I think it’s a misnomer to say that MCAT courses are for students who are less disciplined and therefore need a class to help them keep up, whereas self-studying is for students who are well-disciplined and can stick to a study plan. You need self-discipline for both, and much effort and time. The main difference is that a MCAT course will just lay out all the resources you need and propose a study plan, with additional feedback and encouragement from a teacher. I ended up doing both: taking an MCAT course my first time around, and self-studying for the repeat tests. I break down the pros and cons of both below. But I remember when I first decided to take the MCAT, it was difficult for me to decide between taking a course, which is usually intensive and very very expensive (few thousands), or self-study. In the end, I ultimately chose to take Kaplan’s MCAT classes, which cost me around $2,000. And I signed up for the on-site classes which was taught in an actual classroom with a teacher and fellow students.
In retrospect, I think it was a good idea to take an MCAT course, especially if it is your first time studying for the MCAT. The class really helped me get familiar with the entirety of the test, and I learned a lot of strategies (not only test strategies, but how to mentally prepare for the test as well). Plus, I think its great to get support from your teacher and fellow classmates while studying for the MCAT, and going to class keeps you accountable when studying and doing your homework (and I had a lot). In addition, included in the cost of the class, was a bunch of online resources – particularly practice tests. They have entire practice tests, or just section tests if you need to just focus on general chemistry, verbal, etc. And it is even broken further to subject tests if you just want to focus on, say, blood in biological sciences or kinematics in physical sciences. Even though I devoted the entire time I was enrolled in the class to studying the MCAT (well, 90%), I did not even go through half of the resources they provided to you along with the class. However, I would say that if you decided to take an MCAT class of some sort, plan on doing nothing else really time consuming while you are taking the class. Especially if you are paying that much for classes, you should really take advantage of the the resources and getting the most of the course. I was studying for the MCAT full-time during the entirety of the course, which I should specify was a 2-month summer intensive course. And I still felt overwhelmed. Maybe it was just me, because I know some of my other classmates were also doing research or had jobs on the side, and were hitting their target scores half way into the course, which I clearly wasn’t. So if you know standardized tests are NOT your thing, consider devoting a good few months, if you can, to studying for the MCAT. I know us crazy pre-meds are used to balancing a heavy academic load AND activities outside the classroom, but I would not take the MCAT lightly. Some people in my class were planning on taking the MCAT upon completion of the class, when summer ended and before fall semester started. And some people were planning to take the MCAT a few months AFTER the course ended to continue studying and practicing ON TOP of their fall semester classes. I did the former, but I don’t see the problem of doing the latter, especially if you plan ahead and choose a light class load your fall semester. Just as long as you don’t think you’ll burn out and you can keep up with studying for the MCAT so you don’t forget the content.
Now, I wish I could say that after I completed the Kaplan MCAT course, I took the MCAT, and then I was done. Money well-spent, that chapter of my life is over, yada yada yada. HOWEVER, I ended up taking the MCAT two more times after that. And I decided to self-study both of those times. It wasn’t because the MCAT course didn’t prepare me enough. They really give you everything you need to know and learn up front, but it’s a matter of what you take from it, and the time you put into learning and practicing yourself at home. Not hitting my target score the first time around was more of a lapse on my end. I was not in the right mindset to study for the MCAT, and I did not fully take advantage of the resources offered by the course. Three months personally wasn’t enough time for me to study for the MCAT (2 months of classes + 1 month of self-study when class ended).
I think self-studying is fine for repeat test-takers because you already know the MCAT, you can go at your own pace, and you know your weaknesses so you can spend more time focusing on that. For my self-study, I re-used some of the Kaplan resources that I got when I registered for the course, like the Review Notes and flashcards, but the online resources are no longer available to you after that window of accessibility closes (which was a few months after the course ended). So I bought additional test prep booklets, particularly the Exam Krackers 1001 Questions in MCAT _____. Self-study materials I used can be found in this post: here. Believe me, it hurt to know that I spent all that money the first time around for a surplus of study prep material, only to buy additional test prep material again. Since the Kaplan full-lengths were also not available to me anymore, I had to buy full-length tests from other test companies, mostly the AAMC full-lengths. What I did when I studied for the MCAT again was to review ALL the content again, focus on areas of weakness by doing additional practice questions and tests, and taking full-length practice tests and reviewing what I did wrong.
I want to break down the pros and cons of taking a MCAT course vs. self-studying, in my opinion and based on my experience:
- Good if you are unfamiliar with the MCAT (i.e. 1st time taking it)
- Many resources (content review + test questions and practice tests)
- Proposed study plan
- A lesson plan taught by a teacher, personally breaking down difficult questions and topics
- Classmates, if you like making friends and learning with others
- Expensive $$$
- Heavy course-load / time consuming
- Online resources unavailable after a period of time after the course ends
- Cheaper than taking a course
- Go at your own pace
- Personalized study plan (you can take more time to focus on weak areas)
- Don’t need to go to a classroom (although there are online MCAT courses)
- If you cannot afford the time to take a course and keep up with homework
- Need to seek and buy own prep material
- Need to be more self-disciplined to stick to study plan
- Better for self-directed learners