The hardest part of studying for the MCAT isn’t the studying itself. Given enough time, most people could study enough to do reasonably well. The problem is, most of us don’t have all that time: the majority of MCAT preppers are in college or work full time jobs. Both of these commitments are enough on their own, so trying to stack studying for the hardest graduate school entrance test in the country on top of that is a tall order. It’s not something one can head into blindly. Thankfully, there are several organizational strategies that can help the full time student or professional study for the MCAT in their off time.
The simplest solution, of course, is to take the MCAT at a time of the year in which you won’t have other obligations. Many college students take advantage of their summer break by testing in September, allowing them to focus on the MCAT for those three months. Even so, most people can’t make that arrangement, for a variety of reasons. These tips are for that group.
1. Know Your Schedule, Know Yourself
It goes without saying that you need to build yourself a study schedule and hold yourself accountable to it. The easiest way to do that is to set aside specific, repeatable chunks of time each week to study. These chunks will depend on not only your work or school schedule, but also on what kind of person you are. Are you an early riser working a 9 to 5? Try fitting a couple hours of reading in before work. Studying in the morning is particularly helpful for CARS, whose dense passages are hard to focus on in the evening after a long and tiring day. I immediately began getting 10-20% more questions correct once I started doing CARS in the morning. Alternatively, you may be a student with morning classes and free afternoons. You may want to consider getting your schoolwork out of the way so that you aren’t distracted by other obligations when you crack open a Chem textbook. Remember: the most effective study schedule is the one that works best for your particular learning preferences, so everyone will be a little different.
Let’s get into some specifics. Assume you work or are in school for 6-8 hours per day, five days a week. Depending on who you are, you can fit in 3 to 5 hours of MCAT studying per day. Most people on that schedule spend 3 to 4 months studying before the test. Once you finish your content review, I recommend taking as many full-length practice tests as you can. You can take them on the weekends, but ideally you should have a couple weeks (either vacation from work or break from school) before your test day to do a final push.
2. Make Necessary Sacrifices
I know you want to do well on the MCAT – in fact, you want to do better than well. Like I said at the beginning, the most surefire way to achieve that is to give yourself as much time as you can, while preventing yourself from burning out. What that typically means is easing up on nonessential obligations for the duration of your study period, such as clubs, sports and other extracurriculars. This is often easier said than done, but having those extra hours makes a big difference. You might look at your schedule and say, “I work from 9 to 5 and play club soccer from 5:30 to 7, that still leaves me time in the evening to study.” Keep in mind that what looks good on paper doesn’t always work in practice. If you don’t give yourself time off from your studying and obligations to take breaks, you run a much higher risk of burning. As my article on mindfulness illustrates, preserving your mental health by not overworking yourself is a critical component of MCAT preparation.
I know putting extracurriculars on hold can be hard, but the benefits are undeniable. When I studied for the MCAT, I was working in a lab for 30 hours a week. That’s it. Having almost half a day to study every single day made a huge difference, and allowed me to go at my own pace. It also meant that if I wasn’t progressing as quickly as I thought I would be, I had the time to put in extra effort. I will reiterate this one last time: the more time you have to work with, the better off you will be.
3. Find Someone to Hold You Accountable
Perhaps the best way to approach your MCAT preparation while working or in school is to not do it alone. As an individual, you are not beholden to hitting your milestones, which makes having another person to monitor your progress a valuable asset. Unfortunately, most people don’t have friends with whom they can sync their MCAT study schedules: everyone’s situation is different, so it’s unlikely to work out that way.
This is where I recommend finding a tutor. A tutor will not only help you build a schedule, but will make sure you stick to it. As a matter of fact, many MCAT students find tutors for exactly this reason. On top of that, a tutor can help you develop appropriate and realistic milestones in the first place. Oftentimes, your tutor will have pre-made tools that you both can use to track your progress and ensure you are progressing. For example, I share with each of my students a spreadsheet that contains an outlined study schedule and has blank spaces for reading question scores, practice test scores, and so on. This is an easy way of keeping a student’s progress organized while holding them accountable to their goals.
Everyone’s work-life balance is different, meaning that how you choose to study for the MCAT is up to your specific needs. Studying while working or in school full-time is a daunting prospect, but thousands of people have done it before, and they have done it without burning themselves out. I hope this post has given you some insight into how to prep for this monster of a test when the rest of your life is busy, and remember: when in doubt, ask others for advice.
Connor is from Washington, D.C., and he loves dinosaurs. This obsession, starting in childhood, led him to pursue biology as a field of study. He attended New York University, where he graduated summa cum laude and double majored in biology and Spanish. He spent the better part of his time there working in two research labs: a clinical lab that investigated women’s health issues, and an animal lab that studied epigenetics. He was twice awarded grants from the Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fund and presented his findings at NYU’s Undergraduate Research Conference. Now living in Cambridge with his girlfriend and dog Alfie, Connor is tutoring and volunteering while he applies to medical school.
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