Quick and Helpful Guide to When to Start Studying for MCAT
You’ve made it through to your bachelor’s degree, and now you’ve set your sights on medical school. You have chosen the schools of your dreams, which you cannot wait to apply. There is only one hurdle left: the MCAT, an in-depth test that checks your preparedness for the medical field. Your MCAT score is one of the most critical factors determining your acceptance into medical schools.
How can you prepare for such a big exam? You are probably wondering when to start studying for the MCAT. But don’t panic now. Studying for this exam sounds intimidating, but we’ve put together an excellent study guide to help you prepare.
Will you have enough time to study for MCAT?
Most exam candidates take 3-6 months to study for the MCAT. This changes the foundation of knowledge and the need to incorporate MCAT studies with research studies. Let’s look at some typical times of the year when students take the MCAT:
Considering taking the exam in January?
You may want to start studying in the summer and over winter break to allow for a “dedicated” study period where you can focus entirely on the MCAT.
When Should You Plan to Take the MCAT?
Remember that you might be spending three months in school before the exam, making studying for both the school and the MCAT difficult. In that case, it’s good to start studying well in advance, perhaps even before summer/fall.
What about taking the MCAT in September?
You may only take three months to study because you will probably be on summer vacation and may devote more time to study.
Should You Take all the Prerequisite Classes for the MCAT?
The MCAT has 12 class materials. The best way to learn the material for most of these classes is through a formal college classroom, but some exceptions can be made.
Generally, the classes you must take before the MCAT are the same classes required for medical school matriculation. So this means that many students will learn sociology/psychology on their own. Therefore, although taking psychology or sociology in a class would be beneficial, it is not necessary.
A common strategy for many students who do not want to take a gap year is to take all general science and organic chemistry in their first and second years. Then they should take Biochemistry in their Fall Semester Junior Year. Biochemistry is an absolute must – most students find it the most challenging class to self-learn, and it is the most highly rated subject on the MCAT). After taking Biochemistry, they will take the MCAT in January or April of their junior year and apply in May. This allows them to begin their studies at the beginning of the summer before junior year, take all required classes, and then take a winter break to continue their studies.
How Long Should You Study for the MCAT?
“When should I start preparing for the MCAT?” you might ask, but the answer depends on how long you plan to study. 3-6 months seems to be the sweet spot, as we mentioned above. In general, two different approaches are most successful:
- Three months of full-time study (40-50 hours per week)
- Study part-time (12-25 hours per week) for about six months
Why is this the sweet spot? Studying for a short time with high intensity often produces better results.
The two leading causes which make these two approaches the best ones are forgetfulness and burnout.
The forgetting stage refers to the event where the further away from the time we first form the memory, the more likely we are to forget that memory. First described by Hermann Ebbinghaus, this curve denotes a point where learning becomes less efficient because you will forget old information faster than you learn new information. This point is different for everyone, but it usually happens after six months. The more you try to space your study, the faster you reach that critical point.
Studying for more than six months can make work harder, not smarter. In addition, you will spend more time trying to retain the information you learned at the beginning of your study, leaving you with little time.
Best case scenario: Studying for six months doesn’t — if anything — do much to raise your MCAT score.
Worst case scenario: Studying for six months lowers your score because you forget important information.
Burnout: Studying for the MCAT is tough. It can be exhausting, stressful, and time-consuming. This is something you can’t do forever, and the more time you spend studying, the more likely you are to burn out. It’s possible to get burnout doing even what you’re passionate about. If you don’t wake up in the morning with enough energy to start another day of MCAT studies, the risk of burnout is real. Note that the more burned out you are, the less efficient you become when studying.
Take a Practice Tests
Practice tests help you see what the MCAT is like. There are many options when it comes to practice tests. MCAT Self Prep offers a free prep course and MCAT tutoring to help you prepare for the exam.
These mock tests are a great way to assess how much you know before taking the actual test. They help uncover any weaknesses and show you how much preparation you need to do. You may start thinking that you are ready, but practice tests can show you some areas that need improvement.
It’s also an excellent hack to save money. However, the MCAT costs over $300, so you might want to take it only if you’re sure you’re ready.
Set Your Target Score
The MCAT is divided into four sections to test your preparation for medical school. Scores in the MCAT test range from 472 to 578, with 500 being an average passing score. You should set your target score at 500. Your acceptance rate increases when you get 500 or above, giving you a greater chance of attending the medical school of your dreams.
Don’t get disappointed if you get less than 500 marks on the practice test. We recommend starting the process early to give yourself enough time to reach your target score. If you score low on the practice test, you’ll know that you need to spend more time studying before you can prepare for the actual test.
If you score 500 or more, don’t take it as a sign for a break in your studies. You can take some time to chill and get a pat on the back, but don’t stop studying. You need to make sure you’re all set before committing to the real thing.
Fine-Tune Your Study Methods
Every student deals with the exam differently. You may benefit from study groups, while others prefer to study alone or vice versa. The MCAT can be scary, but you should approach it like any other test. Choose the best study method for you, or try combining these study methods.
View your notes from all your previous classes.
It offers a refresher course on information that you may have forgotten as the years passed.
Put different information on flashcards to interrogate yourself on the go.
Take them with you everywhere you go to incorporate the practice throughout your day. You can also give the flashcard to someone else and have them question you. It adds a level of pressure that you don’t have when you study alone and will show how you handle that pressure. In addition, this person can point to any areas in which you struggle.
Don’t just focus on science and math.
The MCAT also tests your critical thinking, so incorporate some essential thinking practices into your study sessions. Suppose you are finding it difficult to understand some concepts.
In that case, you can always check out websites like Crash Course that offer videos with an easily understandable overview of various topics, from anatomy and biology to study skills.
These are just some of the ways you can study. Remember that every student is different because what works for them might not work for you. It is up to you to determine the best study method for you.
The Ideal Length of Study Time
You have decided on the study methods to prepare yourself for the MCAT. For how long should you study? As with study methods, the answer to how long you should study for this test varies from student to student.
The best way to determine how long you should study is to take a practice test and see how well you do. If your practice test result mimics your target score, you know you have a good grasp of the test and can ease your study. But this does not mean that studying should be stopped altogether.
We recommend that students spend about three months studying for the MCAT, spending at least 10-15 hours a week studying. Remember that the practice test is not the actual test, so you shouldn’t assume that a higher score on the practice test means you will score higher on the MCAT.
You can take a few breaks here and there, but make sure your mind stays sharp, especially in your problem areas.
The MCAT Study Plan that Works for You
Preparing yourself for the MCAT exam begins with planning for success. Also, you want to start this process as early as possible because it is less stressful to study rather than cram a week before your scheduled test.
Constantly refresh your mind with the notes you’ve taken throughout your undergraduate years. These concepts provide the foundation for your journey into medical school.
Decide on your target score, and then take the practice test.
This will tell you where you stand in understanding the test material. Some practice tests explain the answers. Unfortunately, the actual test doesn’t show your wrong answers, so you must not only memorize the material but learn it.
Take your time with the practice test first. We understand that the actual MCAT is a time-bound test, but you don’t want to put extra pressure on yourself in the first attempt. Instead, make sure you give yourself enough time to think before choosing an answer.
Don’t Forget to take Breaks
There is much information involved in this exam, and putting too much weight on your mind can make you forget some things.
Take as many practice tests as you can.
Search the test from various websites to familiarize yourself with the wording of the questions. These exams will challenge you because you need to know this information inside out. Luckily, the practice test is around the same difficulty level as the actual MCAT, so you’ll know exactly how the questions are asked. Like study methods, your plan may differ from that of other students. Don’t let this discourage you, and don’t get bogged down in comparing your plan to others. If it works well for you, don’t lose it!
Analyze the Practice Test
Once you’ve completed these practice tests, keep looking at your results and see if there are any areas in which you struggle. For example, find a practice test showing your wrong answers or explaining the reasoning. You will learn which areas of the exam you need to focus on.
Don’t just take the practice test and forget it once you reach your target score. Instead, use your results as a study guide to prepare for the real thing. You can switch between studying flashcards and looking at test results to assess how you’re improving.
Remember to keep practicing the areas where you do well. You don’t want to focus so much energy on your wrong answers that you neglect the areas in which you are proficient. It’s all about what you know about the balance between the scientific parts of the exam and the exam itself.
The quality of your MCAT studies matters as much as the number of hours you study. You’ll see better results if you can devote less time (three to six months) to in-depth study. Devoting more time to studying does not automatically equate to a higher score. However, you can maximize your time while maximizing your score.
Studying for the MCAT is a process and often times students need help. That’s where Jack Westin comes in. We offer tons of FREE resources, including our exhaustive MCAT Question Bank, MCAT Diagnostic Exam, and Weekly Education Sessions with our world-class educators.