Is it really necessary to take an MCAT diagnostic test first, or should you jump right into studying? This blog includes insight into why it is essential to take an MCAT diagnostic test before beginning your MCAT preparations. It may seem like an inconvenient extra step, but taking the time to understand where you stand before you start studying for the MCAT will ensure that you can create the most effective MCAT study schedule and that you will walk into your MCAT ready to ace it!
Here's what you'll learn:
Although there are some medical schools that don't require the MCAT, most of them do. So when you are ready to embark on months of MCAT preparation, you are probably asking yourself, do I really need to take a diagnostic MCAT first? With each full-length practice exam taking seven and a half hours to complete, this may seem like a time consuming, and unnecessary, step. However, it is critical to take an MCAT diagnostic test before you start your deep dive into MCAT preparation. Why? It is important to determine your baseline MCAT score. In other words, what do you know today? How can you know what you need to study, if you do not have a good understanding of what your strengths and weaknesses are? It is critical to get to know yourself as an MCAT test taker and to do this as soon as possible! The MCAT is also different from exams you have taken up until this time, both in length and the amount of content it covers, so you should not rely on how you did on other exams as a proxy. The only way to know your baseline performance is to do a full-length MCAT.
Try not to stress about taking your diagnostic MCAT; don’t worry about trying to ace your diagnostic, the goal is just to understand exactly where you stand. It can be daunting to think about getting a bad score on your diagnostic and this feeling causes many students to postpone this important step. This is a mistake – the earlier you take your diagnostic test, the better you can use the rest of your time preparing for the MCAT! Every day that you delay taking your diagnostic MCAT exam is one more day that you are potentially ineffectively preparing for an exam that you are unfamiliar with.
“I’m not ready to take a full-length MCAT yet because I have not reviewed all the content.” This is a common mindset that will prevent you from starting your MCAT preparation on the right foot. Sure, you have heard that the MCAT is a challenging exam, but you cannot fully understand what it feels like to take an MCAT until you have actually done it yourself.
When exactly should you take your diagnostic MCAT test? It is important to take your diagnostic test when you are actually ready to start preparing for the MCAT. It is not recommended to take a diagnostic test in your first year of college, or at a time when you have not yet completed the required prerequisite course work, or when you are not ready to really start preparing for the MCAT. Think of the diagnostic MCAT as your first day of MCAT preparation. Only take it when you are ready to start down that path.
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It is essential that your diagnostic MCAT test is a full-length practice exam that is true to the format and complexity of the actual MCAT exam. If like many, you're wondering "How hard is the MCAT?" review our blog for everything you need to know. To start with, you must try out each of the MCAT sections, including the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section. It is also essential that your diagnostic test is one that will allow you to get an approximate MCAT score at the end so you know where you stand. Use a score converter to obtain your scaled score from the number of questions you answered correctly.
For your diagnostic MCAT, we recommend using a full-length practice MCAT from the AAMC website. Take this practice exam in one sitting with breaks and, ideally, in an environment that mimics test-day conditions. This is the best way to ensure that your baseline score is accurate, to see how you cope with the grueling test length, and to ensure that the study schedule you create will effectively address your gaps in knowledge and test-taking strategies.
If the AAMC practice tests are the most representative of the real MCAT, shouldn’t I save them for later in my MCAT practice? No, it is best to start your MCAT preparation by getting a look at official MCAT questions. Saving all of the official AAMC practice tests until the end of your MCAT preparation is a mistake because you will not truly know what you are up against. If you do not see any official MCAT questions until the month of your MCAT, you may find that your practice was not as effective as you had hoped, and, at that point, it may be too late to switch gears. Bookend your MCAT practice with official AAMC practice tests so you can see how you are progressing with the most complex, and true to format, practice materials. This will give you the means to measure the effectiveness of your study tactics.
Your diagnostic test results will guide your MCAT preparations by indicating which content areas, and question types, you will need to focus on the most. Use your diagnostic test to start a “mistakes log.” Throughout your MCAT studying, you will need to keep track of questions you miss and concepts with which you are struggling. After reviewing your diagnostic test, can you see any patterns in the types of questions you are missing or in content areas that you need to brush up on? By taking some time to reflect on your performance, you can focus your content review on topics that will allow you to see the most improvement.
Be honest with yourself in pinpointing your knowledge gaps and in determining how much time you will need to devote to studying. Most students will need several months to adequately prepare for the MCAT and to complete enough practice to ensure confidence on test day. In addition to your overall MCAT score, take a good look at your performance on the CARS section of your diagnostic test. Some admissions committees place a great deal of importance on CARS and all medical schools like to see applicants that can perform well on each of four MCAT sections, not just excellence in the science-based sections. Have a look at an MCAT CARS practice passage in our blog to help you prepare for this section of the test.
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1. When can I feel confident that I am ready to take the MCAT?
If you have been studying for the MCAT for a few weeks, you may be feeling like you will never be ready to take the MCAT. Preparing for the MCAT is a significant task and it can take months to adequately prepare. Have a look at our blog to learn when to start studying for the MCAT. If you are a few weeks in or even a couple of months in, remember that you still have ample time to prepare and to build your confidence for test day. How can you gauge if you are ready to take the MCAT? Take a look at your diagnostic MCAT score and the scores you have been earning on your most recent full-length practice exams. Are you still improving, or have your scores plateaued? Continue to study as long as your MCAT scores continue to improve. If your MCAT score stabilizes, it is a good idea to take the exam, as long as your score range is acceptable to you. When you consistently score within your desired score range at least 3 times in a row, you can feel confident that you are ready to take the MCAT!
2. What does the MCAT look like? Is the MCAT all multiple choice?
The MCAT utilizes a multiple-choice format designed to test your knowledge in interdisciplinary subjects including biology, biochemistry, general and organic chemistry, physics, sociology, psychology, and critical analysis and reasoning. If you have questions about the MCAT format, taking a diagnostic test is the best way to understand what you will be facing on test day.
3. What if my diagnostic MCAT score is really low?
Do your best not to worry about your diagnostic MCAT score. The score you earn at the beginning of your MCAT preparation is not a limitation on the score you will earn once you have dedicated several months to MCAT preparation. Take this opportunity to learn early on in your MCAT preparation! If you feel that you will need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it! The path to becoming a physician is a long and challenging one and you are not the first person to go down this path. Reach out to friends that are also preparing for the MCAT, check if your college offers any free MCAT preparation, or enroll in an MCAT prep course. It is important to ensure that you have a support system in place as you embark on months of studying for the MCAT. Remember, the diagnostic exam is a starting point designed to show you where you stand and to help you craft an effective study schedule. You have the potential for huge improvement, so dig your heels in and get started!
4. What if I ace my diagnostic MCAT? Do I even need to study?
If you aced your diagnostic MCAT test – congratulations! Does this mean that you do not need to study and that you can sign up right away to take the MCAT? Not necessarily. Each MCAT is different, so you want to be sure that your high diagnostic score was not due to chance. It is possible that the questions on your diagnostic were suited to your particular knowledge base or that you got lucky with some questions on which you made educated guesses. Aim to take the MCAT when you consistently score in the 90th percentile or above several times in a row. If you achieve this, you are ready for the real thing! It’s also possible that you recently completed a course in a relevant content area, but that doesn’t mean you will remember it months later on your actual test day. So, you must keep studying.
5. Should I really use an AAMC practice test as a diagnostic, or should I save these for later in my MCAT preparation?
Your goal in taking a full-length MCAT diagnostic test should be to get a realistic understanding of where you stand before embarking on in-depth MCAT preparation. How will you be able to get a true understanding of where you stand, and what your strengths and weaknesses are if you are not using an official AAMC practice MCAT? For this reason, we strongly recommend that the first MCAT practice test you take, your diagnostic test, is a full-length test from the AAMC website. Also, keep in mind that you can definitely repeat practice passages from your diagnostic MCAT as you study. Simply leave several weeks in between, as this will give you enough time to come back to each practice section with fresh eyes.
6. Can I take a half-length MCAT as my diagnostic exam?
If you choose not to take a full-length practice exam as your diagnostic MCAT, you must be sure that your diagnostic is still representative of the format, and the rigor, of an actual MCAT exam. Be sure that your shorter diagnostic still contains practice passages from each of the four MCAT sections and that you are still taking each section timed, and in an environment that mimics test day conditions. It is also essential that your diagnostic test is one that will allow you to get an approximate MCAT score at the end so you know where you stand. Taking a half-length MCAT as your diagnostic exam will only be effective if it gives you an accurate picture of where you stand as you begin your MCAT preparations.
7. What if I have been out of school for a while or I am a non-traditional medical school applicant? Should I still take a diagnostic MCAT before I start studying?
If you have been out of school for a few years, preparing for the MCAT can be especially challenging since your medical school prerequisites will not be as fresh. As a non-traditional applicant, your coursework may not have focused on the core sciences. If either of these circumstances apply to you, be sure to plan ahead and leave yourself enough time to complete a thorough study plan for the MCAT. Since you are feeling rusty, or unprepared, in the content areas covered on the MCAT, you may be wondering if it is still recommended to take a diagnostic MCAT exam on day one of your MCAT preparation? Or would it be better to study first, then take a diagnostic? It is still recommended that you take a diagnostic MCAT exam before jumping into studying for the MCAT. It is essential that you get a look at the format of the MCAT, how the questions are being asked, and that you have an understanding of which content areas you will need to focus on as your study. Maybe you remember more biochemistry than you thought? If you do not have a science background, the diagnostic test may reveal that you will benefit from taking core science courses or pursuing a postbaccalaureate program designed to get you up to speed on the science knowledge base you will need for the MCAT. How can you know what you need to study, and where you stand if you have never taken an MCAT? With a long road ahead of you, it is essential to get to know yourself as an MCAT test taker – and to do this as soon as possible!
8. What if I already started preparing and I have not done a full-length MCAT yet?
Don’t panic. A full-length exam is a key part of your preparation but if you have already begun preparing in other ways, you can still do the diagnostic. Set aside time in the next week to complete a full-length MCAT exam and go through the steps above of identifying your strengths and weaknesses.
9. Should I do all the full-length exams right away?
After completing your diagnostic, we recommend giving yourself time to study the content and work on CARS prior to sitting another full-length right away. The diagnostic is just one step and is useful to actually identify and work on any weaknesses you have, so don’t feel the need to just complete full-lengths back-to-back.
10. Can I come back and review questions from the diagnostic later?
Yes, this is a great idea! Give yourself several weeks in between to study and you can come back to the passages you completed on the diagnostic and see if you feel more comfortable answering them now. Do note, though, that you should not just use 1 single full-length over and over, but try to take several of them over your course of study so you get used to seeing different passages and questions.
We have set the record straight – you must take a diagnostic MCAT exam before starting your MCAT preparation, and not just any diagnostic exam, a full-length AAMC practice test taken under realistic testing conditions. Now that you know the benefits of starting day one of your MCAT preparation with a diagnostic test, go for it! Don't forget to have a look at MCAT test dates so once you're ready, you can register for the test. As you take this important first step, remember that this is just the beginning of your MCAT journey. As Tim Hiller said, “don't compare your beginning to someone else's middle, or your middle to someone else's end.” Your journey is unique to you; take it one step at a time.
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