How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MCAT

how i learnedAlright, I don’t actually love the MCAT, but I’m not a student who hates the MCAT either. Each summer, thousands of students are stressed about the MCAT. Most test takers will have never such an important test before. This test alone may prevent you from being admitted to medical school.

Not only is it a test that forces to remember broad concepts and numerous facts, this test will also challenge your reading comprehension and writing skills. Most people I know who went into the sciences, did so to escape essay writing. As if things aren’t bad enough, the MCAT is marked on a bell curve and your final grade is all relative to other test takers. That means even if you answered many questions correctly, if someone did better than you, your score will be graded lower. Each year, only around 20% of test takers will receive a competitive score of 30+

I’m not an expert at taking the MCAT. I have only taken it once. I didn’t go to a prep class – I borrowed MCAT review books and studied for the exam by myself. Before taking the MCAT, I had not taken my organic chemistry class yet.

Somehow I did alright, and I know a big part has to do with the right attitude.

I have made a list of advice and things you can do to keep your stress levels down and hopefully make the process pleasant and maybe even enjoyable?

  1. Put things in Perspective – Calm down and realize that this test is not your life. Billions of people wake up everyday, eat, go to work and don’t give this test a single thought. Don’t let this test define who you are. You are bigger than this test. The next time you catch yourself thinking this test is the too important to do poorly on – take a deep breathe and pause. Take a step back and realize that there’s more to life than medical school admissions. The MCAT is only your priority up to a point, don’t let it control you.
  2. What’s the worst that can happen? - This is an exercise I like to do whenever I feel nervous about poor performances. I imagine the worst case scenario and see what it would be like. For the MCAT, if you don’t get a good score realize that nobody dies. Your parents still love you and the earth will still be spinning. You might be temporarily upset and disappointed but you can always study and rewrite. You might not make your top school’s cutoff, but you might make the cutoff for plenty of other schools. And more often than not, you’ll realize how irrational your fears were.
  3. Have a support group - For the first part of my MCAT summer, I made the mistake thinking I could ace the MCAT on my own. I planned to study for several hours each day by myself. But as you study, you will go through many emotions. Find people that will encourage you and be your cheerleaders. If you have friends taking the test, form a study group that can help each other out with questions, share resources, and occasionally have a complain/whine session.
  4. Stay Healthy - Keeping your body in good shape directly affects your test performance. You want your body to be rested and ready for test day.  So don’t study to an extreme where you neglect to feed yourself properly, exercise and get some fresh air. Try to get some sleep the night before the test.  I tossed and turned for 3 hours during my test day and ended up going to the test with 4 hours of sleep, I wish I gotten more.
  5. Stretch - This is my favorite thing to do while studying. When stuck on a passage or question, push your shoulder blades back and arms towards the skies and feel the burdens being lifted from you (even if it’s only temporarily). Close your eyes and take in a deep breath – try this right now even if you’re not studying for the MCAT, it’s very relaxing.
  6. Take Appropriate Breaks - Don’t study for 3 hours straight. Break it down into smaller sessions. I find my optimal study time for me lasts from 45 minutes to 90 minutes. Any earlier and I cannot dig deep into the materials, and any more I begin to lose focus. Take 5-10 minute breaks where you can rehydrate, check your email and then get back to the task at hand. Also, don’t study for too many days in a row without a break. Remember, if you are taking this during the summer, this is your SUMMER! Study hard and take some weekends to go to the beach or travel and not feel guilty.
  7. Study when you should – This will save you the mental anguish in the long run. If you are procrastinating, STOP! Control yourself! You will feel terrible for setting out a schedule to study and not following through with it. When you’re at the library studying, don’t waste your time chatting or looking at other people study. Remember there’s no easy path to beating MCAT, everyone who succeeds puts in their time. The more consistently you are with your studying, the more likely you’ll get what you deserve.
  8. Simulate Test Day – After covering all the subjects and feeling comfortable with the content, you MUST do practice tests. For one, they will be the best indicator of your test score and will help you prepare in the most realistic way. You will also develop the stamina and concentration needed to write a 4-5 hour long test. There will also be test taking skills you should master, such as eliminating answer choices, skipping difficult passages for later, quick calculations, and pacing. For the last two to three weeks leading up to test day, I ended up doing more than ten full length tests. By the end of it all, I had enough confidence to walk into the centre and know I would do well. You’ll never feel fully prepared and there will always be more material you could have learned, but you have a limited timeline to study. Work in the most efficient way, you must do practice tests.
  9. Enjoy the Process – The process of studying for the MCAT climaxes on test day. Try to enjoy the entire journey as much as you can. You will have bad days when nothing seems to stick. Other times, you’ll celebrate minor victories, such as when you finally get a 10 in VR. See the MCAT for what it really is, just another step in the medical school admission process. It’s significant, but no the be all end all.
  10. Have Clean Clothes - This last piece of advice is anecdotal. Lay out the clothes you will be wearing ahead of time, it will save you some stress on test day. I remember taking a shower on the morning of test day and realizing I had run out of clean clothing. I had been studying so much that I had not done my laundry in two weeks. Needless to say, I a bit stressed out on the morning of test day finding clothes. Prepare for the test, map out how you will get there, what you will wear, and most importantly, how you will enjoy yourself after the whole ordeal.

Feel free to add your own advice, tips, and things that worked for you in the comments below

27 Responses to How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MCAT

  1. Visish says:

    I agree with you! I really felt like the pressure of the MCAT taught me some good things, and forced me to care more about physics and general chem that I would have otherwise blown off.

  2. Iris Smith says:

    Hi.

    I scored in the low 20s on the MCAT. I took a prep course and retook the MCAT. My score dropped by 7 points. I studied so hard for 3 months and this unimaginable thing happened. If I were to score much better than my original score, would medical schools ignore the test 2 score?

  3. Blossom says:

    Hey:
    I have been reading you articles about MCAT and its so wonderfully nice of you to explain the various aspects (such as study habits) of preparing for MCAT in such a detailed manner. Thank you so much for these articles.
    I had a question about my courses in university. I’m a first year student, and have been trying to register for calculus but its been so hard because its full, and even when there is a vacant spot, I cant register since it would always conflict with other courses Im taking. But is calculus really that significant in writing the MCAT?

    Thank ya 8)

  4. Rob says:

    Great tips. I wish I had known some of them before I prepared for the MCAT. Most of all, I was not taking care of myself, and having a little too much fun behind the scenes. My score reflected it.

  5. Summer Davis says:

    Hi!

    Thses tips are great! Major exams that play a big role in our lives creates a high level of anxiety. However, we should put in mind that if we want to perform well, we have to learn how to block out those emotions out because that is the only way that we will be able to think clearly. I agree when you said that we should put things into perpective, that way we will be able to prioritize our activities and achieve a goal. Thank you for posting this, I’m pretty sure it will help of people out there.

    Summer Davis
    http://www.ArtPrintsReviewed.com
    Japanese Prints

  6. [...] have to face the problem of discipline and motivation, there’s no escaping it. There were a few things that I discovered that helped with motivation and [...]

  7. Mark says:

    thanks for these tips.. I have a nephew that is studying now.. I will forward to him.. thanks again

  8. Avery K. says:

    I appreciate your detailed advice. Often, we are simply told to make sure to study, but there are a lot of lifestyle choices that can help put someone in the right frame of mind to write an important test like this.

  9. Ben W. says:

    I was ill-prepared for the MCAT the first time, and retook them a year later. I probably would have benefited from your advice.

  10. I just have to say that your tips are not only great for writing the MCAT, but many of them apply to life, as well. Who shouldn’t always put things into perspective, enjoy the process, and stretch whenever life gets hairy?

  11. jason says:

    Medaholic,

    This is a great post. In response to what you have written, here’s what I would like to mention that either adds or summarizes what you said through my experiences.
    I am a graduate from Molecular Biology at UofT. I had not intended to go to medical school when I decided to write my MCAT in 3rd year but did so anyways from the social pressure and performed poorly (i think 8,8,7, N) because I tripped over every line of folly setup.

    This time around I began studying for the MCAT for a few weeks but I realized I may have to push up my GPA entirely so I put the studying to a halt. However, without going too much into my story since its serves little use here, I want to illustrate a few choices that I made to prepare to study for the MCAT that HUGELY benefited me while I was studying a second time around and had realized 3 things: 1) my ability to take in information, reason, and conceptualize had markedly increased and it showed on the diagnostics I used (the same ones I used a few years earlier and had performed poorly on. and no, I did not memorize the diagnostic tests 2 years later). 2) Anxiety was easily overcome which compounded my performance, and 3) I did enjoy learning because I was learning stuff.

    Like every guidance counselor, teacher and most university educated people will tell you, study habits matter. For me that meant a few things. I wanted to learn as effectively as possible and efficiently so I had time for other things, also I wanted to sever the feeling of fear that overcome me before big performances whether that was a test, a public speech, breaking the news, or interviews.

    Here’s my formula: 1) meditation + 2) layered reading + 3) consistency + 4) fun.

    Meditation, for anyone who knows how to practice it, is INCREDIBLY powerful at calming the mind, opening it up to learning, making more rational decisions, retaining focus, keeping refreshed, and increasing insight and gratitude which decreases our fear. I already know many will think this is silly. But for the skeptics, go check out the benefits of meditation on google, in academic journals, with your family doctor, anyone educated in relaxation. The biggest hurdle is that many get anxious when they close their eyes and rest quietly for 30 seconds cause a billion thoughts come to their mind. This is actually a normal process of meditation. It will happen, and the frequency will decrease with experience and you will more rapidly reach your higher consciousness faster – the portion that monitors your consciousness (emotions, attitude, influences) which is directly linked to your actions. If you have the budget, get a Transendental meditation teacher for 675 bucks. The beginning ritual is not for everyone but their technique works, takes 15 mins 2x daily and most importantly, can be done by anyone. In fact they even proved this technique still worked at reaching higher consciousness in people who dont believe in it! The other option is to learn it for free through reading books or typing meditation into youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0rSmxsVHPE). Essentially the reason you overcome your fears is exactly the reason as medaholic says so, you relieve yourself from that myopic vision every MCAT student suffers from and put things in perspective. (If you’re standing an inch away from the painting, don’t expect to see the big picture.) If you’re not anxious, you will read naturally as you have for over 20 years for most, follow along, get the main idea of the passage and not get stuck dwelling on questions.

    The layered reading technique was something I learned on google when studying for the best study habits. Instead of linear reading like many of us do (1 page and 1 word at a time), you will read the same content in the exact same amount of time, but your method of doing so will cause you review the material many times increasing your retention gigantically. In fact this is how many humans learn, which is why most of use skip lines or pages or loose focus when reading copious amounts. Also many natural speed readers and people who can retain tons don’t realize, but actually study in this matter. Google the topic for process details. For the sake of explanation it teaches you to learn information how we naturally do, by taking in the big picture first so you know where you’re going, then smaller chunks to understand the fundamentals, then finally into bits to get the reasoning, then wrapping it all back up into the big picture so you have understanding with a purpose – the only case in which we really ever learn, not just understand.

    Consistency is imperative. Dont get boiled down into living a life optimized with a stopwatch. That’s over done. But make some decisions and stick to them for the entire schedule. Decisions like what time to sleep, when to wake up, what material to study each day, what days will be breaks, what learning resources will you use. Simply said, if you change any of these in the middle of your study schedule, consider yourself inconsistent. Admit it, but don’t around and pity yourself in this fact. Forgiveness is a virtue. As for the topic of sleeping, you may wonder how much? Here’s how much, go to sleep and look at the time without setting the alarm, and when you wake up naturally is how many hours of sleep YOUR body requires. Everyone is different so dont try and compete with the kid who only needs 4 hours a day. The goal is live life EFFECTIVELY not efficiently. If your brain is drained, consider the entire day wasted. Also diet, eat well and dont read within 30 mins after eating so the food can digest.

    Finally fun. Schedule it in. The most successful people who work super hard have fun. Everyone who enjoys their life has fun. Fun is subjective to everyone, but as long as you enjoy what you’re doing its fine. Do not try and calculate the net worth benefit of fun, its meant to be recreational, that is, it allows us time to RE CREATE ourselves. Make time for it every day.

    As for the anxious populations, either educate them on this, or keep your distance. An unhealthy psychology is the root of the large majority of chronic diseases. Keep your mind clear and strong by keeping wary of those who only complain, compete, compare, and are cynical all day long. These emotions like any other are contagious.

    • Micky says:

      Hi! Thanks for the great post on meditation and layered reading – something very interesting and a great resource. I was just wondering if layered reading is actually a wise idea to implement while prepping for mcat vr since it tells you to read, and then re-read. The MCAT VR does not allow you to read the material twice, so I was wondering how you used the layered reading method for the VR – did you combine steps? Please let me know!

      Thanks!

  12. Kerry Enser says:

    @jason: thanks for this comprehensive addition! I had never heard of layered reading, but it’s very intriguing. I definitely lose focus reading page by page, so this is a welcome technique.

  13. Leeza says:

    Great advice.. thanks very much

  14. Kent says:

    This is an excellent article to read for preparing for just about any major exam. Though it is aimed at taking the MCAT, its lessons can be utilized on many levels.

    I really think idea #8 is a crucial one, “Simulate Test Day – After covering all the subjects and feeling comfortable with the content, you MUST do practice tests.” I practice this idea and it kills all the pretest anxiety. When there are example exams available people need to take more time to use that option to know how the questions will be structured and answered correctly. Thanks for the great article.

    Kent
    Webmaster: kellys-blue-bk

  15. Amanda says:

    this blog has great studying tips.. has helped a lot

  16. Tom says:

    hardest test ever.. any study tips will help!

    • medaholic says:

      Hi Retireathomecalgary, as much as I appreciate your comments, spamming my blog with fake names and insincere comments will not be acceptable

  17. Peter says:

    I failed at my first attempt at Medical College Admissions Test! However, learning the process is the key to hurdling it!

  18. T. Charles says:

    The MCAT is as daunting as the LSAT. However, preparation is the key to acing it. Familiarize yourself with the type of questions, the structure and the topics.

  19. Prop says:

    Thank you for the tips! I have a friend that is studying for them. Thanks again!

  20. Angel Murray says:

    @ Jason, I really loved the way you took time out to explain in details about love.
    Nice way to hit the nail on the head.

  21. Tate says:

    Medaholic,

    I hope this isn’t a silly question, but I was wondering how you would compare the MCAT in terms of difficulty to the GRE. Is it several magnitudes more difficult? Surely it can’t be less.

    Tate

  22. Shelly says:

    I’ve been struggling mentally with taking the mcat. I studied for a month got so burnt out I ended up not taking the test. Having fun and learning to free your mind of anxiety is so important. This time around, I’m going to try and enjoy the process. Thanks for the great tips!

  23. stressed out student says:

    hi im highschool student trying to pursue a career in medical school. although im really scared to field and i must get into a medical school. any advice on thigs i should do and prepare for?

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