MCAT Study Guide: Chapter 1

Prepping for the MCAT involves some serious planning. Here’s what you need to know about how and when to study right up to test day.

When is the best time to take the MCAT?

The earlier you sit for the MCAT, the better off you'll be. The field of applicants grows more crowded as the admissions season advances. Even if you complete everything else for your application early, the vast majority of medical schools will not closely consider your candidacy until they have a copy of your MCAT scores.

If you take the MCAT the spring of your junior year (once you have completed your pre-reqs), you’ll have time to retake the MCAT in the summer or following fall, if necessary. Take a look at our Medical School Admissions timeline for more tips on planning your med school application.

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How long does it take to study for the MCAT?

Believe it or not, most students who do well on the MCAT spend between 200 and 300 hours preparing for the exam. When you start your prep will be determined by your test date and by what other work and academic commitments you have—usually 3 to 6 months before your exam. View upcoming MCAT test dates,  so you can start making a study schedule.

How to Study for the MCAT in 3 Months

If you have three months, here are your MCAT priorities:

  • Gauge your performance by taking a free online practice test. This first practice test will key you into your strengths and weaknesses and help you determine your baseline score.
  • Let your baseline guide your content review. Focus on the sections, topics, or question types you need help with the most before moving on to comprehensive prep. For example, you may decide to start with any subjects not covered by your pre-req courses.
  • Grab a copy of the AAMC outline of topics that will be on the exam . While textbooks and notes from your pre-req courses can be great resources for reviewing material, you may get tired playing hide-and-seek to find the topics AAMC cares about. Investing in an MCAT prep book, which streamlines the need-to-know information in one place, will save you some time.
  • Consider taking a prep course to keep you on track. Plenty of MCAT test takers do study on their own, but it doesn’t hurt to review with experts who know the exam inside and out. Choose a course that works with your schedule and goals. If you’re prepping while going to school and also working in a lab, online test prep that’s flexible and convenient could be your best bet.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Practice questions and tests will show you where the holes in your knowledge are. When you miss questions, try to determine why. If it’s due to being shaky on the material, you need more review on that topic. Make sure you simulate the conditions of the actual MCAT for some of your practice tests.

How to Study for the MCAT in 1 Month

If you have limited time to study, understanding your personal weak spots is key. Investing in MCAT prep books could help you focus your content review, plus give you access to the many drills and practice tests you need. You might even consider enlisting the help of an MCAT tutor to help you study as efficiently as possible.

1 Week Before the MCAT

  1. Adjust your sleeping schedule so that you are going to bed and getting up in the morning at the same times as on the day before and morning of the MCAT. Prioritize getting a reasonable amount of sleep during the last few nights before the test.
  2. Take a trip to the test center at least a day or two before your actual test date so that you can easily find the building and room on test day. This will also allow you to gauge traffic and see if you need money for parking or any other unexpected expenses. Knowing this type of information ahead of time will greatly reduce your stress on the day of your test.
  3. Check your test center’s policy on cell phones ahead of time. Some centers do not even allow them to be kept in your locker, where you will keep your other personal items.
  4. Don’t do any heavy studying the day before the test. This is not a test you can cram for! Your goal at this point is to rest and relax so that you can go into test day in a good physical and mental condition.
  5. Eat well. Try to avoid excessive caffeine and sugar. Ideally, in the weeks leading up to the actual test you should experiment a little bit with foods and practice tests to see which foods give you the most endurance. Aim for steady blood sugar levels during the test: sports drinks, peanut-butter crackers, trail mix, etc. make good snacks for your breaks and lunch.

Test Day Tips

  1. Arrive at the test center at least a half hour prior to the start time of your test.
  2. Be prepared to show your photo ID, to sign in, and have a digital image of your fingerprint taken.
  3. Don’t forget to bring the snack foods and lunch you experimented with during your practice tests.
  4. Definitely take the breaks! Get up and walk around. It’s a good way to clear your head between sections and get the blood (and oxygen!) flowing to your brain.
  5. Ask for new scratch paper at the breaks if you use it all up.

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