On my first diagnostic test for the MCAT, I got a 492. I was a little bummed, but I had a full 10 weeks to prepare for my September 23rd test date so I felt I had plenty of time to bring my score up. The next three weeks, I read my entire set of Kaplan review books and did a set of practice questions daily. I settled to take my first practice exam after weeks of studying and this time I got a 498. A little better, but I was still below the 50th percentile. I still had 7 weeks to go until my test date, so I hit the books even harder, determined to get over 500 in my next practice exam.

One week after I took my first practice exam, I woke up early to go the New York Public Library in Bryant Park to take my second practice exam. I was in a beautiful library room in the heart on NY. Some passages I felt confident in and some I didn’t. I didn’t think the CARS section was too difficult and after taking a 30 minute (or maybe an hour…) lunch at Chipotle, I sat back down to tackle the last two sections. At the end of the test, I was feeling confident. I hit the submit button thinking I at least earned a score above 500. Instead, I got a 497. Huh? I felt more confident taking the second practice exam than I did taking the first, yet my score dropped by one point. I was disappointed to say the least.

Applying to medical schools is a competitive process; only about half of applicants get into medical school in any given year. Getting over 500 on the MCAT puts you in the top half of all med school applicants and improves your chance of admittance. Seeing my scores hover below the 500 mark was frustrating, so I knew I had to study SMARTER if I wanted to see improvements in my score. Here’s what I did to get over the 500 mark:

Sleep

Taking a seven-hour exam is exhausting, but after getting a disappointing score, it might be tempting to just continue hitting the books aggressively to get your score up. I suggest getting a good night’s sleep instead and taking it easy the next day to replenish your fuels and avoid burnout. Once your rested, you are better able to see your mistakes clearly and study more effectively.

Schedule Your Next Practice Test

Knowing what day you will take your next practice exam will help you focus your attention on maximizing your score in a limited time. If your test is still a couple of months away, schedule your next practice test a week from now. If your MCAT is in a couple of weeks, schedule your next practice test three days from now.

Review Previous Practice Test

I know the last thing I want to do is look over a test I didn’t do that well on but going over the questions you got wrong AND the questions you got right will help you identify the topics you need extra practice in. I recommend writing down the answer explanations of the questions you got wrong because it will help you see what you did wrong and help you avoid making the same mistake. Looking over the questions you got right is also a good idea to see if the method you used to get the right answer is the recommended method. Sometimes you can find a better way of answering certain questions by doing this. When I was enrolled in the Kaplan program, they encouraged us to make “Why I Missed It” sheets to help identify areas we need help in. Here is a snapshot of one I made back in August:

Identify Your Weaknesses

Ask yourself: What topics am I consistently missing points on? While I reviewed my previous tests, I noticed that I would always get points off on passages dealing with the same topics: Acids and Bases, Psychological Disorders, Carbohydrate Metabolism, etc. Knowing this, I scheduled time before my next practice test to go over those areas carefully and do practice exams so I won’t make the same mistakes.

Reflect On How You Took The Test

Were you distracted during the exam? Did you take unnecessary breaks (I know I did in the beginning)? Are you taking the test in a quiet environment? How are your time management skills? Did you run out of time during a section? Answering these questions for yourself will help you make changes for how you handle the next full-length exam, improving your chances for scoring higher than before.

After focusing my studies for a couple of weeks, I saw steady improvements on my full-length scores, and I was able to score above 500 on my third practice (502 to be exact!) That was a huge psychological breakthrough for me because seeing practice exam scores start with 5s instead of 4s meant I was on the right path to getting a solid score on the MCAT.

In the beginning, it was hard to follow the above strategies because it seemed like I needed to spend all my time poring over the MCAT review books. But that’s actually the WRONG way of studying and a trap many students fall for. I have found that the key to doing well on the MCAT is to study SMARTER. You want to make sure your studies are focused on improving areas of weakness and test-taking strategies.