Choosing when to take the MCAT was a decision I wrestled with for months and months, but strangely enough I don’t remember exactly when I chose my test date. What I do remember clearly though is sitting down at the mahogany wood desk in my room at home over Thanksgiving break, opening up my laptop, and having no idea where to begin my planning for my May test date. I read article after article, including this one by a fellow Cambridge Coaching tutor, and ultimately constructed a plan as well as I could have with the information I had. With some insight and luck, the plan worked out pretty well for me, but there were some issues I could have anticipated better. Having emerged from the other side, here are 5 principles I’d emphasize to anyone beginning to plan their study schedule:
1) Commit to a Test Date
A common issue I’ve observed with test-takers who don’t score to their highest potential is a sheepish attitude toward their test date. Before you pick a test date, it’s important to think deeply about when you want to apply, how busy you will be at your current stage of life, and how disciplined you will be under those conditions. For example, I knew that studying during the school year would be best for me, since I’m more productive during the year and function better with the routine of school. However, many others might find that studying over the summer, or while working a job might be more conducive to their study habits. Regardless, it’s important to consider this heavily, and then commit to a test date. Without that commitment, some test-takers lack a sense of urgency while studying, and can be more prone to falling behind, ultimately pushing their test date back and disrupting the structure of their study plan. Of course, you should never take the test if you don’t feel ready for it, but being focused on your test date can make all the difference between in motivating yourself to power through and achieve your highest score potential.
2) Structure Your Plan
Have a logical structure to your study plan that makes tracking your progress easy. A good way to do this is to use your study materials as a guide. In my case, I divided my study plan week by week, and made sure I got through one chapter of each section in my study books (Biology/Biochemical, General Chemistry/Organic Chemistry, Physics, Psychology/Sociology, and Critical Analysis and Reasoning) per week. In the end, I wasn’t able to accomplish this exactly—which brings me to my next point—but it gave me a gauge of when I was falling behind and needed to catch up (e.g. when it was Thursday evening and I was barely halfway into my General Chemistry chapter).
3) Have Room for Flexibility
You’re going to get sick one week and won’t be able to power through that Physics chapter. Some days, you’ll finish the day's work (if you have school or a job you’re juggling) and just won’t have the energy to review that question bank you had planned to do. Things will interfere with your ideal study schedule and it’s important not to let them disrupt the big picture. Since I studied during school, I would study MCAT materials more heavily the week before a test so I could fall behind a little without sabotaging my schedule, and I would wake up early on Sunday mornings and designate that time as my catch up/review period. Being realistic and anticipating obstacles you’ll face, as well as instances when you might have more free time are instrumental in reducing anxiety that can build up when those interruptions do happen.
4) Plan Ample Time for Practice Tests
You can do all the reading and content review in the world, but you won’t score at your highest potential unless you spend a significant amount of time doing practice tests. Practice tests are the highest yield form of studying that translates into improvements in test scores. While I can’t advocate for any magic length of time, I allocated 6 weeks to purely work on practice problems and full-length practice tests compared to my ~12 weeks of content review, and looking back I would have given myself more time to do practice tests. Also, make sure to include practice problems in your content review. While most study books have practice questions at the end of chapters, it’s a good idea to seek out additional questions from sources such as Khan Academy. This is the best way to gauge which topics you need to review, and how well your content review is translating to improvements on the test.
5) Keep Track of and Review Your Mistakes
Perhaps the most valuable thing I did to achieve those last few bumps in my score was to keep a log of every question I answered incorrectly through my content review and practice tests. I kept separate sheets for each section, and I wrote down where I could find the question, the topic it tested, the incorrect answer I chose, and the correct answer. Thus, I could identify common mistakes I was making, and review them more heavily. Also, in the final week or so before the test, I could focus my attention on those common mistakes, and maximize the yield from studying close to the test date.
Though there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to planning for your MCAT test date, these are some strategies that can have a substantial impact on making sure you score as well as you can come test day.
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