One of the most daunting things about the MCAT is the sheer amount of material that is on the exam. At minimum, it covers the first year of intro classes for all of the sciences (Physics, Biology, Chemistry), some advanced level coursework (Organic Chemistry - and many students now say they would like to take Biochemistry and Genetics as well), and then additional courses like Psychology. There is no way of getting around the fact that it is a LOT of material.
When most of us study for exams in school, we like to see concepts repeatedly. I know that I might review after a lecture, go back a couple days later, and then go back again before the exam. Unfortunately for me, in my MCAT prep, this method simply wasn’t going to work. As I first started studying and had to accept the fact that I was likely to only be able to study much of the material once, I set out to make a plan that helped me feel comfortable in knowing I would be seeing all of the material while only spending repeated time on the most important areas.
As I’ve mentioned in my other blog posts, having an overall plan to tackle your MCAT studying is one of the best ways to relieve anxiety and improve efficiency, so definitely take the time before you start studying to create one for yourself, or have a tutor create one for you! After you identify the study resources you are going to use, here are some steps to follow in making a daily plan that helps you cover all of the materials.
1. Take a baseline
I think that taking a diagnostic exam at ‘baseline’ is one of the most important stepstin preparing for a big exam like the MCAT. With all of the practice tests for the new MCAT that are out on the market, it shouldn’t be difficult to find one that you can use right at the beginning. I wouldn’t recommend using one of the AAMC exams, since those will be really useful later during your study time, but pretty much any other type of diagnostic will work just fine. The goal of this baseline exam is to establish your strengths and weaknesses to guide your studying. If you end up scoring really well in the CARS section, you can probably focus a little less on that prep during your studying -- which frees up time for a section where you might be weaker. While you’re taking this exam, also take note of how you’re feeling while you’re doing the questions. If you perform well in a section but felt like you were guessing the entire time, then you have good instincts and likely good base knowledge, but still want to spend some time reviewing the content so that you’re more confident about your answers.
2. Figure out your target test date and the length of your study period
If you are applying in a specific cycle and need to take your test by a specific time, or know that you have a more relaxed semester in school and would like to spend that time studying, use that information to pick a target test date that makes sense for you. Even if you don’t have a strict deadline, try to give yourself a date to work towards. From there, backtrack: see how many weeks/months you have to study and how much time every day or week you will be able to dedicate to the MCAT.
For example, let’s say that Student A wants to take a test in 3 months, and will have about 3 hours a day on most days to study. That gives Student A a rough total of 270 hours over the course of 12 weeks to prepare
3. Use the strengths and weaknesses from your baseline exam to create study blocks.
Knowing how much time you have to study, create study blocks that outline how you are going to go through all of the material. Start first from your weaker subjects - this can be broad! If the Chemical/Physical Foundations section was your weakest, spend the first few days only on this section, and then start to incorporate the others. No matter what resource you are using, tally up the number of ‘chapters’ you have to go through and start to fit that into your study time.
Going off the Student A example above, if he knows he has about 12-13 weeks to study, and he is using a resource that has 12 chapters for each of the 4 sections of the MCAT, he knows he has to get through about 1 chapter per week in each section to be done with all of the material by his test date (about 4 chapters per week)
4. Plan the day-by-day.
I tend to recommend using a 3 hour study block schedule, but the outline can really be adjusted to however amount of time you have. For the first hour, read your chapter(s) for the broad concepts -- take the time to truly understand the information being presented by talking yourself through the information. For the second hour, go back through the same chapter and memorize the information that you think is more detail-oriented. Keep in mind that you don’t have to memorize every single fact! If you are able to understand the concepts without memorizing, it will help you apply the material without spending brainpower trying to cram all of the words into your head. For any pieces of information that are just sheer memorization (for example, population genetics formulas or hormone locations), make note of this on a separate page so that you remember to return to it again to make sure you have it memorized. For the last hour, try to do practice questions about the material you just reviewed. Many exam prep resources (like Berkeley Review) provide ample study questions at the end of each chapter, which can be really useful in consolidating the info and helping you apply it. By the end of all of this, you will likely have a firm grasp on the concepts you covered, and be in a good position to use that knowledge in future questions.
Although it can be daunting to not be able to review your MCAT material multiple times, using a multiple exposure approach even within the same study period can help you understand and recall the information more and perform your best. Don’t be afraid to tweak the schedule based on later practice tests!
Nikita likes to say that she was raised in New Jersey but educated in Massachusetts. She was a National Merit Scholar and went on to attend Tufts University, where she majored in Biomedical Engineering and minored in education. She is continuing to develop her love of Boston at the Boston University School of Medicine as a recipient of a four year Dean’s Scholarship.
Interested in reading more on MCAT preparation? Check out these blogs written by our some other amazing tutors at Cambridge Coaching!