Wondering how to study for the MCAT to get your desired score? You’ve likely spent at least some of your premed undergraduate years wondering how to prepare for this challenging test. Studying smart is key! You do not want to be worrying about down the road. Scheduling is vital, but so is making sure the structure and content of each MCAT study session is as efficient and productive as possible. In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of how to organize your MCAT study sessions and simple steps you can take to maximize your studying.
Disclaimer: MCAT is a registered trademark of AAMC. BeMo and AAMC do not endorse or affiliate with one another.
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is exactly that – the central standardized examination used by medical schools to assess the knowledge and abilities of applicants. It tests basic knowledge in medically relevant sciences as well as reasoning and the humanities and social sciences.
The MCAT is a crucial part of your – in fact, both your MCAT score and GPA are typically considered the “make or break” components in your application, significantly affecting your likelihood of medical school acceptance. If you do especially poorly on either, or mediocre on both, many admissions committees will reject your application without considering the other more qualitative parts of your application like your or . Scoring well on the MCAT means you’ll have a greater chance of being accepted to more medical schools, too, says Dr. Neel Mistry, a med school admissions expert and graduate of the
“I got 97th percentile on the MCAT. Getting a high score broadened the number of schools I could apply to and increased my chances of admission to medical school.” Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, University of Ottawa medical school.
In short, scoring well on your MCAT is important, so knowing the best study strategies for this exam is a must. So, to study for? It’s often a huge source of stress for premeds, and it can be intimidating! Many of our BeMo students have shared they felt anxious preparing for the MCAT because of the challenge it presents.
“As a non-traditional pre-med student [having] been out of school for three years, I initially felt overwhelmed by the complexity of MCAT concepts.” –
Dr. Mistry says mastering the MCAT’s content is only part of successful study. Studying for this test can be a full-time commitment.
“Designing a schedule that works, while balancing non-academic commitments with MCAT studying was most challenging. There were days when I felt extremely burned out, resulting in poor performance. My advice for upcoming test takers is to pace yourself and take time out for your well-being while studying for the exam.” – Dr. Neel Mistry, MD
The upside is, for every challenge the MCAT presents, there is a solution. And while it is an undeniably hard test, it can be conquered. Whether you use strategies or reach out for expert prep help, the secrets to mastering the MCAT lie in how you study for it.
“[I was told] ‘It is more intimidating than it is difficult’ and I stuck by that during my MCAT prep and exam.” –
“[Having] strategies to maintain information over longer periods of time, a key essential towards MCAT studying!” –
There are so many resources and strategies for MCAT study that it has literally become an industry unto itself within the world of . With such an ocean of options it can feel quite overwhelming to determine the best practices for your studying. Fortunately, there are some overarching truths to MCAT study, and you can use these to organize and optimize your time leading up to your test day.
Step 1: Take an MCAT Diagnostic Test
Once you are ready for serious MCAT prep, take an initial . This is in every way the most important part of your early work, as it gives you crucial metrics to work from. You may think you’ve got organic chemistry in the bag, but unless you just finished this medical school prerequisite, you simply don’t know for sure until you’ve tested yourself.
Most importantly, it gives you a first, low-stakes look at a test that can place a huge amount of pressure on you, says BeMo admissions expert Dr. Shaughnelene Smith, DO.
“If nothing else, [it builds] familiarity. Because this exam is a significant barrier to medical school entry, people often feel external pressure and can perform out of their norm. Having familiarity with the exam and what it feels like to have that kind of endurance makes actual test day feel a bit more durable.” – Dr. Shaughnelene Smith, DO, Kansas City University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Your best options for diagnostic testing are the and any of their . These are each 230 questions long and mirror the distribution of topics on the actual test. Make a careful record of your results, ideally utilizing an error log to identify patterns in your blind spots. Save the other full practice tests to use as periodic assessments throughout your study – think of them as progress reports – but at the outset just take one.
Areas in which you’ve scored poorly should be given priority in your study schedule, as you’ll want extra time to read and review material, especially before moving on to practice questions. This leads us into the next phase, which is to establish a timeline and structured study schedule.
Step 2: Get Familiar with the MCAT
Before you in earnest, it's vitally important to know what is covered on the MCAT, how the test is structured, , how the MCAT is scored and what is a good . The reason for this is so that you are as prepared as possible on the day of your test, and there are fewer surprises.
Follow the AAMC's ? guide to review which topics and you should know before the test. This will inform you of the content of the MCAT and what to expect. Look closely at the content covered in each section of the MCAT and how many questions you’ll need to tackle.
Familiarity with the MCAT can help inform you when you create your ideal . It will also help you decide and , based on the results of your first practice test and how much you need to improve your score. A strong study schedule will keep you organized as you begin your MCAT content review, too, says Dr. Tony Huynh, a graduate from the and one of our med school admissions experts:
“Perhaps the most challenging part of the studying plan was the wide breadth of material. Topics expanded pretty significantly, and it was critical I created a comprehensive study schedule/calendar prior to the test.” – Tony Huynh, DO, Touro University Nevada College of Osteopathic Medicine
Step 3: Conduct Content Review
Remember that the first phase of your MCAT prep plan should involve mostly content review. Even if you just finished all your medical school prerequisites, it is more than likely that you will have some blind spots when it comes to MCAT content. Reflect on what knowledge you are missing and which knowledge you possess, but still need to know for the test. Do not dismiss any content areas, even the ones you think you know well.
The MCAT is broken down into four general sections:
To review both the many and the lower-yield subjects takes time, patience and the right study habits, says Dr. Noah Heichel, DO, one of our admissions experts and a graduate from the . Visual study materials work particularly well, he says:
“Utilize active learning in content review, draw things out, create mnemonics, and adjust your study tools to match the material so you can learn it more effectively and efficiently … If you are studying glycolysis–a flowchart helps more than putting this entire concept on a flashcard. If looking at differences between insulin and glucagon–a Venn diagram works better than a flowchart. Amino acids can be grouped by properties using mnemonics, but could also be drawn and put in a table.” – Noah Heichel, DO, Western Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine
What’s the best MCAT schedule for you?
Step 4: Take Multiple Practice Tests
Aside from content review, MCAT practice tests are the other cornerstone of how to study for the MCAT. Taking regular practice tests and completing MCAT practice questions allows you to evaluate whether you understand the material and if your study methods are working, says Dr. Heichel.
“[Practice tests are important] to monitor your level of understanding material. If you are trying new study techniques or testing strategies, you can evaluate if they are working over time. Taking regular tests gives factual data that you can use to adjust your strategies and improve your abilities.” – Noah Heichel, DO
Not only do MCAT practice tests allow you to track your score improvement and whether you need to make any adjustments to your study habits or schedule, they help you build MCAT test-taking stamina and boost your , Dr. Huynh says.
“I do believe it’s very important to regularly take MCAT practice tests. They apply a certain degree of pressure to students that is not always present in smaller question sets. It is important to get used to the format and length of the test … Practice was perhaps the most important habit I had to instill. It was important I became accustomed to reading long passages and be able to answer the questions afterwards. With repetition, I became better and better at reading, understanding, and ultimately extracting relevant information in a short period of time.” – Tony Huynh, DO
One of the many reasons students wonder “” is because of the test’s format. The grueling length, the number of subjects and questions, the passage-based nature of the test, all make the MCAT one of the most challenging exams out there. Practice tests allow you to get used to these obstacles and learn how to overcome them.
When completing your MCAT practice tests, it’s best to do so in the most realistic simulation possible. For example, as you study and take practice tests, note when you start getting tired or when you get hungry. Overcoming fatigue and hunger should be part of your study plan. Try syncing your practice with the MCAT test schedule, that is, taking the same breaks, having snacks in assigned timeslots, and so on. Practice tuning out your surroundings and eliminating distractions.
Step 5: Evaluate Your Work, Improve Your Score
As you progress through your MCAT studying, it’s important to reassess and reevaluate. Practice tests allow you to gauge your progress and see whether your score is improving, but an important aspect of completing these practice tests is review. Review your answers, both the ones you got right and wrong.
You need to be able to tell yourself why an answer is correct, and why you chose that answer. You ALSO need to be able to identify wrong answers and review why they were incorrect.
Professional MCAT study help can make a difference here, as an can walk you through your practice test review and help you identify incorrect answers. Or, an can teach you how to approach the different MCAT questions and strategies to find the correct answers.
“[MCAT tutoring] has been an incredibly helpful and supportive resource in my journey as a non-traditional pre-med student. Having been out of school for three years, I initially felt overwhelmed by the complexity of MCAT concepts. [My tutor’s] exceptional ability to use visual aids played a crucial role in simplifying intricate topics. He meticulously broke down complex ideas into manageable components, facilitating a clearer understanding … tutoring sessions have been transformative for me; within just one week, my MCAT score in the tutored section increased by a remarkable 4 points.” –
Step 6: Manage Your Mental Health
Part of learning how to study for the MCAT is learning how to manage your stress, stay positive and conquer any test day nerves. Implementing good study habits, hiring professional prep help and sticking to a personalized study schedule can help banish any uncertainties and anxieties, but it never hurts to practice a little stress management, too.
Along with taking care of your mental health, you need to develop the mental stamina and fortitude to meet your study goals and excel on the test. Dr. Mistry rightly says studying for the MCAT is mentally exhausting, but to see the best results, you need to put in the work.
“Ensuring you treat this as a full-time job, putting in adequate work and practice, while taking time off when needed, are my best strategies and study habits to excel on the MCAT. Finally, trust the effort you have put in and go in with confidence on test day.” – Dr. Neel Mistry
The biggest takeaways to the question of how to study for the MCAT should be to give yourself enough time and as solid a structure as possible. The minutiae of what to review and when will largely be based on your initial and periodic diagnostics, so while there are some general organizational principles to keep in mind, you should strive to be flexible and adaptable throughout your preparation, remembering to be honest about your performance and confidence levels throughout.
Preparing for the MCAT should be your top priority for as much time as you can dedicate before the big day. Be smart, be disciplined, but be kind to yourself as well – a tired, overburdened mind will perform far worse than a well-rested and confident one.
1. How to study for the MCAT?
Studying for the MCAT involves a combination of content review and consistent practice tests.
2. What is the hardest MCAT section?
This varies from person to person, but many students cite the CARS section as the most taxing. This is one of the reasons we recommend integrating CARS prep throughout your study schedule in the form of actively reading new or challenging texts.
3. When should I take the MCAT?
With no other considerations, the best time to take the MCAT is when you’re consistently performing well on practice tests and have clocked between 200-300 study hours.
4. How many practice MCAT tests should I take?
Take as many as you need. Ideally, you will be able to take a couple during the content review phase and at least 6-7 during your practice phase. Essentially, take 1 full-length practice exam every week leading up to your test date.
5. How can I simulate MCAT testing conditions when I take diagnostic/practice tests?
Time yourself! Most important is to simulate the experience of working against the clock. Set a timer and stick to it. Otherwise, make sure you take your practice exams in a quiet room with no distractions, and obviously turn off any electronic devices.
6. What is a good score on the MCAT?
The ideal MCAT score is the one that gets you an acceptance letter. Check out the average MCAT scores of matriculants to your target medical schools—that’s the minimum score you’re aiming for.
7. How long is the MCAT?
It covers 230 questions in 7.5 hours. You’ll have the opportunity for breaks, but prepare for one of the most grueling academic days of your life regardless.
8. How should I start studying for the MCAT?
The very first step in all cases is to take a full-length practice test to assess your current abilities and weaknesses. Initial diagnostic testing that simulates actual testing conditions is the necessary first part of any good study plan.
9. Can I study just using practice questions?
For some rare individual MCAT self-prep may be enough, but in nearly every case endlessly drilling practice questions only is a recipe for burnout. Everyone has blind spots, and so combining study in the conventional sense with practice questions and periodic assessments is typically the right general idea.
10. Should I take an MCAT prep course or hire an MCAT tutor?
You’ll want to do your homework in picking a good-quality, individualized course that suits your needs and budget, but in general they’re sure to improve your score at least somewhat. And if you’re having a hard time organizing yourself and really thrive with direction, a good quality prep course will alleviate a tremendous amount of anxiety.