A summer of preparing for the MCAT

Running headfirst into a gruelling exam

Image by: Herbert Wang
Vineeth practices diligence and self care during a summer of studying.

My interest in medicine is rooted in my experience volunteering as an administrative assistant at a walk-in clinic. Answering phone calls from patients and helping connect them with medical support they needed opened my eyes to the career path.

Since developing an interest in the medical profession, I knew I’d have to write the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) at some point.

I was intimidated by the MCAT, to say the least. I didn’t know how I could possibly sit through a seven-hour exam; I was afraid my nerves would get to me, and I wasn’t sure I could endure months of studying.

I registered for the MCAT last February, coughing up $500. I decided to write it in the summer between my second year and third year, knowing I’d have the summer between my third and fourth years to rewrite if I didn’t get a good score.

Aug. 26 was my chosen date—it was late enough into the summer that I’d have more than enough time to study, while leaving a week to decompress before the start of school.

Despite the early registration, I didn’t start preparing for the MCAT until early May. The notoriously difficult organic chemistry course CHEM 282 filled my winter semester plate to the brim. I had to wait until the summer before cracking open the books.

After the CHEM 282 final in April, I took a week off from anything academic. I dedicated the week to things I’d always wanted to do. I attended the 2023 Liberal National Convention in Ottawa where I saw Justin Trudeau and Hillary Clinton speak. Seeing famous politicians in the flesh was something I’d been trying to do for years—worth every second of the commute to Ottawa.

Next, I travelled to Waterloo and reconnected with childhood friends after almost a decade. I got a rare and important chance to catch up with people who made my youth so fun and joyful.

It was extremely refreshing, as I not only had a tough semester behind me, but a gruelling summer ahead. My week of relaxation came to an abrupt end, and the grind began. The first step was looking at the resources and purchases MCAT study necessitated.

My parents’ financial support afforded me the opportunity to focus on my preparations—a privilege many of my peers don’t have.

During this phase, the cost of the prep materials startled me. In the end, I bought seven review books and two question banks, adding up to about $700. The running total was over $1,200. I understood a clear financial barrier existed, despite not facing it myself.

The next step was to find a study routine. I struggled to establish a consistent study schedule early on.

I wondered how much time I needed to study every day. I was curious about the best way to learn and review concepts. Most of all, I was anxious to know how I would retain the never-ending sea of facts and information I was taking in

A close friend of mine was also doing the MCAT this summer. I took inspiration from his study schedule and settled on learning concepts through the seven review books for the month of May.

I saw firsthand the value of collaborating with friends when studying for the MCAT. They were people I could bounce ideas off, vent to, and grow with.

Much of my coursework overlapped with the content that’s tested on the MCAT. Health Sciences students are required to take BCHM 270, a biochemistry course. The lessons on regulatory enzymes in the body, homeostasis, and gene expression were making a reappearance, tickling my hippocampus.

The overlap between my prior coursework and the material tested on the MCAT made the month of May much easier. But when June rolled around, I hit my first low point in my MCAT preparation journey.

Though the MCAT is a multiple-choice exam, many of the exam questions are associated with a passage. I was unaccustomed to answering questions associated with a passage, and I often got more questions wrong than I would have liked.

It took time, but I started becoming more familiar with the MCAT’s format. Soon enough I was seeing the percentage of practice questions I got correct rise—slowly, but surely.

By the beginning of June, I started going through premade flashcards online. They ranged from 2000to 6000 cards—eventually I settled on a deck of 3000that had—mainly—positive online reviews. It was something I could realistically complete before test day.

I started experiencing deja vu—this felt like the COVID-19 summer of 2020 all over again. My days began blending together, with an invariable daily routine: wake up, do some practice problems, review flashcards, rinse, and repeat.

I tried to do something every day to break up the monotony. Whether it was going for a long walk or meeting up with friends from high school, I found disrupting my routine helped immensely when I did return to my books

As August approached, I started doing full-length mock exams on a weekly basis. The first few mock exams knocked the wind out of me—I’d never sat still an exam lasting over seven hours.

Studying for the MCAT is like studying for four separate exams. It has four distinct sections that covered subjects ranging from physics to biochemistry.

Despite studying for months, the scale of the exam surprised me. I was, however, hitting my target scores.

In the week before test day, I started winding down my studying. Instead of pulling eight-hour study days, I spent four hours at most doing lighter prep work. There were lots of study breaks filled with movies and television shows like How I Met Your Mother. Facetiming friends was an important aspect of feeling in touch with myself.

It was at that point I realized there was no reason to memorize minor details when relaxing would serve me so much better going into test day.

When test day rolled around, I was calm, cool, and collected. That began to change when registration took longer than expected. The testing centre was an intimidating room, stacked with cubicles and surveillance cameras.

Intimidating environment aside, the test material appeared to be similar to what I studied. That wasn’t to say I didn’t encounter challenges—there would be the occasional question that made me skip a heartbeat, or my palms start to gently perspire.

When I walked out of the testing centre, I experienced a weird feeling of nothingness. For the first time in four months, I didn’t have to go home and open the review book or go through a flash card deck.

I picked up many important lessons along the way. Self-care is always important, but especially when a significant life event like an exam is approaching. For anyone writing the MCAT, focus on the bigger picture rather than the day-to-day ups and downs, and don’t let initial setbacks discourage you.

Now the hardest part of taking the MCAT begins—waiting for my score.


MCAT, Postscript, Studying

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