How Teachers Can Help Students Prepare for the MCAT

December 4, 2019

Students who are interested in becoming medical doctors often start by taking the MCAT. The MCAT, or Medical College Admissions Test, is the standardized test used to measure a student’s knowledge and reasoning skills before their admission to a rigorous medical program. For many of your students, it will be the most extensive exam they have taken to date. By implementing various teaching strategies and sharing helpful resources educators can help students better prepare for the MCAT exam.

The MCAT is an all-day exam and runs for 7.5 hours, including breaks. Scores on the 230-question test range from 472 to 528. Getting students prepared for an entire day of test-taking isn’t just about covering the material, it’s about diligent teaching and finding learning methods that work for your individual students.

You can help your students succeed with these simple tips, tricks, and strategies.

Start with Good Study Habits

Giving students the right habits before the test is one way to help them earn the highest possible score. In addition to boosting MCAT scores, good study habits also help boost a student’s GPA, creating a more attractive package to medical colleges. Medical school admission doesn’t just depend on MCAT scores, after all—a student’s grades throughout college will play a role. Students with a high GPA are more likely to be admitted, even with a lower MCAT score.

Encouraging good study habits can pay off in a major way for your students, both in the context of the MCAT and beyond. These are a few proven ways to help students get their studying skills up to par.

Creating a Timeline Helps Prepare Students for the MCAT

Students who study for between 200-300 hours tend to score well on the MCAT. With that in mind, it is crucial to give students an idea of exactly how many hours they should put into their exam preparation.

Students might juggle a part-time job, at least 12 credits in ongoing classes, and social obligations, all while gearing up for the MCAT. Busy schedules don’t leave a lot of time to prepare for a test. Encourage students to start their test prep early—at least three months in advance—and cover all of the test materials in a way that makes the most sense for them. Have students think about their most successful study methods and apply those to their MCAT preparation.

The MCAT covers four major areas:

  • 1.) Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Things
  • 2.) Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • 3.) Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • 4.) Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

When developing a timeline, put together a list of topics and an estimated number of study hours. Break that down into daily and weekly commitments.

Teaching Effective Study Methods To Prepare for MCAT Exams

At the college level, many students have already developed study habits that work for them, but you can introduce methodologies that are specific to the MCAT. Break knowledge into bite-sized pieces and work on each subject for a short period every week leading up to the exam.

While students can take the exam more than once, medical colleges often look at both scores and may take an average. Also, there are lifetime limits on the number of times a prospective doctor can sit for the exam. For this reason, it’s ideal to ensure students are properly prepared the first time around to get the highest possible score.

Identify and Fill in Knowledge Gaps

The knowledge aspiring doctors need for a successful application to medical school is cumulative. As an academic mentor, the first step in preparing students for the MCAT is often determining what they don’t know. Before you and your students can create a plan for the test, you need to know what knowledge they have and what areas need improvement. Here are some helpful ways to locate and fill those gaps in your students’ knowledge.

Start with a Diagnostic Exam

Having a baseline is essential. A practice exam reveals areas where students might need extra help and preparation before taking the graded MCAT. It also gives test-takers a better idea of what exam day will look like, reducing fear and turning the exam into something familiar.

Analyze Performance and Weaknesses

After delivering the first practice exam, score it, and look for areas that can be most easily improved. MCAT exams provide scores in 5 segments. Each test receives its score, and then the total score is calculated. If students score well in most areas, focus teaching efforts on the single area where they fall short. A well-rounded score is often perceived more favorably by medical college recruiters.

Recommend Classes to Retake, if Necessary

If students have a severe deficit, you may recommend that they retake a class or two. Since MCAT preparation happens during school enrollment, it may also mean that a student has yet to take a basic course. Be sure to mentor them and assist them in finding the right classes to address significant knowledge gaps. Anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, and other advanced science courses are constructive.

How to prepare for MCAT

Familiarize Students with Test-Taking Methods

The MCAT is a particularly demanding exam, but even run-of-the-mill tests can throw good students for a loop. A student who might otherwise be a knowledgeable presence in class might struggle to express that knowledge effectively in a standardized testing format. The best way to ensure your students can most-effectively showcase their abilities during the MCAT is by getting them accustomed to the MCAT’s specific testing process.

Here are a few ways you can get students comfortable with the testing process.

Incorporating Standardized Tests into the Classroom

Standardizing your tests makes it easier to grade exams and gives students more experience with next-level testing. Unless you are teaching a prep class specific for the MCAT or solely working with pre-med students, many of your pupils may likely have plans that involve challenging exams (LSAT, CPA exam, etc.). All students can benefit from more familiarity with standardized testing methods.

Using Timed and Multiple-Choice Tests

To best mimic MCAT testing methods, have students take tests via a digital portal and institute strict time limits. Once the time is up, students can no longer answer questions in a completed section. Get students used to managing their time and answering questions quickly and with confidence.

Performing Test Reviews

After the test is over, print out the questions and answer sheets for each student. Give them a hard copy to look at and review each item. By looking more carefully at missed answers, students can cement the knowledge and avoid turning that mistake into a habit. Advanced study, followed by a practice exam and then an exam review, is a highly effective method for covering all of the material in the MCAT exam.

Reinforce Class Material

When preparing students for the MCAT, it’s not enough to just teach the material. The information given to them needs to stay fresh in students’ minds for months at a time, which requires lots of reinforcement. Here are a few ways to make sure students fully absorb the material ahead of the test which will help them prepare for the MCAT.

Offering Refresher Courses

A test prep class that homes in on MCAT topics is often a good idea for prospective medical students. Some students may not have completed upper-level science courses and other material that is usually covered by the test. Anatomy, physiology, psychology, immunology, and other biology courses may be on the schedule for a future year. Help students with the MCAT by providing laser-focused learning.

Focusing on Vocabulary

Many questions on the MCAT can seem obscure when the examinee doesn’t understand the vocabulary. Some of the exam’s language is highly specific and may relate only to the study of DNA or biochemistry, like enzyme names or particular stains of a gene or virus. Students must also have a solid grasp of famous theories in each area. For example, John Bowlby’s attachment theory and Milton Gordon’s assimilation theory may both make an appearance on the test.

Diving Deep into Medical Terminology

Medical terminology, and more specifically, anatomy, is a necessary part of MCAT preparation. An extensive vocabulary that covers the Latin names of all the parts of the body is crucial when preparing for medical school. Developing that vocabulary takes many hours of study time, and students can always use more exposure.

Providing Plenty of Practice

There’s no such thing as too much practice. The more times students take the MCAT practice exams, the more insight you get into their current performance level and how to improve their scores when it comes time for the real test. Source practice exams from several sources. Different practice exam producers approach questions from a slightly different angle and may enable a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. Plan to administer at least three practice tests using the following schedule:

  • 1.) The first practice test provides the baseline and should be taken at the beginning of the test-prep process. It helps create the study guide you will use to mentor examinees throughout the process.
  • 2.) The second practice test should be offered mid-way through the prep period. For students who have six months of scheduled prep time, provide the test at three months. For those with only three months, deliver the exam at the six-week mark. The second practice test shows where students have improved and lets you make adjustments to prepare for the actual exam.
  • 3.) The last practice test should happen about a week before the graded exam. It is this test that will likely most closely mimic final scores on the examination. For students who are still struggling, this is the test that might encourage them to reschedule the exam and put in more study time before the test.

Remember, three tests are a minimum. For students with the time, a weekly or monthly practice exam is an option that should be taken advantage of. Many practice tests are much shorter than the actual exam, allowing you to offer more frequent testing samples. If you are doing topical studies, you can also provide a practice review from a single segment of the exam, breaking up practice tests over several days.

Reminding Students They Can Retest

Students who don’t score as well as they expect may need a gentle reminder to continue studying and retake the exam. While colleges see all scored tests, improvement can be a mitigating factor. An examinee who scored 500 the first time and bumped up to 515 on a retake has a better chance for acceptance to medical school than one who stopped after the first test.

Conclusion: Be Adaptable and Flexible

No two students are alike. When creating strategies to help your pre-med students succeed, it’s important to be prepared to adjust your teaching methods.

Getting prospects familiar with the exam format is helpful, but it doesn’t replace knowledge delivery. As an instructor, you must do both. Work with struggling students to find study formats that help. Some students might need more hands-on learning opportunities, while others do fine with a lecture model. Experiment to find out which types of learning are most effective for your students.

Also, offer counseling to help find more time for studying. Time is often the most significant barrier to success on the MCAT. If you and your students can carve out 300 hours of study time to prepare for the MCAT, a good score is well within reach.

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