There comes a time in every premed student’s life when they are resigned to begin studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). With the arrival of my 23-pound seven book set of prep materials from Kaplan this past summer, I took another step in my journey towards medical school.
For those familiar with the college admissions process, it will come as no surprise that the business for graduate school test prep is just as lucrative. The Princeton Review and Kaplan both offer months-long courses that claim to provide the most exhaustive preparation for the MCAT.
The average price of the cheapest course: $1750.
The most expensive, you ask? $9500.
Both companies assert the cost is well worth it. Indeed, each course provides “free” diagnostic exams, full-length practice tests, and thousands of review questions in addition to online tutoring and, in some cases, in-person instruction.
Let’s keep in mind that medical school costs about $250,000 on average. Best Medical Degrees estimates that the total opportunity cost of spending four years in medical school and another three in residency is to the tune of $800,000. (You may reasonably question whether becoming a doctor is worth it.)
Princeton Review: Hell, what’s another $8,000 for a prep course in the grand scheme of things?
Cost notwithstanding, students may also be drawn to the structure of these courses. Having a rigid schedule of material to cover each day can make one more prepared and focused for the exam. The perception that this prep is all-encompassing can also boost a student’s confidence in their ability to take the MCAT.
I want to be crystal clear: these courses are not worth it. I applaud Kaplan’s efforts to offer financial aid to students from low-income backgrounds, though the price still presents a substantial financial barrier. (The cheapest course costs about $800 with financial assistance.)
With this post, I want to disrupt the system, allowing premed students from all backgrounds the ability to study effectively and efficiently for the MCAT. We have already overcome so many hurdles; I refuse to let another stand in our way.
Thus, in this post I present my plan of attack for the MCAT, utilizing about $500 worth of materials and yet preparing just as much as a course from Kaplan or The Princeton Review.
- The Official Guide to the MCAT Exam (~$20-30; Free for FAP recipients)
- Produced by the AAMC, this guide is a very thorough overview of the exam. Contains a few dozen review questions, but more importantly outlines exactly what to study. For those who qualify for the Fee Assistance Program, this guide is free.
- NOTE: I strongly recommend signing up for FAP if you are eligible. In addition to the free official guide, you receive hundreds of free practice questions, a free medical evaluation if you need accommodation, and reduced fees for the MCAT and the AMCAS. The application re-opens every January.
- MCAT Diagnostic Test (Free)
- There are a number of services, including The Princeton Review and Kaplan, that also offer free diagnostic exams. Note that most are designed to be especially rigorous so that each company can fulfill on its promise to “boost your score” through their paid courses.
- The NextStep Prep diagnostic can be taken online whenever. Those from Kaplan are at scheduled times online (I recommend these) and The Princeton Review only does in-person diagnostics.
- Kaplan MCAT Complete 7-Book Subject Review ($170)
- Most review materials offered by test prep companies are roughly the same. Based on reviews, The Princeton Review version is too heavy on content and Examkrackers is a tad light, albeit much more expensive.
- Although Kaplan lacks practice passages after each review chapter, it’s a nice compromise and also includes 3 practice full-length exams.
- NextStep Prep CARS Practice 1 ($30)
- NextStep Prep CARS Practice 2 ($30)
- NextStep Prep Chemistry and Physics Practice ($40)
- NextStep Prep Biology and Biochemistry Practice (~$30)
- NextStep Prep Psychology and Sociology Practice ($40)
- A quick note: in searching on Amazon, you’ll likely find several review books from Sterling Test Prep with stellar ratings and comparable prices to NextStep Prep. I have a high level of confidence that the reviews for Sterling are largely fake and the quality of their products unknown.
- Official AAMC MCAT Practice Tests 1 and 2 ($70)
- Official AAMC Question Packs and Section Bank ($130; Free for FAP recipients)
- Khan Academy MCAT Library (Free; optional)
- MCAT-review.org (Free; optional)
- Anki flashcards (Free)
- These flashcards are integral to the success of this plan and are an animal unlike any other. See this post on Anki, the use of which has changed my college career. (You can download my MCAT flashcards below.)
Materials (on the cheap):
If the amount above is still cost prohibitive and you don’t qualify for FAP, I recommend the following,
- Forgo the official AAMC guide. This PDF from NextStep contains the same outline of the material to study.
- Forgo the first NextStep CARS practice book.
- Forgo the AAMC section bank.
- Opt for the Princeton Review set instead of the one from Kaplan.
The overall cost should now be about $400.
- Various sources, including the AAMC, recommend spending at least 300 hours reviewing material. The bulk of that time is spent taking full-length practice exams (FL), each of which consumes seven hours.
- I’m taking the MCAT on
April 22nd, 2017September 12th, 2017. Starting on May 22nd, I hope to spend 90 minutes to two hours studying per day, six days a week. I’ll take an FL about once every two weeks. Assuming I study until the day before the exam, I’ll have accumulated about 200 hours by September.
This is the basic layout:
PHY C. 1, BIO C. 1
CHM C. 1, OCM C. 1
BIO Passage I
CARS Half-Section 1
- The Day and Date columns are self-explanatory.
- The Kaplan column denotes the chapters to be read for that day.
- NOTE: Save the discrete practice questions and the “Concept Checks” for the chapter review day at the end of each week.
- The Anki column denotes the corresponding content category for those chapters. (Again, see below.)
- The remaining columns are the (sometimes) applicable review material for those chapters.
If it’s something you want to monitor, you can also track the time you spend on MCAT review each day. There’s an additional workbook entitled “Tracker” in each of the spreadsheets above. I typically work using pomodoros and the Focus Keeper app.
(I reference a Gold Standard practice test in the plan. You can find it here.)
In general, on a typical chapter review day, expect to spend 1-2 hours studying, while on a content review day, you’ll need to allocate 3-4 hours. Finally, on your “break” days, you should still spend about 30-60 minutes review flashcards on Anki.
Although I neglected to include it in the MCAT Plan of Attack, the work begins before the formal “first day” of studying. I highly recommend taking a diagnostic exam before you start your journey.
I posted a few diagnostic above under “Materials.” As I mentioned, NextStep can be taken whenever, though it might not be the most accurate. (Note the variation in subscores below.) I recommend taking the earliest available Kaplan diagnostic, which are held periodically, if it works for your schedule.
Here’s what I got:
At this junction, I hope you’ve read my primer on Anki and install the add-ons I recommend. It’ll help in navigating the 4000 flashcards below.
Anki is so pivotal to this plan because it forces you to study every day— even during those occasional off-days— and helps you retain the material that’s most apt to be forgotten.
Here they are:
(Author’s note: in the first few days of reviewing, I realized that some of these cards are redundant and also need revising– I will post updated cards, and delete this note, near the end of August.)
To access the appropriate content category, click on a deck, go to “Custom Study” at the bottom, select “Study by card state or tag” and choose “All cards in random order.” Finally, select the category for that day.
As you return to Anki each day, certain cards should be “due.” This is the spaced repetition algorithm at work: from a given content category, you review the most difficult cards at a shorter interval and those that were easier after a longer interim.
In effect, you will maintain a larger base of knowledge in your long-term memory and ensure that less information is lost as you encode further facts and figures.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include other MCAT plans that have been published on the internet.
You’re about to embark on one of the final stages of your time as a premed student. Studying for the MCAT is both an exciting and daunting endeavor. If you ever lack for motivation, I recommend the following resources:
- Defeating Procrastination
- Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address (Enjoy his remarks, though keep in mind Jobs’ exploitation of child labor in China and Southeast Asia)
- The Growth Mindset
- How to Grow Your Brain
- What Type of Exercise is Best for Your Brain
Best of luck studying!