12 April 2009

Do I really NEED to take an MCAT Review Course?

You have completed your pre-med coursework with no grade less than B+ and a majority of A grades. You feel that you have a solid grasp of the material and the concepts presented in your pre-med courses. Do you really “need” to take a review course for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)? The answer to that question depends on whether or not you are good at solving the types of problems that are presented on the MCAT. If your knowledge base is good, then taking a review course that emphasizes knowledge refreshment is largely going to be a waste of money for you. If it’s been a few years since your pre-med coursework, then getting your knowledge base up to speed is your first priority and thus a knowledge upgrade type of review course may be the key to a strong score on this very important admissions test.

How are your problem-solving skills?
You can quickly find out how well you solve MCAT-type problems by downloading one of the retired exams and working the problems under actual testing conditions. If you are finding that you are struggling with these types of problems, then try to find a review course that gives you plenty of strategy and experience with problem-solving. Problem-solving is often the main gap in the education of most pre-med students. With many undergraduate institutions placing more emphasis on “rote memorization” rather than application of knowledge to problem-solving, pre-med students may have earned high grades in science coursework with little training in how to apply those skills to new situations. Even the so-called “ranked” universities can be seriously lacking in terms of making sure that students have problem-solving skills. Many times these skills are utilized most in coursework like Calculus and applied Differential Equations; courses that many students avoid because of rigor or lack of math background.

How are your reading skills?
In this age of electronic media at every corner, many students have lost the ability to produce (and evaluate) good writing. Many students view the analysis of literature, primary resources and scientific papers as the torture of producing research papers and as a “necessary evil” of obtaining an education. Many professors routinely pass out PowerPoint lecture slides that contain the bare minimum of facts/information that students attempt to memorize verbatim without regard to analysis or research beyond what they have been handed. These processes have tended to rob many students of the skills needed to evaluate information sources and information. While Wikipedia may give starting points for a wide variety of subject matter, many students will often use the “cut and paste” function for research paper writing rather than spend some time evaluating a cross section of resources. Reliance on quick media resources is a great starting point but this reliance can’t be the end point of your information evaluation and gathering skills. Learning how to evaluate the primary literature is a valuable skill that you should have acquired in your undergraduate training regardless of major course of study.

The sections of the MCAT – Biological Sciences
This section will test and evaluate your mastery of General Biology with some Organic Chemistry thrown in. While it may seem strange to put these two subjects together, organic chemistry is largely the most concept application course that is taught in chemistry. Organic Chemistry relies on your understanding of the chemical properties of carbon as an element to solving problems across a wide variety of conditions. Many students hit a major roadblock with organic chemistry because there are many problems that can be created to test your knowledge of carbon chemistry. Trying to sit and memorize every problem that you were presented with in organic chemistry is not going to be very helpful but making sure that you know the concepts of carbon and its chemistry will enable you to solve any problem that you are presented with.
In addition, many student mistakenly believe that they must “take a course” in every type of subject matter that is covered on the MCAT. This could not be further from the truth. A good comprehensive General Biology course will give you the knowledge foundation to apply concepts to the problems that the MCAT will present in Biology. You don’t need specific coursework but you DO need to be able to do some creative thinking in the application of your concepts to novel experiences. A good comprehensive General Biology course will cover physiology, botany, zoology and ecology. Thus, you don’t HAVE to be a biology major to have exposure to the subject matter but you do need to have a grasp of the concepts of a good comprehensive General Biology course. Being able to synthesize and build upon a basic knowledge base are the types of skills that you will use in medicine thus your ability to do these types of problems will be measured by the Biological Sciences section of the MCAT.

The sections of the MCAT – Physical Sciences
This section tests your ability to solve quantitative problems using concepts that you learned in General Chemistry and General Physics. These types of problems are often answered by being able to apply order of magnitude type strategies rather than working though an entire problem. Students who thoroughly know quantitative relationships presented in their coursework will tend to do well on this section. Between General Chemistry and General Physics, the quantitative relationships of many concepts can be probed and tested. It is practically impossible to rote memorize every type of problem that can be presented in these courses but having a sound knowledge of quantitative relationships in addition to being able to apply those relationships can bring success in this section.

The sections of the MCAT – Verbal Reasoning
This section of the MCAT can often be very difficult to improve or prepare for. Being able to analyze critically the reading passages from a wide variety of sources and disciplines generally takes years of careful practice and skill building. Preparation for this section should have been occurring over students previous years of study in practically every subject. College coursework in the humanities with strong achievement can also hone these skills. In addition, good readers are always good writers and thus, the writing section of the MCAT is likely going to mirror the Verbal Reasoning section of this exam. Can you consistently read and learn from your text books and journals? This is a very valuable skill to take into medical school with you as medicine will require a lifetime of learning and the acquisition of new knowledge that will be outside of a classroom.

Some final thoughts…
Finally, the review courses are expensive and time-consuming. You have already paid thousands of dollars in tuition and book purchases in order to master your coursework. Do you actually NEED to pay a few thousand more for a review course of that work? If you didn’t master what you needed the first time around or if you find from doing a few practice retired MCAT exams, you are struggling with this test, and then perhaps a review course can make a difference for you. You should thoroughly investigate the materials offered and you should thoroughly understand what the courses are offering for the fees that they charge. You should also be prepared to master some of the material on your own as many of these courses are taught by people who have a variable ability to teach others. Doing well on the Medical College Admissions Test may not translate into being able to teach others to do well on this exam.
The Medical College Admissions Test is one aspect of your application to medical school. This test requires solid and thorough familiarity with the mode of testing and a solid knowledge base that must be applied to the problems asked on this test. Several retakes of this test do not bode well for medical school admissions. You want to be prepared and take this test one time. With this test being administered 22 times annually, you also have more options in terms of being able to time your preparation for this exam. The important thing to realize is that you don’t want to take this test unless you are thoroughly prepared at your own pace. This is not the time to listen to your peers tell you how much or how little time they needed but the time to set the study schedule that works for you.

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