If you’re a pre-pharm student getting ready to prepare for the PCAT exam, you’ve likely asked yourself this question: what should my PCAT prep timeline be? While it may seem like a simple question, it can actually be pretty tough to answer, because it’s entirely dependant on certain factors.
Your prep study schedule is determined by your needs, and your needs aren’t the same as everyone else’s. So, there’s no one-size-fits-all response. There are a number of factors you should be considering, though. Everything from your work/school schedule to your PCAT goals can affect your timeline. So, how do you determine what will work best for you?
These are the 6 questions you should be asking yourself when setting up your prep timeline:
1) Have you finished the prerequisite courses?
It’s tempting to get started with your PCAT prep early. The exam is difficult and there is a lot of information to cover. But starting to prepare before you’ve finished these courses may do you more harm than good. Practice tests are a big part of your PCAT prep and you’ll be going blindly into some of the sections without a solid base of content knowledge. The content being tested on the exam should have been learned in your pre-pharm classes. It’s like a two-for-one: you’re prepping for the PCAT and fulfilling your undergad requirements all at once.
If you are going to start before you finish these courses, just make sure that you’re using your time wisely. Practicing the exam, or wasting good practice tests, without a basic understanding of all the concepts tested won’t give you an accurate representation of your skills. You’ll likely score much lower than you would if you were more prepared for the exam. Or, you’ll get a misrepresentation of your skills due the amount of correct guessing you did in one or more sections.
It is great to start working on building your content knowledge early, though, even before you’ve finished the prerequisite courses. There are plenty of books out there to help you build your basic knowledge and get you started. If it’s in your budget to get more prep books, great! If it’s not, wait until you’ve finished the pre-reqs to decide what needs more work and be more selective in the prep books you purchase.
Consider your pre-req courses part of your prep. They lay the foundation of content knowledge that you can build off of. So, if you plan to begin prep before you finish these courses, make sure that you’re focusing more on building content knowledge and much less on practice exams.
If you’ve already finished your pre-requisite courses and you score well on the diagnostic, then you may be able to manage a shorter timeline and still do great. If you score well before you’ve finished your pre-requisite courses, you may not really know what your timeline should be. It’s best to wait.
2) Do you have a PCAT deadline looming soon?
Knowing where you plan to apply is crucial. Many pharmacy programs have a strict deadline for when applicants should take the PCAT exam. If you have a hard deadline, then you already know when your test date is or should be. You shouldn’t be waiting until the last minute to start studying, but some people choose to.
Make sure that you’ve given yourself enough time to fully prepare for the exam. If you score poorly because you’re not ready to take the official PCAT, then you leave yourself without much wiggle room. It’s very important that you leave yourself enough time before the program deadlines to retake the exam if necessary. You should be preparing for the exam with the intention of only taking it once. But, we can’t predict test day conditions and you want to be sure that you’ll have room for a retake if you do need one.
You probably know yourself pretty well. If you did well in your pre-pharm courses and have a handle on the PCAT content, you may be able to get away with a shorter timeline. A diagnostic exam can help you to truly determine just how long you’ll need in terms of the exam. We highly recommend you start with one. You may find that you understand the content but you’re not able to answer enough questions within the time constraints. Don’t wait so long that you don’t have enough time to iron out your weaknesses.
3) How did you score on your diagnostic exam?
You should begin your PCAT prep by taking a diagnostic PCAT exam. Next Step offers a free PCAT practice exam that is perfect for this. Taking the diagnostic at the beginning of your prep will help you determine how far you have to go. If you scored poorly, you may need a longer prep timeline. If you did well, then you may be able to get away with a shorter 1-2 month timeline and still do great.
A diagnostic exam will also help you to determine where your strengths and weaknesses are. Knowing where you struggle will help you build out your study plan. If there’s a particular section or subject that you find more difficult than others, then you’ll know to dedicate more time to it. If you’re particularly strong in a subject, you’ll know that you can dedicate less time to it.
You’ll be able to gauge your progress if you know where you started from. More than that, though, you’ll begin to familiarize yourself with the exam itself and not just the content being tested. The PCAT, and any standardized test, has specific question types and styles as well as time constraints. Struggling with the timing or having trouble understanding certain question types is common. You want to know about those issues early in your prep so you can structure your study plan to iron them out by test day.
4) Do you really struggle with one or more areas of the exam?
The diagnostic will help you gauge your starting point. But, it shouldn’t be the only practice test you take. Your study plan should contain strategically scheduled full-length practice exams. Next Step offers 5 practice exams here. You may find that you scored particularly low in a section or two on the diagnostic or are consistently scoring low in certain sections of the practice exams.
You want to give yourself enough time to improve in your weakest areas. If the Biological Processes section is impossible for you, cramming all that information in a month isn’t going to help you improve. If you have trouble with Critical Reading, you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time. This section is one of the harder to improve because there is no content that you can study to help you get better. It’s a skill that needs to be learned and nurtured. That takes time.
5) What PCAT score are you aiming for?
Again, it is very important that you know which schools you plan to apply to. They won’t just have PCAT and application deadlines, they’ll have minimum or average PCAT scores and GPAs of accepted students. These numbers can help you to determine what score you’re aiming for.
If they have a minimum PCAT score, then you absolutely know what you need to score above. If they have an average PCAT and GPA listed, then you can determine what score you should be aiming for. If your GPA is a little lower than the average, you’ll want to shoot for a higher than average PCAT score to make up for it.
This is another instance where the diagnostic really comes in handy. If this score is much lower than the score you’re aiming for, then you may want to consider a longer timeline. Your practice PCAT scores matter here too. You may have scored really well on one exam; that doesn’t mean you’re ready. You want to make sure that you are consistently scoring at or near your goal score. If you are consistently scoring lower, you may want to consider going back to working on content knowledge for a bit. If you’re still not seeing the improvement you hoped for, consider getting outside help. There are plenty of PCAT course and PCAT tutoring options out there.
6) What does your schedule look like?
The amount of time you have to dedicate to your PCAT prep matters. If you go to school full-time and work on the weekends, expecting to spend a month studying is unrealistic. You won’t have the time available to get in the practice you need in that short timeline. Don’t just choose your timeline based on what you want it to be. You need to set your prep timeline and structure your prep to fit your schedule. If you have less time to dedicate to your prep, then you’ll need to spread it out over a longer period of time. If you are out of school for the summer and only work part-time, then you may be able to get away with a much shorter timeline. Make decisions based on your goals, not your wishlist.
So, what should your prep timeline be?
There is no cookie cutter answer because there is no cookie cutter PCAT student. Every student comes from a different background and will have different strengths, weaknesses, and needs. These 6 questions should help you determine how long or short your timeline should be as well as how you should structure your study plan.