3 Ways MCAT Prep Differs From College Course Prep

Anyone completing undergraduate premedical coursework is familiar with the demands of challenging and high-stakes testing. Between midterm exams and finals, answering exam questions that require both background knowledge and application of that knowledge may feel like second nature.

But while the skills you develop from taking undergraduate exams can help you on the MCAT, it is important to understand that preparing for undergraduate exams differs from MCAT preparation.

[Read: Why the MCAT Is Harder Than Your Typical College Exam.]

For example, you may have been able to get away with cramming for your finals in college, but due to the wider scope of MCAT questions, abbreviated study time can lead to low scores. Before you make the mistake of treating MCAT prep like preparing for your usual course prep, review these three ways in which the MCAT differs from the kinds of assessments you have already taken.

The MCAT covers material outside of that taught in lectures. Undergraduate exams generally cover material presented in class — and typically do not extend beyond this content. In addition, course syllabi and objectives help to clarify what students should focus on when preparing for assessments.

While the Association of American Medical Colleges provides review materials and outlines for test-takers, you may find the list of assessed topics to be more vague than those in your regular courses. Furthermore, some topics covered on the MCAT may not have been presented in your premedical courses at all, requiring you to master these concepts independently.

[Read: Why the MCAT Matters Beyond Medical School Admissions.]

Unlike undergraduate courses that provide lectures, problem sets and labs dedicated to teaching you relevant material, preparation for the MCAT includes heavy emphasis on self-directed learning. You may find that reviewing course notes or even dedicated MCAT review materials is not enough to help you learn a subject, in which case you must seek out learning materials yourself and apply them to the exam as needed.

The MCAT spans several subjects, which are not tested in a discrete manner. An undergraduate course in general chemistry is expected to cover only general chemistry in its exams. In contrast, the MCAT is interdisciplinary, covering social sciences, humanities, biology, chemistry and physics all at once. Though the test is broken into four general sections, overlap between subjects should be expected by test-takers.

For instance, a passage about biology may be associated with a question covering an organic chemistry concept, prompting students to interrelate the two subjects in a novel way. Preparing for the MCAT requires that you practice broadening your view when approaching test questions, never assuming that topics will be conveniently grouped as they were in your undergraduate courses.

Test strategies that may have worked for your undergraduate classes may not work on the MCAT. MCAT questions are written in a prescriptive format, with questions and passages featuring both extraneous and relevant information to sort through.

Even though your undergraduate courses may have relied upon multiple-choice assessments, you may find MCAT questions to be longer, less reliant on pure recall and more application-based than those on your usual exams.

Further, the MCAT does not have any open-ended prompts, so partial credit, though available in many undergraduate assessments, is not given.

[Read: What Is a Good MCAT Score?]

Becoming adept at quickly finding relevant information in dense passages, identifying extraneous information in question stems and elucidating exactly what each question is asking are all skills specific to success on the MCAT. Your undergraduate exams may have given you a solid foundation on which to build your test-taking skills, but relying solely on these general skills may not beget your desired MCAT score.

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