Your MCAT preparation should be divided into two stages: (1) content review, and (2) practice tests. You may have a firm grasp of the vast amount’s material, but it won’t be much help if you are unable to articulate your knowledge to solve those tricky MCAT questions.
Therefore, taking practice exams is one of the most important parts of preparing for the MCAT. Practice exams will familiarize you with the format of the MCAT, introduce you to your weak areas, and help you build the necessary stamina for the 7-hour exam. However, there are dozens of practice exams on the market, and not all practice exams are created equal. In this post, I will share with you the practice exams that I recommend to my students, and how you can best use them.
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What should I look for in a practice exam?
Your study time is limited, and you shouldn’t waste 8 hours of that time on a practice exam that is not going to prepare you for exam day. The similarity to the real MCAT is the key indicator of a stellar practice exam. When you sit down in front of the computer on your exam day you want everything to be familiar – no surprises here.
To understand why this is important, it’s important to talk about the question format on the MCAT. The MCAT is unlikely to blatantly ask you about the material in a direct question-answer format. Instead, the MCAT will weave the material into passages, and you will have to apply your knowledge while analyzing figures to arrive at the correct result. Therefore, you should avoid practice exams that are too content heavy.
What practice exams should I take?
In my experience, the most representative practice tests come from NextStep and the AAMC. Additionally, if you’re looking for some more practice questions, UWorld is a great resource.
The content, wording, and figures of NextStep exams are much like the real thing. However, the difficulty of some NextStep exams can be harder than that of the Actual MCAT exam – I see this as a plus. There are a total of 10 NextStep exams available for purchase. And you can get your first Nextstep exam for free! However, since we will be using NextStep exams to supplement the AAMC exams you should only purchase the first four exams (this will cost around $100 dollars).
You can’t go wrong with any of the AAMC exams, I mean, the AAMC is literally the group creating your real MCAT! There are only four full-length AAMC tests available (including a sample test). But in my experience, the scores you will receive on these tests are likely to reflect the score you will receive on the actual MCAT. My MCAT score was exactly the same as my last AAMC full-length score!
Because the number of AAMC full-lengths are limited it is a good idea to save them until you get closer to test day. You want to take these exams once you have a firm grasp of all the content. Best of all, if you have demonstrated financial hardship, you can get all of the AAMC practice exams (and more!) for free through the AAMC Fee Assistance Program.
UWorld is a relatively new player in the MCAT practice space. While not truly a practice test, the UWorld QBank provides 1900+ MCAT-style questions. There is a lot of value in their answer explanations, which explain the thought processes and learning objectives utilized by question writers. However, UWorld is relatively more expensive: a 180-day subscription comes with a hefty price tag, upwards of $250.
How should I take a practice test?
What test you take is not the only factor: how you take your practice tests is just as important.
You want to make your practice test environment to mimic your testing center. Create a routine for practice test days, wake up at the time you would wake up for your actual exam, eat the same breakfast you would on exam day, and head to the library.
At the testing center you will be sitting at a cubicle, so go find yourself a cubicle at the library. Use a mouse for your practice test, and if you don’t have a monitor place a few textbooks under your laptop to mimic a monitor (this will also improve your posture and help alleviate some of the forthcoming neck pains).
In addition, you will most likely be writing your scratch work with a marker at the testing center, so why not also use a marker on practice test day.
Finally, note that taking the proper time to review your exam is just as important as taking the exam itself. If need be, take an entire day to review an exam, and make sure you understand why you got certain questions wrong. This will ensure you will never get similar questions wrong again, especially on test day.
How many practice exams should I take?
If you’re shooting for a top MCAT score, I would recommend that you take at least 6 practice exams (6-8 practice exams is the sweet-spot). You don’t want to burn yourself out before exam day, but you should be well conditioned and well prepared for the real test. I want you to sit down at the testing center confident!
When should I take practice exams?
For success, it is essential to strategically time when you use your practice exams. I recommend you take an AAMC full-length exam during your initial weeks of studying. An early AAMC full-length test at the start of your studying will give you a baseline of where you are at and where you can most improve. Once you have an idea of this baseline, ease off on the practice exams, and focus on learning the material (including using resources like Pixorize to hammer in the pesky details for Biology/Biochemistry and Psych/Soc). Practice exams are not useful if you don’t know the material.
Practice exams come into play again closer to the exam. When you reach the final month of preparation (if you are not studying full-time, this will be the final two months of your preparation) take one exam a week (I recommend NextStep exams first). Once you are about two weeks away from the test day, you should be taking two AAMC full-length tests a week.
This is the guide to success on the MCAT that I’ve compiled over the years. Depending on your learning style you may have to play with some of the time frames. But this should give you a sense of how to best use practice exams to reach your MCAT goals. Practice exams can increase your conditioning and your confidence. If you properly use them in the ways I’ve described, you will be at a tremendous advantage on test day.
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