GUEST BLOGGER: How to Study for the MCAT Without Tearing Out a Tree Stump by My Brother Dan

Happy Sunday morning! So happy to have my brother, Dan, write a little piece on how he studied for the MCAT. I hate to admit this as an older sister but my brother has always been an inspiration to me. No matter how much advice I'd given him for applying to medical school, he always reassured me that he would do it his way and would succeed- and he was right. Despite not having been accepted the first round of applications, he took the opportunity to beef up his resume, get married to the love of his life, and enjoy the perks of a gap year.

I have to admit, when I was reading this last night (before the inevitable daylight savings clock change), I was laughing by butt off by how humorous and real this was. My brother plans on writing another blog on how he applied to medical school. Hope you guys enjoy a little humor on this Sunday morning!

My favorite photo I've ever taken of my brother

Studying for the MCAT is not unlike studying for other tests. There’s tons of material to know, multiple choice questions to comb through, and Netflix when you inevitably give up on working on the first two. My goal was to try to gather the cheapest and most effective group of study materials I could find. If you asked Past-Dan why he couldn’t afford more expensive study materials, he might say something about how college is so expensive, but Present-Dan will admit that the new Pokemon game just came out and that was obviously the better purchase. I’ve probably sunk more time into that game than I spent studying, but I digress.

Background: I’ve studied and taken the MCAT twice during the lead-up to medical school, which I will begin this fall. The first time was the old format in spring of 2014 and the new format in spring of 2016. I scored a 29 on the old test (roughly the 78%) and a 512 on the new (roughly the 88%).

That MCAT grind during college

What is the MCAT and why is it so important?
  • The MCAT is the entrance exam for medical school, similar to how the ACT/SAT get you into undergrad. It’s roughly 7.5 hours or 1.40 seasons of Sherlock.
  • The old format was out of 45 with a median of 25 and a good score in the 28-32 range. A standard deviation is about 6 points. The test was based on biological science, physical science, and verbal reasoning.
  • The new format is out of 528 with a median of 500 and a good score in the 504-512 range. A standard deviation is about 10 points. The test was based on the three sections above with the addition of psychology/sociology and a greater emphasis on biochemistry, anatomy, and ethics.
  • Factored in with the GPA, these numbers allow medical schools to screen for applicants quantitatively.

How I studied: Round One
I originally began my studies about 4 months before my 2014 exam while in the spring semester of my junior year of college. Some may think that’s too short of a time period while others may say that’s too long. I thought it was just enough time for me to put on a blond wig and crawl into bed with some bears. I studied mostly out of a hand-me-down Examkrackers books given to me by my sister, but supplemented the holes in my understanding with class notes from the semester prior. The majority of the studying was done in the evenings and weekends between classwork and crying. I spent my time reading from the books and materials and paraphrasing the info into another notebook. I skipped practice exams until about a month and a half before the exam to avoid psyching myself out.

How I studied: Round Two
With the format change occurring after I took the first exam, I took my sweet ol’ time with prepping for Round Two. The new exam involved significantly more material, so I was going to take significantly more time to study for it. I actually liked the idea that there was more material to know if only because that indicated there was less of an emphasis on the nitty-gritty details of acid-base redox. I was carrying a full-time job and a part-time job, so I decided 8 months was the Goldilocks time. Was all that time necessary? No. Did my Bulbasaur need EV training? Yes. My primary resource was Khan Academy.  I was fortunate enough to have two jobs that allowed me to watch videos in the background. I would then try to repeat the information in my head until I had a chance to mentally regurgitate a childish interpretation of the material into my notebook. I took a practice exam 3 weeks before and 2 weeks before. The main thing I changed between my first and second exams was the emphasis I put on practicing passages. Even though I felt I knew the material, the challenge was in integrating my knowledge with what the exam was asking of me.

Main Resources:
  • Examkrackers book set: individual books for each section of the test and a few practice tests.
  • Khan Academy: hundreds of videos and practice sections on all of the topics. This resource at the time was the only one officially supported by the AAMC. (and was also free online. Thank you, Sal Khan. If you’re ever in town, let me buy you a sandwich.)
  •  Social support: Don’t underestimate how valuable talking to someone is. I’m talking about anyone and not just other people studying for the test. I spent a lot of time talking to my wife about the material and she doesn’t study the sciences. It was just nice having someone there to give me cookies.
  • Pull-up bar: I got really distracted and I thought it would be a good idea to get ripped while studying. I couldn’t do many pull-ups, so I strategically spent less time being distracted.
  • Study Tip: Don’t listen to advice on the internet. Aside from consulting a school’s website for a general score range, don’t put too much focus on other people’s experiences with the test and admissions. How can I say to not listen to advice on the internet and proceed to give you advice over the internet? I’ll tell you right now that listening to me might not do you any good. That’s ok. Relax and you’ll do fine. Or not. What do I know?

Using Khan Academy
Many students studying for the MCAT struggle with where to begin and how to keep momentum moving. For that reason, online Kaplan courses have been popular for having students adhere to a schedule and giving structured guidance to the process. Khan Academy offers you a similar structure in studying, but for free. I set loose deadlines for when I wanted to complete each segment of videos and took the corresponding sections of practice passages whenever I felt my confidence level was too high and I needed to be knocked down a peg. There were plenty of practice passages, and more than enough material to drown me in science. I placed my focus on understanding the passage rather than focusing completing passages within the recommended time range. While Khan Academy lacked full-length exams, both Kaplan and AAMC offered truncated practice exams for free that I found more stressful than the actual exam. If for whatever reason you felt there wasn’t enough material on Khan Academy, the AAMC also offers practice passages for a small fee.

Test time advice
  • Plan your study schedule to finish early. I finished studying the material two months before my exam and spent the remaining time practicing passages. I avoided studying the day before the exam and spent my day disc golfing.
  • Get a full night’s sleep. I went to bed a full 9 hours before I needed to get up. Unfortunately I let my nerves get the best of me and only had two quality hours of sleep during that time. Don’t do that. I must’ve slept for 4 hours after that test, though.
  • Test morning should involve no surprises. I woke up, had some eggs and tea for breakfast, and packed a ham sandwich for the exam. Easy. The exam building was down the street from my house and I visited the place the day before. The most surprising part of my morning was listening to The Martian on audiobook and finding out Mark Watney killed Dumbledore.
  • Take your time. You may finish some sections early. You may not use your full break time. You may decide you peed your pants already and don’t need to take that bathroom break as planned. I would recommend working up until the last minute with everything and relaxing if there’s a spare moment. I ended up meditating before going into my final two sections after lunch. I walked back into the test room feeling rested and confidant and knocked the last sections out of the park.
  • Pretend someone who doesn’t think you know what you’re talking about is reading the critical reading section to you. Try it. As soon as you imagine someone doubts your ability to get the right answer, you’ll feel the need to prove him/her wrong. It works best with someone you’re trying to impress. For me, that was my wife. She’s so smart.


Preparation for this test may be the most challenging thing you’ve ever done. If that’s the case, then you might need more challenging experiences to dilute the pool. While this test was made to be a tape measure for your qualifications as a medical professional, it should become increasingly apparent that it is more a measure of your ability to manage stress and make progress. Yes, the test is difficult, but to believe you are anything less than capable only hinders your growth as a scholar. Smile and relish the challenge because there’s nothing unusual about yelling at your computer.


Finding Your Future Career

First off, huge thanks to Amanda for letting me share my thoughts with you guys on this lovely blog! My name is Joyce and I'm a dermatology resident in New York City. I run a skincare and beauty blog at where I mostly write about skin and medicine (with occasional travel and fashion thrown in!), but I also have a Path to MD series dedicated to premeds navigating the long journey of becoming a physician. I remember being in those shoes not long ago and I felt so lost ... so often. I hope that some of you may find reading about my experiences and advice useful!

This post is going to center around how to choose your future specialty, a topic near and dear to my heart because it defined my fourth year of medical school. In fact, the very first post of my revamped Tea with MD blog was written about this subject. It was March 18, 2013, and I had just attended Stanford's Match Day ceremony. I felt so nervous and lost about what field I was going to apply in the next year, so I talked it out in a blogpost. Little did I know at that time that I was going to do a complete 180, just a few months later, switching into dermatology, and having the most stressful year of my life applying. If you're curious about that story, you can read more here. Now that it is all behind me and I'm more than halfway done with dermatology residency, here are some of the things that I personally think will help you out when making the huge decision of what you want to do with your life.

Link to this funny cartoon of 12 medical specialty stereotypes:

1. Personal interest. This goes without saying but sometimes when you're a type A medical student who is used to always striving for the best, you get blinders on and you don't take a step back to see whether or not you actually ENJOY what you're doing. Do you like the day to day tasks that come with a certain specialty? Do you feel intellectually stimulated by the research done in this field? Do you enjoy studying the topics of your field? (Because trust me you will be studying A LOT for the rest of your life...:P) I find myself actually being excited to go to lecture and grand rounds to learn more about the skin. I even sign up for voluntary conferences and workshops on the weekends because I want to learn more and do more in dermatology and I genuinely enjoy the subject matter. I surprise myself sometimes! Don't trick yourself into doing a field for prestige or money because you will be the one suffering and questioning your choice years down the line.

2. Mentorship. One thing I've stressed over and over again is how important it is to have a good mentor in medical school. Find someone who is living the life you want to live when you are his or her age, and see if you can imagine yourself in that medical field. A mentor can help you explore a field through shadowing, doing research, helping you write letters of recommendation, or even making phone calls or writing emails on your behalf. If you find someone you really click with, explore that field and see if you like it for yourself.

3. Relationship with Patients. In medical school do you prefer short interactions with patients like in the emergency room or do you prefer following patients long term in outpatient clinic? Different fields have very different relationships with patients, whether it's seeing them everyday for a month as an internist in the hospital or following a patient's psoriasis for years in the clinic setting. Do you like seeing adults or kids? Also, what type of patients do you want to see? Do you want to treat sick patients (hematology/oncology, radiation oncology, etc.) or relatively healthy ones (ob/gyn, general pediatrics, dermatology)? One is not better than the other - it's a matter of personal preference. In medical school I felt drawn to the relationship pediatric oncologists have with their patients and patients' families, but at the end of the day after doing rotations, I realized that I have a hard time separating work and personal life. The sad cases I saw in the hospital really affected me and I couldn't turn it off after I went home at the end of the day. So that wasn't a good fit for me personally. Explore what relationship you enjoy with your patients during rotations, and go from there.

4. Lifestyle. For some reason "lifestyle" seems to be the dirty word you're not supposed to mention when deciding on career path, but I think it SHOULD be one of the factors that you think about. Wanting to have good work-life balance is not a shameful thing. If having a family and kids is your top priority, think about whether you can balance that with a field that requires you to be in the hospital 11 hours a day. The other thing I tell medical students is imagine what lifestyle you want when you're in your 30's, 40's, 50's, and beyond. It may be exhilarating to stay up several nights in a row in the OR in your 20's, but think about whether you can sustain that and stay happy in your later years too. If you can, then go for it! I have so much respect for people who feel passionate about their fields. Sometimes it's hard to imagine what you want in life decades later, so that goes back to point #2 about mentorship. Find someone you identify with and see what his or her life looks decades later. Is that something you want for yourself? 

5. Hands on experience. The initial branching point for many is procedural vs. not. Do you like working with your hands and doing procedures? Do you enjoy being in the operating room? If you enjoy doing surgery, aside from going into a surgical field, you can also consider subspecialties within more medical fields such as interventional cardiology, GI, interventional radiology, or even Mohs surgery within dermatology. Shadow different physicians and get a sense of what their day to day responsibilities are.

This is in no ways a complete list of everything you should consider, but it's a good place to start. For me personally, going through rotations was the best way to find out what I loved and didn't love. I didn't love my surgery rotation or being in the OR, and I knew I wanted to take care of people who were not chronically very ill. Some of my favorite rotations were in internal medicine, ophthalmology, dermatology, and reproductive endocrinology and infertility. I enjoyed the ob part of my ob/gyn rotation but didn't love the gyn or the gyn surgery parts, so that took out reproductive endocrinology & infertility as an option. I enjoyed internal medicine because I was the sub-I and I had a chance to make my own plans; however I was not a fan of spending more time with a computer than my patients. I loved ophtho and was almost going to apply in it but I realized when I finally shadowed in the OR that I was not a huge fan of microsurgery and the microscope gave me a headache. I fell in love with dermatology when I did the rotation during the end of my third year; it combined medicine with office procedures and I found the science very interesting (more on why I chose derm here). Now that I'm halfway through derm residency I find myself liking the field more every single day and feeling thankful that I had made this decision even though it was a hard one to make.

So good luck to you, wherever you are in your stage of training. We are really lucky to be able to be doctors, even with all the tough days. I hope this was helpful and don't forget to check out some of my other posts on getting into residency and choosing a residency program!

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