Score plateaus can be incredibly frustrating and demotivating, but they are a natural part of MCAT preparation for many students. We typically expect score progression to be linear and proportional to the number of hours spent studying. However, for many of us, score progression looks more like what we would see on a phase change diagram, shown below.
Causes of Score Plateaus
You may see a jump in your score between your diagnostic exam and first full length and then plateau. Alternatively, your score might plateau from the very onset of taking practice exams. Both are normal and can usually be attributed to two causes.
Deficiency in Content. This is very common early in your studying since no two practice exams will test the same topics. As you work on content weaknesses identified in FL1, you will identify new content weaknesses in FL2. If you strategically review content and its application, this plateau will generally resolve in a few exams.
Issues with Critical Thinking. The MCAT tests content in a very different way than you have likely experienced in your college classes. While there are questions that solely test content (skill 1 questions), these only make up 35% of the total science questions. These plateaus do not resolve with content review, and instead take more dedicated practice and reflection.
Diagnosing Your Plateau
Before you can take actionable steps to overcome your score plateau, you must first identify the cause. This means taking a solid 6-10 hours to thoroughly review your last practice exam. To distinguish between errors in content vs critical thinking, ask yourself a few questions:
Can I identify a piece of information I didn't know that would enable me to answer this question?
Yes - the issue is content.
Am I missing several questions that test the same general concept?
Yes - the issue is content. If you have studied the content already, this could indicate either that your content review is not effective or you are struggling to apply the content.
Are there any trends for the type of skill question that I am missing?
Skill 1 questions mostly test general content knowledge, while skill 2 questions focus more on critical thinking. Skill 3 and 4 questions are centered around experimental design and analysis.
Should I have used information from the passage to answer this question?
Yes - the issue is critical thinking.
Did I misunderstand the passage or question? Or did I not know how to approach this question?
Yes - the issue is critical thinking.
Overcoming Content Hurdles
Content hurdles are the most straightforward to attack. If you are missing questions on a topic you have not reviewed yet, set aside some time to study that topic. You should prioritize topics based on your specific needs and yield of the content. For example, if you missed one question on cell biology because you forgot that cytochrome C mediates apoptosis and missed 5 questions because you don't understand electrochemistry, you should prioritize electrochemistry review since it will get you more questions correct. The more questions you miss on a topic, the more you should focus on reviewing that topic.
If you have already reviewed a topic but are still missing skill 1 questions on it, you may not have a deep enough understanding of the science for the MCAT. This is common if you focus more on memorization than conceptual understanding. To improve your understanding, you can take two different approaches.
Review the content again using the learning technique elaborative interrogation. Instead of focusing on the "what" of the information, focus instead on the "why." This will help you make connections between different science topics. For example, you might have memorized that as an electron moves further from the nucleus, its potential energy increases. But why? If we think back to physics, electric potential energy is given by the equation U = kQq/r. Since the charges of protons and electrons are opposite, potential energy is negative. As we divide by a larger radius, U becomes less negative and thus larger!
Make a study sheet on a topic. Study sheets are useful ways for you to summarize all of the information relevant to a particular topic. For example, if you were making a study sheet on the nephron, you would draw a nephron and label what happens at each part (including connections to physics with filtration at the glomerulus and connections to the endocrine system with aldosterone and vasopressin).
Notice that traditional note taking is not one of the recommended approaches. Taking notes typically uses a lot of time and tends to emphasize transcribing information rather than digesting and critically analyzing it.
Mastering Content Application
Alternatively, if you do understand the science but are still missing questions, you probably are not doing enough practice questions between full length exams. If you need to do specific review on a topic, the end of chapter exams are an excellent resource. You can find them in the dropdown menu in the upper right hand corner of your Blueprint home page.
As you work through practice questions, focus on identifying keywords in the question stem or answer choices that indicate a specific content area or formula. For example, if you see the phrase weak acid and its conjugate base, you should immediately think of buffered systems and the Henderson Hasselbalch equation (if you see pH values).
The MCAT will test your foundational content knowledge through novel scenarios, and while you can be tested on the same content information in each practice exam you take, you will never see the same question twice. Thus, when you review, focus on more general takeaways rather than how to approach one specific question. For example, if you missed a question on kinematics that asked for the max height of a projectile, reflect on how to choose the correct formula, best practices for drawing a diagram, and shortcuts you can make with calculation - not just how to solve for max height.
Improving your Critical Thinking
Working on critical thinking will require practice with both passage interpretation and strategic approaches to questions. If critical thinking is currently your achilles heel, set aside at least 45 minutes (ideally more) each day to work through practice questions, setting aside ample time to review.
Improving Passage Comprehension
Start by doing a passage in either the Qbank or the end of chapter exams. When you finish, the passage explanations will provide sample highlighting along with an analysis of each paragraph. Carefully compare your key takeaways of the passage with the Blueprint example material. Ask yourself a few questions:
What did I miss when I read the passage, and how can I approach my reading differently next time to identify these key takeaways?
How will I differentiate between detailed information and main ideas and author opinions?
Are there any questions that I should ask myself as I am reading to improve my comprehension?
For science: What general science topic is this passage testing?
For experiments: What is the hypothesis? How do the methods test this hypothesis? Are there any missing controls? What conclusions can I draw from the data?
For CARS: What is the author's main conclusion/opinion? What other arguments/opinions are in the passage? How do the paragraphs build on each other?
How can I change my highlighting approach to be more efficient?
Write down specific actionable steps that you can take in your next day of practice. Focus on just 1-2 behavioral changes at a time.
It can also help to read more MCAT like material. Arts and Letters Daily has a great collection of humanities and social science articles for CARS style reading. The Directory of Open Access Journals has a wide variety of science articles. Don't read the entire articles, rather read around 4-6 paragraphs and analyze 1-2 figures for the full benefit.
Improving Question Approach
After you work through some practice questions, don't immediately read the explanation. If you approach your review saying "oh that makes sense" you are not really learning anything. Instead, try to create your own explanation that explains why the right answer is correct and why the wrong answers are wrong. If you get stuck, read just enough of the explanation to get past your blockage. This method of approach engages you much more and will help you to recreate the proper thought process to answer questions. With continued practice, you will learn to think more like the test maker.
Additionally, look for strategic shortcuts. Were there any answers that you could have strategically eliminated? If you weren't sure how to approach a question, could you have guessed better? Guessing between two opposite answers or eliminating two equivalent answers can improve your odds of choosing the correct answer.