How to use your practice tests so your score keeps improving

by Gabe

I see a lot students who do a bunch of full length tests, but then get stuck on them and don’t see much progress. They might do 10 or 15 practice tests, but their score doesn’t really move up significantly from test to test.

What gives?

There’s a few things that you need to get right if you want to keep your score improving with each full length that you take:

  1. You need to take them at the right time
  2. You need to take the right number of tests
  3. You need to review them correctly

I’ll cover all these points in order.

When to take your full lengths

First of all, I recommend taking one full length test very early on in your studying so that you can know what you’re up against. You can even make this the first thing you do when you start studying for the MCAT.

A lot of people are reluctant to do this because they don’t know most of the content yet. But that’s partly why you should do it. Doing a practice test early on will give you a much better sense of how the MCAT will present science content and the type of content you should know. Of course, you probably won’t score very well on it, but it will help guide your studying. After that first one you can stop doing practice tests for a while.

Then you want to start doing full lengths again about 6-8 weeks out from your test (you can make this longer or shorter if your schedule requires it). One thing that holds a lot of people back is that they’re worried they need to be done with content review before starting practice tests. Well, guess what – you’ll probably never be done with content review! There’s so much content you could cover that it’s unrealistic to think you’ll ever feel “finished”.

So you need to just start doing practice tests at some point whether or not you’ve covered all the content you want to. You can keep doing content review in between your practice tests.

Once you’re doing full lengths, I recommend aiming for about one test per week. If you’re studying full time, it can work to do two tests per week, but usually that doesn’t allow enough time to review them and keep up with content.

How many full lengths to do

You could probably infer from what I said before that I recommend doing about 6-8 full length tests.

If you have a very long time before your test you can do more than that, and if you’re pressed for time then you can get by with fewer.

Four of the tests you do should be the AAMC exams (that includes the three scored exams and the one unscored exam).

The key thing that you have to remember is that quantity is not everything. What’s a lot more important than the exact number of practice tests you do is how carefully you review them.

I’ve talked with plenty of people who have done a lot of practice tests but haven’t really gotten anywhere because they weren’t taking the time to review them carefully. It would be better to take 5 full lengths and carefully review them than to take 10 full lengths without reviewing them carefully.

So don’t worry too much about some random person on the MCAT subreddit who says they did 23 full lengths. Prioritize quality over quantity.

How to review your full lengths

Reviewing your full lengths is just as important as taking them in the first place. The review is really where most of your improvement will come from.

First of all, a good review takes a lot of time. You’ll generally want to allow about one to two days just for reviewing. (That’s why it’s hard to fit in two practice tests per week unless you’re studying full time!)

Second, here’s how you want to review:

  • Look through every question except the ones you were 100% sure on. That means you should even review questions that you got right but guessed on.
  • For each question you got wrong, ask yourself if it was more of a content error or a reasoning error. If you missed the question because there was some fact, equation, etc. that you didn’t know, then that’s a content error. If you knew all of the relevant content but you just didn’t think things through correctly, then that’s a reasoning error.
  • If it was a content error, then write down what piece of content you were missing. That might be one simple fact (e.g. the structure of tryptophan) or it might be a larger area of content (e.g. fluid dynamics).
  • If it was a reasoning error, just focus on understanding what the correct reasoning would have been. And see if there’s anything you should do differently the next time to make it more likely that you reason the question out correctly.
  • Then, run through your list of content errors and learn whatever you may be missing. If there are psych terms you need to brush up on, you’ll probably want to make some flashcards. If it’s physics that’s giving you trouble, you’ll probably want to do some practice problems

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