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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.

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/the-limitations-of-mcat-textbooks/

1 comment

  1. CC

    how do you even begin to dissect the questions?? there’s tons of books with lots to say about possible topics, but are there any focused on dissection of questions / specific for mcat strategy ? I need something to help me jump start it.

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