Some thoughts on the MCAT

It seems like a long time ago already that I took the MCAT. Ever since then - even before I got my score back - I’ve wanted to do a full writeup, a way of sharing what I learned. I actually had this vision of a pretty long and thorough breakdown of the exam.

Despite my best intentions, and my outlines for about seven “chapters” worth of info, I only really completed one of em. It’s probably more verbose than it needs to be - just like this prologue . Still, I’m going to post it here, so that hopefully it’ll be of use to some folks. And if I don’t complete a full writeup of the other sections, I’m still hoping to at least post some thoughts in the future.

I hope this helps.

One of the rare good decisions I made during my initial undergrad was to study abroad. While at a francophone university in Avignon, France, I took a course in French Cinema.

The films we watched were, of course, in French. The course was taught in French. We gave our reports in French.

It was assumed that we could understand and reproduce the language; the challenge was applying it to movies from “La Haïne” to “La Goût des Autres” (the former, by the way, you must watch. It’s a damn fine film, dark and pensive). The class wasn’t about the language. It was about the cinema.

Science is the language of the MCAT. Without an understanding of it, you’ll be lost. It’s assumed that you can reproduce it, or at least translate and apply. But the test isn’t about the language it’s in – it’s about how you apply it.

Language – French or science – is the prerequisite for each. They’re not the subjects, though; they’re just the media.

“French Cinema” was a course on film, using French as a medium.

The MCAT is an analytical thinking test using the language of science.

The analogy isn’t perfect; on the MCAT, there are some questions that are simple declarative tidbits. Even those, though, are most often hidden in the language, buried in jargon and red herrings. To get to the core of the exam – to find what you’re really being tested on – you need to find the useful bits and learn to play with em.

I think that one of the biggest mistakes made by MCAT takers is treating the exam like a test of scientific knowledge. IMHO, it’s not. Rote memorization will only get you to the first hill. The rest of it depends on your insight and analysis.

I couldn’t tell you how to hone your analytical skills in the 3-6 months you’ll likely prepare for the exam. For me, I lean towards developing them as my overall approach. I find it makes things a lot clearer to understand as best I can – and things stick better, too. It’s how you can boil down all of organic chemistry into the concepts of energy and stability, or how you can predict the effects of Central Cord Syndrome, even if you’ve never heard of it before.

Of course, you won’t get far in organic or anatomy without some degree of rote memorization. I just find that I understand things much better if I also spend some time thinking about the “why” and the “how” – and that, I think, is what the MCAT is looking for, as well.

From my perspective, the MCAT isn’t a science exam. It’s a critical thinking test that happens to be in the language of science. I think that approaching it as such can really help people better understand it and better prepare for it.

superb analysis. I wholeheartedly agree.


Dang fine write-up Adam.

Very well stated Adam. If I may, I would to add a bit - my perspective on the MCAT & its applicability to being a practicing physician.

Like everyone here, I sweated bullets trying to prepare for the MCAT. A component of that process - far more valuable than I anticipated it being - was a Princeton Review prep course. Now do not misinterpret this as an ad or an unfettered endorsement of TPR. The most valuable, CRITICAL concept I picked up in the TPR course was not the factoids & not even their very useful test taking strategies - it was the repeated exposure to the MCAT itself & the realization that the MCAT is NOT a test of factual recall. Probably 99.99% of the exams you have taken since 1st grade are focuse upon data recall & possibly some element of application. The MCAT is all about the process of application.

In its essence, you are responsible for bringing a ‘fund of knowledge’ of the basic sciences to the testing session. The kindly MCAT-folks supply a passage(s) of additional data, not all of which may be applicable, and a set of questions. YOUR TASK is to sift through the passages, filter through the supplied in the context of your fund of knowledge & apply this combined data set to derive a cogent model that answers the questions posed. This is no easy task & poses a level of challenge at least an order of magnitude, maybe even 2 or 3 orders, more difficult than simply regurgitating facts.

In my opinion - derived from years of listening to lamenting pre-meds over floundering on the MCAT - the most common mistake in MCAT-prep is to ignore the true nature of the exam by focusing on factual recall. It has not & will not work. It is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Furthermore, like every other person who has suffered through the MCAT & subsequently gained entry to medical school, I have pissed & maoned at how the MCAT had ZIPPO to do with medical school. However, looking back - hindsight is always 20/20 - the MCAT is probably the most representative of the exams I have taken as to what I actually do as a physician. Shocked? Yes, I was too when I realized it.

I bring to the bedside a ‘fund of knowledge’, just like you should for the MCAT. The patient provides me with a large amount of data, all of which does not apply to the questions at hand, just like the passages of the MCAT. My challenge is take these two data sets, filter them through my knowledge base to derive a cogent, clinically-applicable model as to what is going on with this patient & then make decisions based upon this process. Of course, there are major differences - as a physician, I do not get 4 or 5 options from which to choose, my patient has most likely never read the “rule books” I have invested 13 years of my life learning, there are no rules of engagement & finally, the stakes are immensely higher when you are working with living, breathing people.

So, while you are all lamenting the MCAT, take heed in that the MCAT-process is directly applicable to what you will be doing over & over, day in & day out as a physician. If this sort of intellectual challenge does not ‘melt your butter’, then maybe you would be wise to consider other professions, both within & outside of medicine.

I have never heard the MCAT described in such beauty and majesty! Seriously, it was very enlightening to read, especially since I am really having to prepare “big-time” to take it June 13. I still am not sure how to review such a vast quantity of material, but with all these comments, I am starting to see it in a different light and with more hope (memorization, bad and reasoning, well, better!). Thank you, thank you - you have all helped me! Any other comments, advice, insight, etc. welcome!


Virtually every person I have known who struggled with the MCAT did not suffer from a lack of knowledge - they did not understand the true nature of what was expected of them. In fact, in my opinion, a gross deficiency of the US public school system is that the focus on “teaching & learning” is predominantly factual recall & not interpretation/applicatio n. The latter mandates a much deeper mastery of the material. The former rewards the folks who able to regurgitate factoids. We affectionately called it ‘bulemic learning’ in med school - and you will have to do a lot of that too!

Anyhow, the reason I mentioned my opinion on the US-edu system is that those who struggle on the MCAT usually respond to it first by chastising themselves for not remembering more - and usually chaulk it up to ‘memory blockage under duress’ - and then confine themselves to the punishment of “I must work harder to memorize more & be able to better recall”. The sad irony is, if they sat & pondered why they underperformed they should see that their downfall was not factual recall, but an inability to integrate their knowledge base with novel data & congeal them into a cogent, workable model from which to draw conclusions.

Best of luck & success to you all who are sweating the Beast!

  • In reply to:
The sad irony is, if they sat & pondered why they underperformed they should see that their downfall was not factual recall, but an inability to integrate their knowledge base with novel data & congeal them into a cogent, workable model from which to draw conclusions.

I would echo Dave's above response wholeheartedly.

The best thing one can do before any standardized exam is come to an understanding of what the questions asked truly represent. Once you do this you are able to apply a strategy that will work for you.

If you are looking for such a plan, don't miss this year's conference presentation by Dr. Francis Ihejirika. I know his plan worked well for me, and I think if you listen to his approach, you will soon find yourself 'clicking and moving' through your MCAT and future medical school board exams with a great more confidence and ease.

Best of luck to all!

Great analogy, If only i had seen this before my test last week.

OMD has presented the best analogy I’ve heard to describe the MCAT. The MCAT was about understanding how to make informed guesses–you take the material presented, mix it with your “fund of knowledge” (I really like that) and some perspective on what the test writers consider fair game, and pick the one answer that fits. The closest I’ve come in my professional life was what everyone calls “Troubleshooting”; getting to the root of a problem through the process of elimination. I’d give more specifics in relation to my recent MCAT, but to do so would divulge too much information about test questions. Suffice it to say that one particular problem was presented in an overly complex manner, but realizing that, of the data presented, only one response could fit (even though I didn’t have a deep enough knowledge of the underlying formulas), I could make an accurate guess about the correct answer.

Let me also reinforce that you need to take real tests. For me the AAMC tests were key, but YMMV. Just develop the ability to winnow out the correct information from the logic puzzle they present, and you’ll do well.

  • OldManDave Said:
The sad irony is, if they sat & pondered why they underperformed they should see that their downfall was not factual recall, but an inability to integrate their knowledge base with novel data & congeal them into a cogent, workable model from which to draw conclusions

After taking the MCAT 5X, and with the realization that many people who have low MCAT's (21-23) go on to become great doctors, I don't think integration and application of information is a problem for folks at all.

IMHO, people are so throughly "imtimidated" by the test that the loose the ability to accurately focus/analyze on the questions being asked during the test. It reminds me of my first day in OChem when the prof began the class with the speech "look to your left, that person is going to drop this class. Now look to your right, that person is going to flunk this class". And at 19, I sitting there thinking, "Oh shit, I'm sitting to the left AND right of somone". Needless to say, I ended up repeating the class.

It's ALL a mind thing (with through prep of course). Conquer that and you're good!

Since I was re-reading this post, I just wanted to emphasize what OMD said. Even as I’m struggling through my first year of med school, I’m seeing how right he is.

It’s true that there’s a whole asston of straight memorization that I’m doing now. The good questions, though, aren’t just asking that. They really want you to try to apply your “knowledge fund” to novel information, or at least have enough of the fund available to make change without thinking about it. You could memorize how many different ways you can make change for $1.00, or you can memorize the value of the coins and build from that each time you’re asked to make change.

Ok, I just totally butchered OMD’s analogy. Sorry about that .

Still, I can definitely see how the real applications of all of this stuff is going to be integrative, rather than rote. If it were just rote and/or deterministic, my Epocrates database would be as useful as any physician. And that’s clearly not the case.