When most students think of the MCAT, they think primarily of the academic challenges it presents. They imagine all those physics formulas they have to memorize, all those reading passages to slog through, and endless pages of biochemistry mechanisms.
But establishing good habits for test day is more about keeping your body healthy than it is about your brain. You can’t perform well on the exam if you don’t feel relaxed, cool, and comfortable.
So what are the most important habits to set for test day?
First, sleep and diet.
For two to three weeks before the exam, you should be eating the same breakfast and lunch as you will on test day. The morning of the exam is not the time to suddenly alter your normal routines. If you normally have a small bowl of cheerios for breakfast, then Test Day is not the day to suddenly cram down a six-egg Denver omelet.
You should also be waking up at exactly the same time for at least 6-8 weeks before the exam. The MCAT starts at 8am and depending on how far you’ll have to travel to get to the testing location, this may mean getting up between 5am and 7am. Whatever time you need to get up on Test Day, make that your routine for two months. That way you won’t feel all bleary-eyed that morning.
No, I’m not advocating illicit ADHD meds as a way to boost your MCAT performance. Instead, I mean drugs of any kind – caffeine, nicotine, allergy meds, other therapeutic drugs you normally take.
As with sleep and diet, the key to good habits is consistency. If you’re a two-cup-of-coffee person, then just keep doing that. Don’t change your routines on Test Day.
If you’d like to kick the coffee or cigarette habit, make sure you start months in advance. Give yourself something like 3-6 months to break whatever habits you’re trying to break. You need to walk into the MCAT feeling totally comfortable and confident, not itching for quick cigarette break or a cup of coffee.
Having said that, I find the supposed benefits of “going off coffee” or whatever to generally be overblown. If you’re a smoker or a coffee drinker or whatever, just keep your habits at a low, steady, manageable level and don’t change anything on Test Day.
Finally, timed practice.
So yes, good test day habits do involve more than just attending to your body. Your brain also needs to be in the habit of doing timed MCAT work at the same time of day as your real exam.
Assuming your check-in process takes something like an hour, you can expect to be doing your physical sciences section around 9am. Your reading section will probably start some time around 11am. The biology/biochem section will start around 1:15 or 1:30pm and the social sciences around 2 to 3pm.
So when you’re doing your MCAT prep, try to do timed practice at those times. If your goal one day is to complete a 90 minute reading section, try to do it mid-morning. If you’re working on your psychology and sociology, aim for early afternoon.
By getting both your body and your brain used to rhythms of Test Day, you’ll feel your best and do your best.Bryan Schnedeker is the National MCAT Director at Next Step Test Preparation, a company that specializes in 1-on-1 tutoring for the MCAT. Bryan has taught the MCAT for over a decade and has scored a 44 on the test himself.