Wondering how to study for the MCAT to get your desired score? Unless you’ve got your sights on one of the rare , 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 study session is as efficient and productive as possible. In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of how to organize your study sessions, and explain how to incorporate the most important resources to maximize your performance on test day.
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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. The MCAT is a crucial part of your —in fact, both 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 like your or .
The MCAT is in an interesting place in the overall schema of post-secondary assessments. The ACT and SAT are far more general, and other examinations like the GRE, USMLE, and COMLEX are taken by students headed toward specialized graduate study. While medical schools are technically graduate study programs, they are in many senses the primary medical training for future physicians, and so the MCAT in many ways is a kind of middle-ground exam, more challenging and specific than initial entrance exams, but more generalized than the specialized licensure and certification exams associated with residency. If you haven’t taken the MCAT yet, you may wonder just , and while the road is long and sometimes winding, taking the MCAT is the first milestone directly related to medical school and the path of medicine as such. The American Association of Medical Colleges () develops and administers the MCAT each year and regularly incorporates new material, making it an ever-changing exam—in content, anyway. The overall structure of the test, and its questions, remains somewhat consistent from year to year.
There are so many resources and strategies for MCAT study that it has literally become an industry unto itself within the world of test prep. 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.
There are two aspects to this step. As we noted, most traditional students will want to take the MCAT soon after their second undergraduate year to strike while the iron’s hot. In a sense then, you start studying for the MCAT the day you begin pre-med coursework
With that in mind, it’s important to treat your premed coursework—or simply undergraduate science and social science courses if you’re not in a formal premed program—as . It is! Obviously, you’ll be studying course material during the course itself, but once it ends it will help you significantly to review your course notes, projects, and textbooks between semesters. This doesn’t have to be substantial, all-nighter stuff—during breaks, spend an hour or two per day reviewing the materials of the courses you just finished, paying extra attention to areas that feel “slippery” or like they’ll get lost in the shuffle once you move on to your next semester. A good overall amount of time to dedicate to MCAT study is 200-300 hours, so if you budget even an extra 7-10 hours per week during winter and spring break you’ll get to that threshold a lot faster once your is in sight.
For more discussion on study timing, check out our video on when to start studying for the MCAT:
Step 2: Initial Assessment
Once you are ready for serious MCAT prep, the first stop on your study odyssey is to 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. Remember to use our to convert your raw score!
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. Take one of these prior to any other step. 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, 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.
Why you need to take the MCAT diagnostic test:
Step 3: Structure Your Study Plan
If your planned test date is 6 months or more months away, you can be somewhat gentle in your time management, giving yourself ample time to focus on coursework while scheduling consistent MCAT-specific sessions throughout the semester. With longer time frames as well as short ones, being as fundamentally regimented and scheduled in all aspects of your life will help you considerably. Use an empty calendar and schedule each day down to the hour if you can, including necessary non-academic things like exercise, totally free time, and social commitments. It may feel odd at first, but adhering to a well thought-out structure will alleviate a tremendous amount of anxiety in both the short and long term.
Our Six-Month MCAT study schedule is inclusive of all these variables, and should be considered the gold standard for work-life balance in the stressful weeks leading up to your exam date. Should you be on a shorter schedule though—this is often the case for —3 or even 1-month schedules can still work for studying. The big drawback is obvious though—accomplishing 300 hours of study over the course of 180 days isn’t too bad at all, but doing so over 30 is going to be painful. People working with compressed study schedules can still manage to score well, but you need to prepare yourself for the reality of studying 10 or more hours every day. The reality is that in order to prepare over such a short amount of time and score well, you’ll need to have a firm grasp of the material beforehand. It is in no way recommended to cram learning the fundamentals of biochemistry into a single week 1 month before your test date.
Aside from time itself, a structured study plan should organize the subjects and foci of your preparation as well. You’ll want to begin with review as we noted above, but with special care to frontload topics you need the most help with, whether it’s , , or .
As you progress in your study plan, you’ll need to incorporate some additional study materials into your sessions, in addition to the aforementioned course materials and diagnostic exams.
Course Notes and Textbooks
Remember that the first phase of your MCAT prep plan should involve mostly content review. Even if you just finished all your , it is more than likely that you will have some blind spots when it comes to MCAT content.
Gather all your necessary study materials at the onset of your prep. You do not want to be distracted from review and practice once you begin. Find your course notebooks and get your course textbooks. If your textbooks and notes do not cover everything mentioned in the AAMC’s ?, perhaps you may want to go to the library and collect books that could help you review the topics you missed in class. These will be the resources you will use to close any knowledge gaps you may have.
The process of organizing your notes, books, and other study sources is of great importance. Do this in the early stages of your prep, so they are ready for you whenever you need them. Follow the AAMC's What's on the MCAT Exam? guide to review which topics and subjects you should know before the test.
In addition to textbooks and the AAMC’s Official Guide, you should make time to read challenging books outside of the core subjects of the MCAT. Why? Because you need to learn ! One of the biggest aids in developing comfort with what the CARS section tests is getting comfortable reading and analyzing unfamiliar material. While you should still go over , a big part of your should involve honing your skills in active reading—that is, carefully or closely reading a text and assessing its thesis, message, and conceptual content. The way to develop this skill isn’t through reading familiar or easy material, but through challenging new texts that push your analysis and comprehension skills to evolve. Our 6-month study plan has a number of recommended journals and magazines, but here’s a list from our CARS expert of even more to choose from:
a. The New Yorker, The Economist, the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, etc.
b. Humanities and social sciences journal articles:
c. Classics of literature and philosophy: Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, etc.
You are encouraged to select options from outside this list to increase your , but we also strongly recommend sticking with things likely to be a part of social science and humanities courses, as that’s the pool from which the AAMC pulls most of its questions for CARS. We recommend approximately 1 book a week throughout a standard 6-month study plan, though reducing this in the final weeks to nothing. If you’ve been actively reading a book approximately every 7 days for the last 5 months, you’ll be in very good shape for the test itself, and can use those last 4 weeks to recover and charge up for your big day.
Wondering what is the best MCAT prep strategy?
Take Practice Exams
The truth is, only practice tests can really help you prepare for the format of the exam. No matter how much content you cover, if you cannot apply your knowledge to the MCAT passage-based format, you will not succeed during the test.
As we already mentioned, taking the diagnostic test should always be your first step. Not only do you test your content knowledge, but you also experience the MCAT format first-hand right away. In fact, one of the reasons you may not score well even after taking all the prerequisites may be the fact that the passage-based format is so unfamiliar to you, which is why you need to work hard to get used to it.
Practice exams are also the number one tracking method of your progress. There is really no other way to gauge how well you are doing with your MCAT prep. You may feel that you are learning and absorbing new knowledge, but only practice tests can confirm this.
The number one rule of taking practice tests during your prep is to mimic the real test environment as much as possible. This means that you should be taking your practice tests in a quiet room without distractions. Review what is allowed in the test room and stick to those items only, i.e., do not have your phone with you or a calculator. As you get better and better at getting the questions right, start timing yourself. The earlier you get used to the test format, the better.
In addition to taking as many full-length practice tests throughout your prep, make sure to take section-specific tests to gauge your progress. How many full-length practice tests should you 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.
Speed vs Accuracy
When you start taking practice exams and practice questions, your goal should be getting the questions right. is of huge importance when it comes to doing well, but your initial focus should be applying your knowledge correctly. Section practice exams and full-length practice exams should demonstrate how well you are absorbing the necessary knowledge and whether you are ready to start working on speed. As you take practice tests, note your progress. Are you getting better at getting the questions right? Is your score improving? If not, do not transition your focus to speed. Continue with content review and active learning strategies. Essentially, do not sacrifice accuracy for speed.
As you notice improvements in your practice test scores, slowly begin working on speed. In your initial practice tests, do not worry about timing. You can still time yourself and try to finish the practice exam within the allotted time slots, but do not worry if you run out of time during those initial practices. Once you transition to taking full-length practice tests every week, make sure to time yourself and work hard to finish each section within its time limit. This means that you need to time yourself for each section, not just the overall exam time. At this time, your accuracy is of importance, but so is your ability to complete each section in the allotted time.
Content Review vs Format: What’s More Important?
As we mention here and in our other blogs, the content review will be a huge part of your MCAT prep in the first couple of months. Depending on the length of your MCAT study plan, the first half of your schedule should include a thorough content review, but it does not mean that you can simply read books and notes and hope that you will absorb this information. Make sure to use active study strategies to review the topics and subjects you need to know. For example, try applying new knowledge to short practice quizzes or explaining newly learned concepts to friends. Only active learning can help you digest this huge volume of information. In fact, as you take full-length and section practice tests, review the questions you got wrong and right. 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.
However, keep in mind that 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. This is why in addition to making sure you cover the right content you must also study to get used to its format. 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. To deal with these, take practice tests in environments that mimic the exam. Try syncing your practice with the MCAT test schedule, i.e., taking the same breaks, having snacks in assigned timeslots, and so on.
Want a quick recap?
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 levels of confidence throughout. Try to utilize the atypical nature of CARS prep to not only deepen your analysis and reading skills but to regularly infuse new—and even fun— information into a period full of familiar and often dry information.
Additionally, steer clear of the chaos of forums and message boards like the and . Go with trusted and well-established strategies that you know will work for you individually, not the anxiety-inducing opinions of anonymous strangers.
Whether you’re finishing a premed program at 21 or embarking on a career change from hotel management at 40, 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 mind.
1. What is the hardest MCAT section?
This varies from person to person, but the overwhelming majority of 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. In a section defiantly resistant to memorization, your only hope of performing well is doing the hard work of developing and improving your analysis and reasoning skills. This is no small task, and so it must be worked at over a long period of time.
2. 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. If you want a more concrete answer though, you should ideally try to take it shortly after completing your second year of undergraduate work.
3. How can I simulate testing conditions when I take diagnostic/practice tests?
Time yourself! Most important is to simulate the experience of working against the clock. Most sections are 95 minutes in duration, so when you take a subject-specific practice test, 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 you may be tempted to check.
4. What is a good score on the MCAT?
This varies significantly by medical school. Some have a floor of 520 while others will consider applications with lower MCAT scores . The real answer is that unless you’re dead set on a specific school with a specific requirement—in which case that requirement is your threshold but not total goal—you shouldn’t aim for one particular score. Study hard and aim for the highest score possible.
5. Do I need to have a formal premed education in order to score well on the MCAT?
Nope. People from many different disciplines and backgrounds score well into the 515-520 range regularly. Past coursework certainly plays a huge part in developing the requisite knowledge base, but if you’re willing to dedicate extra time to learning and studying material you may have missed out on previously you can do very well.
6. When am I eligible to take the MCAT?
The AAMC’s only qualification for eligibility is that you’re planning to apply to a health professions school (MD, DO, DPM, DVM, etc.). You’ll be asked to agree to a statement attesting to this intention when you register, but otherwise there are no preconditions.
7. How long is the MCAT?
230 questions in 7.5 hours. You’ll have the opportunity for breaks at numerous points, but prepare for one of the most grueling academic days of your life regardless. A big part of preparing for the test is building your stamina, so as you close in on 3 or 2 months out from your testing date, be sure you can handle multiple 90-minute test simulations in a single day.
8. The AAMC says I should bring a snack on test day. What should I bring?
A balanced, healthy meal with a good ratio of protein will be best. You want to feel full for as long as possible afterward, without feeling tired or heavy. Don’t bring a chicken parm on exam day, but don’t just pack carrots either.
9. 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.
10. What are the best MCAT study strategies?
What works best for you, and caters to your specific needs, is the best strategy. This may be a quick 1-3 month review with practice tests, or it may be nearly a year of careful, regimented study and practice. Following the advice above, you need to begin by assessing your abilities, and then construct a study strategy that focuses on the areas with which you have the most trouble.
11. Can I study just using practice questions?
For some rare individual that may be enough, but in nearly every case endlessly drilling practice questions only is a recipe for burnout. Everyone has blindspots, and so combining study in the conventional sense—reading textbooks, notes, and guides—with practice questions and periodic assessments is typically the right general idea. Constructing and carrying out a balanced plan will in almost every case be the right call.
12. Should I take a prep course?
Unless you’re getting 528s consistently on practice assessments, or just somehow cannot work with others, a prep course will benefit you. 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 and wasted time at the outset.
To your success,
Your friends at BeMo