How to Study for the MCAT

 When should I take the MCAT? How long should I study for the MCAT? How do I study for the MCAT? What courses should I take to prepare for the MCAT? How do I stay motivated to study for the MCAT? While preparing for the MCAT, I relied on blog posts like this to plan how to study and so  this is how I will give back 🙂 

Start with a positive attitude towards the MCAT

My GPA isn’t a 4.0 so I treated the MCAT as a great chance to prove that my academic abilities to medical schools. The MCAT was a gift, rather an obstacle, that I was grateful for. Though there were definitely times I wished I was out hiking in the glorious weather, I still enjoyed studying for the MCAT overall.  There are a ton of reasons why I enjoy studying for the MCAT, including the fact that my learning is all self-directed and the content and questions are genuinely interesting, and I got to make a new friend/study buddy! It was important to set a good mindset for  my studying – make studying for the MCAT is fun and nothing to dread. 

When should I write the MCAT? 

I wrote my test on July 28th after my second year.  That said, if you don’t have heavy travel in May and then work full-time like I did, I highly recommend picking June 30th. A June 30th date would allow you to get your score back before you start writing your medical school applications and so you know which schools are you competitive for. For example, if your CARS score is lower than 130, you might decide not to apply to Alberta, Calgary and McMaster. The first reason I chose to write after my second year because I freshly completed course content tested on the MCAT including physics, biochemistry, psychology and sociology.  The second reason is that I wanted to try applying to medical school in my third year, which may or may not be what you want to do – the pros and cons of that choice would need a post of their own.

 How should I study? 

I studied intensely for 2.5 months. I started doing practice questions 2.5 months before my test. The start of content review is technically winter break of second year when I made a first pass through the Psychology /Sociology content review.  Studying for my university courses was doubled as studying for the MCAT since most of my courses were topics tested on the MCAT. Try to avoid taking the test more than once. There is a popular suggestion on the forums to test without studying at all or only studying for a couple weeks just to “get a feel of the test” and then re-taking the test. I think you should just do once but do it right. Here’s why:

  1. It is very expensive  as it costs ~$490 to write the MCAT each time.
  2. It can un-demotivating to write a test when you feel unprepared and come out with a score you are not happy with.
  3. You can’t erase a bad score from your records and some schools look at all your scores regardless of a better score on a later re-write.  

Do a practice full-length before you register for your exam date.In January or February if you’re aiming to test in the summer.  I think it’s important to get a feel for the exam early on rather than wait until you’ve finished all your content review first before taking an exam.  Don’t Push Back Your Exam Date I think burnout would have unavoidable if I studied any longer. Three people I knew pushed their test date back and all did not feel a substantial benefit to their studying. You might procrastinate more if you tell yourself that if that if you’re not ready, you can just push back your date. Choose wisely and stick to it. 

How do I stay motivated?

Staying motivated to focus for hours that is hard. I honestly believe that it was really important that I kept having a lot of fun during my months I was studying for the MCAT! I want to emphasize it is not the actual content review or the questions that are. Your biggest hurdle is to keep yourself studying hour after hour, day after day, week after week. My one piece of unconventional advice is make fun plans for your time off from studying. You can still see your family/friends/significant other and do things you love if you wake up before everyone else and get a chunk of studying done. It’s possible to travel while studying for the MCAT if you want to. Early in my studying, I travelled for a research conference. During off times, I was completing my target number of practice questions while lounging by blue water before going to the conference BBQ with my co-workers. I extended my travels to shadow a physician in another city and visit a friend. I kept my priorities in line and said no to nights out in order to study (and to be alert for shadowing) but I still got to fit in sight seeing and quality time with my friend. When I was back to work at home in Vancouver, I still had spent time with my grandpa and brother and rest of family, was there for friends who needed me, did things I enjoyed and slept a decent amount. I don’t like the popular premed saying, “You can only pick two: Enough studying – social life – sleep”. Yes, you do have to say to fun plans quite a bit but if you’re budgeting your time right, you should be able to block out the time to relax. Go do all the fun things a summer ought to include, which is critical for warding off burn out!!

 Balancing work and studying

 I’m glad that I had a conversation with my supervisors know about my careers goals and the MCAT, and was then able to adjust my schedule so that I would be able to do a practice test at 8 am each week. I was originally afraid having such a conversation would seem like I had poor work ethic but in fact it was not seen as a big deal at all. So, don’t be afraid to ask for what is needed!Balancing other obligations with the amount of studying. Even though during the year, I, like every other student, juggle multiple commitments but in the end, I am a full time student with dedicated time to attend class and learn. Studying for the MCAT was more challenging because in the summer, I wedged studying in pockets of time when I wasn’t working at my job. I now have a much deeper respect for individuals that work full time and work towards a degree on the side – if that’s you, you’re incredible! It’s totally do-able but not a walk in the park! 

Exam Day

I felt totally calm and not nervous at all on my exam day. If you think of all intense studying you have behind you, you too will feel invincible against the MCAT. One of the exam centre representatives cracked jokes with me so I got a good laugh or at least a smile before I started and at every break. I actually expected to score lower from my practice scores but was pleasantly surprised. I think I was more positive and calm mood the day of the MCAT than during my practice tests and that made a big difference!

What I want to tell discouraged studiers

I know you’re going through periods of ups and downs of motivation. I personally felt down when I got lots of questions wrong.  I did question whether I was “smart enough” to be suitable for medical school a good number of times, and I regret wasting time on a thought like that. So, don’t beat yourself up over the down periods when you felt like you made so little progress during your study session. Don’t beat yourself up too much if you get distracted. It’s natural to be imperfect. Sometimes you will get distracted. Sometimes you will fall behind. If you’re getting distracted, it actually means you need to go take a break instead of pushing yourself to exhaustion!  When you don’t do as well you would like on tests or feel unmotivated to study, remind yourself of the reasons that you are pursuing your dream of medical school. When you are struggling, don’t be afraid to talk out your feelings with the incredible and loving people that have and are putting their support behind you. To the next MCAT writer, you believe in you!

For more support on the MCAT:
Top 5 Tips for the MCAT
5 More Tips for the MCAT
Performing Your Best on the MCAT