Unfortunately, this behavior leads to lackluster results on Test Day. The MCAT is a different animal entirely — you can’t just learn the content, you must master it.
Here are three studying strategies for the MCAT:
1. Take a multipass approach when reviewing your MCAT books.
Typically, when studying for a test, you might take notes as you go through your textbook, following that up with a final review of the material.
Not so on the MCAT.
You need to read through your MCAT books multiple times. Spaced repetition has been empirically shown to increase information recall significantly, so you need to take a spaced repetition approach to reviewing your MCAT books. Follow a pattern like this:
Day 1: First, skim the chapter to get a general sense of its content. Then carefully read through it, taking notes and highlighting just as you would a textbook.
Day 2: Off
Day 3: Go back to the chapter and complete the questions in or at the end of that chapter.
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Return to the chapter a third and final time and do one re-read, followed by re-answering the questions. You correctly answer 100 percent of them this time.
2. Make study sheets.
Flashcards are the old standby of MCAT memorization. They’re a reliable resource, and they certainly have their place. But real success on the exam requires weaving smaller bits of information into a larger whole rather than memorizing discrete little facts.
To that end, you should make study sheets. A study sheet is like one giant flashcard that summarizes all the need-to-know information on a single topic. A study sheet could consist of a table organizing all the hormones you must memorize, or a diagram of the nephron, or several figures showing a nerve cell and how an action potential works.
Once you’ve made your study sheet, blank out 25 percent of the info on it. That’s Blank Sheet #1. Then make Blank Sheet #2 by blanking out 50 percent of the info. Blank Sheet #3 should be 75 percent blanked out, and Blank Sheet #4 should simply be a blank piece of paper with a title at the top.
Start by filling in all of the blank spaces on Sheet #1; then compare it against the original study sheet. If you incorrectly fill in even one space, crumple the sheet up, print out a fresh copy, and start over. Once you can correctly fill in Sheet #1, move to #2, and then to#3. You will know you have truly mastered the material when you take a blank sheet of paper, #4, and re-create the entire study sheet solely from memory.
3. Give MCAT lectures to your study group (or your dog, your little sister, et al.)
I always tell my tutoring students, “Don’t learn the MCAT material as a student; learn it as if you were the MCAT teacher.”
After you’ve mastered your study sheets and your MCAT review books, give an impromptu lecture, out loud, without notes. You’ll know you’ve really mastered a topic when you can, entirely from recall, give an organized 10-minute lecture to your dog (who will remain a very attentive student if you’ve got Milkbones handy).
Master your MCAT content, then move on to full simulated practice exams, and you’ll be in great shape to earn a competitive score on Test Day.