OK, let’s state the obvious – the MCAT is daunting. Just take a look at the MCAT topic list PDF provided by the AAMC. It is one-hundred and twenty-five pages of topics alone. And while there is no substitute for good old-fashioned content studying, there are strategies to improve your studying that have nothing to do with studying itself.What I am referring to are not test-taking strategies, although there are plenty to choose from. These are more like life strategies, ways to ensure that MCAT studying is appropriately integrated into your life without its becoming your life. This will make the time that you are studying more productive and (possibly) enjoyable.
1. Establish times that you are 100% NOT studying.
Many people approach the MCAT like it’s a full-time job that is paid hourly – the more hours put in, the more money made. But with the MCAT, and any other kind of studying, it is the quality, not the quantity, of study hours that counts. This means that studying for the MCAT should be one of many components of your day, on par with things like seeing friends, watching movies, going to school, etc.
In other words: Work. Life. Balance. Why? Because who wants the MCAT to be their life? More importantly, maintaining work-life balance is critical for the hours that you do study. If you attend to your spiritual and physical well-being, you are hitting a mental reset, ready to handle the rigors of the material at hand. You are also establishing good life-balance routines that will carry you through the challenges of medical school.
2. Go for a walk. But actually, do it.
Since work-life balance is so important, what should you do in those study-free hours? In my experience, the best reset after studying is to do something that absolutely does not involve your brain. Alternating physical tasks with mental tasks is a great way to give your brain a rest. And while non-study time doesn’t have to be physical, the mental benefits of exercise have been extensively documented. Personally, I like to swim and take walks with podcasts.
What if you are allergic to exercise? Well, the goal is to transition from mental to physical activity, and a small walk can do just that. But if you’re really not in the mood, a change of scene is also okay. If you are a library studier, go sit outside. If the weather is crummy, go grocery shopping. It’s not a physical activity per se, but it does put you in a new environment where thoughts about the MCAT do not belong.
3. Am I asleep yet?
I don’t want to be the person who tells you to get some sleep. But I will. There is ample evidence that shows that people who consistently sleep 7 hours or less each night have the same mental processing capacity as people who pull all-nighters. More importantly, there is now evidence that a major function of sleep is for your brain has to rid itself of the day’s metabolic waste. In other words, if you aren’t sleeping, you can’t take out the mental-chemical garbage. That leaves you less sharp and less able to synthesize information.
Maybe your response is, “Hey! It’s the MCAT’s fault that I’m not sleeping enough.” If so, I invite you to take a look at strategy number 1. Is all your studying time budgeted appropriately among other responsibilities? Is your studying less effective because you are tired? Sleep should your number one priority, so make it so.
4. Talk to people who have never heard of the MCAT.
It is great to set aside time to spend with friends. It is less great when that time spent with friends consists of complaining about the MCAT. You probably know plenty of people who are also studying and preparing. That in and of itself is fine. It is important to be able to share this experience. But if your free time with friends becomes MCAT chat-time, you are not giving your brain the distance that it needs.
So, while you can spend time with people who know what you are going through, make sure you spend time with those who don’t. Your MCAT friends will provide camaraderie, and your other friends will provide perspective. As you start medical school, you are going to want multiple social networks for support.
5. Own your individual experience.
Guess what? If there was a right way to study for the MCAT, everyone would do it. Therefore, it’s important to evaluate others’ study experiences as their own and avoid comparisons. Is so-and-so doing 1000 flashcards a day? Did Student Doctor Network tell you to get a tattoo of the Krebs Cycle? Who cares! You are the best judge of what study strategies you need. You have been a student for nearly your entire life and you know what works for you.
In that spirit, this post should be viewed as just another person’s opinion. If you want to study all day every day for three months straight, go ahead. But if you don’t, my advice is that you don’t have to in order to be successful. There are many benefits to maintaining your social, emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing in concert with your studies. So try to keep perspective. Try to keep your sanity. Most importantly, don’t stop the rest of your life on behalf of the MCAT.