Teaching the MCAT: How I became a better doctor

April 10, 2012
Sam Asgarian

The cliché “never say never” has been around for so long that its significance might be lost on most people. For me, though, every time I hear someone say it, I think back to when I was an undergrad studying for the MCAT. A group of us taking the prep class would study together and at times the conversation would veer towards our MCAT  instructor. “He’s so smart, there’s nothing that he doesn’t know,” one of my friends would say. Another overly-optimistic one would chime in with, “I bet he got a perfect score on the test.” At the time, we were all premeds preparing for the exam, but I was unaware that later on I would not only be helping students like me achieve their goals and get into medical school, but I would also be helping them become instructors, and in the process better doctors!

One of my favorite examples is a student I had who did great on the exam, was accepted by the same medical school as me, and then became an instructor trained by (can you guess where this is going?): me! We became great classmates and coworkers, and the reasoning behind it is pretty simple when you get down to it. Many test takers have an “Ah ha!” moment with the MCAT; this occurs when you stop thinking like a test-taker, and you begin to see things from the perspective of the test-maker. The wrong answer choices stand out and the passages are more lucid in terms of where the questions will come from. It takes time, dedication, and definitely perseverance to get to this point, but once you do, you don’t lose it. Fortunately, even though the subject areas of the test are different, the MCAT maintains the same structure throughout, so this state of “MCAT nirvana” helps you do well from beginning to end.

When I started medical school, I felt motivated to go back and teach the MCAT exam, hoping to impart that same ability to see the exam in a different light on my students. I didn’t realize at the time that this would be a symbiotic relationship. Explaining test-taking techniques and MCAT strategy helped me think more critically. Doing so provided me with better diagnostic abilities and bedside manner when I entered my clinical years of medical school. If I could explain a complicated passage on quantum mechanics to an entire classroom of MCAT students, then I could properly assess patients in the emergency room suffering from acute pain and carefully explain to them the plan for getting them better.

As if there weren’t enough benefits to teaching already, I often casually mention to students how that same “MCAT nirvana” will be extremely helpful when it comes time to take the U.S. Medical Licensing Exams (USMLE) Step exams in medical school. USMLE scores are a big factor when applying to residencies, and there are numerous studies that correlate success on the MCAT with success on the Step exams – so keeping your wits sharp and ready will give you a large advantage when the time comes. Furthermore, the analytical skills required of a physician are not that different from those of an accomplished teacher: both need to reach the level of their patients and pupils in a way that makes difficult concepts easier to understand. It’s for these reasons that I always tell the students in my MCAT classes to not think of the MCAT as a roadblock to success, but rather a catapult to greater things!


EDITOR’S NOTE: Kaplan is always looking for qualified instructors for the MCAT as well as a range of other exams. If you or someone you know is interested in applying for a teaching position, please visit www.kaptest.com/teach to learn more; note that a score qualification of 90th percentile or higher is required for all applicants. 

Sam Asgarian

Sam Asgarian I'm a current Tulane University medical student and an MBA graduate of the Johnson School of Graduate Management at Cornell University, and a long-time instructor and teacher trainer who continues to help students throughout the country. I've also done significant work behind the scenes, helping to develop and update study materials for both the MCAT and USMLE. I've been around long enough to see former students not only join me in medical school, but also be trained by me as new Kaplan instructors. While obtaining medical and business degrees has kept me busy, it hasn't stopped me from continuing to play soccer as a goalkeeper during both outdoor and indoor seasons.

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