Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from undergradute, graduate school, medical school, residency and beyond.

Standardized Tests

Standardized Tests

Let’s face it, standardized tests are a “fact of life” if you attend public school in the United States, anticipate attending college/university in the United States, want to enter professional school in the United States and practice any profession (especially medicine) in the United States. These tests are required for medical licensure in every state and most medical colleges require applicants take and score well on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) for admission. These standardized tests need not engender any great “fear” in the test-takers as they are simply tests that are administered (and scored) under some kind of standard conditions. They are tests and like any test, they have characteristics that need to be examined in terms of preparing yourself. Just as you prepare for a course examination, you need to prepare for any type of standardized test that you need to take and score well upon.

Getting your “head” in the game

If you constantly tell yourself that your “bad at” standardized tests, you will fulfill your prediction. You can’t give any standardized test any more deference than you would give any examination in your academic history. Every test tries to measure something and that “something” is what you have to maximize your knowledge of , in order to do well on any test. In short, you survey,prepare, and master the knowledge that is tested on any  test under any conditions. Every standardized test has a description which needs to be read, analyzed and used as a guide in your preparation for taking the test. If you decide ahead of time, that you can’t do well on a particular test, you have  made your preparation that much more difficult. Any standardized test can be prepared for, taken and mastered by anyone who diligently and systematically prepares for the test.

Timing is everything

Once you know that you have a standardized test (in addition to your course exams), get a description of what will be covered on that particular exam. In the case of the  MCAT, there are detailed descriptions of the subject matter for each section of that exam. Download those descriptions when you start your pre-medical preparation (when you start college if you know that you want to enter medical school) and pay close attention to your coursework in order to make sure that you have adequate coursework to cover the subject matter of the MCAT. Make sure that after you download a test description, prepare for the test according to the description and not according to how you prepare for other tests.

If a description says that a test requires that  you apply knowledge from a specific knowledge base, simply memorizing that knowledge base is not going to prepare you for that test. In addition to thoroughly mastering the knowledge base, you have to be sure that you master the application of that knowledge base to problem solving. Standardized tests such as USMLE, MCAT and COMLEX have such broad knowledge bases that you can’t hope to memorize every factoid in those bases. You must master the prerequisite coursework (not memorize/cram for each exam) and build upon each courses within that knowledge base in order to apply that knowledge to problem solving.

What about problem-solving?

For many people, anxiety and poor reading skills can destroy any chance that they had of actually answering each question as it comes. If you are thoroughly familiar with the manner in which each test will construct problems, you can greatly decrease your anxiety level and improve your experience and reading skills. You can find reading skills courses (critical reading and analysis) that will hone your ability to pick out the significant parts of any argument, problem, question or survey that will help you extract the information that you need to answer a question about that argument, problem, question or survey. You can practice self-questioning as you read textbooks, newspapers, position papers and peer-journals to learn how to extract pertinent information for problem-solving. Turning off the television and getting away from the social media sites on the computer can free up valuable time for reading and analysis of a wide-variety of journal, texts and other learning materials. In short, you can read and analyze something every day that will hone your reading skills.

Get away from the Powerpoint!

Just attempting to study anything from a Powerpoint summary can be problematic. Professors use Powerpoint to summarize facts which may not be detailed enough for through mastery of any subject matter. If there has been assigned reading from a textbook, make sure that you have completely and critically covered the material. As you are reading, be sure that you look up any unfamiliar words and constantly question yourself in terms of knowledge mastery. If you have a Powerpoint lecture summary, be sure that you thoroughly cover and understand (in the textbook) the material that has been outlined in the Powerpoint lecture. Only after you have completely summarized and learn complete concepts, can you utilize a review-type book for reinforcement of learning. Trying to learn the basics from a review book is not going to give you the in-depth knowledge base that you can use to apply to standardized test problem-solving.

Review courses

A review course is worthwhile if you have a thorough mastery of your coursework in the first place. Just like review books, Powerpoint reviews and other review-type materials, you can’t successfully utilize these things unless you have had a through underlying knowledge base in the first place. If you are a medical student and you anticipate taking any of the USMLE/COMLEX step exams for medical licensure, you need to have thoroughly mastered your coursework before you begin any type of review course for these exams. This is why review courses are most valuable as soon as you have completed the prerequisite coursework that will be covered in the review. These review courses are not a substitute for thorough mastery of coursework.  This same strategy works for pre-med students in that purchasing and taking a review course before you have completed the pre-med courses is largely a waste of time and money.

Finally…

Most standardized tests have a recommended study time frame. If you can’t find this study time frame, make sure that you ask people who have taken (and done well) on a standardized test, how much time they put in. Also be sure to ask a number of people (not just one person) so that you can get an average. Keep the following in mind:

  • Don’t tell yourself that you are “bad” at standardized tests because you add to the difficulty of any prep for a particular exam.
  • Don’t expect to memorize a review book and be prepared for a particular test or exam.
  • Don’t tell yourself that your “whole career” depends on one exam as no exam can totally determine your vocational destiny(influence yes but not totally determine).
  • Regular if not daily systematic preparation for the major standardized tests is a sound strategy. Your daily prep can be as simple as practicing your reading comprehension.
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29 March, 2011 - Posted by | MCAT preparation, medical school, medical school admission, standardized tests, study skills

2 Comments »

  1. Thanks a lot for this great work, its encouraging and motivating. I have gained a lot from this. Thanks

    Comment by Martin | 5 May, 2011 | Reply

  2. I love your posts, they are extremely helpful and encouraging! Keep up the great work!

    Comment by pdawg | 30 March, 2011 | Reply


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