Best MCAT Study Tips for Acing the Test?
Searching the Internet, you’ll find countless MCAT study tips. Everyone has their opinion on the best way to approach the MCAT based on their own experience and from those legendary tales on the street. However, as you’ve probably noticed by now, all those prolific writers usually conclude with the caveat: “Everyone is different” and/or “Find what works for you.” While these caveats are patently true, they can make MCAT study tips frustratingly ambiguous.
A New Paradigm
I understand where you’re coming from. You want ironclad steps for acing the MCAT. You want structure and a defined collection of material to study from. The perfect MCAT prep study schedule. You want what your undergraduate classes have given you—an assigned number of textbook pages to study from and a deadline. From personal experience getting through the MCAT, I can tell you that this approach—which may have worked in the past—will not pave the way to an effective MCAT study plan.
Here I’ll offer different ideas/options for studying. Depending on your timeline, budget, and self-motivation, you’ll have to decide which MCAT study tips you think will work for you. Before I do, let me reiterate what I’ve written in a number of other columns about the MCAT: taking practice exams are the most important part of any MCAT study plan.
First Step: Practice Test
Before I spell out the different techniques and study plans, let me first give my two cents on how you should progress through your material (assuming you aren’t taking a class, which would likely give you a study plan to follow).
What to Study?
Within the first week, take a practice test. The section you score most poorly on should be the first you attack. Pull out your study material, whether it’s a book set or online resource, and make your way through the entire book/section. It may take 10-12 hours to effectively study and practice the material, but it will be time well spent. Then, move to your second worst subject, using the same strategy. Cycle through this rhythm of practice tests and studying until test day.
No matter which MCAT study tips/MCAT prep study schedule you employ, make sure you have a dedicated, quiet study area free of interruptions—like an office or library cubicle.
Plan #1: Stretch it Out
Most people know when they’ll be taking the MCAT at least a year in advance. If you don’t have a plan for when to take the MCAT, create one today. With your plan in hand, you can begin your preparation for test day.
The “Stretch it out” method is common, especially among traditional pre-med students. You can purchase needed study materials (books, practice tests, classes) a year before you take the test and commit to a certain amount of time spent studying for the MCAT every week.
If you’re stretching out your study over a semester, you may choose to enroll in a semester-long MCAT prep course like those from Princeton Review or Kaplan (see our discounts here), in combination with longer term self-study. In this case, you might decide to set aside three 2-hour time slots every week to sit down with your MCAT prep books and study, in addition to 2 hours a week in a classroom (assuming you do invest in an MCAT prep course). You will also want to set aside at least one day every month (more if possible) to take a full length practice test. As you get closer to test day, you will want to increase the frequency of the practice tests and invest more time in MCAT studying. This is a long, drawn-out process that you must commit to up front. It’s easy to justify not studying one day when the MCAT is 8 months down the road, but one day turns into two, then three, and so on.
June 2016: Buy MCAT book set (see reviews here) and purchase year-long online class resource and/or enroll in a semester-long MCAT prep course.
June 2016-April 2017
Study Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 5-7 p.m. at the library.
Take a full-length practice test on the third Saturday of every month.
April 2017-May 2017
Study Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 4-7 p.m. at the library.
Take 3 full-length practice tests on Saturdays.
Continue studying and take two, full-length practice tests the week before test day
June 14, 2017
Pros: Able to cover all MCAT material, less stressful, easy to manage time commitment, able to study while working or going to school full time.
Cons: Easy to put off studying, material you study early on may not be as fresh as you get closer to test day.
Plan #2: Quick Prep
I’d say the second most common MCAT prep technique is some variation of what I’m about to explain. A lot of pre-med student plan to take the MCAT at some point during their summer break—in May, June, or July. That means you’ll have the freedom to commit vast amounts of time each day to MCAT studying from the last day of classes through test day.
The goal here is to spend as much time as you can every day studying for the MCAT. If you have 2 months until test day, you may spend 5-6 hours, 6 days a week studying. If you only have a few weeks, you may study for 8-9 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. The point being that you need to give yourself the time to cover every subject a couple of times, and have the time to take at least 8 practice tests.
An effective way to implement this strategy, assuming you have about 8 weeks to prepare, is to study from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and to take practice tests on Saturdays. As you get closer to test day (the final three weeks), you should take practice tests on Wednesdays as well. If you have less time, say 4 weeks, you’ll want to increase study hours per day and tests per week. I would not recommend giving yourself less than 3 weeks to study for the MCAT.
Late April 2017
Before undergraduate classes are over, buy an MCAT prep book set and an online class resource, and/or enroll in a summer MCAT prep course.
April 2017- May 2017
Study Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at the library, taking practice tests every Saturday.
Continue studying, but during the two weeks before test day take full-length practice tests on Wednesday and Saturday. Put these on your calendar!
June 14, 2017
Pros: Can focus solely on MCAT prep with all of the material fresh in your mind on test day, since there is continuity in your studies.
Cons: Ultra-time consuming; studying becomes your full-time job, and it can be difficult to stay focused during day-long study sessions.
Option #3: In-Person Prep Course
A number of different companies offer various MCAT prep courses. Two of the best are Kaplan and Princeton Review. Here is a review of these two classes. Some companies offer online classes, which you can use on your own timeline (like above), while others are intensive, demanding courses that dictate every piece of material you should study and when. They provided needed structure for those who want it, along with proven resources. If you are interested in going this route, it’s a matter of you finding a course that works for you and your timeline and then sticking to it. The prices vary dramatically, ranging from $1,799 for self-paced classes you can use for either the “stretched out” or “quick prep” option, up to $9,500-plus for intense summer programs.
If you’re interested in this route, do your research. Check out our review of classes and options here. A lot of universities also offer MCAT prep courses to their students. Look around and find the combination you think will work best for you. Understand, though, that while classes offer structure and resources, they DO NOT do the studying for you. No matter the option you choose, you will have to put in the same amount of work and time.
All Things Considered
If you possess the self-control and discipline, then follow my timeline and study on your own. If you are easily distracted and find it difficult to stick with study plans you’ve had in the past, invest in a class. Or choose the hybrid option of signing up for a “self-paced” Kaplan or Princeton Review class a year early, in combination with the other materials you choose. Most importantly, dedicate yourself 100% to your plan, whatever it is. Getting the score you want takes time and effort.
So, here’s my caveat: Everyone is different. Find what works for you. Wishing you the best with your MCAT studies! I promise there will come a time when it’s in your rear view mirror and you can let out a well deserved sigh!
—For a review of Princeton Review and Kaplan in-person courses, click here.
—For my review of book review sets by Kaplan, Princeton Review, Examkrackers and Berkeley Review, click here.
—For my review of the computer-based full-length tests by various companies, check this out.
—Read this post to find out if you’re the type to take a class or go it alone.
—Check out the premedfaq.com discounts on MCAT classes here.