The MCAT is a seriously tough exam. Any help you might get from an MCAT prep course could make all the difference. But most of them aren’t cheap!
So, are MCAT prep courses actually worth it?
MCAT Prep courses are probably only worth it if you need structure, support and don’t feel confident self-studying for the MCAT. Many students score well on the exam without ever having taken (or paid a lot of money for) a course. It’s definitely not a necessity.
Of course, I appreciate that not every student has the ability (or discipline) to self-study and tackle an exam as comprehensive, detailed, and difficult as the MCAT. So I understand that opinion probably needs more detail! We’ll get into it in this article.
Here’s what else we’ll cover:
- The pros and cons of an MCAT prep course
- Who a prep course could be a good fit for
- Who it could be a waste of time and money for
- If an MCAT tutor is a better alternative
As a med student myself, I know just how important it is to answer questions like these honestly!
Ready to find out? Let’s go.
Should I take an MCAT prep course?
If you’re a pre-med or a student thinking about studying medicine in the U.S., then you’ll obviously know how hard and long (6 hours plus) the MCAT is (I talk about that here). Scoring high is perhaps the biggest selection factor admissions committees look at when deciding who to shortlist for places at their med school.
Because of that, the MCAT is also a big business. There are a ton of private schools across the country (and beyond) that aim to prep students as best as they can for the exam. Often charging high fees ($2K plus is the norm!) in exchange for things like tuition, practice tests, learning resources, and more.
Being a big fan of self-study myself, it seems lots of students taking the MCAT feel the same way. The vibrant communities on Reddit and Discord are full of MCAT preppers “going their own way”, spending very little money in the process and still coming out with really great scores.
So the question; should you take an MCAT prep course? Is something of a complex one.
On the one hand, you have respectable and well-reviewed courses that have a commercial incentive telling you you’ll need a course. On the other, you have real students like me (and many others), saying it’s possible to get it done without.
But let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons first. Especially before you take any of this for a definitive answer!
Based on my research, here are some of the key reasons why you may want to take a MCAT Prep course…
- Central resource: saving you time and stress hunting down study materials etc.
- Support: having real people to talk to about prep, is great for peace of mind.
- Tutoring: guided tuition can help you understand core concepts and learn best how to apply them.
- Expertise: specifically when it comes to MCAT strategy, time management, and study schedules etc.
- Cost: centralizing all the materials and services under one cost is valuable in terms of knowing how much to budget and save etc.
One of the big pros of courses is that they can personalize your experience. You can speak to someone and they’ll take into consideration your needs, offering suggestions based on your feedback.
- Price: you can totally study for the MCAT using completely free (or low budget) materials. Besides the $300 fee to take the actual exam, you don’t have to go out and spend more money preparing.
- Guarantee: not all MCAT prep courses are equal. There’s no guarantee on quality (or that you’ll get an exceptional score on the exam – despite some courses offering to give you your money back if you don’t!)
- Viable alternatives: you can buy the official complete prep bundle materials from the exam regulators; the AAMC ($294). You can use the free preparatory course from Khan Academy (the official AAMC partner). You can practice using free sample questions from various websites.
Of course, many of these pros and cons aren’t applicable to every MCAT course. Because they’re run by independent organizations and businesses, they can vary a lot in quality and what they offer.
It’s always best to do your due diligence, check out reviews, and speak to past and present students of specific courses before signing up!
Types of MCAT Prep Courses
Before diving a little further into who MCAT prep courses might be best suited for, let’s just quickly recap the types of courses out there.
Here’s what you can expect to see when you shop around for MCAT prep courses:
- Self-paced prep courses
The main pro I see from self-paced courses is flexibility. The major con is that it’s not at all that different from self-study.
Intensive courses are almost the opposite.
I’ll go more into the pros and cons of the two major choices: online vs in-person later.
So, who’s a good fit for an MCAT prep course?
Based on the discussion above, here’s who I feel MCAT prep courses can be valuable for:
- Students who aren’t confident in their own ability to self-study.
- Students who lack discipline and need structure.
- Students who get a lot out of “community-based” learning.
- Students who have the budget to pay for a course anyway.
I know this list is far from exhaustive – you can probably include students who haven’t typically taken a pre-med track or studied a science subject for undergrad too!
But sometimes putting down a financial commitment on a course is motivation in itself. For that reason, the structure, guidance, support (and pressure) that comes with some MCAT prep courses could be a worthwhile investment.
Especially when it comes to “forcing” you to do the uncomfortable stuff; like full-length practice tests under timed conditions etc (stuff you can really benefit from!).
So there’s no shame in identifying yourself as being in this camp.
I needed this exact type of support in my own journey as a career changer into medicine!
Note: Anthony J. Webb goes deep on a lot of these things in the video below…
Who is it definitely not worth it for?
Just as the above recommendations are far from exhaustive, here’s who I feel probably wouldn’t get that much out of an MCAT prep course:
- Self-sufficient students with good track records studying and passing difficult exams.
- Students with a lot of prior experience with many of the MCAT’s core material and topics.
- Students who are easily frustrated with the pace and hand-holding “ethos” of courses.
Obviously, people on a tight budget will probably make up this group too. But it’s less of an active choice in this case.
Note: Students tight on funds can also get reduced-cost access to the AAMC’s MCAT prep materials via the AAMC’s Fee Assistance Program.
How much is the MCAT worth to you?
Another huge consideration you’ll want to make when deciding if you want to do a prep course or not is the actual importance of the MCAT to you in the first place.
If you’re hellbent on becoming a doctor and having as many doors open to you as possible, is there anything much to lose shelling out money on a prep course and potentially walking away with a really amazing score?
Many students would argue no. Especially considering the financial commitment you’d take on after getting into med school anyway.
Any prep course fee is a drop in the ocean compared to the tuition and living expenses you’ll rack up going into medicine.
Should I do an MCAT prep course in person?
Shop around for MCAT prep courses and you’ll notice there’s quite a divide when it comes to online vs in-person courses.
As a student with a preference, clearly you’ll know which one will likely work for you. But here are a couple other things to consider when it comes to the pros and cons of online vs in-person MCAT prep…
– Many of the same services
– Longer access period
– More flexible
|– More informal|
– Less personal
|In Person||– Direct contact (more personal)|
– More interactive
– Easier to communicate strategy and teach core topics
|– More expensive|
– Less flexible
One of the big questions that comes up when considering online MCAT prep courses is the similarity to self-studying for the exam in the first place. Some students don’t consider it that much of a departure!
If you are disciplined enough to read the books and study on your own, there is no need for a course.(Source)
Personally, although I’m probably not one of these cases, I’d probably say the same. A great in-person course could give you extra motivation studying with (and alongside) people on the same journey as you. As well as enforcing you actually show up and do the work!
I want to save money (and not do an MCAT prep course), what are your recommendations?
I totally get this. MCAT prep courses can run anything from $100 upwards to $6,000. All while there are already some great free resources out there to help prep you.
Here’s how I feel you could best approach it on as small a budget as possible:
- Pick up the AAMC’s official MCAT prep materials
- Use Khan Academy’s free MCAT prep course
- Use some excellent pre-made MCAT Anki decks (see my recommendations here)
- Sign up for free MCAT question of the day practice
- Hang out in MCAT communities to share and distribute other free practice resources (r/MCAT etc.)
By my estimates, you’d only need to spend (assuming you don’t qualify for the AAMC’s Fee Assistance Program mentioned previously) the cost for option no.1 here.
While you can sign up for free MCAT question of the day practice from:
- Kaplan MCAT question of the day
- Varsity Tutors
- Jack Westin (see my article; is Jack Westin CARS worth it?)
- Blueprint Prep
So good are these recommendations that I’d actually suggest anyone choosing to do an MCAT prep course to also make full use of them. Especially as most (except the AAMC’s own prep materials – stuff you’ll likely get in a course bundle anyway) being free…
Is an MCAT tutor worth it?
Another very viable alternative to an MCAT prep course is to get an MCAT tutor.
That way you can consolidate a lot of the pros from the list above and take out many of the cons. Thus getting personalized one-to-one tuition, with valuable discussion on strategy etc., much cheaper (and less time consuming) than a full course.
Self-studying from books or materials you find online, then running everything by a tutor once a week or so, could help confirm you’re on the right path and making progress.
You wouldn’t need to sacrifice flexibility either as you could work it around your schedule.
The best place to find tutors I’ve seen is through MCAT-related Facebook groups. Many of the people advertising their services here are a lot cheaper than those at estabilished agencies (or with clear social visibility) and have usually taken the MCAT a lot more recently too.
So yes, an MCAT tutor can definitely be worth it!
Although MCAT prep courses have their place, they’re not the be-all and end-all when it comes to acing the exam.
In many cases? The pros do NOT outweigh the cons.
Knowing the costs involved – and that there’s a whole bunch of amazing learning resources out there that for free, is a big hurdle to get past.
But if you’re the type of student who just doesn’t think you can get where you want to be without a little help and support from others, then a good MCAT prep course can work really well.
Just make sure you do solid research on a course before spending a lot of money.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in digital marketing and journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.