The MCAT is challenging. If you want to become a competitive applicant for medical school, you will have to put in hard work, time, and energy. So, naturally, you might think that the earlier and the more you study, the better. However, this is not exactly the case for the MCAT. So you might be asking questions like, “What does being prepared for the MCAT mean?”, “When should you start studying for the MCAT?” or “Is studying for the MCAT in freshman year a good idea?”
In this post, we will address the above questions and more. Here is what you should know before planning your preparation schedule.
Should I start studying for the MCAT in high school?
Suppose you have already decided to enter a medical school and become a doctor. In that case, you need to know that the MCAT will evaluate your knowledge of specific advanced topics such as organic chemistry, general chemistry, biochemistry, physics, biology, psychology, and sociology. You will probably not have all these classes in high school; therefore, you will not have sufficient knowledge of them. Don’t worry! Enjoy your days in high school. Focusing your time and energy on preparing for the MCAT is not necessary, however, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to prepare yourself.
Here are a few things you can do for the MCAT during your high school period:
Build Up a Strong Foundation in Math and Science
At this stage, you can focus on your math and science courses. Earning AP credits in science and math will allow you to take up upper-level courses at college and have a leg up on the competition. However, do not forget that taking up AP courses is a good idea as long as they do not weigh you down. If you feel like you cannot handle this extra load, do not worry. As a high school student, you can focus on your current math and science courses. Taking up advanced classes is not a must.
Improve Your Study Habits and Time Management Skills
Going down the MCAT path will require extensive study and hard work. High school can be an excellent opportunity to develop smart study skills that will allow you to cruise more smoothly through the stressful MCAT preparation period. Now is a great time to discover your learning style, find out how to set an easy-to-follow schedule, master techniques to overcome exam anxiety, and learn how to balance fun and school.
You can learn what distractions you are facing and how you can tackle them. If you master an effective study routine, it is less likely that you will struggle with sticking to a schedule, even if it is a preparation schedule for a test as important as MCAT. Building up solid study habits will be a precious asset for the MCAT and your future academic goals.
Should You Be Studying for the MCAT in Freshman Year?
You are one step closer to the MCAT now that you have started your undergraduate studies. Many students start stressing over their MCAT from the first year of their college. It is wise to start preparing for the MCAT this early because knowing what to expect and getting familiar with the test does not hurt. But remember that now is not the time for hard-core study as you will have enough time for that later. Here are a few things that you can do at this stage:
Focus on Your Premedical Courses
The looming shadow of the MCAT might make you want to rush into MCAT preparation. However, at this stage, your primary focus should be on your premedical courses, such as Biology, Physics, and Chemistry, because they will cover the science sections of the MCAT. After taking these classes, especially after your finals, you can go through the science content questions, but before that, studying for your courses should be your priority.
If you do not intend to take a gap year, a good strategy will be to take organic chemistry and all the general science courses in your freshman and sophomore years and biochemistry in the fall of your junior year. It is important to note that biochemistry is an essential part of the MCAT, and most students find it the most challenging subject to self-learn. This strategy will give you the opportunity to take the MCAT in January or April of your junior year; therefore, you can apply in May.
Get Down the Basics About the MCAT
As a freshman or sophomore student, you have over a year to prepare for the MCAT, but you do not want to be clueless about the test. So go on and check out the test, see how many sections there are, and learn about the general format. You also need to be familiar with the registration process, such as making an AAMC account or how much the test fee is. The dates are also very important. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the MCAT deadlines and important dates for medical school applications.
Start Thinking About CARS
You might have heard about the Critical Analysis and Reasoning section of the MCAT (CARS). Many students find it the most challenging section of the test because it requires critical thinking, and you will have to deal with difficult passages. So, you can never overprepare when it comes to CARS, but the good news is that CARS passages are interesting, and you can just read them even if you do not do the questions. We strongly advise freshman students to read 3 or 4 passages a week. You can check out our website for free CARS passages.
When Should You Start Studying for the MCAT?
The answer to this question depends on when you intend to sit for the test and how long you want to study:
When Should You Take the MCAT?
The earliest time we recommend you to take the test is the summer before your junior college year. Therefore, it would be reasonable to start studying in the spring of your sophomore year.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you want to plan the date of your MCAT.
- Taking the test during your freshman year of college is not recommended. Remember that you need to have completed most of the prerequisites before taking the MCAT. Even strong students would want to wait until they have covered a fair share of the courses that are important for the MCAT because self-learning these subjects is really challenging.
- MCAT scores are valid for a limited time. Most medical schools accept MCAT results dating back to two or three years. If you plan to postpone your application after the test, you might want to keep that in mind.
- Give yourself enough time to prepare. You do not have to rush into it as there is a limitation to how many times you can sit for the test. Students can sit for the exam up to three times per year and seven times in their lifetime.
How Long Should You Study for the MCAT?
When students hear about the MCAT difficulty level, they assume that the key to success is studying for a long time, perhaps a year or two. However, this strategy will not guarantee you get your desired score. Quite the opposite, you might even score lower than you expected. Remember that setting a time limit will help you stay focused, organized, and motivated. Every student is different in planning how long to study, but the ideal time for the MCAT preparation is three to six months. There are two recommended approaches based on your professional and academic commitments and how much time you can devote to your studies:
- Study full-time for three months and put in 40 to 50 hours per week
- Study part-time for six months and put in 12 to 25 hours per week
When choosing one of these approaches, you need to consider how much time you can put in per week. If you are a college student, you will have 12 to 25 hours a week to study for the MCAT because you are busy with your premedical courses. Therefore, you had better give yourself six months to prepare for the test. If you have graduated from college, you could spend 40 to 50 hours a week, and three months will be enough for you.
It would be best to remind yourself that, regardless of which approach to choose, you are not starting from point zero as your premedical courses already cover the content of the test. Even humanities and general education courses prepare you for CARS.
Why Limit Your Preparation Period If MCAT Is Known to Be Difficult?
A limited but dedicated period of study yields better results than studying for a very long time. The reason lies in the two concepts of burnout and the forgetting curve.
The Forgetting Curve:
German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), developed a mathematical formula to show how time affects our ability to retain information. In other words, the further we move away from the first time we learn something, the more we forget the information. Ebbinghaus explained that there is a point where learning will be inefficient because the old information will be forgotten faster than the new information is learned. This point varies from person to person, but it generally happens when we move past the six months. The more you try to prolong your studying period, the faster you will get to this unfortunate point. The bottom line is that you need to focus on studying smarter, not harder. So, remember that studying for more than six months will either have no positive effect on your score or, worse, it might decrease it.
Studying for any standardized test can be nerve-wracking, even more so for the MCAT. Therefore, naturally, you do not want to extend it forever. Prolonging your studies for the MCAT will result in nothing but frustration, and it can drain you physically and emotionally. As the pressure builds up, you will find yourself losing your initial motivation for studying, which would result in a significant decrease in your productivity. The pressure will not only affect your MCAT results but can damage your mental health. The key to avoiding burnout is time management, and that is why you had better consider the three to six months suggested above. Remember to take care of yourself during this stressful process. Nothing is worth scarifying your well-being and mental health. If you see any symptoms of burnout at any stage during your studies, reconsider your study strategies and reach out for help.
What Does Being Prepared for the MCAT Mean?
Throughout this post, we repeatedly talked about preparing for the MCAT. But what does being prepared actually mean? When can students be confident that they are ready?
Regardless of when you choose to start preparing for the MCAT, make sure you:
- cover the important content
- review what you have studied
- take various practice tests
- schedule catch-up days
- have enough breaks
Students tend to overlook reviewing and taking breaks. The first one helps with the forgetting curve, and the second one will help you avoid burnout. Having catch-up days is also important because no matter how realistic and well-thought your study schedule is, there is always a chance that you will fall behind. If you have catch-up days, you can do your over-due tasks and reduce your stress. It is also essential that you take practice tests early on. Once you know your baseline score and find out where you actually stand, you can better plan to improve your weaknesses.
Finally, if you feel like you cannot handle studying on your own, consider taking prep courses. Professional MCAT advisors and tutors can help you choose the best sources, organize your studies and reduce your stress. You can also receive detailed feedback on your practice tests and evaluate your progress. If you feel like consulting a professional is something that can be beneficial for you, you can always consult with a Jack Westin tutor to get some tailored advice. One size never fits all!