The MCAT: Part II - Test Day - What To Do The Night Before & on Test Day To Reduce Stress & Maximize Your Score

Updated: January 1, 2021

From the night before the exam through test day, this blog post will help you navigate the exam, manage stress, and get your best score.

The Night Before

You’ve been studying for weeks (or months! and we gave you lots of preparation tips in Part I of this blog series), and it’s finally the night before the exam - eek! A healthy bit of anxiety can sometimes be beneficial – that’s what encourages you to study hard and keeps you alert during the test – but too much at the wrong time can be detrimental. You’ve studied hard up to this point, and now it is time to relax. Resist the temptation to spend the day before the exam frantically trying to review all of your notes or cram last-minute information into your head: this is not an effective strategy to improve your score. If you absolutely must study, it is okay to take a few minutes to review one or two topics or formulas you have difficulty remembering, but spend most of the day resting and doing things you enjoy. Raising your stress hormones the night before the test will only ensure that you don’t get a good night’s sleep, meaning you won’t be able to perform your best. If you find yourself becoming anxious, close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and quell your body’s automatic “fight or flight” response.

Test Day

Make sure you prepare everything for test day the night before, as you don’t want to be scrambling as you run out the door in the morning. Print out your testing confirmation sheet and directions to the testing center, set out your clothes and keys, and pack a few healthy snacks for your between-block breaks (more on this below!). If you’re a night owl, start going to bed a few minutes earlier each night during exam week, so that you will be able to fall asleep at a reasonable hour the night before the test. On the morning of the exam, wake up with plenty of time to eat a light, nutritious breakfast and make it to the testing center at the recommended time. When you arrive, someone at the testing center will check your identification and confirmation sheet, fingerprint you, and give you instructions. Each time you enter or leave the testing room, you will be re-fingerprinted to confirm your identity. This can take a minute or two – be sure to consider this when planning your allotted break time. If you are easily distracted by ambient noise, the testing center will usually provide foam earplugs for you to use.

During The Test

One of the most difficult things you will deal with during the test is decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is a very real phenomenon in decision making psychology, and describes the phenomenon that when subjected to a long session of decisions (such as a multiple choice exam), the quality of a person’s choices always decreases over time. That means if you’re not sure about an answer, you’re more likely to guess correctly if the question is one of the first than one of the last. As you continue to answer questions and decision fatigue sets in, your brain becomes too tired systematically use context clues, eliminate answers you know are wrong, and reason your way through the problem to the correct answer. Thankfully, there are ways to beat decision fatigue! If you have employed the strategies discussed in our first MCAT blog post, you’ve already been increasing your mental test-taking endurance with full-length practice exams, so you’ll be going into the test less susceptible to decision fatigue. The other major strategy to beating decision fatigue is to use every break between test blocks as an opportunity to walk around, stretch, clear your mind, and have a snack. Do not forego the opportunity to take a break! Even if you’re feeling confident at the end of a test block and want to power straight through the next block, this will not result in your best possible score. There is good evidence that even a short respite from making decisions can ‘reset’ your cognitive reserve and help ameliorate decision fatigue. Additionally, a small spike in blood sugar has also been proven to decrease decision fatigue – but don’t overdo it! A half-cup of grapes, an apple, or a single piece of candy are enough to raise your blood sugar and alertness, but too much sugar, bread, rice, or pasta can leave you feeling tired and depleted. We generally recommend that you bring several small snacks for test day, rather than one big meal, ensuring that you have both protein and carbohydrates. An apple with peanut butter, string cheese, Greek yogurt, or a handful of nuts will provide the protein and fats to stave off hunger and maintain concentration during the test.

During the exam, you may encounter a set of questions that seem exceptionally difficult or that deal with concepts not discussed in your study materials. If this happens, take a deep breath and skip those questions until you have completed the questions to which you know the answers. You can use up a lot of your testing time trying to work through topics you are unfamiliar with, so it is best to return to them at the end of the block. Next, remember that every test has experimental questions! These are non-scored questions that are being tested out for possible use on future MCAT exams. If you have studied well and still encounter a set of questions that seem to cover something completely new, chances are that this set is experimental. The most important thing is to be able to compartmentalize your stress: your score won’t be hugely affected by a single set of difficult questions, but it may go down a lot if you spend the rest of the exam worrying about them!

After The Test

Once you’ve finished the exam, celebrate! It can be stressful awaiting your score, but be reassured that you have studied diligently and used solid test-taking strategies to perform your best on the exam. You may recall some questions you answered incorrectly, which is completely normal and does NOT mean you did poorly. Virtually no one gets a perfect score on the MCAT, so everyone will have questions they missed. Just think about how you are going to use your free time now that you’re finished studying! And once you’ve received your score, come back and read our third post in this series!

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About the author:

Dr. Kathleen Montgomery is currently a medical resident at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, pursuing specialty training in the areas of anatomic and clinical pathology. Her ultimate career aspiration is improve the lives of both patients and medical professionals as a physician educator.

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