More than 75,000 students take it each year. After months of preparing, it’s arguably still the single most important test you have taken up to this point and it is now just a few days away. It is the MCAT. And whether you feel very ready, sorta kinda ready, or maybe even not at all ready, the day you knew was coming is finally here! And just think – once the day has come and gone, you may never have to worry about the MCAT another day in your life. So, to make sure that your performance on this MCAT is everything you’ve hoped and prepared for, you will need to be smart about how you spend your last few days.
For the last three months, most of you have been prepared to live, breathe, and eat anything and everything that had to do with studying for the MCAT. But let’s be honest – you look forward to closing this chapter of your pre-med life. You’ll arrive at your chosen test site a few hours after sunrise (8 am) or around the perfect time for an afternoon nap (1 or 2 pm), not to re-emerge until approximately five hours later. Will everything you’ve done to prepare pay off? Will your meticulous MCAT study plan prove effective? Is there anything more you could have done to prepare for this day? Well, just to be sure, here are a few useful last minute MCAT preparation tips to help you make the most of your remaining time before test day.
Tip #1: Sleep Like Your (Premed) Life Depends on It
Because it does. Sleep may be one of the most important factors for MCAT success. While you may not have a lot of time left to study, the amount of sleep you get leading up to the MCAT could very well be the one thing to make or break your score.You probably set up an airtight study schedule to help prepare for the big day but what about your sleep schedule – yes, sleep schedule? As your test date approaches, you should go to bed at wake up at the same time each day to develop a regular sleep cycle. While some may believe that the amount of sleep has little to no affect on test performance, this belief is untrue. In some cases, experts say that for improved test performance, an extra hour of sleep may actually be more important than an extra hour of studying. A countless number of studies have shown that lack of sleep negatively affects many of the major factors you’ll need to perform well on the MCAT – cognition, knowledge retention, and awareness. You’ve worked so hard to prepare for this test and whether or not you truly believe that the amount of sleep you get will have an affect on your performance, do you really want to take a chance? How bad would it be if your lack of sleep caught up with you at the worst possible moment – test day? What you think you may gain from your extra time studying will not make up for the level of alertness and loss of your ability to concentrate due to lack of sleep. If you think you may have trouble getting to sleep at a reasonable time, especially the night before the MCAT, here are a few tricks you can use to get some good shut-eye:
Figure out what time you need to wake up on the day of your MCAT and start getting up at that time every day until the day of the exam arrives – even on Saturday and Sunday. Ideally, you should try to begin this routine at least a month prior to your test date. This will help “anchor” your body clock to the time you’ll need to wake up on test day and avoid feeling groggy or out-of-sync come test day. While this tip may seem quite trivial, the effects are quite beneficial to developing a stable circadian rhythm. Bonus Tip: Set two alarm clocks.
Add a 10-minute exercise routine to your day and you’ll significantly improve your chances of getting a good night’s sleep. Aside from having many other benefits, studies have shown that exercise release endorphins in the body and will help you sleep and leave you feeling more energetic in the morning. According to another, more recent report, individuals who were identified as exercisers reported better sleep than those who considered themselves non-exercisers. For busy premeds, the good news about these new findings is that it wasn’t how many minutes were spent active or how hard the workout was, but simply whether or not there was any type of physical activity at all. “Our poll data certainly find strong relationships between good sleep and exercise,” explained Max Hirshkowitz, PhD, NSF poll task force chair. “While cause and effect can be tricky, I don’t think having good sleep necessarily compels us to exercise. I think it is much more likely that exercising improves sleep. And good sleep is fundamental for good health, productivity, and happiness.”
Reduce the amount of sugar and caffeine you consume and avoid eating large meals before going to bed. Instead, why not try eating a snack that can help you sleep better. While there is quite a long list of various foods that can help you get a good night’s sleep, here are a few that we think you may actually enjoy and will be easier to come by than pumpkin seed powder or dandelion greens: Oatmeal. When consumed before going to sleep, this popular breakfast food can signal your brain to release sleep-inducing chemicals. If this is your snack of choice for the night, have a sugar-free bowl a few minutes before laying down for the night. Cherries. These are a great natural source of melatonin, which as a premed student already knows is chemical that helps control the body’s internal clock. An hour or two before bedtime, try eating a handful or two. Milk. Having a glass of warm milk before bedtime is no longer just for kids anymore. There is some evidence that because of the tryptophan it contains, milk releases serotonin to trigger a relaxing effect within the body.
Tip #2: Take a Test Drive for Test Day
To help you feel more at ease and make your testing experience as stress-free as possible, we recommended that you actually visit your testing site before your actual scheduled date. While Prometric, the company that administers the MCAT, offers a Test Run where test takers have the opportunity to take a 30-minute “dry run” of the test center experience prior to their exam, the program is not available to MCAT test-takers.
While you may not be able to take advantage of full test run experience, you can create your own “test drive” by “going through the motions” as you would on the day of your actual test. By taking a trip to the testing center in advance, you have the opportunity to familiarize yourself with actually traveling to the site and the location of your testing suite. And while it may seem like a minor factor within the bigger scope of your experience, visiting your testing site (and familiarizing yourself with its rules and requirements) is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety before test day. Just do it! Just think how much more ready and calm you will be on test day than someone else who after having trouble finding the site or underestimating their travel time, anxiously arrives in a less than ideal state to take their test. Bonus Tip: It is also a good idea to make sure that your ID is valid and good to use come test day. For more information about test day admission and identification, visit www.aamc.org.
Tip #3: Eat, Pray, Love.
You’re probably wondering what Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” mantra has to do with taking the MCAT, but hear us out. As soon-to-be test-takers filled probably filled with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and no magic pill to help guarantee a great score, it is important to “sweat the small stuff.”
What you EAT has a huge effect on your mental performance and to help ensure peak performance, you will need to give your brain what it needs to get your smart juices flowing. You heard it before and when it comes to the day of your exam, breakfast will truly be the most important meal of the day. Experts say that your ideal breakfast should consist of whole-grain carbohydrates (for energy boost) and lean protein (for recall performance). Taking the MCAT in the afternoon? There’s food for that and it’s peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread! The staple among those under 12 years old is also one of the best things an afternoon test-taker could eat, thanks to the perfect combination of carbohydrates, healthy fats (to enrich memory power), and whole-grain fiber (to boost brain power).
Regardless of your beliefs, come MCAT time you may certainly be inclined to PRAY. But while there is no prayer that can guarantee your perfect score on the MCAT and no prayer that can change a wrong answer to the right one, there are ways to help you feel a sense of ease and relaxation at exam time. Relaxation is key on test day and one way to help ease your nerves on test day is to keep your outlook about the test in check. While the importance of the MCAT cannot be understated, it is very important remember that at the end of the day – it is only a test! What’s the worst thing that could happen? You have to take it again – so what, you won’t be the first and you definitely won’t be the last. Here’s another piece of advice – just breathe. Take a deep breath and concentrate on the air from your lungs going in and out. Repeat this two or three more times before you start your test. So, as the saying goes keep calm and carry on.
Find someone you LOVE and hug them. Seriously, researchers have found that hugging and kissing can measurably reduce a person’s stress levels. You have a life beyond the MCAT and while studying and preparing for the big day may have come with a bit of stress and anxiety, it is not the only part of your life that can cause stress. That is why it is quite important to maintain the positive relationships in your life. Whether it be with family, friends, or any other significant person in your life, it is in your best interest, and the interest of your MCAT score, that you maintain healthy and positive relationships with those around you. Simply put, relationship stress is the last thing you need to be worrying about come test day. If you have stress in your personal life, make it your business to patch things up.
Tip #4: Avoid Pre-Test Chatter.
On test day, stay far, far away from fellow test-takers who are panicky or who want to talk to you about the test. While talking to your fellow test-takers before the test can actually be a good way to calm your nerves, it can have a negative affect on you if the conversation moves to discussing the MCAT. After chatting with another person about the MCAT, you can either gain a false sense of security or end up feeling completely insecure about your ability to perform well.
The best thing to do is to stay focus and protect your psyche from anything that might jeopardize your level of confidence going into the exam. Don’t feel the need to entertain conversations that will not leave you with a positive attitude when starting your test. Bonus Tip: While waiting before your test warm up your brain by completing a few crossword or Sudoku puzzles.
Tip #5: Scores Aren’t Anything But Numbers
Well, when it comes to your practice tests that is. During the single remaining week before the MCAT many students sit down to take one last practice test and that’s all well and good. Unfortunately, however, some students may begin to doubt their readiness after learning that their score has gone down slightly. If you decide to take a practice test during the week preceding the actual test date, don’t be thrown off by the results. Don’t drive yourself crazy by spending your final days obsessing about your scores. Stay on top of your mental game. If you take a practice test during the week of the actual MCAT, and there’s a variance in your score from previous tests, don’t freak out. It might be difficult to come back from the beating you put on yourself and you may not be able to pull yourself together in time for the big day. So, if you want to complete one or two practice tests go ahead, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
Tip #6: Clear Your Calendar – It’s MCAT Time
Make sure that your personal, academic, and professional affairs are in order (aka everything comes second to MCAT test day) so that you can clear your mind of possible worries, leaving you free to focus all of your attention on the MCAT. If you’re worried about making it to work on time after agreeing to a late shift or finishing your part of a group assignment that’s due on Monday, your affairs are not in order! What the heck were you thinking accepting a work shift right after your test or leaving your schoolwork until the last minute? Between checking in and verifying your identification to sitting for the multiple sections of the MCAT, you’ve got to know that your day will be long – there’s no way around it. Either your entire morning/afternoon or afternoon/evening will be dedicated to the very lovely MCAT. The day will already be very stressful as it is – do yourself a favor and promise to do nothing but take the MCAT.