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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.

Motivation

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.

Budget

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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