Let me start by saying that if you are about to start studying or have started studying for the MCAT, you are facing one of the most challenging times in all of undergrad. However, it is a rite of passage for all premeds, and everyone in medical school has done this successfully before you. So you can and will get through it!
To help you get through this, I have complied a brief list of MCAT Study Tips & Tricks that I picked up along the way and learned from others. This list is not exhaustive, though. If you have any tips or tricks of your own that I did not address, please leave them in the comment section below.
Before you begin studying, you need to create a realistic timeline for yourself that allows for ample study time. Students generally study for a few months before their test date. A solid amount of time to complete all of the content and and practice is about 3-4 months. Now, these months aren’t comprised of three hour study days. This is assuming you sill be studying MCAT for around 6-8 hours a day, with one day off per week. MCAT must be your life for these few months.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received (from a first year medical student) about the MCAT went as follows: “Ok, how many hours are there in a day? 24. How many hours a day do you need to sleep? 7. How many hours a day do you need to eat/relax? 3. How many hours a day do your classes/work take up? About 5. Ok, so 24-7-3-5 = 9. You need to devote those 9 hours a day EVERY DAY to studying the MCAT and ONLY the MCAT.” Obviously these numerical answers were mine, and will be different for you. But this got it in my head that the MCAT would be like a full time job for the next few months and I had to live by my schedule. This way, I was able to keep track of how much time I was spending doing other non-MCAT things so that I would have the max amount of time to devote to studying. It also gave me a set number of hours per day that I wanted to dedicate to the MCAT, and I would hold myself to this every day.
2. Focus & Attitude
You want to only have to do this once. Therefore, your attitude about this exam should be to “do it right the first time.” There is SO much help and advice out there about how to prepare for the MCAT, so there is no excuse for not knowing something. Join a prep course. It is well worth your money, because having to retake the exam will also be expensive. Some companies offer discounts to students who are members in certain premed clubs, so do your research. Any money you spend on creating an optimal study environment for yourself is worth it. If you think you are disciplined enough to study solo, then try it. However, I know very few premeds who were successful this way and most ended up having to retake the exam. The ones who did well alone were elite level premeds anyway.
Be open to the concept that MCAT studying is so different from any other type of studying you’ve done thus far. It takes a huge amount of time to sufficiently prepare for the exam. It also takes an immense amount of practice to master the skills you need to learn how to take the exam. There are tricks to the MCAT that become revealed only through hundreds of hours of practice and identification of your mistakes. Learning to take the exam is the hardest part, but it yields the greatest increases in scores. test taking strategy will carry you much farther than just knowing the material. Keep an open mind when it comes to changing your test taking strategies. Clutch offers their own MCAT prep course which I took and was successful with. Read more about it here.
You need to have in solidified in your mind that you will conquer this exam. It IS possible. You just have to want it bad enough, and be willing to put in the effort.
3. Practice (deliberate Q&A on weak topics)
If you are studying and aren’t doing well on your practice questions, identify your weaknesses. Look at your actions and your thought process in an objective manner so that you can see where you went wrong. This is the only way to fix your mistakes and improve your score. The majority of your time over the next few months should be dedicated to practice, not to learning content. Content should be learned and studied one time, and well enough to carry you through your practice phase without having to really relearn any material.
There is a great post online that I came across while I was studying for the MCAT. From this post, and with help from a great MCAT tutor, I was able to make great jumps in my score during my practice phase by doing “deliberate practice.” This type of practice utilizes the method of focusing on weaknesses and actively trying to improve them, as opposed to finishing 1,000 practice questions just to say you did. Once I began really understanding why I was making the mistakes I was making, I was able to find ways to fix these mistakes and never make them again. It was during this phase of my studying that I learned the greatest amount of test taking strategy. This method is quite time consuming but is very high yield when trying to improve your score.
4. Simulating the test day environment
This is very important. You should treat every study session as if you were taking the actual exam. Take this seriously. You are wasting your time if you are reading inactively (that is, getting through the material without being able to recall much of it) and practicing without going back over the answers and really understanding them. You need to maximize your output (scores) for your input (time), and the only way to do this is to take every study session as seriously as the actual test. Wear the clothes that you will wear on test day. eat snacks during your practice test breaks that you will bring to your actual exam. Practice sitting with both feet on the ground and no hoodie on your head, because the testing centers forbid sitting on your legs and wearing hoods. Be strict with yourself on your breaks during your practice exams, such as limiting yourself to 10 minutes and not using your cell phone. You want to be as used to the testing environment as you can be by the time you get to your actual exam so that you can reduce test day anxiety. Small details count when you’re stressed and tired, and you don’t want something like not being allowed to wear your lucky study hat during the real test to freak you out and affect your performance.
5. Take care of yourself
It is very easy to let the MCAT consume your life if you are taking it seriously enough. In a way it should, but you must give yourself appropriate breaks from studying. Take one night off a week to have dinner with friends or family, or go out (not too hard- too much alcohol can ruin a weeks worth of progress). Eat well and get your sleep, because without your health you have nothing. You won’t be able to sustain the study lifestyle of eating when you remember to and living off of caffeine and minimal sleep time. You will get too tired, and possibly burn out before your exam. You want your peak moment to occur on your test day; you don’t want to start to decline before you sit for it.
I will continue to update this list as I think of more strategies. In the mean time, post your own helpful MCAT tips and tricks in the comment section below!