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Hi there! I'm Kat, Magoosh's MCAT expert. Welcome to this specialized guide for non-traditional med school applicants. Below, you’ll find valuable resources to help you sustain the motivation and focus you’ll need to prepare for the MCAT and ultimately a career in medicine. We’ve emphasized some of the obstacles frequently encountered by nontraditional students and provided tips for overcoming them.
Where should I start?
This guide doesn’t have to be followed in order, so jump around and watch or read what is most relevant to you! We have four video interviews (two physicians and two medical students), a Q&A video with my MCAT tips, key advice for studying for the Chemistry/Physics exam, some free Chemistry & Physics videos and practice drills, and advice for raising your CARS score.
You can also check out our method for reviewing practice exams and watch videos on alleviating anxiety. Last, we’ve included links to a plethora of resources that will help you prep more effectively, locate financial aid opportunities, and gain clinical experience.
We hope you enjoy this guide and that it serves as a helpful stepping stone toward achieving your career goals!
In this video, I explain some of the reasons it can be hard to get in motion when you first start studying for the MCAT, and how nontraditional students often feel isolated in the process. I also answer some of the questions I often receive from students, such as:
How do I get started, especially when I’m not in the rhythm of being a student?
How do I start studying a subject I haven’t seen in 5, 10, or more years?
How can I counter test anxiety?
What should I do if I find myself always running out of time on practice tests?
How do I make the transition from doing mostly content review to answering more practice questions?
If I’ve taken time off or I wasn’t a science major as an undergrad, do I have to perform even better on the MCAT than students who were premed and didn’t take a gap year?
Doctor Roozehra Khan is a COVID ICU/critical care physician and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Western University, College of Osteopathic Medicine. She overcame the obstacles related to lackluster MCAT scores and a low undergraduate GPA to ultimately excel in medical school and create an extremely rewarding career. In this video, Dr. Khan explains some of the key mindsets that nontraditional students should adopt as they prepare for medical school:
Why not to be discouraged if your GPA or MCAT aren’t “competitive” according to conventional formulas.
How test-taking strategies can decrease anxiety and improve reading speed.
The importance of peer support, and how this is particularly imperative for premeds from underrepresented and nontraditional backgrounds.
Why letters of recommendation are the most underestimated aspect of the medical school application, and how aspiring doctors can use this to their advantage.
How Dr. Khan’s Future Doctor’s Formula, in conjunction with Magoosh, is ideal for students who feel isolated and don’t know where to begin.
Kamilah Evans, also known as MedSchoolMilah, is a graduating medical student at New York Medical College and a future OBGYN who will begin residency this summer. She went to Chapman University for her undergraduate studies and had originally majored in sociology before taking a few gap years. In this video, Kamilah discusses the following:
The importance of learning the signs of burn out and reaching out for help
How lack of representation leads to fewer minorities in health professions
MCAT Study recommendations for feeling less alone and not rushing through
In this interview, I interview Dr. Steven Bradley, an anesthesiologist, naval officer, ethics consultant, and host of The Black Doctors Podcast. Doctor Bradley speaks candidly about his unusual path into medicine, beginning as an undergraduate music major. Highlights of this interview include:
Black role models are critically important, and yet our society is very far from achieving that visibility and representation.
Building and sustaining the motivation to enter medical school is hard, but it becomes easier once you start seeing your hard work reflected in your grades and improved skill sets.
When setting aside time to study for the MCAT, it’s important to find a system that works with your lifestyle and work & family obligations.
Students should take one practice exam a week towards the end of their MCAT prep; be patient, because it can take a while to see score improvements.
The public library and your classmates are some of your biggest assets when studying for the MCAT.
Adrienne is a current MD/PhD student at the University of Maryland, a former Army sergeant, and a mom of 3. So basically, she's a superwoman! As a non-traditional MD-PhD student, Adrienne has a wealth of knowledge and advice for aspiring med & PhD students. In this video, she discusses a wide range of topics including:
How she fell in love with science and research
What it's like being an MD/PhD student
The importance of mentorship
Her experience separating from the army as a mom of 3
As you take more practice exams, you’ll inevitably start to develop your own style of pacing, so in the beginning, keep things simple. This is what I recommend:
There are some benefits to answering passages out of order. It gives you a sense of taking charge and it can help you ration your energy. Many students look for the passages they think they’ll be able to answer with confidence, and this can boost their performance for the duration of the exam section. That said, don’t put too much time or thought into the order that you answer questions. It’s a good practice to leave the hard ones for last, but don’t needlessly complicate things.
Try answering the 15 discrete questions of each science section before working on the passages. You might ultimately decide you don’t like this technique and drop it, but it familiarizes you with the exam structure, helps you develop alacrity with the MCAT testing interface (because you have to jump to the places where discrete questions are), and it helps you develop a pacing rhythm for the passages.
Get used to tracking your time the way you will on the actual exam, which means counting down the minutes from 90 (CARS) or 95 (sciences). Get familiar with what your time should look like at certain benchmarks. Assuming that you choose to answer discrete questions first (1 minute each) and you allow 5 minutes at the end to review answers you skipped, your benchmarks will look something like this:
After Passage 2: about 65 minutes left
After Passage 4: about 50 minutes left
After Passage 6: about 35 minutes left
After Passage 8: about 20 minutes left
After Passage 3: about 65 minutes left
After Passage 6: about 35 minutes left
After Passage 8: about 15 minutes left
You can even start each exam section by writing the benchmark times on the dry erase pad provided by the testing center. By that time, you’ll know them by heart, but it’s a good method to stay on track.
Many MCAT students dread preparing for the Chemical/Physical section because it requires you to choose, manipulate, and apply a slew of theories and equations. Oftentimes, students haven’t seen—let alone practiced—these concepts since their first year of college! And a good number of premeds didn’t truly grasp the material the first time around. I’m happy to report that you can reach a place of confidence by slowing down and adopting a mindset of curiosity and patience. Here are my top tips for this section:
1. Write things out by hand
When you’re studying for the Chemical and Physical Foundations Section of the MCAT, you’re going to encounter a lot of diagrams and formulas. Personally, I like to draw everything out. Learning comes from thinking about things in many different ways. Drawing, reading, listening, and speaking are all different ways to engage with the material. The more you engage with it and the more ways you do it, the easier it will be to recall this information later. Online flashcards can be helpful, but some of the most effective studying with flashcards happens when you write a version for yourself. Finding online flashcards can help you have a better idea of what topics to cover and how to organize your notes, but you will deepen your comprehension by rewriting those flashcards yourself.
2. Group concepts together by topic and theme
Organization is also important. Organizing your notes and grouping flashcards together will not only help you find the material to review later, it will also organize the information in your mind. Spending time to look at what information belongs together and what should be separated out is another great way to engage with the material and solidify it in your head.
3. Practice answering simple problems when you first begin
Chemistry and physics rely on applying the information you know to reactions and equations. Memorization isn’t going to be enough to solve a lot of the problems you’ll face. Take time to study your notes and understand the theories behind everything, but don’t forget to practice the applications, because that’s what you’ll be asked to do on practice problems. I know it can be intimidating to jump right into solving problems; To temper overwhelm, you can always focus on a single topic or formula when you start out. For example, spend time just focusing on linear motions: watch a video tutorial on practice problems and then try similar problems with different data or variables. Once you feel comfortable with answering linear motion questions, then you can move on to projectile motion practice problems.
4. Invest time in foundational concepts
With science in general, but especially in chemistry and physics, ideas build on one another. If you have a rocky foundation, it’ll be difficult to build on top of it. If you’re having trouble, try breaking down the subject. What topics within this larger subject are you still struggling with? For example, what part of linear motion is confusing you? Is it really vector addition? Once you have that down, you can move onto the next topic. It’s better to spend a lot of time on the basics than it is to rush through the material and be confused later. If you do become confused, you may not even know what exactly you’re confused about. If you get stuck and don’t know where to start to get unstuck, I recommend taking the time to review everything you have covered so far.
5. Schedule your content review
It can be daunting to look at all the topics you’ll have to cover, but remember, you don’t have to do everything right now! Studying is a marathon, not a sprint. Focus on a topic or two each day and go from there. This is where scheduling comes in handy. You can determine what you want to cover, how you want to cover it, and when. Having a schedule can also help you form effective study habits. The first few days of studying something new are generally the hardest, but it’ll get easier as time goes on and it becomes a part of your routine. Also, keep in mind that you’ll inevitably often get a few days behind or ahead because it’s difficult to anticipate how much review you need on each topic.
To summarize, getting familiar with chemistry and physics is a matter of attending to each topic and looking at it from multiple angles. The more time you spend on a particular concept, the more assured you’ll be on test day! You’ll also experience improvements in your mental/emotional outlook and reduce the likelihood of procrastination. So, give yourself permission to go slowly. Measure your progress against where you started from rather than where you want to get to, taking comfort in knowing that you’re on the path to mastery.
Recommended Chemical/Physical Series in Magoosh
We know there’s a lot of material to cover in the chemistry/physics section of the MCAT. To spare you the agony of figuring out how to get started and what to review first, we’ve done some of the heavy lifting. Check out these 9 concise, high-yield lesson series!
When it comes to CARS, people can become pretty adamant, and you hear a lot of advice with tones that border on “do or die” instruction. In my experience, most techniques work for some students, but there aren’t any magic bullets. For every student who excels by outlining passages, another seems to get tripped out by them. Some students skim the passages quickly, while others don’t skim at all. With that in mind, I’ve focused on the main reasons students don’t see their CARS scores going up along with suggestions for solving the underlying problems.
Reason One: They aren’t familiar enough with CARS
Nobody excels on CARS in the beginning because they haven’t yet learned to think like the test makers. When I started teaching CARS, I faced a huge learning curve because I was used to the ACT and SAT reading passages, which are very different animals. By my estimation, I didn’t start to get a “feel” for the rationale behind CARS questions and answers until I’d worked through 30 or so passages. So you can guess what my first suggestion is:
Do lots of CARS passages! Magoosh has more than 30 CARS passages, and then you have more than 50 passages in the AAMC questions packs and sample test, and 40 that are included in the official full-length exams. There are plenty of other reputable sources for CARS as well, but make sure you choose companies with strong track records.
Read the answer explanations for each question, including questions you answered correctly. This will help you learn how to “think like a CARS writer.” Then, ask yourself, “What would I have had to know or pay attention to in order to arrive at the right answer here?” Don’t think hazily about it, actually articulate this for every question, either by writing it down or speaking aloud. Don’t give a one-word answer. You need to analyze your mistakes in order to develop clarity.
Reason Two: They lose focus while reading
CARS passages are hard to read. Most of them have a jumbled-up style, are purposefully confusing, and are hard on the ears, so to speak. It takes a lot of focus, practice, and energy to stay engaged. Here are some great strategies that have worked for me and for many students I’ve helped along the way:
Pretend the author is giving the speech on the stage of an exciting venue, and you’re listening to them rather than reading. Think of a place that you’d be thrilled to be: An event at the White House or United Nations? A retreat getaway for famous authors? A Nobel Prize awards ceremony? An entertainment celebrity event of some kind? You’re so excited to be part of the experience that you actually want to listen to the talk. Does the author have an age or gender or tone of voice you can bring to mind? It honestly only takes about 2 seconds to bring the scene of a stage and author to mind, and it makes the words easier to assimilate. It also makes it easier to discern a passage’s main point.
Don’t read and reread the first paragraph. This is a well-intentioned practice you probably developed in high school or college because most things you’re assigned in school contain important information in the first and last paragraphs. With the MCAT, it’s common for the first several paragraphs to be descriptive lead-ins to an entirely different point that finally gets articulated at the halfway point or beyond. So pay close attention to every paragraph, including the first, but learn to become comfortable with the idea that you might not really understand what’s going on right away.
To keep your mind from getting cluttered and overwhelmed, before each new passage, take two or three seconds to tap into the present moment. Feel your feet on the ground, then silently say something like, “I can let go of the passage I just did. This is a new beginning.” This helps you build stamina. In time, you’ll halfway believe that you really are at Passage 1 with each new reading they throw at you.
Reason Three: They don’t read answer stem and answer choices carefully
In their frantic efforts to zip through all the passages in 90 minutes, students aren’t always precise when they read the question stems. It’s important to pay close attention to the exact words in front of you:
Read the question stem with hawk eyes, the way you would if you were being asked to sign a contract pertaining to something really important to you. Another way to think of it is being a “defensive reader.” I wish it wasn’t the case, but the exam writers are trying to trick you. They’ll slip in small-but-crucial words that change the meaning of everything and camouflage them with attractive phrases designed to lead you astray. So be methodical.
Here’s something you can try out: whenever you miss a question, see if you can identify exactly one word of the question stem that you either overlooked, misinterpreted, or didn’t treat with precision. It won’t always be one word, sometimes it will be a combination of things, but it’s a great exercise in developing precision while also diagnosing your weaknesses.
When you review your answers, pay attention to the types of questions. Do you tend to miss the comprehension, reasoning-in-text, or reasoning-beyond-text questions? By taking note of this, you become better at diagnosing your weaknesses and honing in on the skills you need to work on.
You've probably heard that taking full-length practice tests is a really important part of studying for the MCAT. Here are my answers to some of the most common questions I receive from students about practice tests.
How often should I take a practice exam?
Throughout the bulk of your MCAT studies, you should be aiming to take at least one full-length practice test each month. The six weeks leading up to your MCAT, you should take a full length practice exam every week or every other week.
Do I need to take all four sections at once? Is it bad to break up the practice exam?
At least three times during your studies, you should take a full-length test without splitting up the sections. One of these should be taken near the beginning of your studies and the other two should be in the final month. For all other practice tests, it is okay to split them up. When possible, tackle two sections at a time so you get used to context switching.
What’s the most effective way to review answers after taking a practice test?
First, realize it will take a long time to go through your answers but that it is time well spent. Consider this review time instrumental to your MCAT studies rather than something “extra” you have to do before going back to studying. Review your answers one section at a time, beginning with the questions you missed. For each of these, make a note of whether you missed the question because you lacked the scientific knowledge needed to arrive at the right answer or if it was a matter of misinterpreting the passage or answer stem. Also take note of any questions you missed due to mathematical errors or because you overlooked important details. Circle or highlight any questions that you feel you still don’t understand despite reading the explanation and make sure you ask a teacher or study partner for help on these.
Once you have gone through all your incorrect answers, read the explanations for the questions you got right because you are likely to learn something new about details contained in one or more of the trap answer choices.
How can I maintain focus and stamina for the entire 7 hours the test requires of me?
As you finish each exam section, mentally put it to rest and don’t look back. Make sure to get your heartrate up on your breaks and consume adequate food and water. To stay focused on boring passages, pretend you are enthralled by the subject matter and can’t wait to get the right answer. You can also try reading aloud or tapping your foot. Most importantly, build your stamina over time and know that it will get easier as you become accustomed to taking long practice tests.
Set aside 7 hours and 30 minutes to take the exam. Get scratch paper and pens, not pencils, because you won’t be using a pencil or erasing anything on the actual MCAT.
On your dashboard, click Practice and select Practice Test.
Once you begin each section, you won’t be able to pause the timer. The first exam section is chemistry, and you’ll see a link to a periodic table you can open in another browser. Now you can push start and begin the exam.
As you go through the exam, you’ll see that all 15 discrete questions (free-standing questions not attached to passages) appear at the beginning of the exam section. Keep in mind that on the actual MCAT, the discrete questions will be scattered throughout the section.
At any point, you can Review Section (bottom left corner) to see a list of all questions and answer status. This page allows you to navigate between questions.
When you are done, click End Section and Submit Answers. The computer will prompt you to take a 10 minute break before moving to the next section. Once you are done with the entire exam, you may review your answers and read the answer explanations.
We’ve created day-by-day study schedules to help you stay on track with your MCAT prep. Each study plan is based on how long you have to study, ranging from 1-month to 6-months. Click here to view all of Magoosh’s MCAT study plans.
If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious about the MCAT - you are not alone! Many students have shared with me that they are feeling really anxious about the MCAT, med school applications, and all the other stresses that come with being a pre-med. Because of this, I put together a guide full of resources and advice for tackling anxiety. Click here to check out our guide.
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, our team of MCAT tutors is here to help - just email firstname.lastname@example.org. Our MCAT tutors have extensive experience supporting pre-med students - and not just with technical questions about amino acids! They can also help you feel less overwhelmed, stay focused, and make the most of your study time.