Category Archive: MCAT

MCAT2015: Something New

In celebration of the launch of our MCAT2015 Question of the Day (the first one out there!), we wanted to do something a little different than what you’ll find on the blogosphere about the new MCAT2015.

Pretty much every premed blogger and MCAT prep company has offered their two cents on the upcoming MCAT in 2015. Yes, the exam is going to be (much) longer and thus more challenging. The format is probably going to remain very much the same (passages + discrete questions). But it’s too early to know too much else. But there are some things we do know…

Let’s talk about what’s going to be on the exam and how to start getting ready for it. The AAMC released a preview guide to the MCAT2015 which is a solid 150 pages of curriculum and example questions. There’s a ton of overlapping content between the old (current) MCAT and the MCAT2015, and a lot of young premeds right now are on the cusp of which exam they’ll take. If you’re reading this and you’re a freshman or a sophomore, you may end up actually preparing for both. Is that worthwhile? Probably – there’s not very much on the current MCAT that won’t show up on the new one. So we decided to offer you something actually useful: a list of content that is NEW on MCAT2015 as well as content that is on the current MCAT but will not be on MCAT2015.

But first… what’s on the new exam anyway? Here’s a table that might be helpful (we only bothered making it because nobody else bothered to make it yet)!

Exam Sections

Subject Bio and Biochem Chem and Physics Psych and Sociology Totals
Biology 65% 2% 10% 26%
Biochemistry 25% 25% 17%
General Chemistry 4% 33% 12%
Organic Chemistry 6% 15% 7%
Physics 25% 8%
Psychology 60% 20%
Sociology 30% 10%

Current Content that is NOT on MCAT2015

Biological Sciences

  • Comparative anatomy (chordate features, vertebrate phylogeny)
  • Fungi
  • Recrystallization
  • Alcohols (Note: some topics remain)
    • Pinacols
    • Halogenation
    • Inorganic Esters
  • Aldehydes and Ketones (Note: some topics remain)
    • 1,3-dicarbonyl compounds, internal hydrogen bonding
    • organometallic reagents
    • Wolff-Kishner reaction
    • Grignard reagents
    • Haloform reactions
  • Acid Derivatives (Note: some topics remain)
    • Hofmann rearrangement
  • Amines, except for what you need to know about imines and enamines in other sections
  • Phosphorous compound reactions (Wittig reaction), except for what you need to know about ATP and phosphoesters like DNA/RNA

Physical Sciences

  • Quantum numbers l, m, s
  • Ionic bond
  • Colloids
  • Uniform circular motion
  • Pulley Systems
  • Momentum, impulse, and collisions
  • Solids (elastic properties, shear, compression)
  • Gauss’s Law
  • Power in circuits
  • Alternating currents and reactive circuits
  • Fission, fusion, mass deficit

MCAT2015 Content that is NEW


  • Mixed and Uncompetitive inhibition
  • Regulatory enzymes: allostery, covalently-modified enzymes, zymogens
  • Flavoproteins
  • Oncogenes
  • Gluconeogenesis, Pentose Phosphate Pathway, and regulation of these mechanisms
  • Fatty acid metabolism and biosynthesis
  • Chromatography: size-exclusion, affinity
  • Amino acids: Strecker Synthesis, Gabriel Synthesis
  • Lipids: sphingolipids, prostaglandins


  • Eukaryotic chromosome organization: Single copy vs. repetitive DNA, supercoiling
  • Eukaryotic gene regulation: Gene amplification and duplication, cancer formation, non-coding RNAs
  • Prokaryotic gene regulation: Jacob-Monod Model, gene repression, positive control
  • Biotechnology applications: DNA libraries, generation of cDNA, analyzing gene expression, determining gene function, stem cells, practical applications in medicine, therapy, pharma, forensics, environment, and agriculture, as well as safety and ethics implications of DNA technology
  • Genetics: synaptonemal complex, tetrad, composition of the Y chromosome, cytoplasmic/extranuclear inheritance, statistical methods
  • Other microbiology: transposons, prions and viroids, chemotaxis
  • Embryogenesis: neural crest, environment-gene interaction in development, differentiation and determination of cell type, cell-cell communication in development, stem cells, gene regulation in development, senescence and aging
  • Biosignalling: receptor enzymes, G protein-coupled receptors
  • Immune system: clonal selection, MHC complex


  • Electrochemistry: Nerst equation, electrolysis, Faraday’s Law, lead-storage batteries, nickel-cadmium batteries
  • Electronic structure: paramagnetism and diamagnetism, Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
  • Use of the Arrhenius Equation, Law of Mass Action


  • Viscosity: Poiseuille Flow
  • Venturi effect, pitot tube
  • Boltzmann’s constant
  • Van der Waals’ Equation
  • Electricity: circuit meters
  • Sound: shock waves
  • Coefficient of expansion

Organic Chemistry

  • Aldehydes and Ketones: hydride reagents, cyanohydrin, enolate chemistry, retro-aldol, kinetic vs. thermodynamic enolate, carbanions
  • Carboxylic acids: lactam, lactone formation
  • Phenols: oxidation and reduction
  • Biological aromatic heterocycles

Psychology and Sociology

  • Vision, hearing, and other sensory processing (physiological and psychological)
  • Perception, attention, cognition, consciousness, and memory
  • Emotion, stress
  • Biological bases of behavior (brain structure and function, genetics, development)
  • Personality, psychological disorders, motivation, attitudes
  • Social influences, group processes, culture, and socialization
  • Associative learning, observational learning
  • Theories of attitude and behavior change
  • Self-concept and identity, formation of identity
  • Social thinking (attributing behavior to persons or situations), prejudice and bias, stereotypes
  • Elements of social interaction, self-presentation, social behavior, and discrimination
  • Theoretical approaches to understanding social structure, social institutions, and culture
  • Demographic structure of society, demographic shifts and social change
  • Spatial inequality, social class, health and healthcare disparities


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Making the Most of Your Practice Exams

Taking MCAT practice exams is one of the most useful things you can do in your exam preparation.  Most advice out there tells you to “understand why you got things wrong.”  Here’s the problem with that advice: it doesn’t actually tell you how to go over your exams.  Going over your wrong answers may remind you of core content you don’t know, but there is often a deeper why to why you didn’t get the correct answer.  Here, we try to provide you the materials to be able to properly go over the practice exams you take.

Last year we had a student come to us after struggling to improve her score on diagnostic tests and ask us for help.  She said her main problem was that she would narrow down the problem to two answer options and then inevitably pick the wrong one.  An interesting and tough problem.  But why should you take your own word for it?  How do you really know that’s why you’re getting things wrong if you don’t have any data to back it up?

Like any scientist, you should be testing your hypotheses.  It turns out that our student was getting questions wrong because she simply didn’t know the content/equation involved.  She was getting 5 times more questions wrong for this reason than for the reason she initially thought.  That definitely helped her refocus her energy where it counted for her: learning the equations and relevant content.  She created equation study sheets and solved a key gap in her knowledge.

Overall, doing more practice is only half the battle.  If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’ll keep making them over and over again.  To fully understand these mistakes is to truly analyze your practice.  For a bonus opportunity, make sure you’re reviewing questions you got right as well.  If you got lucky on a question once, don’t assume you’ll get lucky next time.  Make sure you’re getting questions right for the right reasons.

We’ve created an Excel spreadsheet (v2.1 updated 7/2015) that you can use to analyze your practice exams and really understand why you’re getting questions wrong.  Try it out and let us know what you think!

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Should I Retake the MCAT?

You were shooting for a 38 but instead you got a 37.  Time to buckle down and study harder to retake the exam?  Probably not.  Unfortunately, most students don’t find themselves in this wonderful dilemma.  Instead, they were shooting for 30+ and perhaps received a 28.  If you missed your mark by a few or more points, should you retake the exam?  The short answer is: it depends.

Continue reading below for a quantitative analysis, and make sure to also check out our MCAT retake calculator!

The two major questions to ask are:

  1. What’s a “good enough” MCAT score for me?
  2. What are my chances of improving my score?

What’s a “good enough” MCAT score?

Let’s examine the issue as objectively as possible with some statistics.  First, the big numbers: in 2011 there were 43,919 applicants to all US medical schools.1 Of those, 19,230 matriculated; just under 44%.

So how do these two groups compare in terms of their MCAT stats?

Student scores for applicants, matriculants, and students not accepted.  Ranges from each group include one standard deviation above and below the mean. The data for students not accepted were extrapolated from 2009-2011 aggregate data2

This graph shows us the range of scores one standard deviation above and below the mean for each group. Overall that means each bar represents 68% of students in that particular group. It’s clear that if you’ve scored 30+, your chances of getting into med school are good.

Confirming these observations, 69% of students who scored 30-45 were accepted in 2009-11 while only 29% of students who scored 18-29 were accepted. To that point, scoring 27-29 made you twice as likely to be admitted as scoring 24-26, and scoring 30-32 made you 42% more likely to be admitted as scoring 27-29. Once you hit the 33+ range, the increases in your chances of acceptance are marginal.

Ultimately what is more telling is how your GPA is coupled with your MCAT score. A great GPA can only help you so much with a low score, and vice versa.

Correlation of GPA, MCAT Score, and Acceptance Rate from aggregated 2009 to 2011 data2. Yellow area indicates acceptance rates of >50%. Note that the smallest dots do not distinguish between a 0% acceptance rate and a lack of applicants with that combination of scores.

Aside from a few outliers, the data show a clear “sweet spot” of score combinations where a majority of applicants are accepted. Our earlier range of 30+ can be revised down to 28+ if you’ve got the GPA to back it up (3.7 or higher). However, your leeway diminishes rapidly with your GPA.

Since admissions aren’t a lottery, you should always factor in various personal characteristics, extracurricular activities, and other experiences. Indeed there were about 9% of people with a GPA of 3.8+ and an MCAT of 39+ who were not accepted to med school. Clearly there are no guarantees.

What are my chances of improving my score?

Even if you think you may want to retake the MCAT, you should still carefully consider your chances of improving your score.  Only 2/3 students manage to increase their score by 1 or more points.  To make it worth all the extra effort and time studying, extra money, and opportunity cost of not doing other application-enhancing activities, you probably want to see at least a 2-3 point increase in your score.  This is something only half of retakers manage to achieve.

Some students may be concerned that the higher their original score, the lower their chances of improving their score.  This turns out not to be the case.  If you scored below 21, your chance of improving by 2 or more points is only 58%.  However, if you scored over 30, your chance of improving by 2 or more points is 49%.  Overall a difference of 58% vs. 49% is marginal given the difference in starting score.

No matter what, however, if you do decide to retake the exam, your chances of improvement are very low if you don’t study hard and really focus in on your trouble areas.  Make sure you have a good answer to ‘How will you study differently this time?’ Quantity of time studying is rarely the key factor in your score; study strategies, pacing, subject focus, and a number of other factors can have a much bigger influence.  That’s why it’s important to make sure you supplement your studying with reliable MCAT prep content or courses.

Other general factors

  • Do not retake the exam if your only motivation is to improve your writing score. The writing section is mostly ignored by medical schools, hence why it is being completely phased-out in 2013.
  • If you scored below 7 on any individual section or if your target schools have a minimum cutoff you haven’t met, you should consider retaking the exam.  Though we didn’t discuss it, a 14-14-5 generally looks far worse than 11-11-11.  A very low individual subject score often shows significant gaps in knowledge and can be a big red flag.

You can also check out our MCAT retake calculator!

1 MCAT Scores and GPAs for Applicants and Matriculants to U.S. Medical Schools, 2000 – 2011.

2 MCAT and GPA Grid for Applicants and Acceptees to U.S. Medical Schools, 2009-2011 (aggregated).

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Summary of the Event: eCourse Info Session and Sample

Last night we hosted a great info session and sample for the eCourse.  We were happy to have an overwhelming response so we ended up running two sessions to fit everyone in!  We discussed details of our MCAT course options, how they work, past students performance, and we answered students’ questions.  We then ran a sample session of the eCourse with real content and practice questions to give a glimpse of what the course looks like.

Students asked some great questions that we’ve summarized for you.  You’re also welcome to check out the session for yourself and see what the eCourse is like – we’ve made it available for download!

Update: Session available for download is from February 27, 2014!
Link to the download.  You will also need the WebEx recording viewer for (Windows | Mac).

Student Questions

Why should we take your course over Kaplan or Princeton Review?

This is the question, isn’t it?  There are a couple important reasons why the eCourse can be more valuable to you than the other courses out there:

  1. Instructors: At big companies you can’t be guaranteed a great instructor.  These companies often hire grad students who may not have even taken the MCAT before.  Instructors are often paid a relatively low wage and have no vested interest in the company or in the students.  With our course, you’re guaranteed a top-rated, and top-performing instructor with hundreds of hours of teaching experience.  Our instructors are also owners in the company and have a significant interest in making sure you get the best educational experience possible.
  2. Consistent Student Performance: The success of our students demonstrates that our prep program is designed for high-performance.  Our students average in the 80th percentile, with ⅔ of students scoring between a 26 and a 34.  Our course is focused differently from others in that we focus very heavily on application of MCAT strategies and teaching content in a sequence that maximizes comprehension.
  3. Company: It’s easy to become anonymous when you’re the customer of a big company. We’re a small company and we get to know all of our students. If any one of our students isn’t satisfied, it’s a big deal to us. You won’t be an anonymous customer when you register for our course; we pride ourselves on delivering amazing service and preparation to our students.
  4. Price: There is no prep company that delivers our caliber of prep at our pricing.  Even other small companies usually charge well over $1500 for their courses which have to be done in person and lack the freedom and flexibility of the eCourse.  Other prep companies may offer video series and other content on the cheap, but with the eCourse you’re guaranteed valuable prep of the highest caliber.  For that, nobody beats our value.
  5. Free Trial: We’re willing to put our money where our mouth is and let you try the eCourse to see if you like it. Our money-back guarantee gives you every dollar back within the first week if you aren’t satisfied with the course. You’ve got nothing to lose by trying it out!

I need extra support for the Verbal section. Will you be able to provide more specific Verbal prep?

Absolutely! Our primary commitment is that you perform your best on test-day.  Some students can take the existing prep materials and perform very well with them.  Other students need extra or personalized support.  We have no intention of leaving you with our materials and hoping for the best.  If you need more support, we’re more than happy to advise you personally wherever you need support for the exam.

Can we still communicate with you on the Anytime Package?

Yes! The Anytime Package is designed to give you all the same resources as the Comprehensive Package but without the need for live lectures.  Your eCourse account has a portal that allows you to ask us questions directly.  We pride ourselves on being able to respond to all student questions within 24 hours.

How much time should we leave between the end of the course and the exam?

In general, you should leave 2-8 weeks between finishing the eCourse and taking the MCAT.  This may vary depending on how long ago you did your prerequisites and your comfort level with the content of the course, but 2-8 weeks is good ballpark for you to review the course material and get enough practice for test day.  If you have concerns about whether you’ll be ready for the exam, you can get in touch with us and we can talk about your options and level of preparation.

Are the live lectures recorded too?

Yep, we record all of the sessions we host, which means if you were there in lecture with us and you didn’t catch something we said, you can download that very lecture and hear it all again.

How much content is in the course?

There are a few components of the course content:

  • Lecture Content: Each lecture has on average 60-70 slides of material.  With two lectures per week and 8 weeks of material, that amounts to approximately 1000 slides of content.
  • Homework: Each week has homework associated with it, all of it passage-based (to prepare for the passages on the MCAT).  Depending on the week, there are approximately 6 passages of homework on that week’s materials.  That amounts to 40-50 passages of practice.
  • Practice Exams: We provide access to all 8 of the official AAMC practice MCAT exams.  Each exam contains 21 passages plus discrete questions, making for well over 150 passages of practice.

The course has more practice content and material than most students are able to complete in 8 weeks.  However, if you crave more, let us know and we’ll work something out!

Are slides and homework downloadable for printing?

Yes, all of the course content is downloadable in PDF format and can be printed.

How much does the eCourse cost?

Depending on the course features you’re looking for, the eCourse starts at $987 for the full 8-weeks’ worth of material.  Flexible payment plans are available for all packages.  More details and pricing options are available here.

How do I register?

You can register directly from the eCourse page.  Simply select your package and click Sign Up, then follow the registration flow!

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What’s NOT on the MCAT?

Everyone talks about what you can expect to see on the MCAT, but it’s hard to figure out what information won’t be on the exam. For some topics (like quantum physics or astronomy), it’s commonly understood that they’re not tested. However, there are topics covered in intro-level science courses that are often confused for being tested on the MCAT. So, we’ve compiled a list of topics that will not be on the exam!


  • Starting January 2013, there won’t be a writing section on the MCAT!  The only sections will be Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences. There will also be an optional section at the end of the test that is intended to be a transition into the MCAT in 2015, but will not contribute to your overall score. Save your essay-writing chops for med school apps!


  • Poetry or other expressive/nonstandard forms of writing.  While some social sciences passages may discuss poetry, you will not need to read and interpret poetry or other highly abstract/metaphorical texts.
  • Primary research literature.  Although natural sciences passages in the verbal section will discuss science, students often mistakenly think that reading primary research literature will be good practice for the verbal section.  This is simply not true.  The style of writing in research articles is substantially different from science writing intended for a general audience.  If you want more accurate practice, read review articles or science articles written for the public.
  • Specific content.  Although you may see passages about science, history, etc., you will not be tested on any specific content outside of information given in the passages.  Best practices for verbal say to leave your knowledge at the door and use only that information from the passage; do not rely on your background knowledge to answer questions on this section.


  • Calculus. Calculus is often integrated in physics classes, however, the only physics you are responsible for is non-calc based. That said, you should be familiar with the area under the curve and the equations/relationships where it is useful, as well as understanding the meaning of the slope of a graph.
  • Optical Diagrams. While you should know the Thin Lens Equation and the rules surrounding real/virtual and upright/inverted images for various lenses and mirrors, you will not be asked to interpret optical diagrams with rays of light. If you want to study this topic to get a better general understanding of lenses and mirrors, go for it, but you won’t be tested on such diagrams explicitly.
  • Constants. (It’s generally accepted that you will be given any and all constants you need to solve a problem – however, knowing some common ones may increase your speed on certain questions). The same is not true of equations – there are many of these you must know off-hand, like Snell’s Law, the Thin Lens Equation, Archimedes’ Principle, etc.

General Chemistry

  • Individual values for electronegativity. While you should know periodic table trends, you do not need to know the actual values. Any questions that involve distinguishing electronegativity between two elements will be clearly distinguished and easy to identify based on the general trends.
  • Solubility tables. These are good to know, however, the exam provides the solubility information needed to answer a given question. Therefore, you can get away without necessarily knowing your solubility tables. One caveat is your expectation to know which compounds are unquestionably soluble (e.g. NaCl, HCl, NaOH, etc.).

Organic Chemistry

  • NMR ppm shifts. While you need to know how to interpret peak splitting and peak area, you don’t need to be able to identify the specific functional group at various ppm shifts. Any problems that you see with NMR can be solved without memorizing these shifts.
  • Most IR spectroscopy peaks. The only ones ever really tested are C=O (narrow peak at 1700-1800 cm-1) and -OH (broad peak at 3200-3500 cm-1). Technically, other key functional groups are fair game, but in reality they almost never show up on the exam.
  • 13C NMR. General concepts around symmetry and peak height/splitting are still true for 13C NMR and therefore fair game for the exam. However, you likely won’t see anything about 13C NMR, especially anything that you don’t already know about 1H NMR.
  • Electron Pushing. Intro organic chemistry classes often go into electron pushing for understanding mechanisms. While this may be helpful to understand the steps of a reaction or why a reaction would occur, you will not be tested on electron-pushing diagrams explicitly nor will you be required to draw any electron-pushing diagrams.
  • Aromatics – naming and reactions. These are often confused as being on the exam, and even show up in many MCAT textbooks, but they are not on the MCAT syllabus.  Reactions like Friedel-Crafts or biochemical pathways that incorporate aromatics will not be on the exam without sufficient context for you to answer the question. However, do understand the electronic and basic reactivity properties of benzene, for example (like other alkenes, benzene is considered to be electron-withdrawing).


  • Non-human anatomy/physiology. While you do not need to know animal anatomy and physiology, certain questions may describe non-human anatomical/physiological structures and ask you to compare them to analogous human structures or systems.
  • Plants. You will not need to know anything about plant anatomy or physiology.  Plants may show up in genetics or population/evolution questions, but they will not require specific knowledge of plants.
  • Fungi. These are on the syllabus and questions regarding fungi have come up before, however, studying this topic in depth is very low-yield. At most you may see a single question testing basic features of fungi (e.g. life cycle). If a passage is provided regarding non-human physiology, there will very likely be adequate context to answer the questions without prior knowledge.
  • Names and structures of amino acids. You should know the four categories of amino acids: polar, non-polar, positively-charged and negatively-charged. However, you do not need to know the names or structures of any amino acid (except perhaps glycine, which has a hydrogen rather than an -R group). Amino acid structures will be given to you or described sufficiently to answer the question.
  • Enzymes and intermediate compound names for the steps of the major biochemical reactions including glycolysis, Krebs cycle, electron transport chain, and fermentation.  You should know the major reactants and products, what kinases do in general, and various big-picture takeaways from these pathways, but you do not need to know the intricacies as studied in many biochem classes.

The complete syllabus for the MCAT can be found here:

Do you have more things to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll add them to the list! All student additions will be marked with *.

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The Limitations of MCAT Textbooks

You’re laying out your study schedule for the next few months.  You’re planning on using some combination of books, official practice exams, and of course, Wikipedia.  Maybe you’ll even pour over your notes from your prerequisite classes.  But how do you optimize your study time and get the most value from all these study materials?

Read most MCAT blogs and they’ll give you some generic advice…

  • Create a study schedule and stick to it.
  • Start early: at least 3-4 months ahead of your exam date.
  • Take practice exams and figure out your weaknesses.

Seems like pretty good advice, right?  Of course you should do all those things.  Unfortunately, while those things are necessary, they are insufficient.

Yes, ultra-high scorers achieve stratospheric results on the exam in part due to innate ability.  But that doesn’t mean that a well-executed strategy for studying won’t boost your base-level score by 3, 5, even 10 points.  So let’s go over some specific strategies to employ as you lay out plan your schedule.

1. Separate strategy practice from content review

Too many students think the MCAT is a content exam.  They tell themselves that if they only memorize more physics equations, more hormone details, more solubility charts, more organic chemistry mechanisms, they’ll do better on the exam.  While it’s true that there are knowledge-based questions (in both discrete and passage-based questions) which require rote memorization, those questions are a small component of the exam.  The MCAT tests you on the ability to apply your knowledge critically, not just the knowledge itself.  The key is that the actual content level you need to know for such critical-thinking question is low; memorizing textbooks won’t teach you to solve those problems.

Passage-based questions are even more heavily weighted toward critical thinking because the passage is intended to contain new information you’ve never seen before and see how you can organize and comprehend the new ideas.  If you focus exclusively on content (e.g. study only physics equations and your bio notes), you’ll be ill-equipped to deal with the passages.

Practicing strategy requires you to dissect the exam questions themselves.  Understand their format and their style.  Understand the way the writers phrase answer options and give hints about assumptions you can or cannot make.  Some question types contain multiple layers, which, when recognized, give you invaluable insight into how to approach a question, what the wrong answers are, and why the right answer is right.  This is a place where your common MCAT book gets stumped – its content is overwhelmingly deep but its strategy practice is minimal.  Find resources (courses, tutoring, superior MCAT texts, etc…) that teach you the exam rather than just teaching you what content is on the exam.

2. Figure out your weak areas

Sure, you’ve heard this advice before.  But nobody tells you how to do it.  They wrongly assume that if you just look at your raw score for each section on the exam, you’ll realize that you need to study physical sciences more and your problems will be solved.  Again, this is necessary but insufficient.  Textbooks don’t adequately walk you through these steps so you have to learn to do that work yourself.

Our perception of our weaknesses often doesn’t correlate to reality.  Think for a moment about why you get most of your questions wrong.  Is it because you make careless mistakes?  Is it because you didn’t know the content being tested?  Do you have special trouble with interpreting graphs?  The only way to figure this out for sure is to get reliable data.  Go over the last 50-100 practice questions you’ve done and make a list of the frequency of why you’re getting questions wrong.  Sort the list and look for the top 2-3 reasons.  You may be surprised at what you find!

3. One-size fits all

People learn differently and yet MCAT books teach the content just about the same way.  Most people get limited benefit from a single, text-based style of teaching.  So even if you go through the book, you may not get the value you were expecting.  That’s why creating a study regimen that includes but isn’t limited to textbook studying is absolutely key.  Get a tutor if you can; use Youtube videos or other online resources; read articles; even take a course.  It’s important to try multiple strategies here to maximize your chances of getting the best prep.  Self-study is great but self-study with only a textbook can cost you.

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Why MCAT Classes aren’t Right for Everyone

You’re a premed.  You’re taking the MCAT.  Of course, you want to do as well as possible – this is your future we’re talking about.  But how do you decide whether to self-study, take a course, etc…?  Are courses upwards of $2,000 worth it and are there other quality materials available for the budget-conscious?

It’s about that time when we just finished a run of spring courses and we’re gearing up for our June 4 – July 27 MCAT eCourse!  I’m approaching 800 hours of teaching time and figured I’ve learned enough about what really makes the course worth (or not worth) students’ time and money.  But this really isn’t going to be a shameless plug for our eCourse – for some students it really just isn’t worth it to take an MCAT class.  Even if you are better off taking an MCAT class, our course may or may not be right for you.  Hopefully this will help you figure that out for yourself.

So first, what does an MCAT class even do?  Basically all courses fill three roles:

  • Teach/refresh MCAT-relevant content,
  • Provide MCAT test-taking strategies (some of these are specific to the MCAT, others to standardized exams, and others to multiple choice exams in general),
  • Provide structure to manage studying along with study resources (practice exams, practice problems, etc…)

Some students take a class to get one, two, or all three of those things.  But they’re not created equal; courses are only worth the money if you’re looking for a certain combination of those items.  If you’ve been contemplating taking a course (or even if you’re confident you’ll be fine without one), you probably took the following factors into consideration:

Content Knowledge and Exam Skills

There are plenty of students out there that know the exam content very well and have solid standardized test skills.  Those students often just need to brush up on a few trouble areas and practice a bit.  Self-study is a great solution for those students because there are plenty of books and free resources out there that will help you reach your goals.  Granted, there is a lot of content on the exam, so you’ll need to make a careful study schedule!

Other students (the majority of students, frankly) don’t have a lot of experience with standardized tests and/or with the entirety of the MCAT curriculum.  Especially when both of those conditions apply, courses pay off in a way that self-study may not.  The structure of a course guides learning of the content in a way that is relevant to the MCAT.  Most importantly, exam skills are learned, not innate, and self-study requires more structure and strategy than doing a lot of practice questions in order to be effective.  That’s really where students get the most value from a course.


It’s easy to tell yourself you’re going to study 2 hours per day every day until your exam.  Be realistic with yourself about whether you’re actually going to do it.  There’s nothing wrong with simply knowing what amount of structure you need around yourself to keep you on-task.  I had plenty of friends in undergrad who would “spend the summer studying for the MCAT” but without structure around their studying, they would open their MCAT books 2 or 3 times a month, procrastinating until it was too late.

With that said taking an MCAT class is not a substitute for motivation.  Sometimes students think a class is an easy solution so that you don’t have to spend time studying outside of class.  The truth is that even if you take a course, you need to do work outside of class.  If you don’t bring motivation to the table, nobody else can give it to you.  What the course will give you is guidance and structure; it’s up to you to adhere to it.

Online Learning

Many test-prep companies are shifting to online education.  Some choose to have podcast-style lectures which students watch at their own leisure.  Others, the eCourse included, have live online lectures with interactivity (e.g. a whiteboard, you can raise your hand in lecture, etc…).  If these aren’t your thing, obviously don’t take courses like the eCourse!  An in-class environment will probably be best for you – just remember it’s going to cost you.  Live classes are usually several times more expensive than the same quality online class, but for some people it’s worth it hands down.  If you prefer learning online, or need flexibility in lectures (in terms of timing and location), then the eCourse can make a great option.


It’s no secret that the MCAT process is expensive.  Books are expensive, courses are expensive, even registering for the exam itself is expensive!  The only time this factor should affect your decision is if you’re on a budget and simply can’t shell out upwards of $2000 for a course.  But even if you don’t mind paying that amount of money, that doesn’t mean a live class is a better choice – more on that below.

So what now?

First, figure out if you need to take some kind of MCAT preparation course and what type would be best for you.  If you’re self-studying, get to it!  For those of you for whom a course will work best, there are a lot of options out there – is the risk of a lesser-known company worth the savings?  Are online classes really that good?  In my experience, no online environment is perfect.  Then again, no classroom environment is perfect either.

The big companies have been around a long time and have gained a lot of expertise in their curriculum and strategy development.  But those don’t make a valuable learning experience.  Whether we (MCAT prep companies) want to admit it or not, teaching is everything.  You want someone who will motivate you to succeed and knows the material as well as the exam inside and out.  Sometimes you get lucky and get a great set of instructors who are dedicated to their classes and love what they do.  But often the big companies resort to hiring grad students who know their stuff but are apathetic or lack teaching abilities.

Larger companies assume a certain amount of risk because they know that even if you have a terrible course experience, you’re just one person and won’t bring down their brand.  Smaller companies care deeply about you as students because they know it only takes one terrible experience to bring down a brand.  That trend along with the fact that big companies’ courses are often much more expensive, serves as food for thought when choosing a course that’s right for you!

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MCAT Question of the Day vs. AAMC MCAT

Every so often we get an email from a user saying “Who writes these questions?  Why can’t you post actual questions from the MCAT like other prep companies?”

Why can’t you post actual MCAT questions?

Because we’re not the AAMC, which owns and maintains strict copyright on their questions.  If you could get official MCAT question for free from us, nobody would purchase practice exams from the AAMC!  Not only that but the AAMC only has 8 full-length practice exams available.  This equates to about 1200 questions; fewer than we have available for free… and we provide a new one every day!

Don’t other prep companies provide real MCAT questions in their materials?

Nope!  None of their published materials including their books contain real MCAT questions.  Only if you purchase their courses will other companies purchase access to official exams on behalf of their students.  However, that’s still a ‘rental’ from the AAMC.  We do the same thing for students in our eCourse.

Nobody besides the AAMC is allowed to publish or distribute official MCAT questions.  If you don’t believe us, read the disclaimers in any MCAT book.  If the author wants to avoid a lawsuit, they have to have a disclaimer for their questions just like ours. If anybody other than the AAMC tries to convince you that they will provide you real MCAT questions, they are either lying or are violating AAMC copyright and you want to steer clear of their content.

Who writes your questions?

We do, of course!  Our questions are written by experienced instructors who have been working with MCAT content for years.  They know the ins and outs of how the AAMC writes their questions.  They know this because not only have they been around MCAT content for a long time, they have been writing questions for a long time as well.  We’ve got the data to back up the quality of our questions.

Sometimes your questions are wrong.

It’s true; no denying it.  Every once in a while we write a question that is unclear or just off.  We do our best to send our questions through a reliable editing process but sometimes mistakes do slip through.  We often correct the mistakes as soon as someone points them out, and we’re committed to ultra-high standards for our questions.  With thousands of people reading our questions every day, we’re usually quick about fixing errors.  Please let us know if you find one!

How close are your questions to the real thing?


  1. For simplicity’s sake, we abbreviate the Question of the Day as QaD.
  2. We don’t publish any verbal questions.  As such we only compare our physical and biological sciences questions.
  3. The AAMC does not release data on the difficulty of individual questions, only aggregate data.  Because of the massive sample sizes of our questions and AAMC questions in terms of respondents, we overlay our individual question responses over their aggregate data to compare them.  The major assumption we make is that the distributions of our question difficulty data and the AAMC’s student performance data are similar.  Our analysis shows this approximation is correct primarily due to the large sample size (an excess of 3 million data points on our end; 8 million on the 2011 MCAT’s end)
  4. Most of our users notice we post few passage-based questions.  The reasons for this are varied but primarily logistical.  Part of the experience of passage-based questions is the time you have to read the passage.  If we showed you the same passage 6 days in a row with 6 different questions, by the 6th day you’d already be an expert in the passage which is not how the MCAT works and would make for bad practice.  It also gets very boring to read the same passage for a week straight.  Our questions are more in line with the discrete questions in terms of their content and style.  However, we do also have longer discrete questions which give more background information than many real discrete questions.  These longer questions are meant to simulate the assimilation and critiquing of information that is more in line with passage-based questions.

The Data:

You may wonder if these differences are statistically significant.  Indeed they are; standard errors are less than 0.2% of the scores.  While our mean biological sciences scores and standard deviations are roughly identical to the 2011 MCAT, you can see our physical sciences questions are considerably more difficult.  This holds true for the raw scores (data not shown) as well as the scaled scores.

What about the distributions?  Do ours match up with the MCAT?  See for yourself.

You can see that the biological sciences distribution is roughly similar – consistent with the similar mean and standard deviation.  The physical sciences data are different, with our distribution skewed to the left, contributing to the lower mean.

We hypothesize the reason for the increased difficulty of our physical sciences questions is their heavier reliance on understanding of specific equations and concepts with which students may not be intimately familiar.  MCAT physical sciences focus more heavily on conceptual understanding based on passage information.  MCAT discrete questions are more equation-based.  Since the MCAT distribution of passage-based vs. discrete questions is heavily weighted towards passage-based questions, this may explain the decreased performance of students on our questions versus the MCAT.

The plain reality seems to be that our questions are approximately as difficult if not more difficult than those found on the MCAT.  Though there are fundamental differences in the delivery of our questions (with few being via passages), there are also other important differences including the time spent on each question and the stress level of students while answering questions.  Since we are unable to control for these variables, comparisons must be taken with a grain of salt.

We also make no claim as to how performance on our QaD correlates to performance on exam day, particularly since we do not have data on students’ actual performance.  If there are any students out there who want to tell us their subscores and how those compared to your performance on our questions, let us know (if you wish to maintain privacy, do this via email).

We’ve got over 3 million data points to play with… what analytics would you like to see?

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Three Proven Ways to Improve Verbal

Alright, unless you’re a comparative literature major, it’s likely that this will be your most dreaded section.  Why do people dislike this section so much?  There are a few factors including:

  • Passages are long and boring – verbal passages focus on the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.  One passage may be about Victorian etiquette, while the next can be about exploring Jupiter.  Very rarely will you find a passage in which you have a profound interest, and this can be problematic.
  • The section is stringently timed – you have 60 minutes to read and complete 7 passages.  That’s about 8 minutes and 30 seconds per passage, and you will need to answer all 40 questions.  It can be an intense hour.
  • Questions require you to know the passage inside and out – you will be zipping back and forth between the questions and passages to find most of the answers.  Unlike physical/biological sciences, there aren’t any stand-alone questions so your comprehension is vital to answering the questions.

Here are a few proven ways that you can get a solid improvement on your score.  The advice listed here is general, so it’s doesn’t discuss how to approach certain passages or question types.  It also may not be news to you, but can you really admit to taking all three points to heart?  If you really follow these three strategies so they become second nature, you’ll markedly improve your scoring potential.

1. Get as pumped as you can for the passage

This is one of the most key tips and is a paradigm-shift for most students.  This relates directly to the fact that most students will simply not find the passage interesting.  But sulking through the passage is not only annoying, it hurts your chances of doing well.

Suppose your MCAT passage relates to Rembrandt, the Dutch painter.  Even if you have no art background, get excited to learn about painting!  As you read each sentence, get excited about the fact that you are gaining new knowledge.  What were Rembrandt’s motivations?  What were the major themes in his paintings?  Keep your mind going throughout the passage.  For the 5-10 minutes you spend on this passage and questions, try to imagine that the topic is your major and you want nothing more than to learn more.

Obviously, this will take practice, but making these minor tweaks in your perspective will have huge added benefits.  Passages will fly by and you will keep your mind constantly working.  You will be impressed how much easier this will make the questions.

Quicktip: You can practice this strategy by going to news sources and magazines of scholarly value and reading articles that you would never otherwise read on your own.  If the thought of reading the article puts you to sleep, you’ve got a winner!  Read it an practice loving every word of it!

2. Practice reading dense texts well before the exam

Practicing verbal passages (either from official exams or from MCAT courses) is an excellent way to learn about what to expect and diagnose any issues you might have with reading comprehension.  But admit it – this is a legitimately tedious exercise!  When practicing physics, it’s easy to just blast through 10 or 20 problems and get quite a bit done.  Verbal requires full and undivided attention.

While you still have to put in the work and practice passages, there’s another way that you can easily prepare for the section.  Read outside texts!  The more dense, the better.  You need to train your eyes to be able to scan large amounts of text and comprehend quickly what the author is trying to convey.

Get a 6-month subscription to magazines like The New York Times or The Economist; they present complex subject matter and are perfect for practice.  As an added benefit, you’ll learn a lot by reading such journals.  This has been a huge factor in many verbal success stories, so don’t rule out reading for fun!

Quicktip: TMZ and E! don’t count as scholarly.

3) Timing is crucial

Each question is worth the exact same number of points.  So if you find yourself stuck on a particularly difficult passage, move on.  You can always come back to things.  There is no point spending 15 minutes on a passage and losing time to for passage #7.  You are on a mission to obtain as many points as possible – if you jump around, the computer grading system will never know.

Coming into the exam, have an average for how long you usually spend reading a passage and how long you spend answering the questions.  Gauge your speed and strategy based on these numbers!

Quicktip: While you can strategically jump around, be careful not to waste time being picky about the passage. Make your selection quickly and don’t linger. Your decision should be made based on a very quick assessment of the content and length of the passage, and not much more.

Overall, verbal is all about the practice and feeling comfortable reading and thinking critically for 60 minutes. It’s a marathon, but you’ll feel great when you finish the section. Now get out there and get reading!

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