Beyond Test Day: MCAT Prep Builds Critical Career Skills

by Kristin Murner, MBA, MSEd, Director, Learning Design | January 12, 2021

Among standardized tests, the MCAT is a legendary giant. One that naturally demands dedicated preparation because it assesses a stunning volume of content at numerous taxonomic levels of skill. Fortunately, while studying for the MCAT takes a lot of time and effort, the benefits of investing in quality preparation reach far beyond Test Day. Encouraging your students to prepare early―using a comprehensive strategy-based program―will provide the following “fringe” benefits that continue to pay dividends for years to come. 

Critical Thinking

An MCAT passage challenges students to link claims with evidence and demands that they form argument structures before knowing all of the facts. This ability―to make the logical jump between available information and the credited answer choice―is precisely the skill most needed to succeed in both the classroom and clinic. As professionals, we infrequently (or perhap never) actually have all the information. An initially limited set of first-hand patient experiences must connect to similar yet distinct patients months or years later. Critical thinking is crucial to develop throughout a student’s medical education, and that foothold on future success can’t begin early enough. 

Willingham (2007) explains that critical thinking requires students to do two things: 

  1. Master the foundational content
  2. And then to go beyond the simple problem structure and explain how any similar problem is best solved. 

No two patient presentations are alike, and the best physicians cultivate a bigger-picture critical thinking mindset for even the most challenging cases. The MCAT lays the perfect framework for comparing and contrasting problems over time. Taking, reviewing, and remediating MCAT-like practice forces students to notice subtle differences in questions. This skill builds even as students continue shoring up the core content underneath.

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Enrichment (CARS) is an underappreciated area where early preparation especially shines. An in-depth review of high-quality explanations supports better initial reading comprehension and fuller mastery of verbal reasoning skills. The one thing that most higher-level standardized tests measure―but you won’t see them advertising it―is the gap between what information is “given” in the passage and what is “still needed” to answer the question. That sure seems like it would help in medical school, the STEP exams, and certification going forward. Well buckle-up, because it turns out there’s a Kaplan strategy to boost their reading, no matter where it’s applied.

Time Management

Your students already obsess about time management while in school. The pathway to becoming a competitive medical school applicant almost always features a schedule jam-packed with classes, lab-work, extracurricular activities, and a multitude of other commitments (that may or may not make it onto the application). Post-baccalaureates and students who work and/or have family commitments on top of their schoolwork face even more time pressure. Adding the rigors of self-enforced or self-guided MCAT preparation―to an already packed agenda―can accentuate stress unless done thoughtfully. 

Preparing for the MCAT is a lot of work, but―with professional guidance―it can be an opportunity to synthesize and review foundational material and lead them to their medical education with the most robust groundwork for success. It’s not lost on most students either that efficient and effective coaching from the start could save them dozens (or in some cases, hundreds) of hours struggling to understand topics that they might not even need. This lets students budget time for other essential activities that better serve their more meaningful goals and priorities. 

As MCAT test expert Elijah Schwartz explained: 

“Time management is a perennial struggle for students. It’s a shame, but I don’t think anyone has invented the 30 hour day yet. So, a large part of tutoring or mentoring MCAT students is helping them focus on what to do when, to stay efficient. They need to shore up weaknesses early, cycle back through with spaced-repetition, and later use test-like practice to synthesize and integrate content at a higher level.” 

Employing a long-term calendar view like this should sound common-sense, and it can be with guidance.

Understanding Who They Are as a Test Taker

Unlike these macro-skills that apply now―but last throughout a career―there are micro-skills operating at the level of test items, passages, and sections. “Triaging” is a clinical skill that can be applied to each section of the test (think: maximize raw points instead of condition severity) and is a key skill that is developed through comprehensive test preparation. Knowing how to time-box the passages, when to simply move on for a question, and where to save precious seconds on a calculation can be critical. Knowing where it’s best to guess on a problematic item, and when to plug away to get the right answer, will pay returns across a lifetime of learning and testing. 

Any profession in the health sciences comes replete with assessment-dependent credentials, continuing education requirements, and continued licensing. This means that―even for the most grizzled test veteran―there is always an opportunity to improve or streamline.

Schwartz reminds his students: 

“Monitor your answer changes: If you’re better on your gut instinct, then don’t second guess. If you tend to reread and catch points that almost slipped by, then change away. Assess your endurance: not finishing sections is troublesome, but ending with 10 minutes extra might also be timing gone wrong. Track opportunities for growth: find your strengths―stop over-studying these, and weaknesses―start pushing these more.” 

At the end of the day, the fine-tuning that’s possible with valid assessments and progress tracking can’t be understated.  

Developing and Reinforcing Logical Reasoning and Critical Thinking Skills

While preparing to take the MCAT involves a lot of systematic learning through mistakes, working with more difficult items develops and reinforces logical reasoning and critical thinking skills. Practicing and reviewing MCAT passages in a test-like environment helps students identify their unique error patterns, learn to make the most of their testing time, and seize every point possible to them on Test Day.

Kristin has worked in traditional, distance/online, and for-profit education for over 20 years. She has taught undergraduate marketing on an Army base; chemistry, algebra and physics at a private K-12 school, and she has delivered and proctored more standardized tests than one should ever have to count. At Kaplan Test Prep, Kristin helps craft tools and policies that promote solid learning science across all of KTP’s business units. She holds a BS in health physics, an MBA in marketing, and an MSEd in instructional design and technology.

See more posts by Kristin Murner, MBA, MSEd, Director, Learning Design