You may have heard the gut-wrenching story of a friend of a friend who studied for the MCAT, did well on practice tests, but when it came time for the real deal, everything fell apart, they broke down in a bundle of nerves, and their score was Not. Good.
Or, perhaps you’ve been working on your MCAT in a prep course for three months or so, and you felt fully ready — until you took a practice test and the wheels came off the truck, your score dipped significantly, and now you find yourself in a tailspin, like:
“Should I delay my score?”
“Won’t that screw up my timing and my chances for acceptance?”
Lots of stomach pain … and I’m going to try to help.
Psychology of MCAT Preparation
Taking the MCAT is much more like preparing for a significant sports competition, like an important tennis match or the finals in a basketball tournament. You have to show up on a specific day and time and perform your best.
And, like sports, there’s a psychology of performance that can make a huge difference in success or failure. Plus, there’s one thing you absolutely must do to overcome the panic that sets in just before you take the test for real. More on that later.
Setting the Stage for Panic
It starts with a tiny little seed of doubt. It’s usually just a subtle change, maybe only a two or three point difference in your MCAT practice scores on the last one or two tests you took.
Your score dips a bit, and then a nagging thought takes hold, slowly growing inside, the insidious doubt, worry, and anxiety that begin in your mind as a tiny sliver, but then grows larger and larger like a wedge cutting your confidence in half.
You have taken many practice tests, you have studied the MCAT for many hundreds of hours, and your practice scores have steadily improved.
Then, 10 days before you sit for the real MCAT, you take a practice test, but this time your results are much lower than your expectations and your hopes.
You are shocked. You are surprised. You’re stunned.
What could be happening? Is the practice test you last took somehow more difficult? Is it radically different than everything else? Or, heaven forbid, you have lost it. Suddenly, all of the hard work, all of the practice, then everything that you have done up till now seems like it’s no longer working.
You go online, and you begin to dig for information to help you understand what’s happened. You find out that there is nothing unusual about the test you just took. And suddenly you come to the realization that your other practice scores MUST have been a lie, and you are not going to get the MCAT score you have hoped for. Your spot in medical school is now deeply in jeopardy. You feel like you have no chance to become a doctor and pursue your career dream of practicing medicine.
Your life is over. And, you feel fat.
This is an all-too-common scenario for thousands of premeds who are about to take the MCAT. I would like to suggest an alternative reason for why your MCAT score may have dipped, and reassure you that you have not lost your mind, nor have you lost your ability to score competitively on this test.
The Real Psychology in Test-Taking
Here’s what actually is happening. You study for the MCAT, take some practice tests, and see your score improve. This sets your “baseline of expectations” for future practice results. You took some practice tests, you see progress and improvement, and you begin to feel hope. “Maybe I can do this,” you think. “Maybe I can actually ace the MCAT, get a good score, and go to medical school.”
Then, in the last few days before your MCAT test date, you take one more test. And going into the test you feel really good about your chances, because, after all, you have done one or two or three practice tests already, which have shown you that you can get a good, even great, MCAT score. So you feel very confident that this practice test will once-and-for-all prove that you have mastered the MCAT. If you do well this time, you’ll know for sure that you’re ready to take the test.
Then, the scores come back. You’re shocked and stunned that your score isn’t higher than last time. Hell, it’s not even as high as last time. Shit! An inner spiral ensues, and all of your confidence is shaken.
Wait A Minute – You’re Not Screwed After All
In truth, you are probably guilty of a modest amount of over confidence. You went into that last practice test thinking that you’re going to ace it, and perhaps you treated one or two passages a little cavalierly. You got cocky. Your score dropped because of it, and this started you down the road toward MCAT Panic.
Most likely, you started to celebrate a little early, and you underestimated your worthy adversary in the form of this test, and now you have been spanked a bit, and probably deservedly so.
But that doesn’t mean that life is over. And that doesn’t mean that you are never going to get into medical school.
Solving the Problem
Here’s my advice and then later the one thing you absolutely must do now: Consider for a moment that the people who write the MCAT are just as smart as you are, with a lot more experience in creating standardized tests, and with a lot more information about how hundreds of thousands of students tend to respond to test questions and answers.
Okay, you got cocky and, and the MCAT took advantage. This is not the time to panic. This is not the time to push out your test date. This is not the time to decide that you have lost your capacity to understand MCAT test questions.
It is time to give your opponent the respect it deserves. Remind yourself that the MCAT is well designed to test you, trick you, and on this last test, it worked.
You have learned a valuable lesson. The MCAT is a worthy adversary. You have to show respect. Trust yourself, and trust your ability to take this test, with this new-found awareness and respect of the deviousness built into the MCAT.
What You Must Absolutely Do Now
Go back to the practice test that you took that made you start to worry. Look over the test questions and the answers, and ask yourself if you were a little careless, if you weren’t a little quick to pull the trigger. I suspect you’ll find a few simple mistakes that, once you adjust, will bring your score back to the numbers you have come to expect.
Go into this test with confidence in yourself and with respect for your opponent. Then kick the living shit out of the MCAT, move on with your life, apply to medical school, and become a doctor.
By the Way, the MCAT Is Changing
As of 2015, the MCAT will include a section titled Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (CARS). It will focus on the socio-cultural and behavioral determinants on health and how this relates to the medical field. In addition, a new Critical Analysis and Reasoning section is being added along with more biochemistry in Biological Sciences.
In total, the new MCAT will have four sections. If you’re interested in what classes you should take to prepare — or if you are looking for more info on these changes — please check out my article, Making Sense of the 2015 MCAT Changes.
One More Thing
Still not convinced with what I told you? Alright, there’s another suggestion I have for you. Compare yourself to other successful applicants, and see how you stack up. I’ve created a free assessment to help you figure out what to do when your score drops. My hope is that you’ll discover that you are a strong, highly-qualified candidate.
I believe you can do this, and I believe you can go on to medical school and become an amazing doctor. Prove me right. Go now.