Taking on the MCAT can be daunting, even paralyzing. However, preparing for the test with strategy can help mitigate much of the stress.
I have taken the MCAT twice—once in July 2016 and again in January 2019. I took two drastically different approaches to prepare for the test between each of these trials. By being more strategic in my preparation, I was able to raise my score from a 509 (79th percentile) to a 519 (97th percentile). Now, I tutor for the MCAT and teach MCAT preparation courses. In this article, you will read my well-seasoned advice on how to best study for the MCAT.
Get Your Finances in Order
I often tell my students, “The MCAT is a rich man’s test.” With the cumulative costs of courses, prep books, practice tests, and tutors, preparing for the MCAT is often much more expensive than most people anticipate. While cost may not be an issue for those from wealthier backgrounds, most of us need to save and budget to afford MCAT preparation. I would recommend setting aside at least $1500 for test prep costs.
The first time I prepared for the MCAT, I did not save up for prep materials. I bought my friend’s used Kaplan books for $100 and banked that studying those alone would bring me a 95+ percentile score. Later, I realized that taking practice tests is a crucial step in the preparation process. With no money set aside, I bought the cheapest practice tests I could find, and they ended up not being reflective of the real MCAT. By trying to save a buck, I actually ended up wasting my money on something that really did not help me at all.
If affording MCAT prep resources is something you struggle with, there are a few options to consider:
- Talk to friends who have succeeded on the MCAT and see if they are willing to share or sell the materials they used.
- Work a summer job a year or more before you plan on studying for the MCAT, and do not touch the money until it is time to purchase prep materials.
- Consider taking a couple of gap years to work and set aside your own money. Even though many are averse to the idea of taking time off between undergrad and med school, there is no replacement for an excellent MCAT score. If taking time a year or two after college to work is what you need to do to set yourself up for success, then that’s what you’ll need to do.
- Purchase online materials with a friend and split the cost. You may need to create a schedule to decide who is using the account when, but that may be worth it to split the material cost in half.
- Teach for a test prep company. Some test prep companies (i.e. Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.) offer free access to sample accounts for all teachers and tutors—regardless of the test they teach or tutor for. If you performed well on the SAT, ACT, or another standardized test, you could try to get hired to teach or tutor for that test and then make use of the available sample MCAT accounts. However, be sure you ask the companies about employees’ access to different sample accounts before spending time applying to ensure that your potential position has access to what you need.
Select Your Resources Carefully
When strategizing how to study for the MCAT, resource selection is key. Some students naively purchase the most comprehensive (and therefore most expensive) MCAT preparation package, thinking that this is the avenue to best secure a high score. The truth is, however, that having a lot of resources means nothing if you do not make use of them.
Talk to your friends who have taken and succeeded on the MCAT and ask them which preparation strategies worked and which did not. While the best preparation strategy can vary from person-to-person, hearing others’ experiences can offer valuable clarity on the seemingly nebulous process of MCAT preparation.
Khan Academy has many (arguably too many?) free online MCAT prep videos. These are really only good resources if you have a solid understanding of everything, except for a few topics you really want to go in-depth learning. I have found that the Khan Academy videos are long and take a long time to go through (and there is also no feature to watch these at double speed). If you are looking for high-quality practice questions at a reasonable price, UWorld is a good option.
I used Kaplan’s “MCAT Prep — Self Paced” course (price of $1999). I followed the following steps to prepare for the MCAT:
Phase 1 (completed over the course of two weeks): I watched all 130 of Kaplan’s interactive science videos. I watched familiar topics at 2x speed, topics needing review at 1.5x speed, and new topics at 1x speed. I took notes—not to study but to ensure that I was paying attention. I used video watching to set the foundation for the topics covered in Kaplan’s review books.
Phase 2 (completed over the course of six weeks): I went through all of the Kaplan books and made flashcards for everything that I did not know entirely as I read. The amount of time it took to make flashcards varied by chapter—my longest chapter took me 3.75 hours to get through and my shortest one took eight minutes. I color coded my flashcards by topic and chapter. I would highly recommend making your own flashcards (rather than purchasing them) because they will be tailored to what you need to review. Also, the process of making flashcards helps you learn. I prefer flashcards to outlines because flashcards allow me to better assess how well I know the material.
Phase 3 (completed over the course of ten weeks, taking three of those weeks off for Thanksgiving and the holidays): I would spend half of my study time memorizing the content on my flashcards and the other half of my time taking and reviewing practice tests and practice problems. NOTE: The AAMC official practice MCATs are fantastic, but there are only three of them. Be sure to save these for the last three practice tests you take.
One misstep I made the second time around is that I failed to fully prepare for CARS (my lowest section by far). I would recommend studying the AAMC’s CARS practice question bundle for about 20-30 minutes every day.
Also, the Kaplan books do a fantastic job covering everything that you need for the MCAT’s Chem/Phys and Bio/Biochem sections. What is covered in Kaplan’s Psyc/Soc book is covered well; however, the book does not hit on everything. I would recommend making flashcards for everything in the Psyc/Soc Kaplan book and then cross-referencing it with online review guides or Quizlet packs to make sure your have flashcards for all of the possible terms (which are quite numerous).
Set Clear Goals
Identifying how to make use of resources can be challenging without knowing what your end goals are. Having a goal score in mind can be helpful, but it is more helpful to set a clear total amount of time you want to spend studying for the MCAT. I would recommend 300 hours total.
This is approximately how the 300 hours broke down for me:
- 30 hours of watching review videos
- 100 hours of reading chapters and making flashcards
- 70 hours of reviewing flashcards
- 75 hours of answering practice problems and taking practice exams
- 25 hours of reviewing practice problems and exams
Please note that the breakdown of these areas can vary from person to person.
With the goal of 300 hours total, you have to look at how you will break the workload up. You should look at your daily schedule and identify periods every day to spend studying. For Phases 1 and 2, you should spend six days a week studying, always making sure to have one day a week free of studying to avoid burnout. For Phase 3, budget five days a week for completing practice problems, studying flashcards, and reviewing practice tests. At this point, you should be taking one practice test per week.
Give Yourself Enough Time to Achieve Your Goals
“Set yourself up for success” is an expression I tell my students who are studying for the MCAT. The biggest element of this success is granting yourself the time you need to fully prepare for the test.
Once you calculate how much time per week you can realistically dedicate, decide on a test date. I would recommend setting your test day 1.33x further than when you anticipate completing your 300 hours.
For example, if you plan on studying 20 hours per week, schedule your MCAT for 20 weeks after you start studying, rather than 15 weeks. (300 hours / 20 = 15 weeks and 15 weeks * 1.33 = 20 weeks) This grants you a buffer in case something unexpected comes up.
ABSOLUTELY be sure to pick your test date based on how much you are able to study, NOT the other way around. The first time I prepared for the MCAT, I picked a July test date and then decided I would study 30+ hours per week from the beginning of May until test day.
However, studying this much was impossible with my summer internship. I should have either started studying earlier or taken my test at a later date to ensure I had time to review everything. Learn from my mistakes. Remember, you can’t rush perfection.
Additionally, the absolute latest I would recommend taking the MCAT is the April before applying to medical school, as this is the last test date that releases its scores before June 1st—the day the AMCAS application opens. It makes no sense applying to medical schools without knowing your MCAT score, as you may end up applying to too many overshoot or undershoot schools.
Also, medical schools do not even open your application until your MCAT score comes in, so taking your MCAT at a date that releases as score after you submit your application negates the benefit of submitting your application early.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Holding myself accountable is the absolute biggest difference between my first and second time studying for the MCAT. The first time, I had a loosely defined study plan, without a metric to keep myself accountable. The second time, however, I decided that I had a daily goal to study three to four hours, with the stipulation that I MUST complete at least two hours of studying, no matter what. I created an Excel spreadsheet that allowed me to record and track my progress.
I also set a timer the second I started studying, and I would pause this timer every time I would get up to get a book, use the restroom, or answer a text message. Thus, my record of my time studying is truly reflective of how much time I actually spent studying.
Have Faith in Yourself
The best mindset to keep when studying for the MCAT is, “My score will only be as high as possible if I work as hard as possible.” If you get a low score on a practice test, know that most test-takers start in a similar position.
I scored a 494 on my very first diagnostic test. I was on the verge of tears and thought that there was no way I could do well on the MCAT. However, after some inconsistent studying, I scored a 509 on the official test. Fast forward a few years and 300 hours of consistent studying later, I scored a 519.
Do not let a low practice score discourage you! Let it be fuel to drive you to study more strategically. Take full advantage of my advice on how to study for the MCAT and maximize your ability to pursue your dream of being a doctor.
For advice on studying the specific sections, check out my article, “What is on the MCAT?”