Friday, March 22, 2013

How Running Improved My MCAT Score


Introduction: Running and Life

After thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I have decided to write a series of posts over the next few months describing how running has profoundly affected various aspects of my life.
I am well aware that, as a single male residing on the East Coast and attending graduate school full-time, the effect running has on my life is very particular to me. However, I am hoping to write about broad-stroke themes that have emerged concerning running and life, as well as interview other runners from different backgrounds, in an attempt to provide a portrait of the myriad of health-related and non-health-related ways running is beneficial.  This series will be entitled Running and Life.

For the first post in my Running and Life series, I want to describe the role running played in boosting my MCAT score.  In order to appreciate how running running improved my MCAT score, you, the reader, really need to understand the significance and difficulty of the MCAT


The MCAT, or the Medical College Admissions Test, is the medical school entrance exam that every prospective applicant must take in order to apply to medical school.  This test is incredibly important, and it is one of the primary factors that go into admissions decisions.  Here's a description of the MCAT from the Association of American Medical Colleges:

The Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) is a standardized, multiple-choice examination designed to assess the examinee's problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine. Scores are reported in Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences.
Almost all U.S. medical schools and many Canadian schools require applicants to submit MCAT exam scores. Many schools do not accept MCAT exam scores that are more than three years old.
There's a few more facts that are necessary to know in order to understand the magnitude of this exam.
  • The Physical Sciences section
    • This section of the exam technically covers the following material: 1 year of general inorganic chemistry and 1 year of general algebra-based physics.  From my experience, though, a course in analytical chemistry is extremely helpful for this section.
    • 52-multiple choice questions
    • 70 minutes
  • The Biological Sciences section
    • This section of the exam technically covers the following material: 2 years of general biology (depending on how your school breaks down biology) and 1 year of organic chemistry.  From my experience, though, taking courses in immunology, biochemistry, intensive biochemistry of disease, advanced human genetics, 1 year of anatomy and physiology, and other upper-division biology courses is extremely helpful for this section.
    • 52-multiple choice questions
    • 70 minutes
  • Verbal Reasoning
    • For those of you that took the GRE, the MCAT verbal reasoning section is like the GRE verbal section... but on steroids.  This section of the exam focuses exclusively on reading comprehension, and mimics reading passages from the GRE, SAT, and ACT, but it's way more difficult.
    • 40 multiple choice questions (or, 7 full passages)
    • 60 minutes
  • Writing Section
    • Since this section is being phased out, I believe, as of this year, I will not include details about this exam other than it consists of two essays to be completed in 60 minutes.
From the description I gave, you basically have to know a TON of material from a LOT of classes.  And you need to know the material in such a way that you can answer questions that integrate multiple fields of knowledge, these are also known as the passage questions.  The discrete questions in each section are just from one particular field of study; e.g., a discrete question on the physical sciences section will either be a physics question or an inorganic chemistry question. 

Anyway, the test goes in the following order, at least when I took it in 2012: 
  • Physical Sciences, optional 10 minutes break, Verbal Reasoning, optional 10 minute break, Writing Section, optional 10 minute break, Biological Sciences
So, if you do NOT take the optional 10 minute breaks, the MCAT takes about 4.5 hours.  

My Experience

The First Time
I first took the MCAT in 2011 thinking I had enough course work and knowledge under my belt to take this difficult exam.  Since I do not come from a wealthy family and the money I made from the job I had went to paying my bills, I could not afford to take a test-prep course for $1,300-$3,000, depending on the type of course and agency.  So, I did what other poor students do: I bought a $125 set of books from Kaplan off of Amazon.  
A bit ore books than needed, but not exaggerated

I outlined each chapter of each book, which resulted in hundreds of pages of notes... and I managed to cut these notes down to about 25-30 pages for each section of the exam.  I did not have access to integrated practice questions, so I used the practice exams--i.e., previously used, ACTUAL MCAT exams at $35/test at test my knowledge.  

The most difficult part of the exam for me, when I took it in 2011, was sitting for 4.5 hours in a chair, stressed every single minute trying to answer questions or read passages as quickly as possible, and having to deal with eye fatigue from looking at a computer monitor for that long.  To be honest, I took advantage of each of the 10 minute breaks, and by the time I got to the biological sciences section, I was completely fatigued.

My score: 49.7-55.7 percentile range.  Bombed it.  By the way, unlike the GRE, which releases exam scores immediately after the test (granted, not the percentile range), it takes 1 month to receive one's MCAT scores.  That's another month of wondering if one will ever become a doctor.

I was devastated.  I did well in all my science courses, and I knew the material covered on the exam. 

What went wrong?

My three observations: 
  1. Personally, I needed another year of more advanced science courses under my belt.  Yes, technically an individual only needs the courses for each section of the MCAT as stated by the AAMC; however, having more advanced courses provides a more solid understanding of the material.
  2. I needed to take more practice exams, as well as practice reading on a screen for my studying.
  3. Somehow, I needed to be able to sit in a chair for 4.5 hours under stressful conditions without becoming fatigued.
My thoughts after the exam:


Running and the MCAT

While I could go into some detail concerning the other courses that I took, as well as how I approached the practice exams and the usefulness of learning to read quickly on a computer screen, I want to focus on observation #3: endurance

In order to do well on the MCAT, from my experience, I needed to be comfortable sitting in one position to study for a long, long time.

studying at midnight on a late-night flight home from a conference
I had gained quite a bit of weight during the 2011, and after a series of epiphanies that took place around December 2011, I decided to get my body re-tuned.  I describe some of these observations in a blog post I wrote for the University of New Mexico Biology Blog, entitled "Re-learning How to Run".  I still need to write a blog post on the specifics of these epiphanies, which has resulted in about 35lbs of weight that I've lost since then.

Anyway, I began running much more frequently in 2012.  By the time Summer 2012 arrived, I was logging 30mi/wk mountain running in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico.  Between June-August, I managed to log 360mi of running with about 60,000ft of vertical ascent.  In other words, I spent HOURS running over the summer. 

a normal morning 

A general outline of a normal summer day looked like this:
  • Wake up at 5:30AM
  • Run for an hour or more
  • Commute into campus
  • Study for 7 hours
  • Head over to Starbucks to watch Doctor Who
  • Head home and study for another 1-2 hours
  • Work for my job (on my computer doing literature reviews and data analysis) for 2-3 hours.
I did this, more or less, six days/wk, and rested on Sundays. 

The Second Time
By the time I walked into the testing center to take the MCAT for the second time, I had lost about 25lbs (at that point) and was consistently running difficult trail routes 4-5 times/wk that caused me to be rather fatigued before starting almost 9 hours of studying and 2-3 hours of work.
My setup for practice exams at one of UNM's libraries

Stated another way, by the time I sat down in front of the computer on August 4, 2012, which was exactly one year after I took the MCAT the first time, the ability to sit in front of a computer screen under stressful conditions for 4.5 hours was a breeze!

I mean, 4.5 hours in a rather comfortable chair, located in a quiet, air conditioned room was super effortless compared to running in the mountains... and often with not enough liquid or calories!  

My score: 84-88 percentile range.  I'll TAKE IT!


Tests like the MCAT are extremely difficult.  To do well requires more than just memorization of various facts and concepts.  From my experience, endurance was a major problem concerning the MCAT.  Mental and physical fatigue really impacted my ability to do well on this exam the first time I took it.  Running improved my ability to focus and endure through the difficult sections of the exam.  My body became so fine-tuned from running that I did not take any of the optional 10 minute breaks during the second attempt at the MCAT.  Sitting for 4.5 hours without a break was significantly easier than running for 3 hours on a Sunday in the Sandia Mountains on an 80 degree day... and dehydrated.

Is running for you? Will it improve your MCAT, GRE, ACT, SAT, LSAT, DAT, PCAT, and NCLEX scores?  Who knows!  I cannot and do not make any recommendations for "guaranteed ways to improve your test scores," but if you have the ability to run or exercise, give it a try and see if it helps.  Why not?

If you have any stories concerning how running has helped you in your life (be creative!), then please send them to me and I will try to post some on my blog.  Use the contact form above, or email me at: vagabond [dot] running [at] gmail [dot] com.


  1. good stuff bro and you keep motivating other to do the incredible things you do :-)

  2. When i read this post i understand the way for Preparing Test.This tips is very useful for me and I will share it to my friends keep posting.Thanks for great sharing post. Its very comprehensive information for everyone GRE Test Papers

  3. I appreciate this post! I am taking the MCAT for the first time in April, and Im terrified to say the least. I am also training for my first ever half-marathon and enjoying it so much! (besides the cold days on the East Coast) I think the running discipline coupled with the MCAT exam's need for endurance is a great point and a much needed way to view it. Thanks for the tips!

    1. I'm glad you find the combination of studying for the MCAT and running to be useful. It really helped me, and it has helped me throughout graduate school. On the plus side, I"ll be starting medical school this year, so it seems everything worked out. I hope everything works out wonderfully for you too, Samie. Keep us posted.

  4. Another interesting thing about the GRE. Most colleges don't care! When I called one of my prosepective graduate schools they said that the GRE is usually the last thing they look at when deciding whether or not to accept you

    GRE preparation

  5. I am happy to see this wonderful information.