For many aspiring doctors, the MCAT appears like Mount Everest in the distance: massive, mythic, and barely conquerable even for the strong. While it’s not quite Mount Everest, there’s no denying that the MCAT is very, very high stakes. It takes a whopping 7 hours and 30 minutes to complete, it covers an incredible amount of content, and it demands aptitude and skills across a wide variety of subjects. As if that’s not enough pressure, the AAMC does not encourage retakes — nor do most med school advisors.
But there is plenty that you can (and should) do to prepare for the MCAT, starting by deciding for yourself that you will not let one test stand between you and your MD. Noodle Pros Utsab Das and Doug McLemore are top MCAT tutors; here, they share 100 ways to improve your score, from classic test-taking strategies to specific areas of content in which to focus.
During the Test
1. Keep track of time. Don’t constantly check the timer, but be aware of how far you are on the test and how much time has passed. This helps ensure that you answer every question.
2. Pace yourself to score better. You have 95 minutes for your science sections and 90 minutes for CARS. Go too fast and you’ll miss information, make careless errors, and end up with a lower score. Go too slow and you won’t finish. So develop your pacing with plenty of practice.
3. Use your noteboards. The AAMC gives you noteboards for a reason. You don’t need to write an essay, but you should take some notes, write down equations, and organize your thoughts.
4. Summarize as you read. You may want to begin developing this skill by writing down paraphrases while reading, and later move on to doing the same process in your head.
5. If you’re a slow reader or low on time, read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. You’ll likely revisit the passage anyway when answering the questions, so don’t get stuck on your first readthrough — especially if you’re short on time.
6. Use the process of elimination. There are more wrong answers than right. Identify and eliminate the wrong to increase your chances of choosing the right.
7. Choose the BEST answer out of the ones given. Even if none of the answers seems right, one must be correct. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it only needs to be better than the rest.
8. Watch out for trap answers. The MCAT loves putting in answers that seem appealing, but are just a little off. Listen to your inner Admiral Ackbar to avoid these.
9. Read (and understand) the question stems. Misreading the question is a common mistake made by test-takers, especially when they are rushing. Make sure that you have read each question fully, and that you understand the task at hand.
10. Answer in your own words BEFORE looking at the answers. This is a tried and true standardized test technique. Once you’ve come up with your own answer, look at the ones given and use process of elimination to select the best option.
11. Leave complex questions for last. These include Roman numeral questions, EXCEPT/LEAST/NOT questions, and question with long stems. These give you just as many points as straightforward questions, but generally take longer to answer.
12. Check for information at the end of paragraphs. As we read long passages, our brains tend to skip the ends of paragraphs to access new information in the following ones. The MCAT exploits this tendency by placing pertinent information in these blind spots.
13. Highlight judiciously — but don’t turn your screen into a yellow blob. Highlight keywords and phrases, both in the passage and in questions.
14. Strikethrough answers you KNOW are incorrect. This helps build your confidence as you move forward in the test.
15. Don’t get stuck on one problem. There are many hard questions on the MCAT. Don’t let a single challenging question stop you from progressing through the test. The easy questions give you just as many points.
16. Answer all of the questions in a passage before moving on to the next. It takes a lot of time to come back and reread a passage, so complete every question for each passage. If you have time at the end, return to the easier passages that you guessed on.
17. Inform Test Administrators of any issues . If you’re experiencing technical difficulties, be sure to tell someone; the testing center staff may not automatically know. Don’t waste time sitting and waiting for the test to start again. Raise your hand.
18. Take all the breaks. The MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint. The breaks give you an opportunity to stretch, walk around, and decompress. Use them fully.
19. Utilize your respiratory system. Take a deep breath before you start your test, and any time you feel anxious or stressed.
20. Don’t panic. While some amount of anxiety is expected, try not to let it overwhelm you. You have studied and prepared for this.
21. Be certain that you actually want to take the MCAT. Before you start anything, ask yourself if being a doctor is truly what you want to do. Studying for the MCAT is a hefty time commitment, and many students discover part of the way through that medicine is not their true calling. If, after plentiful self-reflection, you come to that conclusion, great! No more MCAT! If, after taking the time to think, you feel even more driven towards med school, also great! Time to get prepping.
22. Start Early. You cannot cram for the MCAT. You need time to develop the skills and knowledge to tackle this test, so don’t procrastinate!
23. Review the content. The MCAT is an incredibly content heavy standardized test. Being a good test taker will help immensely, but no amount of test taking skill can overcome a lack of knowledge.
24. Do Practice Passages. Taking the MCAT is not just about knowing the content, but also about being able to analyze new information. Developing this skill is like learning a sport; you need to practice to get better, and you need to keep practicing to maintain your skills.
25. Get professionally written materials. While there may be some solid MCAT questions written in online blogs and guides, your practice passages and tests should come from reputable sources. Take your time to research materials, and/or talk with your tutor to find the best resources. This is generally not the time to be thrifty.
26. Take a prep course. There are many prep courses out there that teach content and come with plentiful materials. If this is something you’re looking for, and if you do well in a classroom setting, do some research and sign up for one.
27. Be familiar with the tools on the computer-based test. Know how to use all of the different features well before test day, including strikethroughs, highlighting, and marking.
28. Select your test date. When choosing your test date, take into consideration how long you need to study, what obligations you have, and any other relevant factors in your life (think exams and assignments, major family events, upcoming vacations, etc.)
29. Create a study plan. Use your test date and your schedule to determine how much time you can dedicate to MCAT prep, then follow those tasks. If unforeseen circumstances come up, readjust the plan. This is your battle strategy against the MCAT.
30. Set realistic score goals. Everyone would like a 528, but it’s unlikely that you will get one on your first try. Instead of aiming for the highest score possible, take a practice test to set your starting point; use that score to set the goal for your next practice test, and rinse and repeat until test day.
31. Practice under test-taking conditions. The more you practice in actual test-like conditions, the easier time you’ll have on test day. Which leads us to…
32. Let the conditions be imperfect. Though MCATs are given in a controlled testing center, people are often tapping their pencils and squirming in their seats during the test — not to mention clicking and scrolling. So don’t find a perfectly quiet place to practice. If there’s an annoying clock or someone whispering near your table at the library, use those distractions to experiment with and enhance your focus.
33. Review your problems and tests. Don’t just look at your score or accuracy. Go well beyond that by reviewing each question you missed, as well as any questions and passages you marked as difficult. Ask yourself if you lost points because of a tricky passage, or because of a lack of content knowledge.
34. Periodically revisit previously learned content. The material will not stay in your head if you learn it once and move on. You will need repeat readings to keep the knowledge fresh and to solidify the main concepts.
35. Change your approach. If a group of scientists created an experiment protocol but could not get high product yield, how would they solve the problem? By changing their approach! Apply this same principle to your MCAT preparation.
36. REVIEW & EVALUATE your practice tests. Don’t just do test after test after test. Review what you did to identify what worked and what didn’t work. Repeat what worked, and adjust what didn’t.
37. List your common errors. Find your weaknesses, note them down, then tackle them head on.
38. Create flashcards. There are several things you will need to have memorized in order to do well on the MCAT. Creating and using flashcards is a great way to commit content to memory.
39. Take plenty of practice tests. Once again, the MCAT is a marathon of a test. You need endurance to run marathons. and endurance is earned through a detailed training regimen. Taking practice tests is the best way to become acclimated to the MCAT’s extreme conditions. By taking full-length mock exams, you’ll make test day feel like a regular part of your routine.
40. See if you qualify for accommodations. According to the ADA, all individuals must be given equal opportunities to demonstrate mastery — including those with disabilities and/or temporary medical conditions (students with learning disabilities/ADHD, Crohn’s disease, broken legs, nursing mothers, etc.) MCAT accommodations are individualized based on need, but often include time extensions, in which part of your test is on the first day and the rest is on the second day, and stop-the-clock breaks, in which you may pause the test, take a break, then come back. If you think you might qualify for accommodations, you’ll need to follow the appropriate steps outlined by the AAMC (and be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to apply).
41. List the classes you’ve taken. Your selection of pre-med courses may not have covered all of the topics that are tested on the MCAT. If you still plan on pushing forward with your test date, be sure to give yourself some extra time to learn this new material.
42. Know your learning style. Do you study effectively on your own, or do you prefer the structure of a classroom setting? Do you retain information best by reading texts, or do you learn more by watching videos? Most likely, it’s a combination of these; choose the ones that work for you.
43. Study with people. Study partners and study groups can help you understand difficult topics, can ensure that you have not missed anything, and can provide some (very necessary) moral support.
44. Teach someone else what you learned. The best way to show mastery of a subject is to fully explain it to another person. If you are not studying in groups, grab a friend or family member and teach them something new.
45. Rewrite your notes from memory. After you’ve learned a new concept, take a blank sheet of paper and try to write down everything you learned. Do this again after some time away from this new concept. This process will help improve your long-term memory of these subjects.
46. Get a qualified tutor. In addition to having strong content knowledge and test taking experience, experienced tutors can diagnose the areas in which you need to focus your energies, and can show you exactly how to get the highest score improvement.
47. Physiology: You should have a thorough understanding the various systems of the body (you will also need to have this to be an effective physician).
48. Cellular Biology: Since you (and all organisms) are made of cells, the MCAT, unsurprisingly, tests you on cells, including different types, transport systems, organelles, and signaling methods.
49. Microbiology: The human body is susceptible to many forms of illness, and these are often caused by bacteria and viruses. Be familiar with these microorganisms.
50. Genetics: You will need to know a fair amount of genetics, including DNA processes, gene expression, Mendelian genetics, and many other topics.
51. Biotechnology: Various biotechnology methods, many of which you may have performed in a lab, will be on the MCAT, including DNA recombination, PCR, various blotting methods, and SDS-PAGE. Familiarize yourself with what each method does and when to use it.
52. Amino Acids: You need to know your amino acids. That means side chains, abbreviations, and unique properties of each.
53. Enzyme Kinetics: You need to know the three basic types of inhibition: competitive, noncompetitive, and uncompetitive, and how they affect Km and Vmax.
54. Biochemical Pathways: There are numerous pathways you need to know for the MCAT. Be sure to hit them all before your test.
55. Biomolecules: This includes carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. Know their structure, function, and biological relevance.
56. Plasma Membrane: Know the four key components — phospholipids, cholesterol, proteins, and carbohydrates — as well as how the structure of the membrane affects processes like transport, communication, and reproduction.
57. Structure and Stability: Understand the hierarchy of both stereo and electronic effects on the stability of molecules: aromaticity > conjugation > induction > sterics.
58. Functional Group Activity: Being able to recognize functional groups, the types of reactions they do, and the functional groups they produce can eliminate many answer choices.
59. Isomerism: This is an exercise in identification of categories and knowing all of the synonyms involved. For example, constitutional, structural, and skeletal isomers are all types of regioisomers. Know your conformational and configurational isomers as well.
60. Organic Lab Techniques: It’s most important to understand what property each technique uses for separation and identification, as well as the types of molecules for which a technique is effective.
61. Carbonyl Chemistry: Understand the two basic carbonyl mechanisms, nucleophilic addition (ketones and aldehydes) and nucleophilic addition-elimination (carboxylic acids and their derivatives), as well as how alpha-acidity affects the progress of these mechanisms.
62. Periodic Table and Trends: Not only should you be very familiar with the Periodic Table, but you should also know the periodic trends.
63. Thermodynamics: Understanding the movement of energy is very important. You should know the Laws of Thermodynamics, Gibbs Free Energy, Enthalpy, and Entropy.
64. Intermolecular Forces: Intermolecular Forces (IMF) are not only seen in GChem but also in OChem and Biology. Be sure to know the strength relationship between them: ionic bonding (salts) > hydrogen bonding (polar protic) > dipole forces (polar aprotic) > dispersion forces (nonpolar).
65. Acids and Bases: There is no more ubiquitous topic that exists on the MCAT. Focus on the understanding of relative acidity and basicity as well as the relationship between strong and weak acids and bases. Calculation of pH is not all that important.
66. Electrochemistry: Many biological processes use oxidation and reduction reactions. You must know the fundamentals behind these as covered in general chemistry, such as identifying redox reagents, finding oxidation numbers, and determining electrochemical potentials.
67. Kinematics and Dynamics: You need to know about motion and how forces create motion. This includes knowing the Big Five Kinematics Equations, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and many others. You will also want to know how to solve questions via free body diagrams.
68. Potential Energy, Kinetic Energy, and Work: Among the most important Physics concepts, work and energy can be factored into almost any concept on the MCAT. Always watch for the relationship between energy conservation and work, a la the work energy theorem.
69. Fluids: More than half of the human body is made up of water, and, as such, fluids are highly tested on the MCAT. You’ll want to know about both hydrostatics (e.g. hydrostatic pressure, Archimedes principle) and hydrodynamics (e.g. fluid flow continuity, Bernoulli’s principle).
70. Electrostatics: The MCAT loves to include electrostatics questions as frequently as possible. Be able to recognize electrostatics whenever ionic species are present, even in Biology and Biochemistry passages. Also, make sure you recognize the difference between electric potential and electric potential energy.
71. Optics: Optics most often comes up on the MCAT with a slant towards eyesight. Make sure you know how lenses can be used to adjust for myopia and hyperopia.
Psychology and Sociology
72. Memorize terminology. You will need to be familiar with the terminology of both subjects.
73. Be sure to hit Sociology. The AAMC materials list many psychology topics, and state that 65% of the section is testing psychology. Ironically, since there is less sociology content to review, setting time aside to study sociology often leads to greater score increases than focusing on psychology alone.
74. Theories and Theoriticiatons: There are several questions that rely on your knowledge of which scientist and which of his or her theories is most relevant. Be sure to associate important psychologists and sociologists with the theories they proffered.
75. Understand experimental design: You should understand what makes one experiment more effective than another. Sample size, tested population, blind vs. double blind, and even statistical relevance (p scores) play a part of many questions (and not just in this section).
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section (CARS)
76. Don’t waste time on Hard Passages. Identify what makes a passage easier or harder for you, and then use that information to rank your passages. You don’t have to do the passages (or the questions) in order, so be judicious about which passages (and questions) are worth your time.
77. Additional Reading. Getting better at CARS is all about getting better at reading. As you prepare for the MCAT, read literature and other materials (in addition to sample CARS Passages) as you would an MCAT passage.
78. Practice your annotating & highlighting. Learn to distinguish between the important big picture points and the less-important details. Note the big points on your scratchboard, and then highlight important words & phrases in the passage. Be careful not to over-highlight!
79. Don’t waste time on Hard Questions. It is easy to get caught up on the hardest questions on CARS, because we know the answer is in the passage. However, don’t let this slow you down. If a problem is taking too long, guess and move on.
80. Practice CARS every day. The importance of CARS scores for medical school admission is well documented. Improving your CARS score depends heavily on adjusting your strategy for dealing with passages and questions. It can be very helpful to do two or three passages every day and really focus on your strategy.
81. Increase the number of CARS passages you do week by week. Starting off doing 20 CARS passages every day may not be that helpful. If you don’t have a chance to learn from your mistakes and change your approach, you’ll just be building bad habits. Increase the number of passages you tackle each day over time as you see your accuracy increase.
82. No outside knowledge. Unlike other sections of the MCAT, CARS sections have no outside knowledge needed. Even if they are about the sciences, all the necessary information is in the passage.
Day before the MCAT
83. Get a full night’s sleep. Stay away from screens for at least a half-hour before bed, and get to bed early.
84. Don’t change your routine. By now, you should have a consistent routine. Don’t deviate from it. The night before is not the time to break any habits, whether good or bad (the exception is staying up all night — that’s one bad habit you might want to break for MCAT day).
85. No (or very limited) studying. You’ve been studying for the MCAT for a long time. A few more hours will not make enough of a difference in your score, but could lead to much more anxiety and stress.
86. Pack everything you need for test day. Don’t wait for the morning of your test. Pack your bags with everything you need the night before (except perishables). Make sure you take your ID, snacks, a jacket, approved noise-cancelling equipment, and any other AAMC approved items.
87. Plan your route. Check to make sure there are no changes to your planned path to the testing center, such as re-routed Subway lines, lane closures, accidents, or other hazards.
Day of the MCAT
88. Show up early. Testing centers will not allow you to take your test if you are late.
89. Get up early enough to wake up your body. Studies have shown that as little as 10 minutes of cardiovascular exercise can have a significant impact on your mental efficacy.
90. Remember to wake up your brain. Don’t ‘warm up’ on your first section. Do a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, review your notes, or review a passage (or two) that you did well on. Focus on the strategies that you’re planning to employ.
91. Eat a healthy breakfast. Sugary cereals or candy bars are generally not a good idea, but a breakfast with a combination of fats, proteins, and carbs is ideal.
92. Check again to make sure that you have your ID. You can’t take the test without it.
93. Bring healthy snacks. What you eat during your test can impact your score. High-carb foods with simple sugars may give some short term energy, but they will lead to a crash later.
94. Wear comfortable clothes. Do not wear those pants that are horribly uncomfortable but look great. Wear the pants that make you feel fantastic (even if they’re not the most stylish).
95. Use the restroom before the test. Stress can easily cause an overactive bladder. Take preventative measures, and use the restroom beforehand.
After the MCAT
96. BREATHE. When you start to feel nervous – which can actually be a good thing! – remember to breathe deeply and just focus on your breath. The butterflies can help sharpen your focus, as long as you don’t let them get totally out of control.
97. Void your test only in specific situations. This is a brutal test, and very few people feel great after taking it. There are definitely circumstances in which you might want to void the test, but feeling exhausted is not one of them.
98. Do something fun. Have something planned for the weekend of you MCAT. This will give you something to look forward to, and it will help take your mind off your stressful experience. Besides, you deserve a nice reward after taking that awful test!
99. Talk to your tutor. Your tutor understands your abilities, knows the test, and has likely heard back from other students about their experiences. With this knowledge, your tutor can help you gauge how you did and how to proceed.
100. Wait for your scores. Unless you are certain you scored poorly (e.g. you couldn’t get to all the questions or you did not recognize many of the concepts on the test), you should wait for your scores before proceeding with anything. Don’t start studying again right away, but don’t throw away your prep materials either.
Utsab Das earned his BS in Biomedical Engineering from University of Texas at Austin, where he studied the application of science to real-world situations. As a test-taker who began with lower scores and worked his way up to high scores himself, Utsab knows exactly what it takes for MCAT students to learn something new and see results.
Doug McLemore has been an in-demand top MCAT tutor for decades, has been a college-level MCAT-prep instructor, and was a test developer at a major test prep company during the transition from the old MCAT to the new.