Post-bac re-cap conveniently rhymes!
Remember that time in August when I posted three times in 10 days? That was during my second week of MCAT prep before I had my omg I need to learn everything in the world in the next four weeks moment.
This year was hard. I am so thankful to my friends and family who were so supportive.
Thank you, thank you!
I started this post after I finished the ochem final in the spring of 2015 so let’s pick up there!
On the last morning of classes:
Over the last year, I completed two semesters of general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics and a semester each of biology and biochemistry. And I survived. I feel great. Like. On top of the world. I didn’t meet all my goals — I didn’t get an A in all of my classes, but I am a few steps closer to medical school and for the moment I don’t have any more quizzes or exams.
I am certainly feeling mixed emotions though.
I wish I could go back and do it all over again knowing what I know now about how I learn best. But hey, I’ll carry those lessons with me to med school and beyond.
Do I still want to be a doctor?
Yes! I am even more sure now but that’s a topic for a different post.
I should preface this whole post by saying that I really, really struggled with all things science related. I had wanted to be a doctor for as long as I could remember, but my confidence took a hit in high school. When I first attempted General Chemistry 1 at NYU, I received a 50 something on my first test. Although I had struggled in high school, this was the lowest score I had ever received, like ever. Although people told me there would be a curve, I immediately switched to pass/fail. I received a C+ in the lab portion that was separate and that I couldn’t take pass/fail.
It was a weed out class of 500 students and I was “successfully” weeded out.
So, I used to be really scared of science. I used to think there was just something wrong with that part of my brain. I am obsessed now. It’s kind of like this:
Does watching this make you all tingly inside? My favorite line:
“In the face of overwhelming odds, I am left with only one option. I am going to have to science the shit out of this.”
Science is exhilarating. It feels like magic. And I am so excited to delve into the magic of the human body and medicine. I get this high when I finally understand something I have been struggling to understand for days or when I recognize a pattern between reaction mechanisms that I hadn’t noticed before. At this point I can’t imagine doing anything that does not include “science” in some form.
I have talked to a few friends of friends considering doing a post-bac year so I thought it would be helpful for me to share my experience here.
A post-bac year is (usually) designed for those who have already graduated college but still need to take the pre-requisites required to apply to medical school. There are special masters programs (SMP) for those who need to repeat coursework or boost their GPA so for the most part, post-bac programs are designed for “non-traditional students” who are “career changers”. Right now, the science requirements for medical school are:
General Chemistry 1 & 2 with Labs
Physics 1 & 2 with Labs (some require you to have taken Calculus already)
Biology 1 & 2 with Labs
Organic Chemistry 1 & 2 with Labs
Biochemistry & Psychology *not required by all schools*
There are post-bac programs all over the country and some have stronger reputations than others. I only considered programs in the Bay Area: SFSU, Mills College, Berkeley Extension, and the community colleges. Although I have had very positive experiences with classes at community colleges, I had heard that medical schools may or may not consider them to be as rigorous and I wasn’t sure how that would effect my application. So in an effort to save money while still proving myself capable, I took Gen Chemistry 1 and 2 over the summer at a community college, and then enrolled at Mills for the academic year.
Overall I absolutely loved biology, organic chemistry, and biochemistry. They were hard, but now I feel like I understand the world in a completely new way. I wish we started teaching ochem and biochem to children in the form of educational games.
For those considering summer classes:
- While it seems like an impossible amount of information to fit in your brain in a short period of time (two semesters in 10 weeks), it was doable for me. I think the nursing pre-reqs I had taken prepared me well and I loved completely immersing myself in the material. With my undivided attention on general chemistry, I think I learned it even better than I would have if I had taken it over the semester with other coursework competing for my attention. Also, there’s more light outside. After being in class from 8am-2pm, I could then head home to study outside on the porch from 3pm-9pm, all with the sun still mostly up!
- I did all of my summer coursework at Westchester Community College. For the most part, I had really wonderful teachers. WCC has a free science tutorial center with tutors who helped me understand some of the more difficult and boring parts of chemistry. Very, very helpful!
For friends taking OChem:
- Go over your notes from class at the end of every day and figure out what you just covered. If you don’t understand something, make a note to ask the teacher or TA the next day. I found that this is best accomplished with little colored stickies that you can remove once you’ve asked your question.
- Meet with a friend as often as you can to talk through the concepts and to come up with tricks for remembering reagents and reactions (1. Br2, PBr3 2. H2O — “you need water with your Peanut Butter”).
- Read everything your teacher gives you (like the syllabus and other random handouts). And then read them again a few weeks later when the words may make more sense.
- Do the homework even if it is not mandatory — and make sure you understand it.
- Use color! Seriously.
- Do not get behind in the first semester. During the first few months of OChem 1, you are creating a foundation of essential concepts that you will need to fall back on for the rest of the year.
- Get Organic Chemistry as a Second Language I
- If you are taking it at Mills and your teacher gives you solution guides to the assigned homework — use it. Even if you bought the solution guide for the textbook. Her solution guides are much more detailed and very helpful! I didn’t realize this until pretty late in the year.
Doesn’t that look fun? It really was. Not all the time. But a lot of the time.
I had a great teacher and great learning assistants (TAs) and great friends and I’m sure that helped. =)
For friends taking Biochemistry:
- Read the chapters before class and if your teacher gives you outlines of the material for the next class, work really hard to understand it before class (I didn’t do this but wish I had!).
- Re-write your notes from class and add material from the textbook that connects it all.
- Use color and draw pictures.
- Buy the loose-leaf version of the textbook. For the most part, I rent my textbooks because it is the cheapest option, but for this class I really wanted to underline, highlight, and write in the margins. I also wanted to bring chapters at a time into the bathtub to read out loud.
- Also consider buying/renting a textbook that goes more in depth if your class uses a condensed textbook.
- I tried a bunch of different things for Biochem. I made notecards. I rewrote my notes in one book that I could easily read before bed. I re-read some chapters multiple times and other chapters not at all.
- By far, the most helpful thing was meeting up with classmates and quizzing each other. I started doing this the last few weeks of the semester, and if I could do it again, I would have met with them two times a week from the beginning.
Here we are studying for our Biochem final together:
- Also, this book really helped me synthesize information for the MCAT and I wish I had been using it all during Biochem:
For friends taking Physics:
- If you have a choice, take physics with a professor who makes the material accessible to you because physics can be HARD! Many people in my class didn’t struggle as much as I did and I felt pretty alone (and sometimes just plain stupid–not a good feeling). I invested so much time in trying to understand physics that my performance in bio and ochem suffered. I decided to take Physics II over the summer at WCC and I did phenomenally better (although this did push me back a year). I think I did better because it was non-calculus based and the teacher posted solution guides to homework problems and the textbook just made more sense. For first semester, I would get lost in the algebra (not the calculus! the algebra!) and spend hours on one problem, determined that I would eventually get it, but I often didn’t. Even the solution guide provided by the textbook creators didn’t make sense to me and going to office hours didn’t help.
- Another huge difference was that my second semester physics professor allowed students to bring in a notecard or piece of paper with formulas on it. Apparently this is VERY common. I think this made all the difference. Instead of stressing about memorization, I could really focus on understanding what was going on. Developing an understanding of physics was important for the MCAT.
- On that note… you may have heard there is barely any physics on the MCAT. I had at least two full passages on second semester physics topics and multiple stand alone questions (the important physics topics: fluids (blood), electrostatics and electromagnetism (charge is important for a lot of biological reactions), optics (eyes). Maybe 15 total physics questions on my test. But others who took the test the same day had very few!
- This advice is specific to Mills students: focus on the notes and quizzes more than the homework.
- Don’t give up!
- This comic is relevant. And this one. And this has some good advice.
My lovely study spot in the library:
Immediately post-finals last spring! We were so exhausted and so, so happy!
This magnificent pool is on campus. Swimming every few days kept me sane.
At the risk of sounding crazy, I loved the new MCAT. The new MCAT forced me to synthesize everything and apply it to the human body which gave it all a purpose (including physics!). As a post-bac student, I took all the relevant courses in a short period of time so the material was still fresh.
I wish the classes were taught more with the MCAT in mind. Why there isn’t a separate “physics for medical students” class that teaches physics as it relates to the human body (instead of just engineering physics), I don’t know.
In terms of my study schedule, I studied for about 6 weeks full-time. Full-time as in every single day usually from 8am to 9pm (during the spring semester I had also attended 2/3 of a Princeton Review class, but hadn’t been able to keep up with the homework).
Although I studied almost all day, I gave myself a break every hour or so to look at wedding dresses and blogs and check instagram, snapchat, and facebook. Social media was helpful for me to feel connected to all the people I didn’t have time to connect to in the “real world” and to remember that there was a world beyond this one test. I also took 3-4 hour excursions with my family and friends to run errands or go on walks or hikes.
Specific advice for the new MCAT:
- People approach this test in all different ways (some start with content review before tackling practice questions/exams while others start with practice exams and then review the content of questions they missed). Do what works for you! There are a ton of free resources and tips online you can find (see below) but you can’t do it all and that’s okay.
- I found my Campbell Biology textbook to be a good resource, specifically two chapters we (unfortunately) skipped in class: Chapter 11 on Cell Communication and Chapter 20 on DNA Tools and Biotechnology. I also used the Mastering Biology modules to review key concepts when I got too tired to do anything else.
- Know your amino acids!!! Know everything about them!
- Teach yourself about biotechnology and practice interpreting experimental data.
- Do as many practice tests as possible and do at least one under testing conditions! That means no water or food or bathroom breaks except during the allotted 10 and 30 minute breaks.
- It may be a good idea to study and do a practice test at a coffee shop where there are unpredictable noises and distractions. At your testing center, you very well may be sitting next to someone who is coughing or sneezing or tapping their foot. Or there may be construction going on outside!
- Build stamina. My first practice full-length took me from 8am until 6pm and my eyes were bloodshot from staring at my computer screen that whole time. By the end of the last section, I was somewhat delirious. There was a question within a passage that went something like this: “Cleopatra and Marc Anthony are both dead on the floor in a locked room with no weapons. What happened?” The answer was this: Cleopatra and Marc Anthony are both fish who died after their fish tank was knocked over. It was supposed to represent some psychology thing and I thought it was so appropriate for how I felt at that moment. I laughed uncontrollably until I cried. Delirious. So! Stamina! Build up your stamina!
- Start exercising regularly. Studies have shown that exercise improves cognitive function and you need all the help you can get. Studies have also shown that sitting is the new smoking (or something like that!) and it is good to counteract the effects of sitting all day to prevent back and neck pain.
- Study outside as much as possible and get enough vitamin D every day!
- Study with others. Studying with friends is so much more fun than studying alone. I didn’t have any friends taking the MCAT at the same time as me, so I studied with my dogs and explained anything I was confused about to them. These photos were actually taken while I was taking gen chem over the summer, but you get the idea:
- Don’t get burned out. Take breaks! Listen to your gut — if you need to rest, rest and do something fun and relaxing. Like going for a walk or hike.
- Use all the material provided by the AAMC. Especially this outline. If I had time, I would have been methodical about reviewing each of the topics and returning to the ones I didn’t feel comfortable with.
- That said, I didn’t get through all of the content review that I wanted to. I still had about 30 bullet points just in the biology section alone that I still hadn’t studied when I walked in to take the MCAT. I also didn’t review ochem at all and didn’t get through all of the physics material. I just ran out of time. I don’t recommend this, but surprisingly I still did well. However, I know I could have done even better if I had had more time and followed the AAMC provided material (content outline and official question packs) more closely. However, most of my friends didn’t look at the AAMC content list once and still did phenomenally. So again, do what works for you!
- (Copied and pasted from the physics section above because it is more relevant here): You may have heard there is barely any physics on the MCAT. I had at least two full passages on second semester physics topics and multiple stand alone questions. The important physics topics include: fluids (blood), electrostatics and electromagnetism (charge is important for a lot of biological reactions), and optics (eyes) — there are probably more I am forgetting. I had maybe 15 total physics questions on my test. But others who took the test the same day had very few! Although this test is supposed to be standardized, there is a big luck component to it. Also, it should be noted, this test is not reflective of who you are as a person. You can do really poorly on this test the first time and still be a great person and a great physician!
- Practice without a calculator. This was huge for me as I somehow forgot we wouldn’t have access to an on-screen calculator. YOU DO NOT GET A CALCULATOR. So practice simple math. Multiplication, division, etc. During my first section, I got stuck on the decimal point when dividing a big number by a smaller number. Simple. After that I guessed on literally every other question that required (or looked like it might require) a calculation. I hoped to go back but didn’t have time.
- Advice I read online afterward said, “if you have to pick up your pencil to do math on the MCAT you are doing it wrong.”
- On that note… practice guessing and estimating well.
- The TPR practice tests did not give accurate score predictions. This document shows how a lot of folks did on their full-lengths from test companies compared to the real thing.
All this to say: there are SO many resources out there to help you conquer the MCAT. It is super do-able if you prepare and do not panic during the actual test. The MCAT is about effort, dedication, and self-reflection. If something you are doing isn’t working, you need to find a better way that works for you.
On not panicking on test day:
- I asked people to pray for me. Knowing that I had a group of people thinking about me and wishing me the best made a huge difference.
- Talk to people in the waiting room to diffuse the tension. I was feeling so overwhelmed with love and support from my friends and family that I thought I might cry while waiting to be signed in. I said as much to the young man sitting next to me and he responded, “If you cry, I’ll cry too” and then the person behind us chimed in, “if you both start crying, I’m going to be crying too.” We turned around and the person who spoke as well as the person next to her were both nodding in agreement. A fifth person made a joke about the image of us all going thru security one by one crying and just like that we were smiling and giddy and in it together.
- If you have trouble falling asleep the night before the test — don’t get anxious over the fact that you aren’t falling asleep! I heard from one friend who barely slept the night before that they had so much adrenaline pumping thru them on test day that they did not even notice the lack of sleep!
- Start getting up early a few weeks before your actual test day and get a lot of sleep in the days leading up to the test and physically exhaust yourself on the day before so that you are more likely to sleep. But whatever you do, don’t get anxious over being anxious!
- Also eat well and if you can, alter your poop schedule so that you don’t need to go in the middle of the test. Seriously.
- Remember this is just a test. A test that you really can take again! In 2013, approximately 47% of applicants submitted more than one score. Almost everything online will advise you to NOT allow yourself to think about retaking. But this thought helped keep me calm.
- Read about what to expect on test day. Security will be tighter than airport security and you will have to go thru it every time you sign in and out for each break. Do not wear any clothes with pockets. Also, if video footage shows that you took off your shoes, took down or put up your hair, or removed your sweater, they can void your test. So if you do any of these things without thinking about it, make sure you make that impossible (for example wear sneakers instead of slip-ons).
Links to resources that helped me and may help you:
- Khan Academy was SO helpful. Watch the videos on 1.5x the speed and take notes (in color!).
- I found their practice passages extremely useful. I found them about a week before my actual MCAT, and I wish I had found them sooner and done more. Here they are all arranged by subject.
- With Khan Academy — make an account so you can keep track of your progress. I also really liked my little avatar. I identified with her scared face and I think she inspired me to work harder… especially when she bounced up and down when I got something right. Also. You get points. Sometimes watching those points accrue is the motivation you need to keep going.
- Kaplan Quicksheets: I printed these out single sided and cut them up into smaller sizes and brought them with me on walks and hikes.
- Reddit for content review.
- Reddit for practice exams.
- General Thoughts on the Exam
- Thoughts on Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Thoughts on Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
- Thoughts on Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Thoughts on Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
- Tips for Prep from Past Test-Takers
- Student doctor network: don’t trust everything you read, but I found the community to be very helpful aaaand like most things I am sharing here, I wish I had found it sooner!
… what I really didn’t like about the new MCAT was that there was only one official practice test and it didn’t provide a score! This was not only stressful but problematic because premeds are advised to only take the MCAT when they are ready because some admissions committees look down on re-takes. Admission committees may either take the highest score, the most recent score (even if it is lower), or average multiple MCAT scores. There should be a full-length practice test with scores available for those who test next year. Use it!
I used Princeton Review’s practice tests and their scoring was very off and I didn’t think the questions were very reflective of the real test. I thought Khan Academy did the best job with their practice passages. I am hopeful TPR will improve their material by next year, but even if they don’t, the current material was sufficient when supplemented with Khan Academy and my Biology and Biochem textbooks.
Celebrate and don’t dwell! Waiting a month (or more!) for your score is hard, but distract yourself as best you can.
What if you do worse than you ever thought possible? You’ll survive! No matter what you’ll survive.
Out of this year, I can confidentially say that making new friends was the best part. Yep, even better than learning the fundamentals of our universe. And I am so, so, so grateful to them for helping me through.
The photo below is of me with three friends immediately after they finished their MCATs. All smiles!
I may return to this post to add more thoughts as they come to me.
If you have any questions or tips to share, feel free to leave a comment below.