There’s no question that studying for a test like the MCAT takes discipline—from making a study plan to reading prep materials and taking those dreaded 7-hour practice tests. When I prepared for the MCAT, I struggled to stay focused for long periods of time: after doing just a couple practice questions, I would find myself on Twitter or Facebook, then get frustrated at my own lack of willpower. I quickly realized that I would have to make a plan to avoid distractions and get the best score possible. Here are the strategies I found helpful for staying focused while studying for the MCAT, especially when it comes to staying off social media and the Internet.
1. Build up stamina gradually
Don’t expect that you’ll be able to sit down and work for 2 hours straight the first week you’re studying. Instead, break your study time down into manageable increments: work for 30 minutes at a time, then give yourself a short 5 minute break. Reward yourself by grabbing a snack, reading some Tweets, or playing your favorite song. Gradually increase the length of your study intervals, working up to 45 minutes and eventually an hour or more.
2. Harness the power of technology for good
It turns out there are some apps and websites out there that can actually help you stay on task. One of my favorites is an iPhone app called Forest: the longer you work undistracted, the bigger your virtual forest grows. If you leave the app during your period of focus, a tree dies. For me, something about the image of those little dead trees in a barren wasteland was highly motivating. Another app I use on my computer is called SelfControl—it allows you to block a certain list of websites (my list is Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube) for a set amount of time.
3. If all else fails, throw away the keys
If you’re really struggling with distractions and social media usage, you can consider the somewhat extreme step of having a friend change the passwords to all your accounts. While drastic, I found it to be more effective than just logging out or deleting the apps, which I would inevitably redownload. I had my best friend Ryan help me out in this way when I was writing secondary application essays for medical school—when they were finally submitted and I asked for the passwords back, he told me what they had all been changed to: “Areyourappsdone?”
4. Don’t beat yourself up
Distractions are ubiquitous, especially in today’s world where social media has so dramatically shortened our collective attention span. Even if you get lost in a YouTube hole for an hour when you were supposed to be learning how lenses work, don’t stress or punish yourself. Taking care of yourself and incorporating breaks into your day are incredibly important. Instead of dwelling on the hour you spent distracted, refocus your energy on how you’ll avoid the distraction going forward, and any adjustments you need to make to your study plan.
I like to think that my self-control and time management is better today than it was when I was studying for the MCAT. But during challenging weeks when I’m trying to learn a lot of new material, I still fall back on some of these strategies. If you use these tips while studying for the MCAT and work on cultivating good time management skills now, not only will you get a great score, but you’ll also be an even more successful medical student someday.