Friday, 15 June 2012

MedTalk Series: MCAT Prep Courses VS Self-Study

For those of you who read my blog, you'll notice that I don't always write about medically relevant material. For the benefit for keeping my blog organized and easier to navigate for those who visit wanting to get more information about the medical school process/my experience in the application cycle, I've decided to initiate a series of posts where I'll be writing and giving advice about various aspects of the medical school application process. In the MedTalk Series opener, I'll be discussing on the pros and cons about studying for the MCAT using preparation courses versus studying the MCAT on your own.

1. Prep Courses

There are many MCAT prep courses out there that help students prepare and study for the MCAT. Companies such as The Princeton Review and Kaplan both offer extensive live instruction of all the materials that would be covered on the MCAT. The good thing that I found about taking a prep course (I took it with Princeton) was that I had qualified instructors who had written the MCAT before and excelled at it, teach me the various topics that were going to be covered on the MCAT, as well as giving me tips and various strategies of maximizing my time and doing well on the actual test. Furthermore, with prep courses, I had access to a plethora of mock MCATs which were extremely valuable to preparing for the real test. At the time, I was taking two summer courses and working 2 jobs while preparing for the MCAT and figured that I needed a set schedule that told me when and what to study.

Thus, one important thing to note is that when you are deciding whether to take a prep course or not, think about HOW you best study, what your flexibility is like for the months that the prep course is taking place, how much you already know, and whether or not you are financially able to fund for these courses. Let's talk about each of these in turn:

A. Your Studying Style

You can think of prep courses as tutors teaching students about certain topics in a classroom setting. Ask yourself whether or not you are the kind of person who studies best in a classroom setting or one who prefers to go at his/her own pace. With prep courses, each day is already scheduled with the specific topics that will be covered along with the number of pages of readings, passages, and questions that will be assigned for homework. If you are the kind of person who needs someone to tell you what to do and when to do it, then prep courses might be for you.

B. Flexibility

Prep courses have a set schedule in regards to their classroom operations. For instance, my prep course with the Princeton Review ran from May to July for 5 days/week with each day being 2 hours. Thus, this may work for someone who isn't doing much during the summer months but not so for an individual who might be working full time or taking a full course load or whose schedule is already packed.

C. Your Current Knowledge

The good thing about prep courses is that the books they give you covers all the topics on the MCAT. From what my friends have told me and my own personal experience, Princeton goes into quite a bit of detail for the Biology section which is great for someone who might not have a strong or prior biology background. In essence, I think a prep course is a good option for an individual who might not be from a science background (ex: business, arts, humanities etc.) as prep courses do cover the basics of the Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences. At the same time, I had many science students in my class. Thus, evaluate how well you already know the material/sections covered on the MCAT before signing up for a prep course.

D. Money

Most of these prep courses can be very expensive ($1500-$2000) which might not be ideal for someone who is taking a full course load or working full time. Do I think it's worth it to take a prep course? Yes - because of the resources available to you. Do I think it's necessary to take a prep course and do well? No - one can easily do well and get accepted into medical school via self-studying too. All in all, it depends on what your preference is and your self-evaluation in the previous sections.

2. Self-Studying

When I took my MCAT for the second time, I opted for the self-studying method for several reasons. Firstly, I found the pace of a prep course to be a bit fast and wanted to create a schedule catered to my own needs and weaknesses. Luckily, I had the Princeton Review study schedule from before and used that as a outline to study for my MCAT. I still used the Princeton Review books but this time, I supplemented their workbooks and review books with additional texts: Exam Krackers 101 Passages in MCAT Verbal Reasoning as well as my university textbooks in general chemistry, physics, physiology, and organic chemistry to fill in any gaps in knowledge that I had. I believe that one needs quite a bit of discipline and motivation to self-study for an exam such as the MCAT because it does take a lot of your time to do so. Trust me, when you're studying for the MCAT during a beautiful summer day and all your friends are at the beach, it's kind of hard to stay put and open up that verbal book!

You can also find many MCAT prep books from the library or ask your friends if you can borrow theirs. There are also many websites that offer information on the topics covered on the MCAT such as WikiPremed. However, be careful about using websites since not all the information might be true. When in doubt, always check a textbook!

Another strategy I used when self-studying for the MCAT was making concise and short notes on cue cards. These would often consist of certain laws, formulas, rules, and important biological pathways that I knew would appear on the MCAT. I think cue cards are a great study tool because you can bring them anywhere with you (ex: on the bus) and study them whenever you have time. It also acts as a quick refresher when you have finished one topic and moved onto the next. Medaholic's website has a great post on how to self-study so if you are considering on taking this route, you should definitely check out what he has to say.

Please be aware that the MCAT is changing its format. You can find out more information here:

I hope this post has been somewhat useful for anyone debating on whether to take a prep course or not. Feel free to comment or ask questions! I'll try my best to answer them!

I've included some of the books I used for my own self study below and where you can purchase them:

Good luck!

Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with Princeton, Kaplan, or EK. The opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.


  1. Such an amazing blog it is. According to me, both of them would bring success in MCAT if you do it in a proper way. Your information is really very useful in order to choose whether preparation courses or self studying.

  2. Hey Cass,
    You know I wish I would have written cue cards. I am now realizing how beneficial they can be!

  3. They were sooo useful! I brought them everywhere and it was an instant refresher for somethings I learned 2 weeks ago.

  4. Cass, I want to inform you that I have nominated you for two awards. Please check out my blog to view them. Congratulations :)

  5. Hi, I found this article extremely helpful! I am starting to make an MCAT study schedule for myself, and I was wondering how long you gave yourself to study when you took it for a second time? I am working 9-5...and will be self studying after work, and on the weekends. They have not released the 2013 dates yet but I am deciding between Jan 2013, and March 2013.

    1. Hi Mary-Kate,
      Glad you found the article helpful. When I took the MCAT the second time, I had the summer to study for it (~2.5 months) so I allocated about 5 hours/day on weekdays to study for it. I didn't do any studying on weekends because that's when I scheduled my "breaks". Considering that you are working from 9-5 and are planning to write the MCAT in Jan-March, I would say you still have a lot of time left between now and next year to study therefore, I would suggest a few hours everyday would put you on the right track (you can put in more hours on weekends and use weekends as a review session even). I hope that helps!

  6. It does!! Thanks for your help!

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