Most students applying to medical school are driven individuals who subscribe to the notion of a linear relationship between how much they do and the resultant payoff: increased study time leads to increased grades, which leads to increased odds of getting in to medical school. And a lot of the time, this is true. However, when it comes to the MCAT, students often take this logic to ludicrous lengths.
As an MCAT tutor, I ask my students what kind of time commitment they are planning to make to studying, before I give them my suggestion for what it takes to succeed on the exam. I often hear:
My student says: “I’ll get home from work at 5:00 pm, and will then study until I go to bed at 11:00 pm, so that is about 6 hours per day.”
I reply: "Really?" Are you planning to eat? Exercise? Do laundry and dishes? Do you have the mental stamina to work all day without taking a break?"
The idea of using every free minute to study is appealing, especially for students trying to balance MCAT studying with work, school, and other obligations. But many students who take this approach find themselves struggling to keep up with their study expectations. Additionally, as their life shifts completely towards studying and balance is lost, MCAT prep, an already daunting task, becomes an even more dreaded undertaking.
Here are a few additional reasons why creating and sticking to a realistic study schedule trumps an overly ambitious, all-consuming approach.
Your brain isn’t the Energizer bunny
It can’t keep going and going and going and going. Taking time away from studying allows you to approach the material refreshed and with a high level of focus. Just like completely cutting out sweets on a diet can lead to binge eating later, trying to study 24/7 may lead to burn out and a lack of drive as the exam gets closer.
Quality > Quantity
We all have days when we keep reading the same paragraph over and over again, and can’t seem to retain any of the material. When you are mentally fatigued, instead of continuing to push yourself to study, step away for a bit. Take a nap, go for a run, chat with a friend, and then go back to studying. You will find that taking time for a break saves you time in the long run, as you can be more efficient when you return to the books.
Healthy body = Healthy mind
It always seems like the MCAT is too close, and there is still so much to review, that taking time away to work out is impossible. You will find that not exercising and eating at fast food establishments in order to save time will ultimately leave you feeling low on energy and may impact your mood and outlook, all of which can be detrimental to exam preparation.
Meeting goals feels good
And it helps you gain confidence as you go through the MCAT preparation process. Some students are tempted to create an extremely ambitious study schedule, knowing they likely won’t get through everything they plan to do. Not only does this make you feel off-track and overwhelmed, it can leave you scrambling to figure out how to adjust your schedule. Instead, make a schedule that allows you to feel like you accomplished an adequate amount each day; this will help you achieve confidence and peace of mind going into the test.
I want to be clear: succeeding on the MCAT requires a significant commitment to studying. Running 10 miles a day and having a healthy body will only help you maximally achieve on the exam if you have also adequately prepared. The key is being realistic with yourself from the onset of studying, and beginning preparation early enough that you have time to work in breaks for exercise, mental relaxation, and activities of daily life, while still getting through the necessary material.
For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our private MCAT tutors in NYC, Boston, and online MCAT tutors: When Should I Take the MCAT?, Getting an MCAT Study Buddy, and 4 Last Minute Tips to Raise Your Verbal Score.