In response to the question:

“Is MCAT self-study a good idea?” the answer is…MCAT self-study

It depends. Like most things in the pre-med realm, there’s no one answer that’s right for everyone.

Facts to keep in mind

You can spend anywhere from $800 to $2,500 for live and online courses (or $6,000-$9,500 for Summer Immersion), and the majority of pre-med students opt to do that. Prep courses usually include a set of books and a few practice tests. The reason most people are willing to pay the big bucks for prep courses is because they provide a structured study schedule and access to live tutors who can walk you through just about anything. The tutors are usually able to pass on some of the tricks of the trade too; and, if you’re lucky, they’ll really bend over backwards to build your confidence and motivate you to get a good score (often they’re paid bonuses when students do exceptionally well on the MCAT).

Sometimes universities offer their own MCAT prep courses at a reduced price, but they don’t usually come with as much one-on-one or “anytime” help. Students who plan to do the bulk of their MCAT prep while taking a full load of classes find prep courses especially helpful because someone else sets a schedule for them, when it’s possible they just wouldn’t make the time themselves.

Why MCAT self-study may be right for you if…

Some students opt to go it alone. No tutors, no class time, no study sessions for them. There are a few benefits to this approach, as well as a few drawbacks.

First and foremost, it’s free. Skipping the prep course can mean saving some much-needed cash for applications and interviews.

Also, because you’re not provided with a specific set of books that come with an MCAT prep course, with the MCAT self-study route, you’re free to pick and choose which books you think will work best for you (granted, people taking prep courses can buy extra books too, but considering what you’re already paying for the course, it usually makes sense to use the materials you get).

Finally, you get to set a schedule that’s right for you, rather than having to follow a pre-set curriculum. You can focus on the areas you feel you need to work on without feeling like you’re falling behind in the class or wasting your money because you’re not attending it.

And why MCAT self-study may not be your best option if…MCAT self-study

The drawbacks to the MCAT self-study approach are obvious. If you decide not to pay for a prep course, you have to motivate yourself to study long hours on a very consistent basis. You have to make time in your schedule for it, even when you’re burned out or need to catch up on school work. Also, because you’re setting a schedule and buying books, you’ll need to give some serious time and thought to which hours and products will work best for you.

I went the independent route. It worked well for me because I was out of school and had plenty of room in my schedule to make time for MCAT prep. In the end, I probably ended up spending somewhere around what I would have paid for a low-end prep course on materials (if you count books and practice tests), but I ended up with books and CBTs I found very useful, while my schedule was well-suited to help me address my weak spots as I discovered them. On the other hand, if I’d been in school at the time, I probably would’ve sacrificed the extra-books option if it meant having someone telling me what to study and when, since I had a hard enough time making time for school and work—let alone MCAT prep!

The take home is, like I’ve written elsewhere, it’s important to do your research so you can make an informed decision. Figure out what your options are, how much you’re able to spend, and what you think will be the most productive learning schedule for you, and go for it.

The hybrid option is to take a comprehensive course from The Princeton Review or Kaplan that’s designed to be taken in isolation, but using the best resources available: possibly in your pj’s in your bedroom. Check out the options for Princeton MCAT Self-Paced here and Kaplan MCAT Self-Paced here.

We’ve taken the time to review each of the major prep courses (and a few more obscure ones), as well as various books and practice tests. We hope you find them helpful.

Here are a few links:

—Kaplan or Princeton Review for the best MCAT prep course?

—Review of MCAT prep book sets

—Examkrackers or Berkeley Review for best MCAT prep classes?

—How many full-length MCAT practice tests should I take?