What do marriage, appendectomies, and preparing for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) have in common?

You only do them once. (Or at least that’s the plan.)

And because you expect to do them only once, it can feel overwhelmingly disappointing and frustrating when something goes wrong and you have to start over. I mean, can you imagine your surgeon saying: “Yeah, so…when we did your emergency appendectomy, we missed a little bit. Sorry about that. Come back again in a couple of months when you’ve healed up and we’ll try again.”

No thanks.

The same applies to MCAT test prep, or studying for any major exam really. There is nothing quite so confusing and disappointing as studying a topic—Woohoo! Success! Tick it off the list!—only to encounter that content in an MCAT practice questions or test weeks later, and getting it wrong.

You put in the work, but your brain seems to be on a beach in Bermuda, sipping on cosmopolitans.

Brain on the beach; how to do well on the MCAT

Listen: this happens all the time in MCAT test prep and it’s not necessarily a setback. The important thing is not to stress, but rather approach your mistake with curiosity so that you can forever bridge it and never repeat it.

To help you do just this, the team here at Brainscape turned to our resident MCAT expert, Clara Gillan, who scored a whopping 526 on the exam, placing her in the top 100th percentile of all students who’ve taken the exam, like, ever.

From this stratospheric score, Clara unsurprisingly became the Director of Product at MedSchoolCoach, which provides pre-med and medical school admissions consulting services, and she authored Brainscape’s collection of 4,200+ digital flashcards for the MCAT. In other words: she knows exactly how to do well on the MCAT. In this guide, Clara will help you understand:

  • All the reasons you could be getting questions wrong—many of which have nothing to do with your MCAT science knowledge (so relax).
  • What you can do to learn from your mistakes so that you never repeat them.
  • One of the most effective study tools for ingraining the huge amount of information required to ace the exam: Brainscape’s certified MCAT flashcards.

Armed with all of this, you’ll be well on your way to medical school!

Let’s get started!

(Time management needs improvement? Check out Brainscape’s guide on how to study for the MCAT more efficiently.)

It’s not you, it’s the MCAT test prep questions

Frustrated man who wants to do well on the MCAT

Here’s the scenario: you’re well into your MCAT practice, and you’re particularly confident in, for example, your amino acids and basic carbohydrate structure. You’ve practiced many questions and moved on to the next topics.

Now, weeks later, you’re attempting an MCAT question of the day or a practice test and, would you believe it, you’re getting questions about those topics wrong! You’re supposed to know this stuff! What’s going wrong?

First of all: Don’t panic.

Getting MCAT practice questions wrong isn’t always indicative of a gap in your content knowledge or problems in your content review process. Sure, these are possibilities, and it’s important you rule them out. But other explanations are worth thinking about, which will help you to keep a level head.

Here they are:

  1. Some MCAT test prep questions are really hard
  2. You got thrown off your game by a pseudo-discrete MCAT question
  3. The answer lies in the passage, but you missed it
  4. You ran out of time
  5. You DO, in fact, have a gap in your MCAT content knowledge

Now, here’s how to do well on the MCAT … the first time!

Some MCAT test prep questions are really hard

On a typical full-length MCAT practice test, at least a handful of questions are noticeably harder than the rest. That’s just how the MCAT cookie crumbles, and it goes both ways: you’ll likely see some absurdly easy questions, too.

So, it could be that the one amino acid question you got wrong was the hardest question in the entire section. When that happens, it can make you feel insecure about the MCAT content you thought you knew well.

What should you do?
Check to see if the practice questions you completed have difficulty ratings assigned to them, and if so, whether the question you got wrong was rated hard, easy, or somewhere in between. If it was a hard question, well, then that’s probably why you got it wrong.

If the practice MCAT test doesn’t provide question difficulty, you can take it to a fellow student, tutor, or professor to get their opinion. If they thought the question was unremarkable or even easy, that’s a red flag, and you should probably take a moment to assess your knowledge of that topic; perhaps dedicate an hour or two to reviewing it. By the way, if you're looking for a tutoring service, reach out to our friend Michael at Med School Mentor.

In both of these cases, treat incorrect test answers as a valuable opportunity to learn and hone your intellectual arsenal against the real MCAT test. Take note of any critical flaws in your reasoning or content knowledge. Make sure you understand why you got the question wrong, and even create a flashcard for it in the Brainscape app* so that you can review it repeatedly until you never get it wrong.

*More on Brainscape as a valuable tool for MCAT test prep in a bit!

You got thrown off your game by pseudo-discrete MCAT practice questions

MCAT Equations

The second possible explanation for getting an MCAT practice test question wrong is that it looks like it’s associated with the passage but is actually ONLY testing your content knowledge. This is called a pseudo-discrete question (which you’re probably familiar with if you’ve taken a full-length MCAT practice test).

These kinds of questions are surprisingly common! And you know you’ve got one when you spend an inordinate amount of time scouring the passage, trying to figure out the answer when you need to look no further than your own noggin. The question sounds like it’s based on the passage, but in fact, it’s 100% testing your content knowledge. You might have that content knowledge nailed down, but it didn’t do you any good because you didn’t know that you needed to access it.

If you recognize a pseudo-discrete question early on, you can save yourself a lot of time and confusion when trying to answer it. This is a significant key to how to do well on the MCAT, and you can only attain it through practice, practice, practice!

Read: 8 Common MCAT myths (that could be derailing your studying)

The answer lies in the passage, but you missed it

Lady looking with a magnifying glass; how to do well on the MCAT

Another example of how candidates can become confused is when MCAT test prep questions ask about information that’s outside the scope of what you need to know. This can make you feel like you’ve missed something in your studies when, in reality, you are supposed to get the answer straight from the passage.

So, it’s like the opposite of a pseudo-discrete question (but there isn’t a cute word for it). And these questions are all over the MCAT.

Say an MCAT question asks about the bonds in isomaltose, a disaccharide. PANIC! Isomaltose is not a molecule you’re familiar with. Did you miss something? Was your brain on vacation again? (Perhaps in the Maldives, this time?)

No, no. Relax. You don’t need to know anything about isomaltose, but that doesn’t mean a question won’t ask about it. Maybe the passage shows the structure of isomaltose directly, or maybe it gives just enough information for you to be able to deduce that isomaltose is similar to maltose but contains an alpha 1-6 instead of an alpha 1-4 bond.

The answer lies within the passage. You just need to go mining for it.

So, before you start kicking yourself for being forgetful, make absolutely sure you understand whether to turn to your content knowledge OR the passage (or both) for an answer.

You ran out of time to answer all the MCAT test questions

Man juggling clocks; How to do well on the MCAT

A rather unfortunate, yet common reason why people miss points on the MCAT test is that they run out of time.

This is where taking many MCAT practice exams comes in handy. If you find yourself struggling to get through everything in the allotted time, then it’s your time management skills or even test-taking strategies that could use improvement.

If you need help with that, check out Brainscape’s top test-taking strategies to help you prepare for, and take on high-stakes exams like the MCAT!

You DO, in fact, have a gap in your MCAT content knowledge

Finally, the reason you might have gotten an MCAT test prep question wrong is that there is an actual problem with your understanding of the content.

Perhaps you knew the content before, but you’ve since forgotten. This is a very real and very common scenario because there is so much information to cover. Balancing the learning of new content with the review of older content is an ongoing challenge for MCAT candidates.

Alternatively, maybe you never fully understood the content because you studied it superficially, and you didn’t realize this before because questions on that area never came up. Or they did come up, but you were able to blunder through them. This blundering is an incredibly easy mistake to make because it’s surprisingly easy to get questions right for the wrong reasons.

For example: you probably know that sound travels fastest in solids and slowest in gases. That fact alone can answer most questions about the concept. But you can know this fact and still have a completely mistaken idea about why it is the case.

Namely, students often think that the velocity of sound is directly correlated with the density of the medium. We won’t get too far into this here, but it’s actually the opposite of the truth; the speed of sound is inversely correlated with density and directly correlated with the bulk modulus of the medium. The faster velocity of sound in solids is due to their massively higher bulk moduli, not their higher densities.

Whether you forgot certain content or never learned it right in the first place, you should go back over the topic, making sure to avoid straying too far outside facts you see in your MCAT test prep resources.

Throughout this review, constantly ask yourself questions, like: “Why does it work this way?” and “Does this fit in with what I know about related topics?” This will prevent you from studying superficially again, and it’ll help you retain memorized information better, too. Then, work through some practice questions if available.

As a quick side note, students often work through discrete questions (including MCAT questions of the day), not passages, as part of this content review process. This is fine; it’s a great way to test understanding! But if you get every discrete question right but later miss passage-based questions on that topic, again, it’s probably your passage analysis that actually needs work.

[We have the ultimate 3-month study plan for the MCAT. Find it here to study optimally and prepare your mind and body for the exam!]

Use Brainscape’s MCAT flashcards to master the facts

There is a secret weapon to help you overcome all of the hurdles we’ve discussed in this guide … an MCAT test prep tool that automates the daily review of content, making it so convenient and easy that all you have to do is pick up your phone, tablet, or laptop, open Brainscape, and start running through MCAT flashcards.

Brainscape’s certified MCAT flashcards
Brainscape’s certified MCAT flashcards are the perfect resource for building that essential science foundation for the MCAT. But more than mere facts, these flashcards are packed with strategy tips and hints to help you draw connections between topics and subjects.

Throughout the course of your MCAT preparation, your content review will never truly be “finished.” You’re bound to forget some topics over time, and even if you study with constant self-questioning and critical thinking, you may misunderstand others and only realize this later.

Brainscape’s flashcards are a powerful, effective, and convenient way to combat this content degradation over time.

Together with MCAT expert Clara Gillan, we’ve distilled the entire MCAT curriculum down into more than 4,200 MCAT flashcards that contain all the important facts you need to know for the exam. Armed with the web or mobile app, you can refresh and review content literally wherever you go, in study sessions that are as short as 5 minutes or as long as several hours. (Whatever you’re motivated to do.)

You can also use Brainscape to make your own flashcards, perhaps for questions and facts that you got wrong on an MCAT practice test. You can then practice them over and over so that you never forget them again.

Brainscape’s flashcard algorithm is grounded in decades of cognitive science research, leveraging learning principles like active recall, metacognition, and spaced repetition to help you master the facts twice as fast as traditional learning techniques. And for this reason, it’s one of the most effective revision tools for MCAT candidates out there.

Brainscape MCAT flashcards
Brainscape’s web and mobile app breaks knowledge down into logical bite-sized question-and-answer pairs, which compel users to engage active recall and metacognition to learn, while the spaced repetition of flashcards ensures more efficient studying.

Brainscape has also crafted these gorgeous, customizable, and totally free MCAT study planners and exam countdown sheets, which you can use to "divide and conquer" everything you need to cover ahead of your exam date!

Turning MCAT test prep mistakes into learning opportunities

There are all kinds of reasons you might fumble with MCAT practice questions or the actual test, only one of which comes down to you not knowing the content well enough or having forgotten it. And for that, there’s Brainscape to keep your knowledge fresh, alive, and vital, which is how to do well on the MCAT.

The best approach doing well on the MCAT the first time is taking on (and learning from) practice questions, whether an MCAT question of the day or full-length practice exam. You need to see every missed question as an opportunity to re-evaluate your weaknesses. And hopefully, the strategies we’ve talked about will help you do exactly that.

(We also have an amazing guide on how to take an MCAT practice test to get the most out of it. Check it out!)