MCAT & USMLE Test Taking Strategies - One Approach to Questions and Answers

As a result of writing these posts, a friend and I were recently having a conversation about our various studying techniques for the MCAT and USMLE exams. We discovered many expected similarities, and a few that were unique to each of us, some of which we’ll discuss here. So when you are later singing my praises to your peers for being so masterful at the infant art form known as blogging, please remember to thank Dr. Po as well.

For most students, questions with long reading passages are among the most challenging, if for no other reason than they are mentally intimidating to come upon, especially on such a tightly timed test or if you are a slow reader.

That intimidation can quickly turn to fear and anxiety, if you don’t have a solid plan in place for such situations. To that end, Dr. Po offered a piece of advice that you may be aware of, but of which I had never heard. If you suffer from SLD (Slow Reading Disease) as I do – which by the way is absolutely no indication of lower intelligence or ability – you’d be well advised to pay particular attention.

The strategy is simple: don’t begin at question # 1; mix it up a little bit and get creative.

MCAT & USMLE Test Taking Strategies - One Approach to Questions and Answers

You’ll be the envy of the room as the resident testing maverick, known to play by his or her own rules. The reason is twofold: mentally you’re rearranging the exam so that your mind isn’t as aware of the timing issue, and you can relax a bit; practically, you are starting in the middle of the exam, which despite claims to the contrary, tends to be the hardest portion of the test.

The rules are to begin at # 40, do 40 questions, then return to # 1 and complete the first 40, then go directly to the end and work backwards 40 questions. If there are more than 120 questions in the section, you may choose your own progression from there, being sure to oscillate between start, middle and end of the test.

This way, you are statistically more likely – again, testing companies will likely deny this, but I’ve taken A LOT of exams, and it’s pretty accurate – to encounter the most difficult questions first. Then you are in a position of power, even if you’re a bit behind the eight ball temporally, because you can be relatively confident that subsequent questions won’t take as long. And if you’re on track or ahead on time, that knowledge will become such a confidence booster, as you are then able to relax and focus.

The other tactic we discussed was one that has absolutely benefited me greatly, since the first time I began using it. Once again, the plan is easy and hopefully effective, and with any luck will infuse you with instant confidence about your answer choice.


I’m sure some of you already do this. It is scary how often you can come up with the correct answer, just by looking at the choices before you look at the question. And then when you do read the question, if you were correct initially and the best answer is your original choice, you’re virtually home free. One caveat: don’t get cocky and forget to carefully read the entire passage. While it gets less frequent as you proceed through academic levels, the MCAT people are not above occasionally sticking a trick “are you paying attention?” answer among the options given. At this level it’s relatively rare, but better safe than sorry.

Again, there are two basic reasons for adopting this exit strategy from the exam holding you hostage.

[YOU’RE ALMOST THERE!] First, in the more pragmatic sense, if used properly, this technique is almost guaranteed to improve accuracy and speed.

But psychologically, you will also gain a huge advantage – even if you miss a few questions you thought were a lock – because of the confidence boost that comes from, well, confidence in your test-taking abilities. Clearly, the longer the exam, the more important it is to have as large an arsenal as possible of coping strategies designed to beat back this beast of a test.

I use these hyperboles and tongue-in-cheek attempts at humor not as a scare tactic for scariness sake (BOO!), but because it’s important to know what lies ahead of you. How else can you possibly prepare adequately?

In the same way that a military would try its best to never enter a fight blind, your best route to success will be a two-pronged approach of intense study juxtaposed with well-rehearsed test-taking techniques. And what do you know…that was 2.5x alliteration. Until next time….

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