How to Deal with MCAT Anxiety: Advice from Jack Westin
Have MCAT Stress and MCAT anxiety? You are not alone and relief will come. As an MCAT instructor, specializing in teaching only the MCAT CARS section of the exam — I see it all the time. Hundreds of my CARS Strategy Course students contact me every year to discuss: “How to deal with MCAT stress.” There are many reasons you may panic and stress while studying for the exam. I’m going to explain why you have this built up tension and how to deal with the MCAT anxiety that’s been consuming you.
How bad is it, really?
First off, if the MCAT Stress is severe, I highly recommend seeking professional counseling. This post does not substitute for medical emergencies or care. My discussions are for those who have chronic stress that prevents them from studying or for those who have delayed the exam for months or even years. It’s completely normal to be a little anxious a week or two before the exam. But if you are so anxious that it prevents you from carrying out a normal, healthy life, you should definitely get help for it.
MCAT Stress: Lasting effects
Stress is bad. We all know that. Not only does it weaken your immune system but it’s making the MCAT studying experience horrible. The MCAT is a rite of passage all premedical students in the US and Canada go through to get to the next phase of their medical career. It’s an exam that tests your science background and your ability to reason. It’s also a time to grow as a student. But somehow, you end up perceiving it as the exam that “prevents you from becoming a physician.”
Relax. It’s not the end of the world if you “bomb” this exam. Believe it or not, you can get into a school even if you don’t score well (I’ll explain how to do that in another post). Believe what I’m saying: you will live after this exam and you can become a great physician even if it doesn’t go as well as you want.
Where does your MCAT stress come from?
You could be stressing out or worrying because you remember your bad experiences with the SAT and or ACT. That was the last standardized exam you took (possibly multiple times) and it may have altered your chances of admission to your dream college.
You may think standardized exams are not your strong suit and that it may ruin your chances of receiving an admission into your dream medical school (or any school for that matter). Because of that, you look at the MCAT as this monster of an exam that is almost impossible to overcome.
You may also think that because it’s a “doctors entrance exam” or in other words, “smart people” exam, it may be very difficult and you might not be smart enough.
You may even be a premed gunner: you’ll do anything to get in. Medicine means the world to you. You have thought of and wanted this career for the past 2–4 years or even since high school. Or maybe your parents nicknamed you “doc” while you were in the womb— it’s your destiny. And now that you hit this speed bump, you feel as if all is lost.
What makes the MCAT stress even worse is the social aspect. The thought of not doing well and confronting your family, friends and even the library janitor about it. You quickly become annoyed by the most innocent of questions:
How’s the MCAT studying going? Did you take it yet?
But what could really put you on the edge is discussing the MCAT with your friends:
Can you believe Joe got a 526 and studied for only 3 weeks?
Melissa F’d up…she has to retake…
Maybe it’s all the “likes” on facebook your cousin or friend got for posting their MCAT score or acceptance into a school:
After years of hard work, I am finally one step closer to achieving my dream
Congratulations! We are so proud of you!
The pressure to live up to peoples’ expectations consumes you to the point that you simply do not want to take the exam for the fear of failure.
The psychology of your MCAT stress
If you get emotional while you study for this exam because you got a question wrong or scoring low on a practice exam, it is not because you are not smart enough or because you “don’t get it.” It’s most likely due to the pressures you have built up to becoming a physician and the importance you have given the MCAT.
You perceive the MCAT to be the be-all and end-all of your medical career and status within society. You have somehow convinced yourself that if the MCAT doesn’t go well, your importance in society is perceived as low.
Low MCAT = will not become a physician = perceived as failure
High MCAT = will become a physician = perceived as successful
The problem with this is that you are measuring your self-worth based on becoming a physician. If you become a doctor: you are “smart and successful.” If you don’t become a doctor: you are “dumb and a failure.” Medicine has become a source of security for you.
You are using the success perceived from becoming a physician to avoid things about you that you do not like. And when something challenges this “source,” you panic and meltdown. This is why you have MCAT stress. The challenge could be as small as getting a couple of questions wrong on a practice passage or not finishing a passage in an allotted time. It could also be the thought of not doing well on the exam. The MCAT has found a way to pierce through your confidence.
I got 5 questions wrong out of 7 on my first practice MCAT passage….FML.
You might even judge how smart or successful your friends are based on their MCAT and GPA. This is done to compensate for parts of yourself that you think are weak or have no control over. For years, medicine was the one thing that you could “control” in your life. But because of the MCAT, you feel that you have lost that control.
This pressure is killing your confidence and it is preventing you from studying effectively. If you cannot study, you will definitely not score well. You are creating a pressure that does not need to exist. How to deal with your stress
How to deal with your MCAT stress
Such thought processes are negatively affecting you. You are imagining the MCAT to be something it’s not. It’s not an intelligence test. Just because someone scores high does not mean they are smart. And it certainly does not mean they will be a good physician. The MCAT is simply a test to determine how prepared you are. Not how prepared you are for medicine but how prepared you are for this specific exam!
Medical schools want to see if you can handle exams. If you can handle the MCAT they believe you can handle exams they throw at you. Can you sit there and study for months at a time? Do you have the discipline it requires to improve? The MCAT is actually a really simple exam as long as you know how to approach it. But since you may not know much about it, you exaggerate its difficulty and treat it as this novel, complex language that only a couple of people in the world can understand.
Most importantly, being a physician does not automatically make you special. A lot of premeds and physicians ride on that because they are insecure about some part of their lives.
We all know medicine is prestigious. It’s a difficult profession to get into and it’s valued in our society. It also pays well compared to other jobs. But if those are the reasons you are going into the field, you will never be happy. You can get the same prestige doing so many other things. You can make just as much money or more in other fields. These reasons are not enough to justify the rigors of medicine. This is a challenging profession that is truly rewarding if you do it for the right reasons.
If you are going into medicine because you think it’ll make you feel better about yourself, guess what: it wont. Everyone has insecurities. You can’t allow your career choice make up for it. If you are insecure before becoming a doctor, you will surely be insecure afterwards.
This is why it’s pointless to talk about peoples’ scores and why it’s pointless to dwell on your own. Doing so well only add unwanted pressure. Set aside a couple of months to study and if anyone asks what you’re doing, just tell them you are studying physics or biology. You don’t have to bring up the MCAT and you don’t have to talk about your scores. If you can’t sit there and study for a couple of months, it’s not because you can’t do it, it’s because you don’t want to.
You may be fooling yourself into thinking that since you can void the exam, you can take it later. That’s absolutely true. But how many times do you think you can go mentally sit through such a rigorous routine of studying? You should not study for 3 months knowing you’ll void, then try to study for another 3 months. That makes this process excruciatingly painful.
Have a study plan set up for 3–4 months and tell yourself that at the end of that schedule, you will take the exam no matter what and be done with it once and for all. As long as you know the content well and do practice problems and exams for 3–4 months, you will do just fine. If you are lacking in content or reading comprehension, consider expanding your study schedule by 1–2 months.
The most important piece of advice I can give you is to set aside your emotions while you study. Your goal is to improve by doing a lot of practice. Of course you’ll get a lot of questions wrong. Of course you’ll get a lot of questions right. That’s the process you must go through to improve. As long as you learn from your mistakes and what you did right, you will always improve.
You may think standardized exams are not your thing. It probably isn’t. A small percentage of the population are naturally good at taking standardized exams. Those who have this ability are just good at understanding what they have read and applying it to a question. This does not mean you cannot improve and score just as high. It will just take you more time to develop that reading ability.
After being an MCAT CARS tutor for many years, I’m convinced that standardized test taking is a skill that anyone can acquire. What separates my students who improve dramatically from those who do not is their will and determination.
If you want to do well on the MCAT, stop thinking about it and start practicing. The practice you endure will give you the confidence to take the exam. The more you practice, the less you will stress and the better you will score.