The truth is: MCAT prep can never be a one-size-fits-all approach. Every student who studies for the MCAT builds a unique plan based on their own strengths and weaknesses. Students also have varying schedules, with several individuals working part-time and others balancing various family responsibilities. Balancing these several responsibilities is possible, and the key is developing a time management strategy that helps you to hold yourself accountable.
How much of my day should MCAT prep take up?
The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has found that on average, a student will study for approximately 260 hours. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that this value is an average, and that the average MCAT score is currently a 501.5. Some students may need to study more, and some may need to study less, depending on their starting content foundation and goal score. The greatest predictor of how much time you will need to study is the difference between your diagnostic score and your goal score. In general, if you are close (around 5-10 points), you may only need 50-100 hours of additional prep time, but if you are looking for an improvement of 15 or more points, expect to study at least 200 hours. The most important aspect to remember is to not push yourself past your boundaries: burnout is real and can be avoided if you pace yourself in a manner that is conducive to your own mental and physical capacities.
What can I do when I am not studying?
Here is a theoretically taboo statement: it is possible to have fun and relax while studying for the MCAT. If you are somebody who appreciates a consistent routine, you want to build your routine in a way that accommodates “down time.” Whether this means going to a movie with your friends or family, attending a fourth of july barbeque, spending a weekend at the beach, or just taking a day to unwind and watch Netflix, you are allowed and encouraged to give yourself breaks. For individuals who are working part-time or balancing other responsibilities while studying, you are also allowed to take breaks: you never want to force yourself to study if your mental energy is maxed out for the day. Always remember that your mental and physical health is of utmost importance during this time; you do not need to sacrifice your wellbeing for a strong score on the MCAT. If anything, the opposite holds true: keeping your mind strong by allowing yourself to relax will help you build the stamina and caliber to sit through a 7-hour standardized exam.
How do I make an effective study plan that considers time management?
The key to making a successful study plan is twofold: understanding that your plan will be dynamic (i.e. will change over the course of studying) and reflecting on your capacity for productivity. Here are the 5 tenets of Psychology Today’s “effective time management” tips, modified for MCAT prep:
“Know your personal style and Achilles’ heels:” building a study schedule requires you to know yourself. If you are a procrastinator, consider allocating an additional few weeks to your MCAT schedule to allow for inconsistencies in study time. If you are a visual learner, keep visual resources (e.g. Blueprint Modules) at the forefront of your study plan. If you are weak in physics and strong in biochemistry, allocate more time to physics in the content-review stages of your studies.
“Get rid of the to-do list:” Well, not exactly. You still do need an MCAT study schedule to keep yourself in check. However, you should add flexibility to your study plan; schedule in a few extra hours into your week dedicated for catching up. Often, we feel frustrated when we are unable to achieve our daily goals, which hinders our productivity over the next few days as well. Do not be upset if you missed a module or could not read a chapter of your prep book one day. You have the next few days to make it up. It’s important to remember that you are more likely to retain information if you are taking it slow, steady, and reflecting, rather than rushing through the material and skimming equations on a superficial level.
“Focus each day on your Top 3:” At the end of each day, really take the time to reflect on what you learned. As you study, you will find areas of strengths and weaknesses that you were not familiar with before. Take these into account when planning what you are going to be focusing on the following day: remember, you do not have unlimited time to study, and you want to focus your energy where it is most needed (e.g. the subjects and concepts you may feel slightly less confident about)
“Break the to-do list down into discrete steps:” After you have an idea of your strengths and weaknesses, make specific actions for you to take. For example, if the previous day you did a physics practice set and realized that the Doppler Effect is a weak point, you can modify your “to-do list” for the next day by re-watching the module on the Doppler Effect or re-reading the corresponding chapter(s) in the prep book.
“Have a place for everything and everything in its place:” Organization is key. Create a system that works for you: some prefer online record keeping and others prefer to do it on paper. You want to keep track of your progress somewhere, and even keeping an “MCAT Journal” where you record important information can be helpful to some. Make spreadsheets and flashcards and other documents that help you organize your content. Use a study schedule on Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets to allow for easier modifications (as well as online record-keeping).
Overall, remember that your study schedule needs to work for YOU. You can challenge yourself without creating conditions for extreme burnout. You can do incredibly well on the MCAT without studying for 8 hours a day, and you can do incredibly well with studying for 8 hours a day. You can build knowledge in subject areas you performed weaker in your academic courses. Use your study schedule and time management skills to build a plan that works for you—and do not be afraid to reach out if you need help!