Achieving the MCAT body of your dreams (part I)

MCAT medical school admissions study schedules study skills
By Hisaaki

Summer is officially upon us, and some of you may be working on your ideal summer physique. No, I’m not talking about washboard abs or a chiseled upper back. If you’ve read the title of this post, then you already know what I’m talking about: preparing your body for the MCAT! 

What is this MCAT you speak of?

The MCAT, short for Medical College Admission Test, is a standardized test required for entry into medical school. It’s a 230-question, multiple-choice, computer-based test comprising of four sections: 

  1. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: 59 questions, 95 mins
  2. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS): 53 questions, 90 mins
  3. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Behavior: 59 questions, 95 mins
  4. Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior:        59 questions, 95 mins

Including all three designated breaks between the sections and the optional tutorial and satisfaction survey, the whole test is a whopping 7 hours and 20 minutes long! Because of the length of this test and the amount of material covered, it’s important to not only know the content you’re being evaluated on, but to also be in great physical condition to perform to the best of your abilities. If you’ve spent weeks preparing your mind for this moment, the last thing you’d want is for your body to hold you back!

Here are some tips that helped me get my body right for the big (test) day. 

Before we begin, I want to point out that not all of these tips may work for you the way they did for me. After all, we’re all different! With that said, I hope at least some of the advice I point out today helps you take the next step toward your goal of becoming a physician.

1. Plan out your study schedule

Before you even schedule your exam, take a moment to plan out your course of attack. In my experience, 2-3 months is an excellent amount of prep time, though you may need less or more depending on your target score, level of knowledge in the test material, and schedule. I say 2-3 months because, in my opinion, the MCAT is just as much about test-taking skills as it is about understanding the content. While you might already know biochemistry like the back of your hand, preparing your body can take weeks, if not months. For this reason, I recommend you plan your study schedule as early as possible so that you can spend the last 2-4 weeks, if not more, adjusting your lifestyle to match your test day schedule. 

2. Adjust your lifestyle

Now that you have at least a rough plan for your study schedule, you’ve hopefully scheduled your test date. Once you’ve done that, take note of your test location and time, and think about out what your test day will look like: if your test starts at 8:15 AM and it takes you an hour to get ready and travel to your testing center, you should wake up by 6:45 AM latest to have enough time to arrive 15-30 minutes before your test. You would also want to make sure you wake up early enough so that you’re alert and ready to start the exam at 8:15 AM. If you use all the given time for the first two sections of the exam, you’ll be having your lunch break around 11:45 AM and should be out of the testing center by 4:00 PM. Getting used to this schedule may take a substantial adjustment, depending on your current schedule (looking at you, night owls!). Remember when I told you to plan to adjust your lifestyle to match test day for the last 2-4 weeks of prep? Here’s where that advice comes into play.

Okay, but what does that adjustment look like in practice? Simply put, try your best to sleep, wake up, and eat lunch at the same times as test-day. So for the example above, you should ideally adjust your sleep schedule so that you’re waking up at 6:45 AM every day for the last 2-4 weeks leading up to test day without sacrificing sleep. If you don’t already, try to start getting work done by 8:15 AM every day to train yourself to be alert by test time. Finally, you might also want to have lunch around 11:45 AM every day as well, though this isn’t as crucial.

3. Meals

What is important (at least it was for me) is what you have for breakfast and/or lunch on test day. If you’re like me and have a sensitive stomach, you might want to take some time during these last 2-4 weeks to try out different meals to see what works for you. Some things to consider are: 

  1. What’ll keep your engine running for the first/second half of the test without making you sleepy, uncomfortable, or bloated?
  2. What can you quickly make on the morning of, or (better yet!) prepare the night before, to consume on test day?
  3. What can you eat comfortably within the 30-minute lunch break you’re provided? 

While you're testing out different meals, try to test out different snacks to see how they affect you as well if you're planning on snacking during your breaks.

At this point, you might be starting to think, “Wow, that’s too much.” Or you might have other obligations that prevent you from changing your daily routine to match test day. If either of these scenarios feel like you, don't worry! You have the perfect opportunity to try all these tips out while studying for the MCAT at the same time. That’s right: in part II, we’ll go over some tips on how to make the most out of your full-length practice exams.

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