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February 6, 2024

Tips for Preparing for the MCAT Exam

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) looms large in the mind of every aspiring medical professional. While we’ve discussed the deficiencies of the MCAT in the past, we recognize that it’s still a major required step for anyone who wants to be a doctor. We still recommend students take getting ready very seriously. Preparing for the MCAT is much harder than any standardized test you may have done in the past.

In its 2022 Post-MCAT Questionnaire, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that 89,322 people took the MCAT during the 2021-22 academic year. Those who took the exam reported that they struggled most with the following three issues:

  • 60.0% said they found it difficult to balance MCAT study and their job responsibilities
  • 62.8% said getting through the amount of material to master was difficult
  • 66.9% said they found it difficult to stay confident in their ability to do well on the test (Table 3)

Preparing well can’t guarantee you a 525+ on the MCAT, or that you’ll feel excited and relaxed on test day. But it does give you a better chance of coming through the experience with a score that, as much as possible, reflects your potential to do well in medical school. Here are some tips for getting organized, studying effectively, and arriving at your test center ready to do your best.

Be Familiar with MCAT Logistics

First, take the time to understand how to register, how to cancel, what ID you’ll need to bring to the test center—and what you’re not allowed to bring to the test center. The AAMC publishes a useful guide, The MCAT Essentials, that covers these basic topics. You can also find out:

  • When upcoming test dates are, and when scores are released
  • How to qualify and apply for AAMC MCAT fee assistance support—this helps you cover the cost of registering for the exam and some study materials
  • When to time your exam based on when you intend to apply to medical school
  • How to work with an advisor for help choosing an MCAT test date and preparing to apply to medical school

When you register for your test, make time to learn where the testing center is and practice how you’ll get there so you know how long it takes and what alternative transit options are available if your first plan falls through.

Then, once you understand how the test works and where you’ll take it, it’s time to learn more about what’s covered in it.

Get to Know the MCAT’s Structure and Content

Before diving into preparation, it's essential to grasp the structure and content of the MCAT. The MCAT is a computer-based multiple-choice exam that lasts seven hours (with breaks). Each test-taker’s MCAT will be slightly different, because the exam pulls from a large bank of questions spread among four content areas:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

Each of these four content areas tend to focus more on some subjects than others, and you’ll get proportionally more questions about them. These are known as “high-yield” topics. The AAMC reports that the high-yield topics tend to include the following:

  • Biological science: DNA, amino acids, enzymes, general cell biology, protein biochemistry, and oxidative phosphorylation.
  • Chemistry: Acids and bases, chemical reactions, oxidation reduction, and thermodynamics.
  • Physics: Forces, waves, work, torque, electrostatics, and kinematics.
  • Behavioral/social science and psychology: Social behavior, demographics, group psychology, learning, and memory.

Now you have an idea of the general universe of topics you’ll need to study. It’s time to make a detailed study plan.

Develop Your Study Schedule

Understand that studying for the MCAT is like signing up for a part-time (or even full-time) job. A 2021 article by the American Medical Association (AMA) recommends that students should spend a total of 300-350 hours studying over a period of four to five months—about 15 hours of study per week.

However, actual test-takers seem to report spending more time than this. 38% of respondents to the 2019 Post-MCAT Questionnaire (p. 2), for example, reported spending more than 20 weeks preparing for the MCAT. This was the most popular response out of all the options.

So, we recommend you plan for four to six months of study, and block out somewhere between 10–20 hours of study per week. Try to schedule your study time like an appointment instead of leaving it floating on your list of things to do. Choose a time of day when you’re relaxed and able to focus—don’t force yourself to get up before dawn to study if you’re not a morning person already.

Plan What You’ll Study

Your schedule answers the “when” of MCAT prep. A plan answers the “what”. We recommend you establish a baseline of where you are, then plan your study sessions around your strengths and weaknesses. Take the time to complete a practice exam first—there are several free, timed exams available on the internet from reputable sources like the AAMC.

Starting your plan with a practice exam will help you understand how MCAT questions are structured as well as allowing you to gauge your strong and weak content areas. Build out your study plan so that you rotate through each of the four content areas regularly—you could, for example, dedicate one week per month to each of the content areas.

Dedicate extra time to areas where you struggle the most. Whether it's organic chemistry, physics, or critical analysis, prioritize targeted review and practice to strengthen your understanding and skills. Build regular practice exams into your schedule, too—one a month at minimum. This will help you make regular adjustments to the content of your study sessions, and also build your familiarity with the test format. Make sure some of these exams are conducted under test-day conditions, with identical timing and breaks.

Mix Up Your Study Methods

Passive re-reading of textbooks won't result in MCAT success. Actively engage with the material you need to know through techniques like active recall, spaced repetition, and concept mapping. Apply what you've learned by solving practice questions and reviewing explanations thoroughly.

Also, while it’s possible to take expensive test-prep courses that cost thousands of dollars, you can find an abundance of free MCAT prep resources online. From digital flashcards and video lectures to practice questions, there are many options available. Use free options where you can, and, if you can afford it, invest in paid preparation materials, too.

Practice Self-Care, Too

While your MCAT prep period will be intensive, it doesn’t have to be destructive. It’s possible to study hard without grinding yourself down. Don’t neglect regular exercise, nutritious meals, or sufficient sleep. Taking breaks and managing stress are crucial for your performance—and also important skills you’ll need to help you cope with the rigors of the medical profession later.

It’s inevitable that you’ll struggle with self-doubt at some point during your MCAT preparation journey. Acknowledge that setbacks are normal and view challenges as opportunities for growth. Trust in your preparation, feel the fear, and carry on with your plan anyway. Your future patients are counting on you!

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