3 Key Skills You Need to Ace the MCAT

As every budding pre-medical student knows, the MCAT covers content learned in four very specific science classes: Physics, General Chemistry, General Biology, and Organic Chemistry. While a mastery of each of these subjects is necessary to excel on the MCAT, there are three key skills that also contribute to success on the exam.

These key skills are not particular to any single MCAT section, but rather play a role on the test as a whole. While any good study plan incorporates lengthy content review, developing the following skills through full-length practice exams is just as integral to acing the MCAT.

Analytical skills

At its core, the MCAT is an exam that requires proficiency in analysis. Most of the exam is presented in the form of passages followed by a number of questions. In all three sections of the test, the test-makers describe raw data, whether it be via a scientific experiment or a philosophical argument. It is your job as an intrepid examinee to sift through the piles of raw data and extrapolate enough information to answer the accompanying questions. This not only involves a grasp of the content that comprises the passage, but also the ability to analyze graphs, tables, or experimental setups so you can successfully evaluate the results. If you find yourself struggling with any of this content you may want to consider consulting an MCAT tutor who can help you with your studies.

Analytical skills are particularly important in the two science sections, as the modern MCAT passages tend to manifest themselves as experiments rather than simple content review. Instead of being asked for the basis behind boiling point differences in alkanes, a typical passage would include a table with various alkane compounds and their boiling points and then ask you to rationalize the data. There are no concrete ways to develop this skill set besides practice, preferably on MCAT-level materials or through advanced science classes that pre-meds are exposed to in their junior or senior years. 

Mathematical skills

Outside of the dreaded Verbal Reasoning section, perhaps the most feared part of the test is the sheer number of equations that need to be memorized and manipulated. MCAT testing guidelines prohibit the use of a calculator, your handheld best friend that guided you through your pre-requisite classes and likely every single math class since the fifth grade. This means that you will have to work with numbers by hand, from long division to complex logarithms. It has likely been awhile since you last sharpened these mathematical skills, so it is vital to practice and re-hone these abilities to ensure that you don't find yourself staring at a simple 'plug-and-chug' problem wondering what to do first. Be comfortable working in scientific notation as well, given that it is the most likely form in which numbers will be presented to you. You may want to take a look at these MCAT flashcards which may be useful in your studies.

With the vast amount of content you need to be able to comprehend on the MCAT, mathematical skills need to be the least of your concern as you work through that test. Take every opportunity to practice, forgoing the safety of your calculator for pencil and paper. It would not be a good test day if you answered a question on colligative properties incorrectly just because you forgot to carry the two. 

Test-taking skills

The MCAT is like no exam you've ever taken before, as it is entirely computer-based. Learning how to be comfortable in this unfamiliar testing environment can do wonders for your score. Other test-taking skills, ranging from pace and timing to manipulating the test itself, are just as important and need to be adapted to for the MCAT. For instance, you likely have a certain notation you like to use on tests that indicate questions you're unsure of or want to return to and check on later. Luckily, the MCAT assists this via the 'mark question' function.

Pacing yourself throughout the test is another way to easily increase your MCAT score. Some examinees find themselves out of time with one more passage to go, automatically reducing their section score by several points as they forfeit the ability to answer the remaining questions. Like the other skills mentioned, the best way to develop the necessary test-taking skills for this is through practice. Take advantage of the past MCATs that AAMC makes available and simulate testing conditions. Taking practice full-length exams can dramatically improve your score by enhancing these and many other key skills for MCAT success.