up early, have your phone off the whole time, pack a lunch and snacks, take the designated breaks, etc. I even tested in brand new locations several times, including a computer lab (the real MCAT takes place in a computer lab).
The closer you can get to it feeling like test-day the better. This is to get you used to everything about the MCAT. In addition, it can help with test day nerves. For me, test day felt exactly like another practice exam because of how I had prepared.
Are MCAT Prep Courses Necessary to Do Well
A lot of people wonder if they need to pay for an MCAT Prep Course in order to succeed. The answer depends on you. In my opinion, prep courses are not necessary to succeed on the MCAT. I did not take one, and was still very successful.
If you pick up new concepts fairly easily, did well on your premed prerequisites, are generally a good test taker, and are good at holding yourself to a schedule, then you can do very well on the MCAT by self-studying.
If you generally need to study a lot more than others for university exams, have trouble focusing, need specific times planned out to study, or have trouble with standardized tests, then a prep course could be the right answer for you.
I am sure prep courses are very useful to anyone, but finances make prep courses unfeasible for many students. Reflect on your past study habits to think if you can succeed self-studying, or if you think a prep course is the better option. Both are great choices.