Apr 26, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Good work: you're almost ready to apply to medical school! You've written an amazing essay, your recommendations are in order, and you've narrowed down your list of schools. Maybe you've taken the MCAT already and maybe you haven't.

If you haven't you need to read this.

What does the MCAT do? It gives medical school admissions boards a sense of your critical thinking, reasoning, and analytical abilities, in addition to your content knowledge. 

It's harder than the traditional college exam because of its interdisciplinary focus on biology, chemistry, and physics, in addition to reading and interpreting different types of text. It's also longer than a traditional exam--seven and a half hours, to be exact.

Not only do you have to know facts, you need to be able to apply them at high levels to solve complicated problems quickly. 

It's also a scaled exam, which means that your raw score--the number of questions you answered correctly--is adjusted based on the level of difficulty. 

The highest score you can earn is a 528, and the scale is centered at 500, which is the average score. Each section is scored on a scale of 118-132, and your total score ranges from 472-528. You'll also receive a percentile rank to help you get a sense of how you did relative to other test takers.

It's a bear of a test for sure. You've probably heard some rumors about it--some are true and some aren't. Let's take a closer look at some Dos and Don'ts for this exam:

1. Don't Assume You're Ready

Good grades in college? Great. Having them doesn't mean you're going to knock the MCAT out of the park. It just means you're in a good place to begin studying what you don't know because there's still a lot. 

The test has so many facets, and they all push you to go beyond recalling information to applying it. 

In a recent article in US News and World Report, Petros Minasi, Jr., director of premedical programs at Kaplan Test Prep said that the MCAT test creators "don't reward you just for knowing something. They reward you for knowing something and being able to apply it. That's how you get questions right."

2. Do Create A Test-Prep Timeline

The earlier you take the MCAT in the admissions process, the better off you'll be. Develop a timeline--usually between three and six months--to take the exam. You'll need a solid 200-300 hours of dedicated study time at a minimum. 

Some students take up to nine months to study if they know they need extra help.

Use a variety of resources to develop your timeline. Some students recommend using Khan Academy courses paired with MCAT test prep materials from Kaplan and Gold Standard.

If you need help creating that timeline, reach out and ask for it. You may even want to consider taking an MCAT prep course to help keep you on track. 

3. Don't Rely on Memorization

You can't memorize your way through the MCAT. It just won't work. Yes, you need to memorize certain things and need to have certain formulas in your head. What's more important is that you know when and how to use them.

One way to make sure you've internalized something you need to know? Teach it to someone else--or at least explain it--to someone who has no prior knowledge of anything you're talking about, like the water cycle or something.

If you can teach it successfully and confidently, you know it. 

4. Do Fill in the Gaps in Your Knowledge

You know what you're good at and you know what you need to improve. Devote some time to practicing the things you already understand, but devote the bulk of your time to turning your weaknesses into strengths. 

Use practice tests to identify your weak areas and a study combination that works for you to improve areas that you find challenging. 

One pro tip? Pretend you don't know anything and start at the beginning. Work your way through test prep materials and find what works for you. 

Need a tutor? Get one. Better off working through difficult things alone? Do that. See #5.

5. Don't Go It Alone

Use study resources and don't think that you know better. 

You don't need to spend a lot of money on resources, either.

Many students swear by Khan Academy courses and practice problems--all of which are free. Get your hands on every practice test and problem bank from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which are all from old exams. 

Organize your study plan (see #1) based on the sections that the AAMC recommends and use textbooks to guide you. You can get all of these resources free at most public libraries, and certainly at your campus library.

6. Do Take Breaks

You know how it goes: all work and no play will make you quite dull--and less inspired to study. Don't study for 12 hours a day. Develop a reasonable study plan (see #1), plan on however many hours per day you'd like, and keep yourself busy with other activities--internships, volunteering, working, hanging out with friends.

You can do this. You just need to take a reasonable approach to maximize your best self--and your best score. 

Learn more about attending medical school. 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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