Friday, January 13, 2012

How to Study for the MCAT

A screenshot of the Mental Case flashcard software for Mac OS X.

4/15/13 UPDATE: All of my MCAT flashcards are now priced at $14.99 for 3,499 cards.

6/30/12 UPDATE: All of the MCAT Flashcards I created when preparing for the MCAT are now available for purchase from my online store here.

This post is for anyone interested in information / advice / helpful tips for effectively preparing for the MCAT, but will also cover a really great tool for studying in general - an app called Mental Case. It's by far the best study tool available to students who have an Apple device (computer, iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch). I've been asked by several people for some tips or suggestions on how to prepare for the MCAT, so hopefully this will help you if that's something you need.

I'll start with a number of disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: While you don't need an iPad to follow this method of MCAT preparation, having one is a definite plus - both in preparing for the MCAT and for life beyond it. Nobody likes carrying around thousands of paper notecards bound in six-inch bundles when they can have everything instantly accessible in a thin little device.

Disclaimer #2: This is by no means the ONLY way to go about preparing for the MCAT. It has simply worked really well for me; I used it, did well on the MCAT, and got into med school. THAT being said, it might be more appropriate for some people than others. It helped me carry my study materials with me, which allowed me to study more frequently than I would have been able to if I had used large, cumbersome study materials all the time.

Disclaimer #3a: Do NOT attempt this method of preparation if you are not a highly self-motivated individual (though I suppose the same might be said about medical school in general...). If you need to be in a classroom of people and need that competitive atmosphere to spur yourself on to success, I would recommend forking over the $1,200 to take a Kaplan prep course over a semester or two. This method is for the busy, possibly working and/or nontraditional do-it-yourselfer. It would also work well for busy students that weren't able to have an easy academic year while preparing for the MCAT.

Disclaimer #3b: Just because you don't have an iPad (or might not be able to invest in one) that doesn't mean this won't work for you. The only difference will be the old-fashioned method of flashcards instead of using Mental Case, as described below. Also, as I will mention later, the software is available for Mac laptops for only $20, so that's definitely another iPad-less route.

Basically, I WOULD recommend this preparation method for anyone who:

1.) Has a limited amount of free time (like your average non-trad who's in class in the mornings, working nights and studying late nights) or needs to cram their studying into broken, sporadic chunks of time,
2.) Hates carrying / can't carry around massive amounts of notecards and studying materials, or
3.) Loves using the benefits of technology to enhance their learning experience. It's my firm belief that physicians of the future will be required to incorporate technology to do their jobs effectively, so why not start now?

I separated my approach to preparing for the MCAT into three phases: an initial Assessment phase followed by two Study phases: Preparation and Practice.

  • Assessment:

    Before I even started studying for the MCAT, I wanted to get a baseline measurement of my level of preparedness. To do this, I took the free practice MCAT offered by AMCAS. This is actually an old MCAT exam that's no longer in use. It's the exact same in quality and format as any of the paid practice tests, except it's free. All of the practice MCATs offered online are in the same format as the computerized MCAT taken at testing centers around the world.

    The results of the practice tests are incredibly useful. From my baseline test, I was able to identify the areas in which I was exceptionally shaky. When I took my baseline test, it had been seven years since I had studied the Physics and Inorganic Chemistry covered on the MCAT, so I knew I probably wouldn't score very high. Additionally, I had not even taken the Biology or some of the lab-based Organic Chemistry. The best thing about the practice test is that it breaks down each subject into subtopics or categories - like Atomic Structure, Acids and Bases, Thermodynamics, Newtonian Mechanics, etc., all within the Physics and Inorganic Chemistry section. It tells you how many you got right and wrong within each section. It also shows you the steps for how to do any problem so that you can easily and quickly correct any bad habits you might have.

    If your assessment test score is low, don't worry. I got a cumulative score of 25 on my first practice test. The one good thing about the science portions of the MCAT is that studying will drastically improve your score. The same is not usually true of the verbal reasoning / reading comprehension section; that's more of a test of your innate abilities, so the payoff for studying that section is usually not as big (according to my advisor), which makes sense. By the time I took the MCAT I had taken eight practice tests, doing all sections for all of the practice tests, my reading comprehension score only varied by one point across all of the tests, while my other scores drastically improved as I studied.

    Speaking of which, we're now at the first of two Study Phases:
  • Preparation:

    To prepare for studying, I purchased the Kaplan MCAT Prep textbooks. They're available here, but I got mine off of Craigslist from a guy who had enrolled in (and completed) an official Kaplan prep course. During the Preparation phase, I read through each of the science books cover to cover. Because I was happy with my reading comprehension score, I didn't really do much studying out of that book. I also felt that I was a pretty good writer, so I just focused on covering the Chemistry (Inorganic and Organic), Physics, and Biology in the textbooks. As I read through, I made notecards using an app called Mental Case. It is available on Mac OS X, the iPod/iPhone, and the iPad.

    Before I go any further, I need to say this: I understand that not everyone has an iPad or iPhone. However, I can't even count the number of times that I've spoken with a current med student and heard them say one of two things. It's always either, "I really wish I had an iPad. Everyone who has one says they're incredibly useful." or "I love using my iPad to study. I can do everything on it - annotate our coursepacks, make notecards, store textbooks - EVERYTHING." I've heard variations on this last one from students from multiple schools. Apparently if you don't have an iPad, you'll wish you did. Whether you're comfortable with technology or not (most apps are developed to be incredibly intuitive and user-friendly) having an iPad allows you to be much more effective and productive. Apparently, making the most of your time is key when you're a med student, which means that the purchase of an iPad will most likely be a wise investment in your education.

    I can't state this enough: this app made it SO MUCH EASIER to study for the MCAT. As I went through the Kaplan books, I made notecards for everything from definitions and equations to practice questions and answers. Users are also given access to thousands of notecards made publicly available for FREE through Flashcard Exchange and They have categories for everything from Biochemistry to Medical Spanish to the USMLE - and it's all free! So if you get sick of making your own flashcards, chances are you'll be able to find fresh quizzing material pretty quickly.

    I am currently planning on writing a review of Mental Case, focusing specifically on how you can use it to study for the MCAT and med school in general. The OS X version is available for $20 through the App Store on your mac, and is just beautiful. Click here to find out more about the Mac version, here to find out more about the iPad version, and here to find out more about the iPhone/iPod Touch version.

    Let me just give you an idea of what Mental Case is like on the iPad. It's similar on the Mac and iPhone, just with slightly different layouts and features. You can store your notes in cases (folders) by topic, nesting them by sub-topic if you'd like. Here's an image of the main view of my Mental Case app after I downloaded some free notecards (Amino Acids, Biochem, USMLE) to show on here. Also shown are my leftover notecards from Analytical Chemistry from last semester:
    I tend to organize my cards by subject, then subtopic. For example, here are my cases for Analytical Chemistry:
    Notice, you see the cards in the background when a specific case is selected. This allows you to sort through the cards in a case, flicking with your finger to move from one card to the next, as shown below:
    If you tap on a specific card, it moves aside to show you the "back" of the card. This is really helpful when you're trying to find a specific picture, or if you're just idly flipping through and quizzing yourself. It's especially nice because it allows you to see the front and the back at the same time.
    Mental Case allows you to study a slideshow of the notecards in a selected case by pressing the Play button, then selecting your parameters. Though they're greyed out in the example below, you can add cases to a Lesson, allowing you to gather larger amounts together for strategic studying. I made Lessons of specific topics that I wanted to focus on when studying for the MCAT. I also do this when preparing for an exam. Mental Case keeps track of which notecards in the Lesson you've studied recently, cycling through them on a user-defined basis, e.g., intensely, daily, weekly, monthly, etc. Once you see a card (and get it right) when viewing a Lesson, you won't see it again until the next time it's scheduled to come up. In this case though, I just wanted to view the cards in that case for a quick, impromptu session:
    Mental Case then switches to a full-screen view showing you the content of the note. It shows you the controls for a couple seconds, fading them out once you begin. It allows you to tap certain areas of the screen to continue to the next card, go back to the last card or face, say that you got the card right (check mark), or say that you got the card wrong (x). You can tap these regions of the screen, or use the buttons at the bottom of the screen to do each command.
    One of the best features about Mental Case is that it remembers which cards you get right and which ones you get wrong. Just like a study partner putting the cards that you get wrong in one pile and the cards you get right in another pile, Mental Case will remember which ones you get wrong and give them to you more frequently. Basically, it keeps a tally in the background for each card, giving you +1 for each time you get a card right and -1 each time you get it wrong. Cards with more positive scores appear less frequently, and cards with more negative scores appear more frequently. Below is an example of the back of the above card for Serine. If I realized I got the card wrong, I would tap the lower left area of the card (or the red X at the bottom), and continue with the stack.
    Anyway, this is the absolute best way to study using an iPad, iPod, iPhone, or a Mac laptop. You can easily sync between all devices using Bluetooth or a WiFi connection. It's a piece of cake to share flashcards, too. You can email notes directly from the app, and can even share from one device to another to give cards to a friend. Putting photos (and audio too - you can record your voice reciting a pneumonic device and have that be the backside to a flashcard, for example) onto cards is easy and fast. The app allows you to crop and automatically rerenders photos to minimize file size.

    It's hard to feel like I've said enough about this app and everything that it can do. I was constantly pulling this out to study here and there while preparing for the MCAT, and the best thing of all was that I didn't have to carry around a case of notecards, sorting through them to study a particular topic. One of my favorite features of the app is that all of the notecards are SEARCHABLE. That's right - no more sifting through two hundred cards for the one that shows the structure for molecular structure X. You just type the word you're looking for into the white oval-shaped search box at the top of the app, and it immediately shows all the cards containing that word. If there were a function that sealed the deal for me with this app, it was that. Any time I was wondering about something, I had the answer at my fingertips as quick as it took to type it in.

    As a quick aside, I'd like to mention the app entitled "MCAT Question a Day." It offers great practice questions, one for each day. If you have an Apple device, I highly recommend this app. It also allows you to go backward and practice questions from previous days. Plus, it's free!

    All right, back to my study model. Once you've reviewed your trouble subjects, gone back through the books, made your flashcards of facts, equations, molecular structures, and sample problems, it's time to start practicing.

  • Practice:

    I practiced by doing two different activities:

    1. Going through flashcards that I'd made on Mental Case, which included chemical reactions, physics problems, molecular structures, everything you can possibly think of that might be applied on the MCAT.

    2. Taking the purchased practice MCAT exams from AMCAS. I found this to be most effective by doing everything I could to replicate the settings for the actual MCAT. This meant that each Saturday for months leading up to the big day, I designated five hours for the test. I took my laptop to a quiet study room and took the timed test. The practice tests allow you to take them untimed, or to stop a section and continue it later on. For my tests, I kept the timing settings just like the would be in the actual MCAT. I usually finished in about 4-4.5 hours, depending on if I took the suggested breaks in between sections. At the end, I would review my areas of weakness, going over the problems I had gotten wrong and looking at the correct answers and help sections.

    When going over the practice MCAT exam results, I would make a list of the areas that I felt I needed to focus on in studying. If I didn't have any notecards that covered that topic, or if the ones I had didn't do a great job of covering the topic, I would look in the books or in the online flashcard databases for cards and practice problems that did a better job. Unfortunately I didn't have the material from when I actually took some of the General Physics and Inorganic Chemistry, but I made do.

    And that's my method for preparing for the MCAT, summed up into these steps:

    1. Take the free MCAT to assess your strengths and weaknesses.

    2. Go through the Kaplan MCAT prep books.

    3. Make flashcards of everything using whatever method works best for you - though I highly recommend Mental Case software.

    4. After studying everything hard, start taking one purchased AMCAS practice MCAT each week.

    5. Shore up the weak areas identified in the practice exams by further focusing and improving your study materials.

    By the time the MCAT arrives, your test scores should be at a level with which you're comfortable. In speaking with other people who have taken the MCAT and with my advisor, the score that most students get on the real MCAT is usually lower than their highest practice test score. This was the case with me as well, but I was still content enough with my final score that I didn't end up taking it a second time.

    Hopefully that helps you out if you were feeling daunted by the seemingly insurmountable task that is preparing for the MCAT. There's a light at the end of the tunnel; just take things piece by piece and you'll get there! Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have, or simply comment below if you just have something to say!

    eventuallydrb said...

    Wow, I REALLY hope I remember to come back to this post when it's my time to study for the MCAT.

    This post obviously took a lot of time and effort, thanks for making it!

    Michael Corrao said...

    Super nice resource, I will definitely recommend that app to my readers.

    Mike said...

    Great job on this post! Very detailed and helpful!

    Anonymous said...

    would it be possible to get the flash cards you have already made for mcat onto my iPhone or MacBook mental case account? I would like to look through and see what I can use?

    Justin said...

    @Anonymous - Right now (4/18/12) the only notecards that are available online are the organic chemistry cards. You can download a sample case, or purchase individual cases on my store if you would like to just try a couple topics out. I am working to get the rest (inorganic chemistry, physics, biology, etc.) set up as products to be able to offer them online as well.

    Feel free to try out the free case offered on my store. The quality and type of content displayed in those notecards is pretty characteristic of most of the other cases available for sale.

    Fatima said...

    Quick question, with the example you shown with Serine, did you get a photo and paste it on the flashcard? And have you heard of cMAP?

    * quickly going to get more info on mental case *

    Justin said...

    @Fatima - actually, I was wrong with my response - sorry about that. The example you were talking about was a card that I had downloaded in a free set on amino acids through the quizlet exchange server built into Mental Case. I used to make notecards by taking screenshots of parts of presentations from lecture, and I had forgotten that I had downloaded those cards.

    That being said, Mental Case does have the ability to add screenshots or image files into notecards, along with audio prompts.

    Corinne Selene said...

    Did you have a particular study schedule? Number of days per week/ hours per day/ months before test?

    Corinne Selene said...

    Did you have a particular study schedule...days per week/hours per day/ how many months before the test did you start?

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