Step One: Establishing a Timeline
The ultimate goal of establishing the timeline is to pick a test date for yourself that offers you adequate time to study while providing enough pressure to keep you motivated and focused on the task at hand. You are aiming for a window of four to six months. Any less than four months and you will not have enough time to be thorough in your review and practice exams. Greater than six months and you begin to forget the material you reviewed at the beginning of your study efforts. There’s an oft-mentioned phrase in the world of finance as related to taxes: “You only make what you keep.” The MCAT is no different. It does not matter how long or diligently you study a subject, if you forget the material by test day you may as well have not done it at all. Your study timeline is a serpent eating its own tail: there’s a sweet spot in how long to study before you begin cannibalizing your own efforts.
You should aim for four months if:
- You know yourself to be a forgetful person. Luckily, it takes very little outright memorization to succeed on the MCAT. The major formulas you need will often be included in passages (or will not be needed at all to find the solution). Outside of amino acid structure/properties and terms for Behavioral science, rote memorization becomes counterintuitive in studying. You have to know the material, but the MCAT is not going to reward you for being able to regurgitate a list of facts or concepts. That being said, if you are the type of student who struggles with cumulative final exams because you forget all of the material covered in the beginning of the semester, it would be worth it to establish a timeline closer to four months. Obviously, the less time you give yourself to prepare, the more intense your studying will have to be. But, on the bright side, it will also be compacted into fewer months, and you will have an overall shorter experience than someone who plans for six months of studying.
- You are good at time management. My study timeline was just over four months and I was able to make a 521 on the MCAT. Four months is ideal for many reasons, not the least of which is that it reflects a traditional school semester timeframe that you are accustomed to enduring. However, it requires significant diligence and commitment to studying. If you slack off for even one week, you put your entire study effort into jeopardy. If you are the type of student accustomed to creating, and maintaining, strict study schedules, then aim for four months.
- Your test date would be during the school semester (or just after finals). This may seem counter intuitive. Don’t I want to avoid having to take college course exams while preparing for the MCAT? Wrong. During the semester, you are in study mindset. You are in academic mode. You have the surrounding motivators and instigation to continue preparing for the MCAT. So many students plan for their test date during their summer break. But think about this: even the most diligent student goes into relaxation mode after being several weeks out of classes. You want to be at your sharpest point intellectually. Consider yourself an MCAT athlete. You are at your best in the peak of the season, not before it starts or after the conclusion. If a six month timeline would put your test date in the middle of summer vacation, then you need to compress your timeline. Ideally, plan to take the MCAT no later than 2 or 3 weeks after the conclusion of the semester.
I like the four month time frame. I find that it helps students from burning out or experiencing extreme mental fatigue ahead of their test date. But it does require an intense focus that is difficult for certain students to achieve due to personality or environmental constraints. If that’s the case, aim for a six month timeline, as well as for the following:
- You have trouble sticking to a schedule. I’m not here to baby you. The MCAT is difficult. It requires a significant amount of investment in time and effort. If you want to go to medical school, you have to be willing to make that investment. For many students, those who have lower GPAs or decided upon medical school later in life, the MCAT becomes the all-important factor in determining your acceptance. So take it seriously. But you know yourself better than I do. If you are the type of person that can make a schedule and then be okay breaking it, plan for six-months of studying. It will become harder to structure your review, and you will undoubtedly have to refresh on certain material multiple times throughout the six months, but don’t set yourself up for failure if four months is too constraining. The inability to stick to a schedule doesn’t mean that you can procrastinate the time you plan for studying, but the six-month time frame allows for fewer hours of studying each day and the occasional slacking off. Again, do so at your own discretion.
- You are are working and/or have some other pressing obligation. A common mistake students make with the MCAT is dropping everything to study for the exam. You still have to go to classes. You have to continue making A’s in your coursework, doing research and volunteer. The MCAT is not a free pass on your application to neglect all the other qualities that medical schools will be looking for. That being said, if you are working full-time or have serious time-commitments outside of pre-medicine, give yourself six months. You never know when an emergency will arise to shatter your studying for several days. You can’t predict when your work will exhaust you from studying for stretches at a time. For those who are truly busy, you will get the most benefit out of a longer time frame that allows for fewer hours of studying each day. But remember this: if your goal is to go to medical school and become a physician, don’t allow short term frivolities to interfere with long-term improvement. I guarantee that no medical student has ever looked back and thought, “I should have worked more hours at that part time job instead of studying to be a doctor.” Everyone comes from a different position in life. I worked all the way through undergraduate and my post-bacc. But the commitment to becoming a physician will, at some point, have to supercede your current responsibility if you plan on getting into medical school.
Step Two: Register for your Test Date
Once you decide on the four or six month time frame, or some combination of the two, the next step is registering for your test date. That’s right. The very next step you should take in studying for the MCAT is committing to a test date. MCAT studying, and becoming a physician in general, rewards those who are committed and decisive. By this point you have already committed to a time frame for your study schedule. Now you need to be decisive.
Most students follow the opposite approach for studying. They begin without a plan and only a vague test date in mind, I’ll probably take it sometime in May or June. We’ll see how I feel by April. Don’t do this. Start with a test date. Start with the end in mind. Your entire four to six months of studying culminates in one day, in one eight hour exam. Know exactly where and when you are going.
Establishing the exam date at the beginning accomplishes several things:
- You give your mind a solid goal. SMART goal setting is one of the most popular methods for establishing a plan. The first step is Specific. Be specific. You need a solid date to fixate your mind upon. It’s not enough to think you have a big test in four months. You need to be thinking I have a test on May 18, 2018. You should be able to countdown each day that passes to your exam, and you should know exactly how long you have left.
- It becomes more difficult to push your date back. There are few rules for the MCAT I feel more ardently about than this: when you finally commit to a test date, you don’t change it. For a number of reasons. Your previously established study-timeline relies upon knowing exactly how much time you are setting aside for the test. You are going to structure a specific study schedule, including hours of studying invested each day, so that you can cover the material in 4-6 months. Any delay to that, even by a month, will throw off the entire process. In addition, no matter how much work you put in, you will have some reservations in the week leading up to the test. You are never going to feel completely ready. At some point, you will have done as much as you possibly can in preparation for the test, and that will be enough. But you still won’t feel entirely prepared. Until you actually take the test, the MCAT is a giant unknown in your quest to getting into medical school. By the end of your first semester of college, you know what to expect from your courses, your finals and professors. You know the effort and expertise required from you. The MCAT is an entirely different entity. Even an intentionally voided exam cannot compare to the experience of taking the MCAT when you know your future hinges on the outcome. You are going to have to learn to live with that uncertainty. Finally, it’s psychologically damaging to give yourself an out. It’s the same reason I tell students to never even consider doing a retake. Don’t give yourself that option. If you know there is an an alternative, a route that gives you more time to procrastinate and put off taking the test, you are going to take it. You are going to convince yourself that you are not ready. You will half-ass your studying to justify your need for a retake. Even if you are not aware of the actions contributing to putting off the test, you will be doing them. Once you set your test date in stone, don’t even think about changing it.
Step Three: Deciding Upon your ToolBox
You have your study timeline. You’ve registered for a test date. The next step is deciding upon the tools for your preparation. The first, and most important tool, is your study guide. I used Kaplan’s 7 Subject Boxset, and that’s commonly what I recommend. Examkrackers and The Princeton Review also make great materials. Whatever you decide on, make sure that it is a comprehensive review of the test and not just certain sections or test-taking techniques (such as Kaplan’s 528 series). Also make sure that your set includes access to multiple, full-length practice exams. Most of the review sets will include access to an online program that allows you to simulate taking the real exam. These practice exams are almost as important as the actual study guides, so don’t miss out on a valuable piece of your preparation. The boxsets typically run $150 – 200, which is a lot on a student budget. If you can get the books secondhand from a friend, then do so. But keep in mind, the benefit of buying new is often access to the online materials, including the practice-tests. You are going to want those practice tests.
Once you have a review set, the next important tool to purchase is access to additional, quality practice tests. You should have 3+ through your review set, but ideally you want to have access to 7 or more. The AAMC has created, at the time of writing, three additional practice tests for students to buy and use. They run about $30 each, but are overwhelmingly valuable in your testing efforts.These are official practice exams and the questions are being made by the same people writing the questions on your test date. It’s as close of a simulation to the real exam as you are going to get, and you should plan on buying all that is available.
What else do you need? That’s it. Review set, practice exams and paying for the actual exam are all that is required to score in the top-percentile. All together, it should run you about $600 (the test fee alone is $300). There are many additional resources available, such as flashcards, in-depth testing guides, online tools like Khan Academy and, of course, the test-prep courses. But you don’t need that stuff to score in the top-percentile. The more tools you have, the more distracting they can become. Stick with the essentials at first, particularly in the early weeks, and dive into your studying. You can adapt as you go along, adding more resources for specific subjects or testing areas you are weak in. But don’t convince yourself you need a prep-course or to spend hours a day on Khan Academy when you can review the content alone just as effectively. It can seem hard to believe when there are testing companies offering prep courses for >$3,000, but the MCAT is a true meritocracy. It’s not about what you have to study with, it’s how you study and how much work you put into it.
Now get started.
Like this post? You can find more, in-depth advice and one-on-one coaching at mcatcoach.me