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How to Balance MCAT Review and Practice

How to Balance MCAT Review and Practice

Published on October 19, 2014 in Studying

The key to successful MCAT prep is knowing that you are making progress and adjusting your prep when you are not. Sounds simple enough.

But in the thick of MCAT prep throes, with a back and forth of review and practice, the state of your progress can be unclear. This guide will help you think about how to manage these two equally important aspects of the prep process and create a successful, strategic way forward.

How to Review

By now, you probably have studying down to an art, or at least some familiar process that you roughly follow when midterms or finals approach. Think about how your current study methods have worked for you. Has it been gruelingly long study sessions during which you achieve a knowledge breakthrough that have served you best? Or is it necessary for you to stretch out your study periods, returning fresh to review material again and again before it clicks. If you have a good idea about how you best take in new material and solidify familiar information, keep those methods in mind as you start your MCAT prep. If you never quite figured out how studying works best for you, you'll especially want to pay attention to the quality of your study time as you begin.

Here are some approaches to learning new material and reviewing all those oldies-but-goodies:

  • — reading
  • — listening to a lecture
  • — creating notes
  • — talking it over, explaining

Each of these methods has its own techniques and combinations with other methods. Identify the ones that click for you and use them early and often. You can adapt these methods to the MCAT prep program you are studying with.

For example, if you are utilizing a private tutor for your prep and learn best by talking through material, ask you tutor to listen as you explain a topic, correcting any misunderstandings and asking follow up questions.

How to Practice

Practicing for the MCAT can take several forms. Here are some categories for practice:

  • — full-length practice tests
  • — practice questions
  • — flashcards
  • — recall (talking or writing about a topic)

In addition to content-focused practice (testing what you know), you'll need to address other aspects you'll face on test day such as practicing for speed, stamina, and critical thinking. Remember (how could you forget?) that the MCAT is a timed and lengthy exam. You'll need excellent recall but also the ability to do so quickly, over an extended period of time, and along with processing new information. You can target these test skills by dedicating a portion of your practice sessions to speed drills, longer question sets, and un-timed practice where you focus on critical thinking and analysis.

The Balancing Act of MCAT Prep

A lot of the looming uncertainty of balancing your review and practice comes down to timing. You may put off taking a practice test with the notion that after putting in more time to review first, you'll have a better idea of where you stand, but an early, diagnostic practice test can help you set the agenda for your first stage of prep.

Incorporating regular practice into your study schedule can help you address weaknesses early. Practice is also critical to learning. Review alone will not get you where you need to be.

What you know versus what you think you know

To manage review and practice in a cohesive manner, it can be useful to track how you feel about the material you have covered versus how you are actually performing during your practice sessions. To do this, you'll first want to keep a list of your perceived strengths and weaknesses. As you study, write down (1) the date, (2) the topic, and (3) a rating of how well you think you understand that topic. After your practice sessions, cross-reference the topics your were asked about with your ratings. Be sure to shore up on topics you thought you knew better, but also spend some time thinking about why you don't feel so comfortable with topics that you are testing well on.

Consideration for the New MCAT2015

If you are preparing for the early examinations of the newly formatted MCAT2015 starting in April of 2015, you will need to contend with a limitation on practice materials. As of this writing, the AAMC has made available only one Sample Practice Test with a release of Practice Questions in the works. More practice tests will follow (plus several third-party test prep companies have developed practice tests), but for early examinees there will be less material to work with.

This situation presents an opportunity for you to reconsider your approach to MCAT prep. Many students have looked at the mass of content to be covered and reflexively opted for a study program that emphasized massive amounts of review followed by numerous attempts at full-length practice exams. Without tens of practice tests to arduously plow through, perhaps you may benefit from a more delicate but personalized approach, spending more time with smaller bouts of practice and more reflection on your performance over individual topics.

photo credit: floato via photopin cc

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