As an eager pre-med student, I figured that studying for the MCAT would be like studying for an end-of-the-semester final exam. Simple and easy to study for, with an hour or so dedicated to studying each day leading up to it for a month. I was totally wrong, and essentially flunked the MCAT the first time I took it. Studying for the MCAT requires a remarkable amount of time, which correlates to the priority placed on getting a good, competitive score for application to medical school. Since everyone has different study patterns, I can’t quantitatively give an exact X amount of hours, but realize that studying for the MCAT isn’t something to breeze over. It requires solid, dedicated time spent studying each day, with one rest day each week. Make a plan similar to a workout schedule – you’re basically working out your mind – and stick to it.
How to study effectively.
Cramming the knowledge needed for the MCAT into the span of a five weeks is a great way to be burnt out before test day. Take practice tests and identify your weak spots. Then hone in on strengthening those weak spots while at the same time keeping your strong spots strong. Don’t study just you can check off “study for X amount of hours” on your calendar, instead, have the desire to study to become a doctor. Since your first years of medical school are often full of memorization rather than hands-on rotations, getting into good study habits now before medical school is a wise idea.
By desiring to become a doctor and knowing why you want to become a doctor as your motivation, you won’t be struggling to study as much as someone who is studying for the sole sake of studying. Not only will this motivation help for the MCAT, but it will also help you with your study habits in medical school. Many undergrads read and attempt to store things in their short-term memory just before a test in a boring subject and then flush it out of their mind soon after, forgetting it all until just before studying again for a final. If you can have the mindset to do your best at everything you do, you’ll realize most importantly that if you don’t have the desire to spend time studying for the MCAT, you probably will not have the desire to study for your first major tests in medical school.
Realize that your eyes will become strained as you crank out hours studying for the MCAT, so whether you’re staring at a glowing computer screen into the late evening hours or reading passages of text in an MCAT study book, your eyes will become strained. Be sure to rest them and, if you’re at all interested in keeping your eyesight strong, do a few eye strengthening exercises during your breaks between studying. These are simple things like alternating focus between a near object and a far object or closing your eyes and resting them for a few minutes without visual stimuli.
Along with eye strain, pure physical exhaustion and stress-related illnesses can be a result of becoming burnt-out from studying so much and cramming formulas, equations, and information into your overwhelmed brain. Take breaks, go get fresh air (spending time outdoors has been proven to help aid concentration), and get enough sleep before studying. Be sure to not just get a good night’s rest right before you take the actual MCAT, but also in the week(s) leading up to it.
Change of Priorities.
If you truly want to become a doctor, you’re going to need to set your priorities straight as you start on this closing chapter from undergrad to medical school. Studying for the MCAT should be one of your highest priorities. So when it comes to social life…
Social Life? Hah.
This doesn’t mean you have to become a study hermit and lock yourself in your room until test day, but it does mean that, along with your change of priorities, going out for a night on the town before test day is definitely not a wise decision. Run each decision through the filter of whether or not it will be a beneficial break from studying. If you’re finding it tough to avoid constantly hanging out with folks, then bring along some MCAT flashcards or your MCAT review mobile app and have your friends quiz you on those long car rides. Don’t neglect your relationships, but be sure to make it clear with your pals that your MCAT studies are a high priority in your life. The same goes with if you’re in a relationship. Be sure your significant other realizes that you need to study – if they can’t understand that, you might be on a rocky road when it comes to keeping that relationship through medical school.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
The MCAT is similar to a race. A long distance race. It’s a huge commitment, and not one that you can simply just drop out of without wasting tons of money and time. Trust the process, workout your mind with the focus of a marathoner, and fuel your body properly.
Eat the right food.
A bag of Skittles might seem tasty for one of your breaks between sections on test day, but avoid that sugar-crash and subsequent mind melt by choosing healthy foods that aren’t going to send you into a food coma. Bring snacks like fresh vegetables, fruit, or nuts to the testing center. Don’t use test day as a day to try out new snacks that your body might not be used to, and stick to the basics. You’re going to be taking a roughly 7 hour long test, so plan accordingly and have your snacks prepped so that you know what you’ll eat after each section.
Clear your calendar
Test day came around for me and I ended up constantly thinking about the bachelor party that would be later that day in a town about two hours away. I planned on taking my MCAT, driving the two hours with my car already packed and ready to go directly from the test center, and celebrating the night away with my buddies. Throughout the test, I would get stuck on various segments and think to myself, “Well, at least I’ve got a bachelor party tonight and I’m moving from Oklahoma to California in two days,” and I’d randomly guess without a whole lot of careful thought. This is not the wisest way to take the MCAT. Try clearing your schedule so that you won’t have a huge, major event happening right before or right after you take your MCAT. Otherwise you might end up daydreaming or stressing out over it on test day. Note: It is completely okay to have something to look forward to, but if it starts interfering with your studies, then you might want to re-assess it.