Not sure when to start studying for the MCAT? In a daunting seven and a half hours, the MCAT will test you on nearly everything you learned during your years of undergraduate study. It's no wonder that most students feel completely lost when trying to determine how to start their , let alone when they should begin. The truth is, knowing when to start studying for the MCAT will vary greatly between students. In this blog, we'll go over some recommendations and factors to consider, so you can best determine when you should start studying for the MCAT.
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Every single student is different in the number of weeks, months, and hours they put into studying for the MCAT. On average, students spend between 3-6 months studying for the test.
In general, it's recommended to spend between 200-300 hours of dedicated study. Some students can only dedicate 10 hours per week to studying and may therefore require 6-7 months to adequately study. Conversely, some students may be able to adequately study for the MCAT in only 3 months because they are able to dedicate more hours each week to studying. Be sure you factor in the amount of time you're able to set aside when determining how long you'll need to prepare for, and when you should begin that preparation.
Many of our admissions experts say deciding how long to study for the MCAT was based on their commitments, schedules and study goals.
“I predicted that I would require 3 months of studying preparation before my test … though there were many periods I thought I would need to extend this duration … I worked full-time while preparing for the MCAT and had a finite amount of time to use. It was imperative that I made sure I adhered to my schedule and completed the tasks I set for myself.” – Tony Huynh, DO, Touro University Nevada College of Osteopathic Medicine
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Keep in mind you technically began studying for the MCAT the day you started your premedical coursework. Most of the coursework required for the MCAT is covered in first- and second-year . These courses include introductory biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, and biochemistry.
Some students like to actively begin preparing at this point by reviewing course material during term, summer, and winter breaks. Acquiring all the knowledge necessary for the MCAT is difficult, so starting early and focusing on retaining what you've learned from the start is a lot easier than having to reteach yourself concepts and information you used to know. With this strategy, students begin preparing for the MCAT roughly 18 months ahead of their anticipated test date.
A good rule of thumb is to take the MCAT only when you feel 100% ready and confident in your ability to do well. Dr. Shaughnelene Smith, DO, attended the , and she recommends ignoring the pressure premeds face to cram for the MCAT and listen to what you need.
“Taking the time to learn and prepare for the exam with a schedule that is realistic and fits your learning style is way better! If you are someone who needs more than one summer to study for the MCAT, that is okay! … As an undergraduate student, I attempted the MCAT exam for the first time when it seemed like every pre-med was cramming their summer holiday with MCAT studying. This didn’t work for me–I needed more time … Honestly, I only started to find my groove once I completed my undergraduate degree and could dedicate six months to preparing for the exam.” – Dr. Shaughnelene Smith, DO
The good news is, once you're ready to test, you'll have many opportunities to take the MCAT, as it is offered multiple times a year at hundreds of locations across the US and Canada. Be sure you register for the MCAT as soon as you know which date you'd like, as registration for the test is on a first-come-first-served basis, with most test centers having limited capacity.
Remember that your MCAT scores are only valid for a certain amount of time before medical schools will no longer accept them. Medical schools will typically accept MCAT scores that were achieved within the last 2 or 3 years. This is why you should avoid taking the MCAT too early, or if you’re planning to take a , you’ll need to plan accordingly.
There is no hard rule about when it is too early to take your MCAT, but it’s recommended not to take it earlier than your junior year of undergraduate. Students who are strong academically may choose to take the MCAT this early and begin studying for the test in the spring of their sophomore year if they wish to apply to medical school as soon as possible. However, most students will want to study for and take the MCAT during a break period from their studies. Be sure to schedule a date far enough in advance of your so that you can still retake the test if you decide to.
As important as choosing when to take the MCAT, and when you’ll start studying for it, is understanding . To get started, you’ll need to understand how long you’ll need to effectively study for the test to earn the you want.
1. Determine your baseline
“MCAT study schedule is very student specific. Depending on the strength of the student, different amounts of time will be spent on different sections of the test. An individualized learning plan is necessary. A good place to start would perhaps be taking a practice test before starting MCAT studying and then using that to build your study schedule.” – Dr. Tony Huynh, DO, Touro University Nevada College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Understanding your current level of knowledge is essential in determining how much time you should set aside to begin studying. The best way to do this is to take a full-length diagnostic exam. If you score well on the exam, perhaps you will only require a few months to improve your score from good to great. If you score poorly, however, you will know that you need to dedicate a lot more time to learn and retain the concepts you failed to grasp. Taking a full-length practice test will also help you determine areas that require improvement. You may find that you score well on the CARS section, for example, but really struggle with . This will help you tailor your studying appropriately to ensure you are strengthening areas of weakness. It's important to identify these difficulties so you can progress through your studying and build your schedule.
2. Gather resources
The next stage of your studying should be to gather necessary resources. You want to make sure you have everything necessary to effectively study, including course textbooks, relevant books, practice tests, and sample questions.
When you're gathering resources, it's important to keep in mind that the first set of resources you should focus on gathering is content-based resources. Specifically, now that you know your weak areas, you can make sure the textbooks, videos, and additional books you're acquiring will include the areas that need improvement. The second set of resources you want to gather includes those which will test and apply your knowledge, such as practice tests, flashcards, and practice questions.
Also, it's a good idea to consider hiring an or enrolling in an , which most people find to be worth both the time and money. Dr. Monica Taneja, MD a BeMo admissions expert and graduate of the , says a prep course gave her the structure she needed to plan her study.
“I took an MCAT prep class from a company that had in-person availability in my hometown. I really enjoyed the in-person component, but for me it was most helpful as it came with a structured study schedule … given that this was my first large standardized test I really appreciated the structure.” – Dr. Monica Taneja, MD
If you prefer MCAT self-prep, Dr. Smith says having a study buddy can help keep you on track.
"I came from a rural background, so finding in-person support wasn’t much of an option. Instead, one of my closest friends and I in undergrad became each other’s ‘accountability buddies,’ where we would study independently but report back at the end of the week to talk about our progress.” – Dr. Shaughnelene Smith, DO.
3. Create your personalized MCAT study schedule
Now that you've acquired the tools necessary to start studying for the test, you'll need to create a schedule to organize what you'll work on each week; otherwise, all that information and pressure is going to feel very overwhelming.
It’s important that this schedule be tailored to YOU and your needs. Dr. Noah Heichel, DO, one of our admissions experts, advises that a personalized study schedule will be much more effective at improving your weak and helping you cope with stress.
“Find something that works for you. Do not use pre-made schedules made for someone else. Ensure you are targeting your weaknesses. If you are uncomfortable with a subject, or if it gives you anxiety, spend more time with it to ensure you understand. This will alleviate stress and help you get more questions right on your MCAT.” – Dr. Noah Heichel, DO, WVSOM.
It's a good idea to begin preparing with a dedicated study schedule 6 months out from your test date. This will allow you to organize your study so that the subject matter progresses appropriately and will allow you to retain information in consistent doses.
Is an MCAT prep course right for you?
It's not easy to figure out when to start studying for the MCAT. In addition to giving yourself enough time, you must prepare a solid study plan and stick to it. Furthermore, you must ensure that you improve not only in your knowledge of MCAT material but also in your knowledge of the test format. Figuring out and your score in other sections of the test will largely depend on whether you can get used to the passage-based format of the exam. Dr. Taneja says CARS passages can be tough to tackle, but there are strategies that worked best for her:
“CARS is a difficult section to predict … I think the best habits were just to dive back into critical reading skills. Breaking down the major passage themes and working through them systematically. One of the best strategies for me was answering the question before reading the answer choices. This way I didn’t get swayed; if my initial analysis [was] a choice I almost always stuck with it.” – Dr. Monica Taneja, MD
If you are feeling overwhelmed regarding when to start studying and how to stick to your schedule, getting professional MCAT prep help may be very beneficial. Professional study help can help you gauge your baseline and provide the best strategy for getting ready for the MCAT. Remember, you want to get the best possible score in your first sitting, so you do not have to worry whether you . This test is a grueling and exhausting obstacle on your way to medical school, so why not make it a little bit easier on yourself by getting professional help?
1. When should I start studying for the MCAT?
There are a lot of factors that can affect your MCAT study start date, but try to give yourself around 6 months between your diagnostic and your test date if you are studying for about 10 hours a week. This means that if your test date is in July, you should start studying in January.
2. How long does it take to get ready for the MCAT?
Depending on how long ago you took your required courses, your MCAT prep can take anywhere from 3 to 6 months. We recommend no less than 3 months of prep and no more than 6.
3. What is a good MCAT score?
A good MCAT score is the score that meets and exceeds the MCAT requirements set by your chosen school. In other words, if your chosen school's matriculants' average MCAT was 519 last year, you should aim for this score to get in.
4. When should I take the MCAT?
You should take the MCAT only when you are 100% ready. You should be scoring no less than 90% in your practice tests as you approach your test date. Remember that you can cancel or reschedule your test date if you feel that you will not be ready.
5. How should I get ready for the MCAT?
Not sure ? The first half of your MCAT prep will be mostly content review, so check out the to get a sense of what’s on the test. Your MCAT prep schedule should also include at least 1 full-length practice test a week.
6. Can I get into medical school with low MCAT?
Yes, it is possible to , but you should do your best to do well on the test to increase your chances of acceptance. Many medical schools consider MCAT and GPA before any other parts of the application, so you do not want to make a bad first impression with your scores.