Is it necessary to start with an MCAT diagnostic test or should you jump right into studying? We’ll discuss why it’s essential to always take an MCAT diagnostic test before designing your MCAT study schedule. It may seem inconvenient but taking the time to understand your baseline at the outset will make everything that follows much easier, and drastically improve your chances at a good MCAT score.
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Why Should I Take an MCAT Diagnostic Test?
Although there are some medical schools that don't require the MCAT, most of them do. Since it’s a grueling, day-long exam, you’ll need to plan your study schedule well ahead of time in order to perform well. Additionally, you want to do everything you can to avoid needing to retake the MCAT, so making sure you optimize your study plan is essential. You don’t want to have to do all this again a few months later!
If you are wondering how to study for the MCAT and where to start, you are not alone. When you’re ready to embark on your months of preparation you’ll assuredly wonder where to start. However, no matter what your timeframe is or what you need to focus on during your studying, the first step is always the same: a full-length MCAT diagnostic test. With each full-length practice exam taking seven and a half hours to complete, this may seem like an unnecessarily time consuming step, but a good diagnostic test is completely necessary. Why? A proper diagnostic test that mimics the structure and length of the actual MCAT will give you an accurate measure of your current knowledge, without which you’d only be guessing at what you need to review and improve upon. 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 truly accurate way to gauge your baseline performance is to do a full-length MCAT that covers each of the MCAT’s sections, which are:
You may feel unready to take a diagnostic test before reviewing content in each of these areas, but this is the wrong attitude.. Performing well on the diagnostic is not important—you simply want to know where you’re at now, and then proceed from here with clear and comprehensive knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses. Although “at the outset” is the general rule for when to take your diagnostic MCAT, more specifically you should only take it when you’re truly ready to start preparing. Don’t take it on a whim during your first year of college, nor at any other time before you’ve completed your important introductory-level medical school prerequisites in chemistry, biology, physics, and so on. Think of the diagnostic MCAT as your first day of official MCAT preparation, and only take it when you’re ready to begin the work in earnest.
Which MCAT Diagnostic Test is the Best?
As noted, the best diagnostic MCAT is one that matches or replicates the actual test, right down to the ratios of questions per subject. Before you start making study plans, you’ll need answers to basic questions like “How hard is the MCAT?” and “How long is the MCAT?”, and the best way to really internalize this information is with a comprehensive diagnostic test. Part of this is also providing yourself with an approximate MCAT score so you know where you stand, allowing you to use a score converter to obtain your scaled score from the number of correct answers.
We recommend using one of the AAMC’s full-length practice MCAT exams. 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.
Need MCAT study help? Check out our video to learn the strategies we teach our students:
If the AAMC practice tests are the most representative of the real MCAT, shouldn’t you save them for later in my MCAT practice? Nope! To best determine how to study for the MCAT you’ll need to 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 didn’t see any official MCAT questions until the month of your exam, 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. Punctuate 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. In our 6-month study schedule, we recommend taking between 8-10 full-length MCAT exams throughout your study period, with one at the beginning and end, and other regularly scheduled throughout your months of prep to establish your progress on a regular basis. This will give you the means to measure the effectiveness of your study tactics.
What’s on an MCAT Diagnostic Test?
A full length diagnostic MCAT will include approximate proportions of questions for each subtopic in each section. This will break down as follows:
Section 1: Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
Section 2: Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
Section 3: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
Section 4: Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
As you can see, you’ll be answering various kinds of MCAT Chemistry and MCAT Physics questions first, followed by CARS, MCAT biology questions, and then ending with the MCAT Psychology section. Although you’ll eventually move into specialized study and practice in each of these sections, possibly with a question bank, MCAT prep course, or MCAT tutor, you want to begin by experiencing the test in its full breadth and complexity, and a properly structured diagnostic test will provide this experience.
Want a recap on MCAT diagnostic test basics? Check out our video:
A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Use Your Diagnostic Test Score to Design Your Study Schedule
Step 1: Begin Your Mistakes Log
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. Using your diagnostic test results, 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, and this all begins with the diagnostic test. It's crucial to keep each practice test's mistake log organized—you don't want to keep one unbroken log that doesn't identify when a given mistake occurred, so consider creating separate mistake logs for each exams, starting with the diagnostic, for easier comparison. The most important part of your mistakes log is detail, so be sure to include not only what section the mistake occurred in, but try to provide a more specific category like "enzyme function" or "electrostatics." This may be difficult at first, but applying these categories in itself will help you better understand the information you're trying to learn. 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.
Step 2: Identify Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Once you've identified each mistake on your diagnostic test and recorded it, you can begin identifying larger patterns in your mistakes log to help you proportion your studying. 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. Additionally, devising a good MCAT CARS strategy will require months of work, and will include reading challenging material unrelated to the rest of the content on the MCAT. Be sure to factor in this extra reading time for CARS prep.
Step 3: Consult Your Diagnostic and its Mistakes Log Regularly
As you’ll utilize additional practice or diagnostic tests throughout your months of preparation, you can compare your results on these successive exams to your initial diagnostic to gauge your overall progress. Again, keeping things organized will give you a clearer and more accessible picture of your progress.
You want to see consistent progress from the first to second and third practice exams, but as you continue on in your study plan this progress may slow. If your scores begin to stagnate or plateau at an acceptable level—around the 90th percentile—you may be ready to take the exam. If they’re stagnating at an unacceptable level, take a look at the subject or section scores from your diagnostic exams and determine what sections need more work, and adjust your study schedule accordingly. If this is in the back half of your preparation plan, you can simply change which sections you’re spending time practicing, and perhaps consider purchasing specific blocks of practice questions or customized exams from banks like UWorld.
Ultimately, your initial MCAT diagnostic test will be a continual touchstone throughout your prep, and you should keep its results and mistake log in a handy place so you can consult them as needed.
Step 4: Toward the End, Read Your Results from Start to Finish
As you near your exam date, take some time while you’re winding down one night to look back and consider how much you’ve learned and improved in the weeks and months following your initial diagnostic test. You may not go from the 70th percentile to a 524, but if you’ve stuck to your schedule faithfully and adapted it as needed, you should get a healthy boost of confidence when you see how far you’ve come. Look at specific sections on which you did poorly in your diagnostic, and compare them to your results on successive practice exams. It may very well be that a section or specific topic still feels rough, but if your scores have steadily and consistently improved from your first diagnostic test you should try to let that anxiety go as best you can.
Wondering when you should take the MCAT? We’ve got answers!
We've hammered this point home a few times now, but it's worth repeating one last time in closing: you absolutely must take a full length MCAT diagnostic test before starting your exam preparation. And not just any practice exam! Utilize the AAMC's well-prepared and accurate practice MCAT as a serious test-taking experience, and simulate actual testing conditions to the best of your abilities. You should be clear now just how important it is to start your study schedule on the right foot, with an accurate baseline and coherent sense of the exam's contents and structure. When you choose your big day from this year's MCAT Test and Release dates, imagine a starting pistol going off and get ready to run one of the toughest, but most satisfying, marathons in your academic career. Try to stay relaxed in your early days of diagnosis and review. 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.
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 that will take at least a few months, so give some careful thought to 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—but be sure to stay away from forums like the MCAT reddit, as this kind of discussion usually leads to futher confusion and uncertainty. 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 recent. 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.
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