Flashcards for studying

The MCAT is an exam that requires test-takers to possess and apply an enormous amount of content knowledge in order to succeed, and MCAT flashcards can be helpful during the preparation process. The Psychology and Sociology section specifically tests a massive number of vocabulary terms, but the Bio/Biochem and Chem/Phys sections also require some memorization. Flashcards are an excellent tool to help with memorization, and The Princeton Review has an MCAT Flashcard app that will help you to study MCAT concepts and terms. Overall, this article will discuss:

  • the benefits of using flashcards,
  • tips to get the most benefit from flashcards, and
  • flashcard mistakes to avoid during your MCAT preparation.

A. The Benefits of using Flashcards:

Long-Term Potentiation

The field of psychology has made meaningful advances relevant to a very interesting question: why does studying work? This question seems simple, but it’s actually a lot harder to answer than it appears. Psychologists have delved deeply into this question. As recently as a few decades ago, researchers identified the phenomenon of long-term potentiation (LTP) . Using flashcards causes the repetitive firing of multiple neuron clusters over time, which in turn allows your brain to develop strong connections between these clusters, strengthening your memory.

We can easily see how the phenomenon of LTP can be applied to studying: the repetitive firing of multiple neuron clusters over time (i.e., reading, writing, interacting with content multiple times) allows our brain to develop strong connections between these clusters, which strengthens our memory.

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B. Tips to Get the Most Benefit from Flashcards:

Your Mind is a Muscle

Technically, the mind’s not REALLY a muscle. But the principles of LTP discussed above show us WHY flashcards help with memory, and it reveals some very important similarities between brains and muscles. The most important similarity is that when you use your muscles, they biologically change for the better, getting stronger. Similarly, activating your brain cells during studying leads to biological changes within the brain that result in stronger synaptic connections that improve your memory. This means that we can apply many of the principles of physical exercise as a guideline regarding HOW to use flashcards.

Consistency Matters!

In order to really benefit from flashcard use, you need to use them on a regular basis, not just once or twice. We’ve all had that friend who says they’re going to start working out, exercises intensely for about a week, and then goes right back to sitting on the couch. While some exercise is better than nothing, it’s significantly better for your body if you exercise regularly and develop a healthy routine. Flashcard studying is the same; while some is better than none, establishing a regular routine will be much more beneficial than a few isolated sessions.

The best thing to do is:

  • Pick a few days each week that work with your schedule
  • Commit to spending 30-60 minutes studying flashcards on those days .

It might be difficult at first, but it will get easier and easier as you get into your routine (yet another similarity to physical exercise.)

Utilize Spaced Repetition.

It’s better to spread out your studying instead of clustering it all at once.

Imagine you had two choices:

  1. Studying four hours every day for the week before your MCAT
  2. Studying one hour a day for the month before your MCAT

Which would be better?

It’s the same total amount of studying either way, and you might think that the first option would be superior because the studying is “closer” to the actual test day. However, memory research has found the second option to be significantly better for memory. Muscles can’t develop significant strength after two days of 10-hour workouts, they require 20 days of 1-hour workouts for maximum improvement.

Human brains aren’t really built to learn tons of material within a short timeframe. Humans are much better at learning material over a long timeframe when exposed to the content regularly.

This means you should NOT delay your studying because your MCAT test date is “too far away.” In fact, even a month of MCAT preparation is not long enough to unlock your maximum potential for score improvement; it is better to start your MCAT preparation at least 3–4 months before your actual test date.

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Mix it Up!

One additional way that flashcard studying is like physical exercise is that it’s better to do a variety of different exercises rather than exercising in the same way over and over again. Whether you hate or love leg day, it’s not a good idea to make every day leg day. Similarly, you should use flashcards to study in a variety of ways.

Note Term first, definition second: Simply pick a flashcard at random, look at the side with a vocabulary term on it, and try to recite the definition from memory. This is probably the most common way to use flashcards but isn’t the ONLY way.

Note: The MCAT is a multiple-choice test. This means that you do not need to do any free recall (i.e., remember something entirely on your own without any sort of hint). For this reason, as you are quizzing yourself on the definitions of the vocab terms, don’t worry about reproducing the exact definitions word-for-word. If you substitute synonyms for some of the words within your definition, that’s fine. The point is to learn the general concept, not the specific definition.

Definition first, term second: This is similar to the above method, except instead of looking at the vocab term side, you look at the definition side of the flashcard and try to recall the vocab term.

Note: This is a lot closer to how the MCAT tends to test vocabulary in its multiple-choice questions. It’s far more common for the MCAT to give a complicated scenario in a question stem and then list four vocabulary terms as the answer choices, as opposed to listing a single vocabulary term in the question stem and then providing four different definitions in the answer choices.

Make-your-own Multiple-Choice Question: As discussed above, a common question format on the MCAT is to provide a definition in the question stem and then provide four different vocabulary terms in the answer choices. It can be beneficial to try to replicate that question structure using your flashcards.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Take one flashcard and read the definition side.
  2. Shuffle it with three other flashcards
  3. Flip all four to the vocabulary term side.
  4. Try to pick which of the four terms fits the original definition.

This technique has the added benefit of enabling you to practice test-relevant skill s of the process of elimination.

Consider connections: You can really enable long-term potentiation using the following exercise:

  1. Pick two flashcards and look at both the front and the back sides of them.
  2. Try to come up with at least one way in which the two vocab terms meaningfully relate to each other. 

This process will make you think about the connections behind those two vocabulary terms, allowing you to engage in LTP.

Note: This can be a tricky exercise, but remember, the MCAT is not simply a test of vocabulary; more than half of all MCAT questions are passage-based and require you to take your existing content knowledge and apply it to new studies or situations described in the passages. This technique works best with flashcards divided into smaller sets of narrow content areas, because it makes it easier to think of connections between similar terms. The Princeton Review’s MCAT Flashcard App contains flashcard sets broken into topics and subtopics, and you can create custom decks to focus your prep on specific areas.

C. Flashcard Mistakes to Avoid

Using the Wrong Flashcards

Be suspicious of MCAT flashcard sets that you find floating around on the internet. Many sets do not accurately reflect the terms and concepts that are regularly tested on the MCAT. The most common problem with these flashcard sets is that they contain too many vocabulary terms. Because the creators aren’t familiar with the specific topics considered to be high-yield, low-yield, or not tested, they sometimes just create a gargantuan set of flashcards that contains any and every vocabulary term they can think of, and then post it on the internet. Studying this way is very inefficient and leads to a large amount of time spent studying material that doesn’t actually show up on the test. Choose a flashcard set like ours that is based on close familiarity with MCAT exam content.

Use It or Lose It

When you answer a flashcard question correctly, DON’T stop studying that flashcard! If you feel truly comfortable with a vocabulary term, you can remove that card for the day only, but you need to keep studying it in the future. This is because of a phenomenon called long-term depression , which is the opposite of long-term potentiation. Essentially, if you don’t keep exposing yourself to a vocabulary term, synaptic connections between the neurons holding that term will weaken. Even if you feel that you’ve mastered a term for the moment, keeping yourself exposed to that term will ensure that you maintain that level of mastery. To return to the exercise analogy, if you completely stop training a specific muscle, it doesn’t matter how bulky it is now; over time, it will get weaker. The Princeton Review MCAT flashcard app allows you to easily reset any flashcard set and bring back any flashcards that you mastered during your last study session.