Whether you’ve already begun to prepare for the MCAT or are just setting up a study plan, you’ve probably asked yourself this question: when should I take my first full-length practice exam? The answers to this question vary, and there’s not necessarily a “wrong” time to start taking practice tests. In my experience as an instructor, however, I’ve found that it’s nearly always best to take your first full-length about 4-5 weeks into your prep.
For many students, this raises an interesting conflict. It can easily take 6-8 weeks just to review the science content tested on the MCAT – why take a full-length before covering all of the material? Wouldn’t this make the score you receive less representative of what you could actually expect on Test Day? Some of my own students have even expressed the idea that taking an exam this early is a “waste” of the test, since some of the material covered is bound to be entirely unfamiliar. As a result, I can’t tell you how many students delay taking their first full-length test until they’ve completed all, or most, of the content – sometimes even longer. This is a big mistake – but why?
First, a full-length test is very different from any shorter forms of practice you may have completed, including our half-length diagnostic test. The endurance required to remain focused for over 6 hours (not including breaks!) is something that takes the average student time to develop. If you delay your first full-length for too long, you may find that you’re rushing to gain this endurance in the few weeks leading up to your test date. If you start taking full-lengths early, you can avoid this unnecessary stress and be more comfortable during later full-lengths and the official exam itself.
Even more importantly, full-length exams can allow you to learn things about yourself that simple content review or even passage practice cannot. Maybe you fall victim to test anxiety; maybe you tend to have timing issues when you become tired; maybe you panic when you see a particular topic under test-like conditions. The sooner you discover quirks like these, the sooner you can adjust your prep to deal with them. The alternative is true as well – if you perform well on certain topics or sections on the first full-length, you may be able to reduce (within reason) the time you allocate to those topics in future weeks.
Here’s a related issue that causes students untold stress – what if your first full-length score is lower than expected, or worse, even lower than your diagnostic score? Don’t panic! It’s fairly common to get a lower overall score on your first full length than on the half-length diag, and extremely common to score lower in some sections. Score improvements aren’t linear, and the sheer length of the first full exam is enough to throw off most students. Studying for the MCAT can also produce an interesting effect where more knowledge briefly doesn’t translate into score gains. After all, when you know nothing about a topic, you’re likely to guess randomly; when you know a little more, you may be just familiar enough with the concept to fall for a tempting trap answer. So don’t stress about your score on the first full-length exam! Instead, use it to learn as much about yourself as you possibly can, and build on this knowledge to ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes on the next practice test.
If you’re ready to start preparing for the MCAT but aren’t sure where to start, try out our free MCAT practice bundle. You’ll have access to our half-length diagnostic, our first full-length practice test, and a demo of our online course. You can sign up for the free bundle here.
Next Step’s Senior Content Developer