by Yash S., a 525 scorer and MCAT coach
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Starting out with MCAT preparation can be quite intimidating. Where do you begin when there’s hundreds of pages in multiple books waiting to be read? If you’ve gone through the process once but feel that the large amount of content isn’t sticking, or you’re having trouble applying it to the test, this guide is for you.
I recommend tackling one book at a time, as this will allow you to focus on particular content without moving amongst different subjects all at once. While reading, there are three important items to keep in mind: reflection, repetition, and review. Following these steps will help you remember large quantities of content over the long-term.
Reflection involves quizzing yourself and evaluating your comprehension of the content.
You can do so in several ways, starting with the questions at the end of your book chapter. These questions do not reflect the MCAT style, but they are a good review of the vocabulary presented earlier. When you do these questions, if you do not recognize topical words, this is a surefire sign that you should go back and review what you have just read.
Second, complete the associated Khan Academy 5-question passages for each chapter. These passages are quite difficult and detailed, so do not be worried if your scores are low. However, they serve as a great way to check in with yourself. If you are finding many words in the Khan Academy practice that you do not recognize, or if you do not remember their definitions, this is a signal that you should probably reread the chapter.
In terms of flashcards- whether on paper, or electronically through Anki, Quizlet, or 21st Night– they can be a great exercise if done correctly. What this entails is an active approach, one in which you might see the word and then ask yourself to define it before reading the definition. This can again allow you to reflect upon your grasp of the items you have just read.
Repetition involves rereading the same content again, which will significantly improve your ability to retain huge quantities of information over the long-term. While initially reading the books, take notes that you can reread over the coming weeks or months. You want to produce a set of notes that will cover all the important content, ideally with the end goal of never having to return to the books again.
Afterwards, I recommend spending an hour in the morning reading your notes from the last day. This is an effective way to remind yourself of what you have recently learned and solidify the information. You typically forget a large portion of the information you read within a short time, but if you can reinforce this reading the next day, it will stick.
Another useful way to repeat content while adding variation to your study routine is through videos or other interactive resources. In addition to providing repetition, these videos may also teach you new content that was not discussed in the book, or which you missed during your reading. Seeing the same content from a different source will help you make new connections and better digest the information, which is key to becoming better at real-world application on the test.
Finally, review involves repeating content over the long-term. I recommend that my students take one half- or full-day every week to review all of the notes they have taken since the beginning of their study period.
Since the MCAT tests a tremendous amount of complex content, it is important to consistently, constantly review what you have learned, no matter how comfortable you felt with it during your first pass. Therefore, the notes you had taken during your reading will become very valuable.
Devoting some time every week to reviewing your old notes will allow you to refresh yourself, and you might even find content information that you might have missed the first time around!
A key tool for memorization
Students frequently ask me what topics the MCAT requires you to memorize, and how it is possible to memorize such dense and wide-ranging information.
Many people recommend the use of memorization tools such as mnemonics, songs, abbreviations, or peg words. While these are all effective, one tool I recommend to my students is the creation of separate topical study sheets. What this entails is a separate piece of paper which briefly covers a topic you would like to memorize.
I recommend making these sheets visual and colorful, making them easy to look at quickly and devoid of dense information. By virtue of having them on a separate paper, you can review them routinely as they sit on your desk. By having the ability to review this content on a daily basis, you will find that it is easier to remember.