Pre-Med students are no strangers to stress. From Physics midterms, to O-Chem lab reports, to the inevitable march into finals week, you have plenty of experience juggling assignments and managing that cortical response of your brain saying, Yeah, this is a little too much. Stress itself isn’t the problem. In fact, after a certain point it shows up like an old friend or colleague, one whose company you don’t necessarily look forward to but who helps you focus nonetheless.
The MCAT is another beast entirely due to the time commitment it locks you into. Have you ever spent a week studying for your Molecular Biology final, and on the sixth day felt like you would throw up if you had to look at another flagellated protozoan? Try stretching that week into a quarter of a year. Even if you’re the most well-organized and efficient studier you know, your towers of flashcards will not save you from the repetitive grind of reviewing the same material for months on end. College simply hasn’t prepared you for that.
I say this not to stress you out, but to prepare you, because I wasn’t. I reviewed content for two months straight and took Full Lengths every three days for the month leading up to my test. Imagine my surprise when, on the second to last weekend, I couldn’t take any more. I spent all weekend (two full days!) in bed watching TV, not even picking up a pencil. On Monday, I snapped out of my apathy and returned to my notes. I’m lucky it didn’t last longer, and my test ended up going very well. Looking back on that experience, and after gathering opinions from MCAT students across the Internet, I want to emphasize three key ways to preserve your mental health as you prepare for the hardest graduate school exam in America.
Number 1: Exercise
You’ve no doubt heard of the body-mind connection and the mental health benefits of exercise, but let me remind you anyway. Numerous studies[i] have demonstrated a connection between regular physical activity, even as little as 20 minutes a day, and improved mental health outcomes. As the figure below from the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine illustrates, exercise increases production of monoamine neurotransmitters, for example serotonin, while down-regulating stress response components, such as cortisol. In short, exercise improves your mood and helps your body relax. If you already exercise regularly, you no doubt know what I’m talking about, so make sure to keep it up. If not, now is a great time to start.
And, the exercise you get gives you more than just physiological benefits. By lowering your stress levels and improving the overall health of your body, you improve your brain’s ability to memorize and think critically. You may be asking, “Why should I spend 20 minutes exercising when I could be studying, or getting a little more sleep?” Think of it this way: every 20 minutes you spend on a run or in the gym is worth an hour of content review when it comes to your brain’s ability to process and retain all the information you’ve been throwing at it. The type of exercise you do is unimportant: running, biking, hiking, weightlifting, yoga, et cetera. Just get out there and get your heart rate up. You won’t regret it.
Number 2: Take Breaks and Socialize
I have met plenty of Pre-Meds who pride themselves on their ability to grind. “I studied ten hours straight yesterday” they’d say, as if this self-imposed exile was the deciding factor in their success, instead of how well they studied. And I don’t mean to belittle their efforts, because that level of dedication is often extremely effective. But it’s difficult to maintain for months on end. A 2011 study from the University of Illinois[i] found that taking short breaks can prevent “vigilance decrements,” or loss of focus. Breaks are most effective when they are about 10 minutes long, taken every 90 minutes. Be sure to disengage with your material: instead of reading scientific articles (even if that’s your hobby), get up and walk around, go outside, call your mom. Getting away from your computer screen and talking to another human can be one of the most effective ways of re-centering your brain.
Taking a few 10-minute breaks throughout the day is not enough to stave off MCAT burnout, however. Over a course of months, you need more substantial periods of time away from the material to prevent yourself from getting into a rut, but I can’t recommend taking a full weekend (as I did, involuntarily). I suggest taking one afternoon or evening per week to just relax. Do whatever you feel like: hang out with your friends (they miss you!), go to a movie, read a book, take a walk. Again, completely disengage: don’t bring your notes. Doing this will help your body remember that it isn’t beholden to studying, and will do wonders for your mental health in the long run.
Number 3: Have Clear, Well Defined Goals
Unlike its predecessors, the final entry relates directly to how you study. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you should make a schedule and organize your study plan. But an extremely helpful way to avoid feeling like you’re spinning in a hamster wheel is to have tangible records of your progress. What do I mean by that? At the start of the week, when you outline which chapters and practice questions you’ll be tackling, set a clear goal of when you’ll finish taking notes on a certain chapter, or designate a percentage of questions to get correct. Start by making your goals easy: outline the chapter in an hour; get half of the questions correct. It might seem like extra work, but there is an important psychological process in play.
Picture yourself climbing a mountain. The summit is your MCAT test day, and the path up the slope is long and rocky. In the beginning, among the foothills, your energy is high and you feel motivated and determined, but past the halfway point, as you start to get cold and exhausted, it’s easy to lose sight of just how far you’ve come. Setting weekly goals for yourself is like placing marking flags as you ascend. Each flag you place is an accomplishment, something to be proud of. It turns a challenge that seems insurmountable into a series of manageable tasks. As your CARS reading time gets faster, as the nuances of the endocrine system become old hat, your achievements will pile up, motivating you for the final push.
There is no singular secret to MCAT success, but at Cambridge Coaching, we carefully consider which strategies have proven the most effective for most people. There are crafted strategies to tackle CARS and systems for memorizing the facts and figures of Psychology and Sociology, but helping you preserve your mental health, focus, and energy is also an important aspect of the tutoring process. We know you’re smart. But it takes more than brains to climb the mountain. We are here to be your guide.
Connor graduated at New York University, where he graduated summa cum laude and majored in Biology and Spanish. He spent the better part of his time there working in two research labs: one that investigated women’s health in New York’s immigrant populations, and another that performed research into epigenetics, or the ways in which chromosome structure is regulated. He was twice awarded the grants from the Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fund and presented his findings at NYU’s Undergraduate Research Conference. Sadly, labs that study contemporary dinosaurs are few and far between. Now located in Cambridge, Connor is tutoring and volunteering while he applies to medical school.
Are you looking for an MCAT tutor? Look no further! Connect with Connor today in Boston or online!
Craving additional tips and trick as you prepare for the MCAT? Read some of our previous blog posts below:
[i] Ranjbar E., Memari A. H., Hafizi S., Shayestehfar M., Mirfazeli F. S., Eshghi M. A. Depression and exercise: a clinical review and management guideline. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015;6(2, article e24055) doi: 10.5812/asjsm.6(2)2015.24055.
[i] Ariga A, Lleras A. Brief and rare mental "breaks" keep you focused: deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition. 2011;118(3):439–43. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007 .