Monday, March 05, 2007

Question for Vitum: Should I take a MCAT course?

Despite the narrow topic of this post, hopefully it will be entertaining for those of my readers not even considering medicine, due to my random attempts at humourous comments throughout. Those who have taken the MCAT, well, post a comment with your experience.

Every so often I get a question from pre-med students, and here's another one. I've gotten it a few times, so in a combination of laziness (I don't want to have to repeat myself 100 times) and desperation for attention (by directing the asker here instead of e-mailing him back, this will get my blog 1 more hit) I figured I'd post my standard answer here, with aforementioned random attempts at humourous comments throughout.

Q: Should I take an MCAT review course?
- Scotty, my very capable pre-med buddy. I'm rooting for ya.

Ohhhhh the dreaded M-word. I hated the MCAT and am exceedingly glad that it is behind me. In the spirit of the cliché that putting together a medical school application is like a several-year process of 'jumping through the hoops' (GPA, reference letters, application, interview, extracurriculars, volunteering, additional items to make the application well-rounded)... the MCAT is one of the higher, slightly more intensely flaming hoops. I would much rather take a five-second polar bear swim in dilute hydrochloric acid and succumb to a quantity of international scorn and jeers such as Bush goes through in a day, then repeat that ordeal of studying, preparing, writing, waiting and waiting for results, and going through dehydration from my three-week-long cry session when my marks did arrive. (I didn't do that bad, actually, so I only had to take it once. Praise Allah.)

A bit of background, first. For those who aren't aware, companies such as Princeton Review and Kaplan have a business plan stemming from the incredibly brilliant idea that someone had one day: "I bet people pursuing their life dreams and ambitions would pay money for help." In that spirit of taking advantage of the vulnerable, they charge exorbiant amounts of money to help people who will do virtually anything to 'get in.'
(For those who really aren't aware, the MCAT stands for the 'Medical College Admissions Test' and is an 8-hour ordeal, usually preceeded by months of studying, testing your knowledge in general biology, chemistry, physics, organic chemistry, essay writing skills, and reading comprehension.)

Actually, test prep companies are not as bad as I just made them sound. Their courses are based on years of experience, they can indeed prepare you well, and in fact, on their websites they also have a lot of really good, free resources for admisison to many professions, which might give you an idea of what the application process is like or if it's right for you. For example, thanks to them, just now I was able to learn in 30 seconds that unlike the MCAT for med schools, for many law schools, an applicant's LSAT score accounts for over 50% of the admissions decision. There you go: something I didn't know before, but will be useful should I come to a career crisis in 2 or 20 years (unlikely. I'm happy where I am). The more you know.

So, my answer? Well, here's the short answer: In general, I'd recommend it and I'm glad I took one. But, it is expensive, so it depends.

That ambiguous response is unfortunately the best I can offer. Everything here on in will be basically serve to reiterate that. Sorry, but unlike scientific questions, there is no absolute, universal answer... okay, that was a little joke for people who are quite aware of the fact that there seem to be rarely any absolutes in scientific research (a hasty example: MedPage tells us that Aspirin is great for your heart by reducing heart attacks; a year later, the same source tells us it's bad for your heart by upping hypertension).

Back to MCAT courses: While I took the course and am glad that I did, whether or not you should take one depends on your personality type. Some people will benefit more than others. Let me explain: here are the reasons you might choose to take one.

Study motivation. Personally, I did take a Kaplan course before studying for the MCAT and felt it benefited me greatly. The general concensus of people in my class - which I agree with - is that a class is very helpful if you have trouble motivating yourself to study regularly. I do best with pressure to meet my study goals, so this aspect really helped for me. As well, if you can choose a course that starts several months before the actual MCAT, and then you'll be getting quality studying done well in advance.

Mock test experience. Second to that, the most valuable part of the course for me was the experience of writing several mock full-length MCATs in a large-group environment, in a huge classroom with a hundred or two other people, just like the real thing was going to be. Because it was full-length it got me in the groove of getting good rest the night before, packing a lunch, getting up early, and getting the timing down complete with breaks and the like. However, this might not be as big an advantage for you because the test is now going to be all online, rather than pen-and-paper like when I took it, so here I'm already dating myself. You might make fun of me for being that old, but hey, at least all my questions matched my passages (an error I've heard actually occured on a computer-based MCAT).

Resources. The question banks that these companies include with their courses are an asset in themselves. You get access to a huge amount of mock questions of varying difficulty just like you'll find on the actual test, which they write themselves based on the AAMC mock questions. In fact, you can imagine how far my jaw dropped when I opened my actual MCAT booklet and saw that the first question was on a topic that I'd seen a few times in the practice tests, with IDENTICAL diagrams (the questions were slightly different, though one or two were identical as well). A moment likes that makes you feel like all that money handed to the test prep company was worth it.

Lectures. As well, if you're someone who learns a lot from lectures, then this will help you out a lot, because they have some decent (and some not-so-decent) lecturers on the major topics. I don't fall into this category, so instead, for me lectures were a good chance to review on my own and distract the serious learners while I chit-chatted with other pre-med applicants and looked up NHL playoff game scores on my cell phone. However, for being someone who doesn't do well in lectures, there were still some outstanding lecturers that I learned a lot from, and in fact, I still refer to the notes I took in those MCAT course lectures.

People. If you're a social butterfly, and aren't sick to death yet by being surrounded by other keener pre-med types, then that in itself might be another reason for you to take a course; you'll meet lots of people with similar goals and aspirations, always good for sharing stories / advice / seeking out a potential life partner. I still keep in touch with or randomly bump into people I met in my MCAT class; two of them are in the year ahead of me in my med school, and I saw another one who was applying for admission at my school this coming year. Then again, the people might be just the reason you choose not to take an MCAT course. See my friend's quotes below.

Aside from my lengthy answer, you might be thinking, what do other med students think? Look how helpful I am: just for you, I actually asked a few people in my class who happened to be on MSN right now. They all had different answers:

  • "I didn't take the course but I didn't do well on the MCAT. It probably would have helped but I saved myself a thousand bucks or so."
    - My friend the wink.

  • "I did take the course, and it helped because I am not adept at standardized tests."
    - My friend the little med student with a big heart (and mouth). (She chose that name herself).

  • "I took one, and it definitely helped. They actually teach you what you need to know, have homework and a schedule that you strive to keep up with, and it just pushes you. The people in the class are intense pre-med keeners, though. They thought I was dumb and such a slacker, especially since i went travelling during the course too."
    - Kitty, my slacker friend.

  • "I didn't take a course and I did fine. I didn't want to do the course thing because pre-med type people are too stressy for me. I studied from some Kaplan books I got from a friend. I just wish I studied harder for verbal reasoning."
    - Annie, my friend who was too unoriginal to choose a nickname. Actually, maybe I shouldn't mock people who are helping me. Sorry Annie.
So, if by now you think the course is right for you, then this inevitable question will be brewing somewhere in your cranium:

Which course should I take, Kaplan or Princeton Review?

Easy. All the people I know who took Kaplan say that Kaplan is the best (myself included), as opposed to the people who took Princeton Review. They say that Princeton Review is the best. I'll leave it at that.

For you? They both cost roughly the same. If they don't, find one which suits your budget the best. But obviously, most importantly, choose the one that fits your schedule best.

Final advice: Choose a course that starts well before your MCAT date. Despite the fact that you might want to get it over with quick like ripping off a bandaid, you'll probably find that more info sticks / you get to know how the test makers think better when you've been going over it for a few months as opposed to a few weeks.

Hope that helps. This was a hefty post, but I know that pre-meds usually don't complain about too much help. I also hope you didn't get lost in my answer full of random ADHD diversions. All the best as you tackle the MCAT giant for yourself, and remember, it's not that bad. Hopefully you come out alive.


Anonymous said...

I didn't take an MCAT class, but did pretty well on the test despite that.

I used the Kaplan book as well as another test book to prepare.

It's completely person dependent. I suppose if I could have afforded the class, I would have taken it.


Anonymous said...

I didn't take the course either, and I also used the Kaplan books to study from. While my MCAT marks alone would not have gained me admission, I was certainly happy with them and they didn't keep me out. I probably *would* have taken the course if I could have afforded it, but I did fine without it. Lots of studying and prayer though, LOL! I think one of the best things about getting into med school is knowing you'll never have to do the MCAT or go through the admission process again :)

Richard said...

I need to preface this comment with an obvious conflict of interest, as I worked for Kaplan Test Prep for 2 summers as an MCAT instructor.

Is the course useful?
Definitely. Great practise problems, great textbooks with concise summaries, great motivation with having the class there to set deadlines.

Is the quality of instruction great?
To be honest, depends on your instructor. I've had some good and some bad, and have definitely tried to BE one of the better ones. But yeah, if you can, talk to a Kaplan instructor in your area and get some feedback off the record.

Is it worth $$xx? (usually at least $1000).
That's for you to decide. If you're a highly self-motivated individual learner, then you may be just fine with a collection of textbooks/MCAT Practise material or someone else's books. But if you want the motivation, nothing helps like a course.

Oh, and whether you take the course or not, PRACTISE PRACTISE PRACTISE. One of Kaplan's strongest points is that you get to write "Simulation" full-lengths on a computer in a test center with the exact same computer format as the actual MCAT.

Anonymous said...

I took Kaplan and did horrible on the MCAT the first time. However, it was more due to the fact that I didn't have enough time to absorb the material. The instructors were OK-ish. I second the advice to take the MCAT prep course well in advance of your MCAT date. After recovering from my miserable state, I once again picked up the Kaplan books, along with a bunch of Princeton verbal reasoning practice passages, and spent much more time studying before taking the MCAT the second time. I did much better, and I owe it to both institutions for providing such great study material. You can really learn all those on your own as long as you have self motivation.

Anonymous said...

This is what I did for the MCAT:
I bought the Exam Krackers boxed set, that Kaplan 45 MCAT book (whatever it's called), and a book of 3 practice exams from Kaplan. I also borrowed my friend's Kaplan online password to get access to all the AAMC tests.

In July and August I went through all the EK material thoroughly. For three weeks in January I took practice tests every other day and skimmed EK and Kaplan. I took the test on 1/26.

It was a very low stress way to get a 40, and I think that I probably would have had a worse outcome taking the course (more worried, less confident, pissed that I had wasted so much time hanging out with ocd premeds).

My (controversial) opinion is that any person who is preparing to enter such a demanding profession should be able to study for this on their own and do well. By not taking the course, I was able to put $1000+ in my "enjoy life before med school" fund.

I recommend everyone else do the same. Wait until you have actual responsibilities to worry. It causes ulcers.

ps, also, if you're not motivated enough to study for the MCAT, how much do you really want to go to med school??

Anonymous said...

I didn't take a course before I took the mcat. Afterwards, I ended up teaching for Kaplan.

With the test switched to computer now, it's a lot harder to find/borrow materials to self study. The good thing about it being computerized is marking your tests / going over your answers become a lot easier. You also don't have to tally your areas of weaknesses.

Right now, the test prep companies have an advantage, but I can see in the future, alternative online resources competing with them