“Las Vegas is a great place to take your MCAT.”

This unusual tidbit was the first of many surprises when we sat down for an interview with MCAT instructor Levonti Ohanisian. In addition to scoring well himself, Levonti serves as an MCAT teacher at UCSD Extension.  While he teaches all subjects, some of his best advice is how to approach the test as a whole.

“I’m serious,” he said. “I ended up taking my test in Vegas because I had to change my date. But it actually turned out great because there were so many distractions the day before. I was just walking around, putting a little money on roulette. I wasn’t really thinking about the MCAT.”

Levonti claims that having the right mental and emotional disposition is crucial for success on the MCAT.

Mistake #1: Failing to prepare for the mental, physical, and emotional toll the MCAT takes on you.

“The biggest MCAT mistake is the inability to handle the emotional roller coaster,” he said. “You think you’re getting better, you’re scoring higher, and then bam you get a lower score [on a practice test]. And all of a sudden, it creeps into your head that you’re not going to do well.”

So how did Levonti achieve the right balance and perspective while studying for such a stressful test? Through small, frequent acts of maintenance that rejuvenated both his mind and body.

Everyone needs a social life and time to exercise. I personally couldn’t sit around and read for three hours at a time… I just had to move. As soon as I felt myself losing focus or dozing off, I’d walk around and get the blood flowing.”

So it’s good to avoid the all-too-common “MCAT cave” approach, where you hunker down and completely isolate yourself from society like a reclusive hermit.

But how do you create the time in your life to prepare for the rollercoaster?

“Most people are working a job or going to school while studying for the MCAT,” he explained, “so their work takes the place of socializing and exercising. To really be successful, it’s ideal for you to take three or four months off from all other work. It doesn’t always sound possible to people, but it’s the hard truth.”

Mistake #2: Trying to prepare in under 4 months.

Many students take a two-month prep class and hope for the best, but most students need more time.  Levonti didn’t budge in his recommended studying time of four months. Rather than being unrealistic, Levonti sees it as good preparation for a student’s future:

“Part of what the MCAT tests for is–can you fully commit yourself to studying for months at a time? Because that’s what you’re going to be doing in med school.”

He elaborated on the importance of having such a large window of time, as a way to avoid the common approach of cramming a week or two before.

“I needed the four months to let my knowledge build,” he admitted. “I started by only studying content, then a mix of practice and content, then eventually all practice. I had to reread chapters three times and create my own annotations. I spread all my practice tests two weeks apart. With this kind of test prep, you often move forward, only to take a small step back.”

so plan ahead and give yourself as much time as possible, ideally between four and six months.

Mistake #3: Working hard but not working smart

Many pre-meds dutifully sit down to study, but they spend their time poorly – making notecards, memorizing irrelevant details, studying the same things over and over again.  Levonti advises students to be efficient with their studying habits.

“I found that an hour of intense studying was better than three hours of lax studying,” he said. “It’s no longer an achievement test (how much do you know), but rather a reasoning test of your critical thinking and ability to synthesize information.”

The goal is to avoid rote memorization and strive for conceptual thinking that draws parallels and makes connections:

“When concepts are tested in isolation,” he added, “they’re just knowledge. But in context, you must have the ability to integrate and put things together, which is how modern medicine is practiced.”

Toward the end of your studying, you should be able to take out a blank sheet of paper and teach each broad MCAT topic to a friend, along with how the different topics connect.  To teach the material, you are forced to focus on the big picture, which is the most important skill for bumping your score.

Mistake #4: Failing to know thyself

“Another huge mistake is taking the advice of too many different advisors. Everyone has an opinion, myself included, but you have to figure out what works best for you and throw out the rest. I didn’t take the [practice] test right in the beginning (as recommended) because I knew it would demoralize me. You need to trust the strategies that have worked for you in the past.”

Levonti knows this is easier said than done. Since the competition is high, pre-meds want a prescribed method that’s guaranteed to work, but he believes the study method needs to match the individual’s personality and skillset.

“It’s tempting to compare yourself to others,” he said, “but you can’t let that distract you. Focus on the gaps in your knowledge. Target your weaknesses and mistakes. You’ve gone through several years of college and should know what it takes for you to succeed at a high level.”

Mistake #5: Having no life

In general, Levonti urges students to avoid becoming the pre-med stereotype–someone who spends all day studying, face down in a book, never engaging with the world outside the lab or classroom.  A good rule of thumb is to give yourself one night each week to hang out with friends.  It will help keep you sane and will remind you that there’s a world outside of the MCAT.

Having a life, though, isn’t just for the MCAT.  It’s for making yourself a better doctor.  Here’s Levonti:

“There’s a reason the test is more integrative than ever before,” he said. “Right now med schools are getting too many nerds, if I have to put it colloquially. They want more well-rounded people. Seventy percent of medical mistakes are due to lack of proper communication. That’s why interprofessional education is big right now. Med schools are looking for people with confidence, but also humility, who can engage with all types of patients and colleagues.”