Studying for the MCAT

Just like that, I am done with my junior year of college! In comparison to my semester in Ecuador, this spring semester flew by. I think it was my favorite semester of college, thus far, but also one of the hardest because the 11 weeks I spent studying for the MCAT—the medical school entrance exam. This week I got my scores back, and I was extremely happy with the results. I had hoped to get at least a 514 (roughly 90th percentile) in order to complete for some out of state schools, and I managed to surpass that goal. For that reason, I thought it would be helpful to write about the study strategies I used to prepare for the MCAT. Hopefully this will be useful for any pre-med students out there.

MCAT Basics

The MCAT is roughly a 7-hour, online exam created through the AAMC. The test has four sections, each lasting about 90 minutes. The first section focuses mostly on chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. The second section is CARS, which is a critical reading section. Third is the biology and biochemistry section, and last is a psychology and sociology section. The MCAT exam is held at a Pearson VUE testing center that is very highly monitored to prevent cheating. After taking the exam, the score is scaled, and the results are posted online about one month after the test day.

MCAT Study Materials

For my content review, I used the Kaplan MCAT prep books. When I bought the books, it came with an online Kaplan program that had review videos, passage-based questions, and 3 practice tests. There also was a booklet containing the most important MCAT study material for a quick review. For supplemental content review, I used the Khan Academy MCAT videos. Then for the most authentic practice questions and practice exams, I purchased all of the online prep materials from the AAMC. This included 4 practice exams and many different passage-based questions for each of the sections.

Study Strategies

-Make a Game Plan

I first made a calendar on a Google doc to outline how I was going to study each day. Each calendar will look different depending on how long you are devoting time to study. I personally would recommend taking 3-6 months to study for the MCAT. When creating a timeline, I would look at factors in your life, such as work, school, extracurricular, etc. The busier you are, the more time I would allot for studying so that you don’t feel so overwhelmed each day. I personally started studying the Kaplan books over the summer. Then once I returned from Ecuador, I started studying again at the end of January. Then I took my exam on April 6th. On my calendar, I planned to take Sundays off, as well as spring break and Easter break. However, I studied during all of those planned days off. So I would suggest to plan in breaks from studying because one, it’s important to rest every once and a while, and two, if you do get behind, you can use those days off to catch up on studying. Finally, make sure to relax the day before the exam. Maybe do some quick review in the morning, but in the afternoon, just take a practice drive to the testing center and then spend the rest of the day with friends or family.

-Diversify the Study Schedule

I personally enjoyed reading a different Kaplan chapter every day or every other day to keep the material fresh and interesting. For me, I found that I would take 1 day to read a chapter from chemistry, organic chemistry, and CARS. For the remaining books, I usually allocated two days to read one chapter because there was more material to learn.

-Review

While I was learning from the Kaplan books, every day, I would also review a Kaplan chapter that I had previously learned. I did this by reviewing flashcards about key terms from that chapter, watching Khan videos, and making handwritten review sheets about that chapter. For the psychology and sociology section, I also searched for flashcards online, and I found tons of Quizlet flashcards that people had already made. This really helped me review for that section and also learn new terms.

-Practice Questions

A few times a week, I allotted time to do passage-based questions. Not only is this a good way to get the feel of the question styles, but it also is a way to learn new material. If you miss a question, note that topic so that later you can review any relevant material. Don’t be afraid to google different topics or terms you come across. The Kaplan books do a great job at reviewing the most important material for the MCAT, but they do not include everything. That’s why it’s important to briefly familiarize yourself with any new topics you come across during your practice time. Lastly, I would recommend reading a CARS passage a few times a week. This section was always difficult for me, so I think the more time you spend reading and practicing these types of questions, the better results you will see.

-Practice Tests

I cannot stress this enough, TAKE PRACTICE EXAMS!! I took 7, but you could make your own practice tests of sorts by timing yourself with the various AAMC passage-based questions if you would like more practice. This is a test of knowledge but also a test of critical thinking and endurance. By taking practice tests, you are learning how to navigate passages and how to understand the types of questions being asked. You also get practice sitting and working hard for seven hours. Staring at a computer screen for that long is very difficult and exhausting, so you have to train yourself to get used to that. I know taking 7 practice exams sounds extremely painful (and I don’t disagree with that statement), but I think that dedication really paid off in the end. I would also recommend to take a practice exam on one day, and then spend the next day or two reviewing the questions. Like with the passage-based questions, note any topics that could use a review.

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This is a sample monthly calendar that I created for myself. Each day normally had material to learn, material to review, and opportunities to practice.

Final Thoughts

These were the main ways that I studied for the MCAT. During the whole process, I adapted my schedule as I went along. I suggest that you all be flexible with your schedule too because as you study, you will start to learn what works for you. Also, as hard as this may be, DO NOT compare yourself to others during this process. Take the MCAT when you feel ready. Study in ways that you are comfortable with. Focus on how you are doing on the practice exams. Other people should be there to support you and lift you up—not to make you feel intimidated. When you finally reach test day, just be confident in the fact that you did all you could do to prepare. Have faith in your abilities, and you will do great! The MCAT was tough and exhausting, but I see it as a crucial step in pursuing my goals. So if you approach it as an opportunity, rather than a roadblock, I think you will have a lot more peace about this exam. Good luck to anyone who is studying for the MCAT. If you have further questions, comment down below, and I will gladly answer them 🙂

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This was how I chose to celebrate after the MCAT exam. Do something fun to relax afterwards!

 

Lots of love,

Hannah

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Every Moment Matters: Tips for Time Management

 

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A new year means new goals for everyone, right? I know as a college student, having better time management and increasing productivity are goals I constantly strive for. While I am a real person who does have days with zero motivation, I have to say that in general,  I have succeeded with my time management and productivity, so much so that my friends look to me as a model for how they should be structuring their days. So today, I’d like to share with you my top time management and productivity tips so that 2017 can be a productive year with as much happiness and as little stress as possible.

Balance

The key to time management and productivity is realizing that all of your time should not be spent on work. For me personally, I think your day should be split into quiet time, work time, and you time. Quiet time is a time to think, read, reflect, and to just be still. Work time is to obviously work. Finally you time is time  to relax, hang out with friends, and do the activities that you enjoy doing. I truly believe that part of your day needs to be spent not working. Some people say they can camp out in the library all day and study, but that is false. People need breaks to refresh their minds. I find that if you create this balance, you can work more effectively during your study time and therefore, get more accomplished in a shorter period of time.

Prepare the Night Before

Before I go to bed, I prep for the following day. That is, I gather all the materials that I will need for the next day and I will make a to do list. For instance, if I know that I won’t have time to come back to the dorm at all the next day, I might pack a lunch/snacks, put together a workout bag, and gather any books or homework that I need. That way, I will have everything I need with me, and I don’t have to waste time walking back to my dorm to go get something I forgot.

To-Do Lists/ Planners

There is no right or wrong way to have a to-do list or a planner. There are so many options out there, you just have to find what works for you. For me, I like to have a planner specifically to write down my homework for each day. In addition, I like to have to-do lists on my phone or on post-it notes. When I make to-do lists, I like to have an “immediate” to-do list, as in the items that I need to accomplish today, and then have an “extras” list of things that need to get done in the future, but aren’t pressing. This allows me to really prioritize the key items that need to get done today, and then if I have extra time, I can check off items off of the “extras” list. Also, I sometimes fill my “extras” list with productive procrastination tasks– tasks that don’t really help me accomplish homework, but still need to be done. A lot of times I add random errands or chores to this list. That way, if I need to take a break, I can check off one of these chores. It’s a rest from doing homework, but you still do something that is productive in a different way. Win, win.

Another tip I have is to structure your to do list almost as if it is a schedule of your day. For example, my “immediate” to-do list might look like this:

Wake up

Eat breakfast

Read bible

Go to Genetics

Read for O.Chem

Eat Lunch

Do O. Chem Worksheet

Go to Office Hour…

So on this to-do list, you will see that I have really easy items on the list to check off like waking up and going to class. In between these scheduled events I have to go to, I add in the homework or tasks that I think I can accomplish during that gap of time. I structure my list like this for a few reasons. One, it is really nice to check off easy items on the list. It feels like your are accomplishing something just by doing simple things like eating or going to work. Then, outlining my list as if it were a schedule of my day allows me to not only see what I have to do, but when I think I will do those tasks. If you only know what you need to accomplish, but not when you plan on accomplishing those tasks, you will not be as productive as possible.

Start Your Mornings Peacefully

I cannot stress this enough. Wake up early so that you do not have to rush around in the morning. It is so important to have time to be still, and for me that works best if I start my days with time just for myself. In the mornings, I usually wake up, eat breakfast, and take time to read the news and my bible. This time in the morning sets the tone for my day. Instead of waking up frazzled and rushing to make it to class, I have the opportunity to begin my day peacefully, which allows me to be less stressed out as the day goes on.

Eat

This one is pretty self explanatory, yet people forget to do it if they feel to “busy”. I don’t care how busy you are, you still need to fuel your body. Eat. Seriously. And don’t eat crap either. Eat food to nourish your bodies so that you can have energy to get through the day. If you are particularly busy like me, make sure you pack snacks so that if you can’t get to the cafeteria right away, at least you have food to hold you over. My favorite snacks currently are any of the Kind granola bars or cocoa dusted almonds. Delicious.

Workout

I am a huge proponent of working out because it clears your mind, reduces stress, gives you energy, and countless other benefits. A workout does not have to be long– maybe it’s just a quick 10 minute walk or bike ride. The point is, a workout is that “you” time I mentioned earlier. It is a chance to give your mind and eyes a break from reading and studying. Without a doubt, when I work out, I am more productive because of the energy it gives me. In fact, the times when I am busiest during the semester are the times where I workout the most because it helps me focus afterwards on the tasks that I still need to accomplish.

Sleep

Again this is obvious, but sleep is so important. I don’t care how much you feel like you need to study for an exam. Without proper sleep, you are going to be tired during the day, which makes you less focused, therefore, less productive. I consciously make an effort to try to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night because for me, lack of sleep just leads to poor performance on my part. I would rather sacrifice doing more homework/studying for sleep any day. If you are honest with yourself, you will realize that the amount of material that you cram in by staying up late is so insignificant that it’s not worth staying up for. I personally think it is best to have a time where you consistently go to bed because your body really does thrive on a set routine.

Find a Schedule that Works for You

Lastly, it is important to note that everyone’s bodies work differently. So while I personally like to be up by 6am and go to bed at 11pm, that may not work for everyone. What is important is to create a schedule that allows you to have your work time when you are most alert. For me, I am very productive late mornings and early evenings. I always hit a slump in the afternoon, so I know not to do any intense homework during that time. If you don’t know when you are most alert, just spend a few days journalling how you feel energy-wise every hour that you are awake. You will soon find recurring patterns where you feel energized or fatigued.

I hope these tips are helpful for making 2017 your most productive and balanced year yet.

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Lots of love,
Hannah