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This Saturday, while most college students dream of the previous night's frivolities, thousands of premeds will fill testing centers around the nation to take the MCAT--the entrance exam for medical school.
Many of the students preparing to take the exam this week are relying on both their preparation and the last-minute advice of friends to help them get through the grueling sevenhour exam.
Jimmy J. Kang '98, who took the MCAT this past summer and has roommates who are taking it on Saturday, says he has tried to pass on what he has learned from his experience. Kang says one of the tidbits he passed on to his roommates was to get a good night's sleep the night before the exam.
"[Kang] told me stuff like not to get to the test center too early because then I'd have to wait outside," says Jay B. Shah '98, who says he originally planned to arrive early so that he could get settle in.
However, Shah says he still intends to go to bed at 9 p.m. on Friday to make sure he gets enough sleep.
Besides reverting to bedtime schedules they followed before college life, many students also say they will use Friday to engage in low-key activities such as hanging out with friends or playing video games.
"On Friday, I'm not going to do any studying whatsoever," says Kenneth F. LeCointe '98, who says he has spent the past month and a half preparing for the MCAT. "By Friday, there's no point in studying."
Instead, LeCointe says he plans to take one practice test today and one Thursday. Then he will close his books and hope for the best.
Are Prep Courses Worth It?
Before he began studying for the MCAT, LeCointe, like many others, considered taking a prep course. He decided against it when he saw the expensive price tag that accompanies the courses.
"I can't afford [a prep course]," LeCointe says. "I need the money for the [medical school] interviewing process."
The most common prep courses for the MCAT, such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, cost almost $1000, forcing many students to seriously question whether they will get their money's worth before signing up.
For Leah T. Okimoto '98, the answer was clear. "I don't think I would have gotten my $1000-worth [from a prep course] because I wouldn't have travelled to the test center to study," she says.
Okimoto says she feels more comfortable studying in her room on her own schedule than following a schedule imposed by a prep course. She says she has no regrets about deciding not to take a course.
"I feel as ready as I would have been had I taken a prep course," Okimoto says.
But others say that prep courses give them an advantage because of the review material they provide.
According to Ivana K. Kim, a premed tutor in Kirkland House, these courses offer students who have neither the time nor the discipline an incentive to study.
"I know how to study, but I have really hard classes and I don't think I'd make the time for studying the MCAT had I not taken the [Kaplan] class," says Sarah J. Siska '98.
Kang says that the materials to which he had access because of his review course were modelled very closely to the actual exam that he took.
"I think if money is not a problem, I would definitely recommend Kaplan because of the review materials," he says.
Carrie L. Zinaman '97, who also took Kaplan, says she believes the course prepared her for the MCAT experience more than anything else could have.
"The week before, Kaplan gave a virtual MCAT," Zinaman says. The practice exam simulated every aspect of the real thing, she says, with the exception of fingerprinting the test-takers.
After deciding to shell out the money for one of these prep courses, the question of which courses, to take is still an issue.
Kim says that more students at Harvard choose to take Kaplan over The Princeton Review because the emphasis of the former better suites their needs.
While Kaplan focuses more on a student's general fund of knowledge, The Princeton Review focuses on sharpening a student's test-taking strategies, according to Kim.
Choosing a course will often depend on what students feel they need most help with and what their friends have to say about the course.
Another major decision facing students who take the MCAT is whether they should sweat it out and take the exam the summer before their junior year in college, or whether they should take it in the spring before they apply to medical school--when they must contend with a full course load and extracirriculars.
Because a number of medical schools have rolling admissions, students are discouraged from taking the MCAT the summer in which they plan to apply since the test results would delay the processing of the application.
"It's to the student's advantage to get the application in as soon as possible," says Ben C. Sun '95, a premed tutor in Dunster House.
Nevertheless, students still face the decision of whether to take the MCAT in the summer--and get it over with--or the spring, and risk having to study for the exam with a full course load.
Janos Zahajsky '98 can sit back and relax this Saturday while his friends are busily working out chemical equations on the MCAT because he chose to take the exam over the summer.
"I took the MCAT last summer because I realized that during that school year.... I always have plenty of things to worry about and it's easier to work around a job during the summer than around classes during the school year," Zahajsky says.
However, Zahajsky says taking the exam in the summer is only a good idea for rising juniors who have already fulfilled all the prerequisites for medical school, something many have not done at that stage of their college career.
According to Sun, there is not "magical time to take [the MCAT]. It is more important for students choose a date that they feel comfortable with."
Okimoto says that taking the exam in the spring removes some of the pressure.
"I think everybody is a lot more stressed about it during the summer because they feel that if they're spending their entire summer on it, they feel pressured to do really well," she says.
While Okimoto admits that she will probably have to put off some of her school work this week to study for the exam, she says she has not had a problem with balancing her work with MCAT preparation.
While many students will find themselves bringing a good luck charm or their favorite snack to the exam and making sure that they have everything they need the night before, others have gone much further in their preparation.
Kang says that his MCAT instructor was so paranoid that his car would break down the morning of his own exam that he stayed at a cheap motel next to the test center the night before to make sure that there were no mishaps.
Although Zinaman had no fears about her car's dependability on the big day, she says she did find it helpful to have a friend by her side during the exam--a bean bag Elmo that her mother gave her as a good luck charm.
She says she saw many other students with trinkets and food items ranging from fresh fruit to three course meals--hoping this would give them a boost.
On the more practical side, Okimoto says that her friends strongly encouraged her to do one verbal passage on the way to the exam to get her juices flowing. She says that she is not stressing out too much over how it turns out.
"I don't feel that I'm going to fail in life if I don't do really well on the test," Okimoto says.
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