How I Scored a 520+ on the MCAT: The Ultimate Study Guide

Preparing for the MCAT exam can be an incredibly stressful and challenging process. As someone who recently took the MCAT and scored a 520+, I wanted to share a comprehensive guide detailing my study plan and the resources that helped me succeed.

In this 2500+ word blog article, I will walk through my MCAT timeline, the study materials I used, actionable test-taking strategies, and lessons learned from my experience taking this critical exam for medical school admissions. Whether you’re just starting your MCAT prep or are looking for strategies to boost your score, I hope you’ll find value in my tips for effectively preparing and ultimately scoring a 520+ on the MCAT.

My Background Before Studying for the MCAT

Before diving into the details of my study plan, here is some background on me:

  • I’m a student at Brown University currently in my senior year
  • I studied for the MCAT over one summer break, for around 4 months total
  • I took all of the core pre-med classes before my exam – general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, biology, physiology
  • I had a strong science background but no prior coursework in psychology or sociology
  • I took the MCAT in early September after my junior year
  • My initial diagnostic exam score was around a 505

I wanted to provide this context on my academic background and timeline for taking the exam as it relates to the study plan I followed. If you are earlier in your pre-med classes, you may need a longer dedicated study period than I did. However, having a strong grasp of the foundational science courses before diving into MCAT prep is hugely beneficial.

MCAT Exam Overview and Structure

Before we get into prep materials and strategies, let’s review some key facts about the exam itself:

  • There are 4 sections: Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys), Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS), Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem), and Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)
  • The exam is computer-based, with no paper test booklets. You will use a keyboard and mouse to answer questions.
  • All equations must be memorized – no calculators are permitted.
  • The standard exam length is 6 hours 15 minutes of testing time, with additional breaks.
  • Section timing: 95 minutes for Chem/Phys, Bio/Biochem, and Psych/Soc. 90 minutes for CARS.
  • Chem/Phys and Bio/Biochem have 59 questions each. Psych/Soc has 59 questions. CARS has 53 questions.
  • You should aim to answer about 20 questions every 30 minutes in the science sections. For CARS, budget 10 minutes reading per passage and 1 minute per question.
  • Scores are released about a month after your test date.

Top MCAT Study Resources I Used

Now that you understand the basic structure of the exam, let’s review the key resources that were integral to my 520+ MCAT study plan:

  • Kaplan MCAT Complete 7-Book Subject Review 2021-2022: I used all the books except CARS and Psych/Soc. The edition doesn’t matter as long as it’s after 2015.
  • MCAT Psychology/Sociology Review Sheet: This 300 page review summarizes all MCAT psych/soc topics. There’s also a condensed 86 page version.
  • MCAT Explanation Spreadsheet: Contains detailed explanations for every AAMC practice question – super helpful for reviewing mistakes.
  • Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step) Full Length Exams: I purchased their full length bundle. Their exams and thorough explanations were excellent MCAT practice.
  • UWorld MCAT Qbank: This question bank contains 2000+ awesome MCAT practice questions. I highly recommend their detailed explanations.
  • AAMC Official MCAT Practice Exams and Materials: You need to purchase the bundle (section banks, question packs, full lengths).
  • Anki/Quizlet: Use these digital flashcards apps for MCAT memorization and active recall. I preferred Anki overall.

While buying all of the paid materials may be costly, I’ve listed some great free alternatives in my full study guide. The AAMC bundle is really the one you should invest in for the official practice tests.

Key Tips for the MCAT CARS Section

Since CARS is a critical section that many students struggle with, I wanted to provide some specific tips:

  • AAMC CARS Practice Packs – Some of the best CARS practice comes directly from the test-makers. Save these for your final month of studying.
  • Jack Westin CARS Passages – Available for free online and offer great additional CARS practice.
  • Focus on Timing – Spend 10 minutes maximum reading and absorbing each passage. 1 minute per question. Don’t go over time.
  • Active Reading – Ask yourself questions, understand the author’s viewpoint, and stay engaged with the passage. Don’t just skim.
  • Skip Hard Questions – Flag them, guess, and move on if needed to stay on pace. You can revisit at the end.

3 Phases of My MCAT Study Plan

Now that we’ve covered the key resources, let’s review the 3 phases of my study timeline:

Phase 1: Content Review (1-2 Months)

I spent about 2 months on content review, primarily using the Kaplan books and MCAT psychology/sociology review sheet. The goals for this phase were to:

  • Create and commit to a study schedule
  • Make first pass through MCAT content without memorizing every detail
  • Use Anki/Quizlet to actively review and recall concepts
  • Take a diagnostic exam and identify weak areas

Some key habits for effective content review are sticking to your schedule, taking brief notes on chapters, making flashcards after reading, and taking occasional practice questions to check comprehension. Don’t waste time trying to master everything now – focus on exposure.

Phase 2: 3rd Party Full Length Practice (1 Month)

For the next month, I took full length practice exams from Blueprint and reviewed my performance to identify gaps:

  • Mimic real testing conditions when taking full lengths
  • Review thoroughly after each test – why did you get questions wrong?
  • Use explanations to improve test taking strategies
  • Don’t worry if 3rd party scores seem low – they are deflated

Expect your scores to steadily improve during this phase as you get more familiar with MCAT question types and formulate approaches for different concepts.

Phase 3: AAMC Practice (1 Month)

In the final month leading up to my exam, I focused exclusively on AAMC materials:

  • Section banks, question packs, full lengths
  • Review every mistake thoroughly – use a spreadsheet!
  • Refine test taking strategies and endurance
  • Maintain simulation of real testing environment
  • Your FL average should be above your target score goal

By the end of this phase, you want your full length averages to match or exceed your goal MCAT score. You’ll also have practiced under realistic testing conditions.

How I Improved My MCAT Score Through Test Taking Strategies

Simply taking practice exams isn’t enough – you need to review thoroughly and learn from your mistakes. Here are the key strategies I used:

  • Maintain an error log of every question you get wrong and why
  • Pay special attention to questions you flagged but got wrong
  • Use process of elimination to narrow down to 2 choices
  • If stuck, make an educated guess and move on
  • Practice active reading, especially for CARS
  • For CARS timing – don’t exceed 10 minutes per passage
  • Simulate testing conditions exactly for your full lengths
  • Build up your mental stamina – it’s a long exam!

By identifying patterns in the types of questions you struggle with, reviewing problem areas, and honing your test taking tactics, you can achieve huge score improvements on the MCAT.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here I’ve answered some common MCAT prep questions:

How did you decide when to take the MCAT?

I took it after finishing all my pre-med core courses. Consider timing related to your school schedule and when you’re applying to med school. Take classes you think will be hard (ex: physics) before dedicated MCAT studying.

How did you make your MCAT study schedule?

I made a flexible schedule in Excel, scheduling tasks 1-2 weeks in advance. Have bigger blocks for practice exams/AAMC materials. Adapt if needed – don’t overschedule!

What MCAT prep books did you use?

The Kaplan 7-book subject set, 300 page MCAT psychology/sociology sheet, AAMC materials, UWorld. See the resources section above for more details.

How long should I study for the MCAT?

It depends on your schedule and baseline science knowledge. I studied for 4 months. If you’re earlier in classes, you may need a longer dedicated study period like 6+ months.

Any MCAT CARS tips?

Get the AAMC CARS packs. They offer some of the best practice directly from the test makers.

  • Use Jack Westin CARS passages – free additional practice
  • Manage your timing carefully – no more than 10 minutes reading each passage
  • Budget 1 minute for each question
  • Flag hard questions, guess, and come back later
  • Practice active reading – don’t just skim the passages
  • The Princeton Review CARS cards can provide extra practice

Really try to only use AAMC CARS materials in your final month leading up to the exam. Their passages best mimic the real CARS section.

Third party CARS resources, like Kaplan, can be useful for initial practice but aren’t fully representative of the actual exam. external resources like Jack Westin are a nice free supplement for extra reading comprehension work.

Bottom line – stick to AAMC CARS practice materials when you’re close to your test date for the most accurate prep. Don’t waste them early on. Review your performance to continue honing your active reading and time management abilities.

Does this help provide more detail around my recommendations for effective MCAT CARS practice? Let me know if you need any clarification or have additional questions!