Buffering your MCAT studying schedule 

MCAT

Planning your MCAT study schedule can be a daunting task. With so much material to cover for the exam, it’s impossible to know where to begin studying without a detailed plan and schedule. You need to know what you need to know! There are plenty of resources out there to help you navigate which test window to register for, how much time you should give yourself to study, and how past test-takers have balanced school, work, and life commitments with their studying. However, even the best of plans can’t account for everything. Sometimes you have to plan for the unplanned. 

Adding buffers to your study schedule provides flexibility and adaptability, allowing your studying to be able to overcome the inevitable life events that are sure to pop up in your studying. With a task as stressful and structured as studying for the MCAT, it is so important to build in shock absorbers to keep you on the road.

Here are a few tips on buffering your study plan – your future self will thank you in a few months. 

  1. When scheduling your test date, come up with the best estimate for how long it will take you to cover the material. Write out your schedule. Once you feel like you have it figured out, add at least one additional buffer week

  2. Buffer time is NOT days off. Still schedule days off as you see fit. Mind the difference.

  3. With the buffer week that you’ve given yourself – don’t account for it! Keep a study schedule as if you’re taking the exam a week earlier. Do not touch this week. Do not think about this week. Put it in the piggy bank, and only break for emergencies. 

  4. Do I have to use the buffer week all at once? No, you don’t. However, you really don’t know what might pop up. Ten days before my exam, I experienced a death in my family that was unexpected. I ultimately elected to keep the exam date. Moral of the story: you never know what might happen. Keep as much of it around for as long as possible.

  5. When to not use the buffer week: If you get behind on studying because you misjudged your bandwidth, do not use the buffer week. Odds are, you will still end up needing the buffer week. Systemic miscalculations in your study plan can only be fixed with systemic solutions. Back to the drawing board.  

  6. When to use the buffer week: Illness. Death in a family. Taking care of your mental health. Seeing a close friend who is in town. If years from now you’ll remember and regret prioritizing MCAT studying, use the time. 

  7. What if I am approaching the test date and I still have buffer time? As the test date gets closer, the buffer time becomes more flexible. Need extra studying? Great you have the time! Want a couple of days off to relax before the test? Sure! Trust me, you won’t be upset if you find yourself with a little bit of spare time. 

  8. What if I use my buffer time and I still find myself needing more? These things happen. Plenty of people push back their test date. In some cases, they even have to push back their application cycle. Though not ideal, these options exist.

The goal of the buffer time is to help you ride some of the inevitable, unexpected waves of life. While it’s impossible to plan for all circumstances, incorporating this time can help you ride more of the waves. And if the waves don’t come, there’s no harm in having some extra time. 

Keep these tips in mind as you craft your study schedule. You’ll find MCAT studying to be a much more pleasant experience, even by buffering by only a week.

Logan is a med student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He graduated magna cum laude from Brown with a BS in Neuroscience. Previosly, he held positions at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the National Cancer Institute.

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