“The MCAT is the single hardest test I ever took,” said my friend Jonathan. He’s a third-year surgery resident who, if he’s lucky, gets as much sleep in a week as I get in a night. “Seriously, the hardest. My USMLE’s [the exams doctors have to pass to practice medicine in the US] were a joke compared to that thing.”
Jonathan’s experience is hardly unique. Med students are happy to tell you that even their killer med school exams are easier than the MCAT – at least in med school you know how to study for them. The MCAT can feel like a puzzle that’s just impossible to crack and studying more sometimes just doesn’t help.
When you’re smack-dab in the middle of your MCAT prep you can feel your gas tank start to drop down to “E”. Staying energized and staying motivated can be harder than the science you’re trying to cram into your head.
So how do you stay energized, stay focused, and keep on track? You need to tackle the problem from three basic angles.
First: Sleep is your friend
Your brain is an organ in your body just like any other. If you neglect your body, your brain will suffer too.
Make sure you’re taking of the three basics: sleep, diet, and exercise.
Set a sleep regimen that will fit your test day schedule. Since the new MCAT is only given at 8am, you need to get yourself set on a schedule of waking up every morning at the same time. Depending on how far you have to travel to get to your test center, you should plan to wake up some time between 5:30am and 7am.
To make sure you’re getting enough sleep, you will need to be getting to bed by 10pm or midnight, at the latest.
It’ll put a big dent in your social life for a while, but better to spend a few months getting to bed on time than having to re-take the MCAT and lose even more of your free time.
Second: You are what you eat
Lots of leafy green vegetables. Avoid overloading on simple carbs, since the insulin crash afterwards can kill your motivation to do anything, including MCAT prep.
Finally, exercise. No need to go nuts here doing hours a day of crossfit. Just a simple 20-30 min daily dose of light aerobic exercise can have a ton of benefits. Research has shown it helps delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, boosts performance on IQ tests, and elevates your mood.
Sleep, diet, and exercise. Get on a good regimen here and you may even find that your MCAT motivation stays strong the entire time!
Third: Keep your brain guessing
Trying to do too much of the same thing in one day is a fast way to burn out. Make sure that your study regimen has you switching between topics every day. Do a mix of content review, practice passages, and timed work.
If you just feed your brain a single type of work every day, it’ll get bored and out of shape just like your body would if you fed it the same food every day.
Also, if you try to do too much in a single day your productivity will drop to zero. The brain requires sleep to consolidate short-term memories into long-term ones. Do about 2-3 hours of MCAT prep work and then stop and take a break. Go for a jog, do other school work, eat lunch, take a nap, whatever. Come back and do another round of 2-3 hours of prep and take a second break. Then wrap up the evening with a final hour or so of work.
Even the most intense, serious MCAT student shouldn’t be spending more than about 8 hours a day doing MCAT work. Past that your brain isn’t going to learn anything else.
Fourth: Feed your soul
If your emotions are wreaking havoc with your study schedule, it’s a sure sign you’re neglecting an important part of your prep.
Give yourself time off. Even God got a day off once a week (although sometimes it can feel like getting into med school is harder than creating the universe).
You need time to relax, recharge the batteries, and hang out with family and friends.
If you don’t build break time into your schedule, your brain will simply force you to take a break by shutting down. You’ll find yourself staring off into space at random moments that get longer and longer each time. That’s your brain’s way of telling you that you need a break.
Take time for meditation, yoga, hanging out with friends and playing video games, whatever. Just make sure you’re giving your soul time to recharge those batteries.
Keeping yourself motivated during the MCAT is quite the challenge but if you take care of your body, your brain, and your soul you’ll be in great shape. So what’re you planning to do with your MCAT breaks?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.