how I scored in the 99th percentile on the MCAT (as a non-traditional student)

how I scored in the 99th percentile on the MCAT (as a non-traditional student)

Recently, I got the results of my MCAT back and was thrilled with my score. For those who don’t know, the MCAT is a standardized test medical school applicants are required to take. I had been studying for about six months, and the month leading up to score release was inevitably full of anxiety and doubt. Thankfully, I can close that chapter and move onto the next stage of getting to medical school: applying, which I’m in the process of. If you’re reading this, send a prayer for me!

I’m a non-traditional applicant to medical school. I majored in Computer Science and minored in Math, worked in technology for two years, and then made the decision to become a doctor. Currently, I’m working at Ethos Health, the first farm-based primary care practice in the nation. It’s been quite the journey, and I feel a lot of excitement about the prospect of moving forward. Though I’ve learned a lot about myself and the world in the time I’ve spent working after graduation, it made studying for the MCAT more difficult because I had forgotten a lot of course material.

I was intimidated by the MCAT for years. If I’m honest, it deterred me from the idea of applying to medical school. My younger sister is a current medical student and I watched her devote hundreds of hours to studying and go through significant stress when she was studying for the MCAT. When I was training for a marathon in the summer of 2018, I imagined that studying for the MCAT would be the mental equivalent. And it was. But I strongly believe that in order to achieve any worthy goal, you have to get uncomfortable, because growth and sacrifice are uncomfortable. My first piece of advice is: overcome the idea that you’re not capable of doing well. Even in my greatest moments of doubt, I knew that I could do well - I was just in a race against the time I had to study.

I took some science prerequisites when I was in college (Chemistry, Physics, Anatomy, Physiology, and Advanced Placement in Biology), knowing that I was interested in healthcare. Since I made the decision to go to medical school about a year and a half ago, I’ve taken Organic Chemistry, Genetics, Biochemistry, and Human Endocrine Physiology.

preliminary steps

  1. Make a plan. Before you begin studying, it’s important to make a plan. Don’t just crack open books and feel out the process. The sheer volume of information you have to know for the MCAT is tremendous. Creating a plan is critical to ensuring you have enough time to cover all the material that you need to. I gave myself six months to study because I knew I needed to re-learn the prerequisites I took in college, and I work part-time, so I wouldn’t be able to study every day.

  2. Choose the materials you need. After creating a plan, make a list of the materials you need to purchase. Make sure that the expiration dates on any online material are after your test date. You don’t want to get stuck renewing something for the last week or two before your exam. If you don’t plan to begin using something right now, don’t purchase it until you need it.

  3. Cultivate a healthy mindset and aim high. Don’t go into the MCAT thinking you’re incapable of scoring high. I can’t stress this enough. Your mindset makes all the difference in the world, damn it. People roll their eyes at me when I say this, but I believe everyone is capable of performing well. If you decide your ceiling is low, your ceiling will be low. I’m going to put this in a block quote so you know I’m serious.

If you decide your ceiling is low, your ceiling will be low.
— me, trying to get you to believe in yourself

my study plan

Materials I used: All AAMC material, Kaplan 7-Book Subject Review set (which includes three practice exams), 4 NextStep practice exams, assorted videos on YouTube, UWorld, Anki flashcards, Reddit, Khan Academy 300-page Notes Document

january - march

In January, I started by studying two Kaplan chapters per day, each one a different subject. I combined Biology and Physics, General Chemistry and Psychology/Sociology, and Organic Chemistry. I didn’t use the Biochemistry book until later to brush up on the material because I took a Biochemistry course in Spring 2019. I also didn’t use the Critical Reading book because I’ve always been an avid reader, and decided from the beginning that I would only take seriously the AAMC CARS material. I completed all in-chapter and end-of-chapter questions, so I wasn’t passively reading (and you shouldn’t), but I barely took notes, and I didn’t make flashcards. I just wanted to get through a first pass of the information so I could establish a foundation.

In March, I started taking practice exams every week. This was after about 2.5 months of reviewing content. I started with the Kaplan practice exams because after doing research, I learned that they were “least representative.” I scored a 503 on the first Kaplan practice exam. I also took the AAMC sample exam and used an online converter (since it isn’t automatically scored) which assigned me a 510, though this likely isn’t accurate.

practice exams

If you’re aiming to score high on the MCAT, I think you should take ten practice exams spread out over the course of a few months. There are several reasons to take practice exams:

  1. Stamina. You need to build up the mental stamina to take a seven hour test. It’s easy to get drained by the end of the exam, and you don’t want that to affect your performance on test day.

  2. Breadth of content. Taking practice exams gives you exposure to getting tested on a wide range of concepts in one sitting. This is very different from doing practice questions restricted to one subject.

  3. Passage analysis. Most questions on the MCAT are passage-based, and the MCAT often hides answers to its questions right in the passage. You need to develop the ability to read passages quickly, comprehend them, and extract important information.

  4. Pacing. An hour and a half for 59 questions per section (53 for CARS) isn’t a lot of time. You need to practice working under pressure, moving on from questions you don’t know the answer to, and making sure you have enough time to review.

  5. Post-exam review. Though the above are really important, the most important aspect of practice exams in my opinion is the post-exam review. Whenever I reviewed my exams, I would go over content I got wrong or didn’t understand. I created flashcards using Anki (I highly recommend using Anki to create your flashcards - check it out here). Reviewing your exam thoroughly also gives you an opportunity to identify questions that you knew the answer to, but got wrong under pressure! I realized that sometimes I would read the question too quickly or select an answer without reading all of the available options.

    Tips: Reddit was a HUGELY beneficial resource as I reviewed my exams. If you have a question about material, it’s likely someone else has had it in the past. Look it up on Reddit, or ask the question yourself! Also, create your own Anki flashcards. It’s tempting to use an existing deck, but the process of making your own cards is, in itself, an act of studying.

march - april

My days were spent reviewing my practice exams and making flashcards. I finished going over the Kaplan books, but I regularly referred to them any time I needed to review a concept. I started intermittently studying the Anki cards I had made, but didn’t rigorously commit to a daily routine until May. I strongly recommend buying the phone app. It’s $25, which felt like a lot, but the ability to study my flashcards on my phone was so valuable that I would gladly spend the money again.

After taking three Kaplan exams, I started using NextStep exams, which are considered more representative of AAMC-style exams. My score increased by a few points, but was nowhere near my goal score. At times I felt distressed by this, but I just tried to focus on learning as much as possible and mastering the exam.

At the end of April, I had eight weeks left. I belatedly purchased UWorld access. I recommend that you purchase UWorld in the beginning, but more on my “regrets” later. I created a regimented plan that would ensure I’d complete all the AAMC material by my test date. You should save your AAMC material for last, as testing companies have different styles, and you want to make sure you’re acclimated to true MCAT-style questions before your exam. Here’s how my plan looked from my Instagram stories:

SB: AAMC Section Bank  QP: AAMC Question Pack

SB: AAMC Section Bank

QP: AAMC Question Pack

As you can see, I didn’t just schedule in my studies. I also planned out the days I was attending graduations, my birthday, volunteering, work days, Eid, and working on my application. When you create a plan, make sure to factor in all your other activities so that you don’t get overwhelmed.

may - june

I implemented the plan in the photo above. I began working through all the AAMC material, consistently feeling distressed if I wasn’t performing as well as I wanted to. At times, I needed to take a step back, regroup, and approach my studies again with new energy. I cried a lot. I reviewed my Anki cards every day. Even in the evenings when I was spending time with my husband watching TV, I would work through my flashcards. This was a great way of mastering low-yield information, and was especially important for Psychology/Sociology, which is what I primarily used Anki for.

At the end of May, I took the first scored AAMC practice exam. I didn’t do nearly as well as I expected and probably dehydrated myself crying. I felt completely inconsolable, because it seemed like I hadn’t made any progress at all since my previous practice exam. Looking back, I realize that when I sat through the exam, I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I should have, because I expected the AAMC exam to be easier than the NextStep exams I was used to. It was a sobering reality check.

For the next couple of weeks, I read through the 300-page Khan Academy document I linked above, which is a summary someone created of all the Psychology/Sociology Khan Academy videos. I made flashcards for all the concepts I hadn’t yet covered. I was determined to fill any gaps in knowledge I had so that I wouldn’t lose easy points. I highly recommend reading this document earlier than I did, diligently creating flashcards, and reviewing it regularly. It has pretty much everything you need to know in it for the P/S section on the MCAT. I also discovered it on Reddit, which is another reason you should frequent the MCAT Reddit (responsibly - don’t procrastinate). Take the suggestions you find! You may not want to do everything exactly how I did, and that’s fine. Personally, I synthesized a bunch of the advice I read after perusing a variety of self-study plans.

I decided to mentally reject the score I got on the first AAMC exam. I was sure it wasn’t representative of my true capabilities and that I just needed to change my mindset. I silenced my doubts and kept going. I started using UWorld as heavily as I could, working through the Chemistry, Physics, and Organic Chemistry questions, as I felt those were my weak points. Though I took Orgo fairly recently, I hadn’t touched Physics and Chemistry in years before the MCAT, so I needed to keep practicing to nail down concepts I was shaky on.

Two weeks before the MCAT, I caught a virus. I was due to take my second AAMC practice exam, but I was in no condition to do so. My throat was so swollen and sore that it was excruciating. My body ached terribly, and I missed Eid prayers. I still had so much I wanted to go over and I could barely sit up or focus on anything. I scaled back my study plans, took painkillers, got a ton of rest, gargled to soothe my throat, and did some light studying - reading, reviewing concepts, and completing a few practice questions when I felt up to it (Anki, UWorld, and the 300-page Khan Academy document). Mostly, I let myself rest. In a way, getting sick was good for me, because it reminded me of how valuable my health is. I felt so grateful to recover that I appreciated being able to study again and could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

On the first day that I felt physically sound, I took the second AAMC practice exam. I scored within my goal range, and I felt incredibly relieved. I spent the next few days reviewing it and covering whatever remaining content I needed to. I took the final AAMC practice exam three days before my real MCAT, and performed well again. I was feeling burnt out and needed to soldier through the final days.

Should you study on the day before your exam? Some people say that you should take the day off, try to relax, and that nothing you learn on the last day could be that useful. I’m not one of those people. I honestly couldn’t fathom not reviewing anything on the last day. I spent my Friday going over Orgo mechanisms in depth, having slacked on my Orgo review throughout MCAT prep since I just took the class last year. I did as many Physics questions on UWorld as I felt comfortable doing without exhausting myself. I think this was worthwhile for me. If anything, it gave me confidence. If you’re feeling significantly anxious, I think you should devote several hours to relaxation on the day before.

test day

The night before test day, I meditated, prayed, went to bed early, and committed to clearing my mind of all anxiety and doubt. I did not want to wake up feeling sleep deprived, which will impact your ability to perform well. Thankfully, I slept restfully, but I woke up feeling extremely jittery. I did a ten minute high intensity workout to get my blood flowing. I had committed to not having coffee, because I didn’t want caffeine to exacerbate any existing anxiety.

Kyle, my husband, drove me to the test center and encouraged me on the way there. He waited in the testing center with me until it was time for me to go inside and get situated. Having that emotional support really calmed me down - take someone who can be a source of warmth and encouragement with you on test day!

I started off the exam panicking, but willed myself to calm down, and I did. I worked through the test as quickly and efficiently as I could. Nerves did not get the best of me. I packed plant-based food (duh) and did jumping jacks and push-ups during the scheduled breaks to keep myself sharp and energized. When I was finished with the exam, I couldn’t believe I was actually done!

on test day

  1. Dress comfortably.

  2. Eat a light, healthy lunch.

  3. Exercise transforms your brain. Go for a brisk walk in the morning to get your blood flowing, and do some gentle movement during breaks.

  4. Believe in yourself!

must-dos

  1. Be honest with yourself. Don’t just review incorrect answers shallowly and think, “I’ll definitely get that correct next time.” Don’t shy away from difficult concepts. I know it’s uncomfortable to confront material that you don’t understand because it shakes your confidence, but unless you commit to mastering as much material as possible, you won’t meet your goals. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t understand something, watch YouTube videos to review, use UWorld practice problems, derive the formulas - do as much as you can to solidify the concept!

  2. Take breaks when you need them. Sometimes, I just needed time off from studying. I wish I hadn’t spent so much energy stressing about the time I was taking off when I tried to relax. There needs to be a clear delineation between work and relaxation so that you can enjoy your breaks and build up the energy to continue studying.

  3. Once you’ve studied, mindset is everything. You must get your mind in the right place. I thought my real MCAT was similar in difficulty to the practice exams, but plenty of people report that it’s “harder.” I think this is likely because of nervousness on test day. Commit to a meditation practice and figure out how you’ll handle bouts of anxiety.

  4. Maintain healthy habits. Don’t stop exercising or eating well because you’re single-mindedly devoted to studying. In addition to being important for your physical and mental health, exercise and a healthy diet will ensure you’re clear-minded for productive study sessions.

things I would do differently

Though my study plan was effective, there are two things I would do differently if I could start over again.

  1. Buy UWorld access early, and complete all the questions. UWorld has incredible explanations, and its questions are very similar to AAMC-style questions. Anytime I got anything incorrect, I would create an Anki flashcard. The UWorld MCAT question bank contains almost 2000 questions. I wish I had started earlier so I could’ve completed all the questions - my time was limited, so I focused on Physics, Chemistry, and Orgo. I recommend interspersing your content review with questions from UWorld. I obviously can’t be sure, but I think I could’ve scored even higher had I done this.

  2. Begin studying Anki flashcards earlier. I didn’t start reviewing my Anki cards daily until May. I can’t sing Anki’s praises enough. It spaces out your flashcard review and categorizes them based on how well you know them. I plan to use Anki in medical school, and might even change my current study methods to center Anki.

I hope this guide helps! I tried to pack as many tips as possible into this detailed post, but if you have any questions, feel free to email me or comment below. I know you’re going to do great. I’m so grateful to be over the hump, but it took a lot of work to get here. Do the work, take care of yourself, face your uncertainties, and you’ll make it through!

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