There are several standardized exams, usually referred to as admissions tests, that are used in evaluating applicants to professional programs in the medical profession:
- MCAT for allopathic medical school and osteopathic medical school (COVID-19 and the MCAT)
- DAT for dental school (COVID-19 and the DAT)
- OAT for optometry school (COVID-19 and the OAT)
- GRE for graduate and other professional schools (COVID-19 and the GRE) (read “Important Notifications”)
Some programs accept either a specialized exam (e.g., PCAT for pharmacy [COVID-19 and the PCAT]) or the GRE.
The relative importance of your scores on these standardized exams to your chances of being admitted may vary depending on the program, but are almost always one of the top three criteria used to evaluate applicants. Accordingly, it is vital that you take them seriously and spend appropriate time and energy preparing for them.
Some general ways to prepare for the exams, regardless of which one you choose to take, are listed below. The MCAT is typically used as a model because it is so widely used and has been so thoroughly studied.
- Learn as much as you can about the exam. Detailed information and practice exams are usually available online at the administering organization’s website (see links above). There may also be guidebooks available at most bookstores.
- Study material covered on the exams by reviewing courses you have taken, studying guidebooks, or taking preparatory courses offered by private companies (e.g., Kaplan and Princeton Review for the MCAT).
- Take practice exams under realistic, timed conditions. Most such exams are now offered in computer-based format so this is the best format for you to use when practicing.
- Review the results of your practice exam to identify areas in which you need improvement and spend more time reviewing material in these areas. Repeat.
- Review the results of your practice exam to identify tactical errors you may have made and begin to develop strategies for answering each type of question (e.g., some answers to questions based on a given passage may appear to be true, but if they are outside the scope of the passage, they are unlikely to be correct). Repeat.
- Some exams or sections thereof are difficult to study for because they test reading comprehension or writing skills. Nevertheless, taking practice exams will help you to know what to expect, to develop successful strategies, and to identify the types of reading or writing exercises you should practice.
- Start preparing for the exams well in advance; a year is none too soon, but pace yourself! You must find a balance between preparing thoroughly and burning yourself out by studying too much. The MCAT is given several times throughout the year, and you must take them no later than the calendar year before you hope to matriculate in medical school (although some schools may consider January scores for that calendar year).
- Take the exam as often as you have to in order to obtain reasonable scores. For example, if you do well on the MCAT on your first try, then you can focus your attention on completing the application process. If you need to improve your scores, you can retake the exam (up to three times in one year). Taking the exam multiple times is usually a good idea because most medical schools look at either your best or your most recent scores. Make every effort to ensure that your scores improve each time you take the exam.
- Take time just before the exam to relax, get a good night’s sleep, and eat a good nutritious breakfast. Scope out the exam site before the day of the exam so that you can arrive early without adding the stress of having to hurry.
- While taking the exam, keep your cool. Follow the strategies you developed, perhaps including some of the following:
- If you can narrow the choice of answers to two possibilities, choose one and move on.
- If you cannot eliminate any obviously wrong answers, but have an inkling as to what the answer might be, return to it later (but keep track of your first impression for all such questions – scrap paper is provided). If you have time at the end to think more about the question, then choose your best answer at that time. If you do not have time at the end to work more on the question, fill in the space corresponding to your first impression.
- If you have no idea as to what the answer might be, keep track of the question (on scrap paper) and come back at the end to enter a guess.
- Do all non-passage-based questions first so that you at least have a chance to answer the questions you know; then move on to the passages.
- On passage-based questions, you may want to take a quick peek at the questions, then read the passage and either highlight key parts or write quick notes on scrap paper.
- Pay close attention to the question that is asked and choose the answer that best answers the question. More than one answer may be true, but not answer the question.
- Manage your time. Do not spend too much time on any one question or section. Leave time near the end of the exam to return to questions you did not answer. If a fresh look at the question allows you to narrow the possible answers, then choose one. Otherwise, choose your first impression or choose a letter and answer all unanswered questions with that letter.