MCAT Preparation Overview
On most campuses, pre-med students are as famous for being stressed out as the MCAT is for being incredibly difficult and grueling. To keep your stress level manageable, start your MCAT preparation early, and make sure you have time to work on it consistently and methodically during the months leading up to the test. And don’t forget to get enough sleep, exercise, and healthy food — not to mention a little time to relax, spend time with friends, and maintain perspective! The first step is to familiarize yourself with the MCAT, and learn what options you have for preparation for the test.
What kind of test is the MCAT?
The MCAT is a program of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The test is about to undergo a major change, from an old-fashioned, No.-2-pencil standardized test to a totally computer-based test. The AAMC has been testing the computer-based MCAT in certain cities for about a year, and August 2006 will be the last administration of the paper MCAT. The first completely computer-based administrations will take place in early 2007.
How do I register for the MCAT?
To register online for the MCAT, go to www.aamc.org/students/mcat/registration.htm.
Medical schools prefer that prospective students take the MCAT at least 18 months before they plan to start medical school. Registration deadlines for each exam administration are usually about five weeks before the test; late registration is also available for $50 extra, usually with a deadline about three weeks before the test.
To get in to take the test, you will need a test center admission ticket, along with photo and signature identification. (The paper-based administration requires a special MCAT ID card, which you will receive with your admission ticket.) The MCAT Program Office begins mailing admissions tickets soon after regular registration closes, about five weeks before the test. If you start to worry whether your admission ticket is going to get to you in time, you can call (319) 337-1357.
The MCAT currently costs $210. The AAMC anticipates the cost to rise with the transition to entirely computer-based testing, but has not yet released the new number.
The yearly testing schedule will also change. In the past, the MCAT has been offered only twice a year, in April and August. Beginning in 2007, the AAMC plans to offer the new computer-based MCAT 22 times a year. These administrations will not be evenly spaced throughout the year, but most likely will occur in five “testing windows” of two to five days each, in winter, late spring, mid-summer, late summer, and early fall. In the past, the MCAT has been the most grueling of the standardized tests, at a full eight hours in length. The AAMC has graciously decided to reduce the length of the test (and number of questions) by one-third when the switch to computer-based testing takes place. Also, they will no longer require all test-takers to finish each section at the same time; you will be able to work at your own pace through each section of the test, up to the time limits for each section.
What is on the MCAT?
There are three multiple-choice sections on the MCAT and one writing section. Physical sciences, verbal reasoning, and biological sciences are the multiple-choice sections.
In the Physical Sciences section, you will read several 200-300-word passages presenting scientific situations or problems. You will answer questions about these passages, as well as a number of questions not associated with the passages. Knowledge areas tested include physics, general chemistry, algebra and trigonometry.
The Verbal Reasoning section will present you with a number of passages, along with questions to test your reading comprehension. These passages may or may not be science-related. Although the texts are dense and scholarly, the format of this section and the skills tested differ little from reading comprehension sections on the SAT or GRE. You will need to identify relevant information and main ideas in passages, and draw inferences from the information presented.
During the third section of the MCAT, you will write two short writing samples. The MCAT writing sample asks for a very specific type of essay. You will read a statement of opinion, philosophy, or policy, such as “In a free society, individuals must be allowed to do as they choose.” The statement will not be closely related to science or medicine, and is not at all related to the personal statement (another part of your application, in which you will write your reasons for wanting to attend medical school). In your writing sample, first you will need to elaborate on the meaning of the statement, using description, narration, example, analysis, classification, and/or definition. Then, you will need to think of and describe a situation that appears to contradict the statement. Finally, you will need to define the rules or principles that would help you to choose between the two alternatives (the initial statement and your contradictory scenario) or resolve the difference between them. You will be using a simple word processing program (or pencil and paper in the summer 2006 administrations) and will have a 30-minute time limit for each of the two essays.
Your essays will be graded by the AAMC and given a letter score between J and T, with T being the highest and the average score being O.
The last section of the MCAT will test your knowledge of biology and organic chemistry. You will read several 200-300-word passages and answer questions about them, as well as a number of questions that stand alone.
For the three multiple-choice sections, there is a score range of 1 to 15. Matriculants to medical school average a composite score of 30.
What resources are available for MCAT preparation?
The most basic step of preparation for the MCAT is one you may already have completed, or may be working on now: the basic pre-medicine curriculum at your college or university. The MCAT will test your recall of the information you learned in biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry and physics, and the corresponding lab classes. It will also test critical thinking, verbal reasoning, and problem-solving skills which, hopefully, you have been developing through all of your college coursework. The AAMC also cites reading science journals and working in a research laboratory as helpful activities to train your mind for the MCAT — and for medical school and medical practice.
The AAMC offers its own MCAT preparation materials for purchase, including access to online practice tests. The AAMC has said that it does not consider a review course with an outside company necessary or even helpful; yet the national test preparation specialists claim that their courses improve students’ scores by as many as ten points (Princeton Review). About half of prospective medical students take an MCAT preparation course.
The Princeton Review offers MCAT preparation classroom courses taught by a team of expert instructors. The course includes five practice MCATs, 41 class sessions and loads of materials, and costs $1699. It meets four or five times a week for about three months before the test. Princeton Review also has private MCAT tutoring packages of 16 hours covering two subjects ($2000) or 48 hours covering all subjects ($6000).
Kaplan’s MCAT preparation course is also well acclaimed. During the three months before the test, the class meets most Tuesdays and Thursdays, and some Saturdays. There are 18 three-hour classroom sessions and five full-length practice MCATs, in addition to a diagnostic MCAT at the beginning, which helps Kaplan to respond to your own personal study needs. The class costs of $1549. Like the Princeton Review class, the Kaplan class gives you access to thousands of practice MCAT questions, in paper format and online. Kaplan also offers free online make-up classes; and an entirely online course is available for $1399. One-on-one tutoring packages with Kaplan range from 35 hours for $3999 to 15 hours for $2299.
As an added perk, both Kaplan and Princeton Review provide trial subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal (six months from Kaplan and nine months from Princeton Review); Princeton Review also gives you a six-month trial subscription to TIME Magazine.