When To Start Studying For The MCAT in 2020

Updated: June 11, 2020

Are you wondering when to start studying for the MCAT? Well, in a daunting seven and a half hours, the MCAT will test you on nearly everything you learned during your first years of undergraduate study. It's no wonder that most students feel completely lost when trying to determine how they can possibly study for such a long, critical test, let alone knowing when they should begin their preparation. The truth is, knowing when to start studying for the MCAT will vary greatly between students and is largely dependant on your level of knowledge and available time commitment. In this blog, we'll go over some recommendations and factors to consider so you can best determine when you should begin your studies.

Here's what you'll learn:

What is the MCAT?

What's on the MCAT?

How is the MCAT scored?

When to take the MCAT

When to start studying for MCAT?

How to study for the MCAT

Would you like us to help you ace the MCAT?


What is the MCAT?

The MCAT stands for medical college admissions test and is a computerized, multiple-choice test developed by the AAMC to allow medical schools to compare applicant qualifications and readiness for medical school. Most medical schools in the US and some medical schools in Canada require the MCAT as part of their admission process and over 85,000 students write the exam each year. Some graduate schools and health professional programs also accept MCAT scores in place of other standardized tests. Not all schools have the MCAT requirement, so be sure to review our blog for a list of medical schools that don't require MCAT.

What's on the MCAT?

The MCAT is comprised of four sections; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behaviour and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS). In the first three sections, students will be tested on their scientific knowledge and reasoning skills in general chemistry, organic chemistry, introductory physics, introductory biology, biochemistry, psychology, and sociology. Each section has 59 questions with a maximum allotted time of 95 minutes per section. In the CARS section, students won't be tested on specific content knowledge, instead, they will be tested on their ability to read, understand, and analyze social science and humanities passages. This section contains 53 questions with a maximum allotted time of 90 minutes. Make sure you take a look at our blog which will go over sample MCAT CARS practice questions and expert answers. There are short breaks in between sections, including a 30-minute mid-exam break with the entire test taking roughly 7 hours and 30 minutes to complete.

How is the MCAT scored?

The MCAT is scored according to the number of questions you answer correctly. Each correct response receives a number point while incorrect responses are treated the same as questions you did not answer. Therefore, if you're unsure of the answer to a question, it's always a good idea to guess as this won't negatively impact your score. In each section, the total number of correct answers will correlate to a scaled score which ranges from the minimum score of 118 to the highest score of 132. Each section score is added to provide a total score ranging from 472-528. Total scores correlate to a percentile rank which shows the percentage of examinees that received the same or lower score than you did. This way, you can see how your score compares to the scores of other test-takers.

Check out our video for a condensed discussion:

When to take the MCAT

Not only do you need to understand when to start studying for the MCAT, but It's important to know when to take the MCAT. A good rule of thumb is to take the MCAT only when you feel 100% ready and confident in your ability to do well. Review our blog “When should I take the MCAT?” for an in-depth strategy behind the best time to take the MCAT. 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. Be sure you visit our blog which will tell you all the current MCAT test dates and MCAT release dates in the US, Canada, and worldwide.

When to start studying for MCAT

You technically began studying for the MCAT the day you started your premedical coursework. 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 focussing 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 roughly 18 months ahead of their anticipated test date.

If you didn't start reviewing your coursework right away, don't panic. You likely still have time depending on when you need to write the MCAT. The majority of medical school applicants take the MCAT after their second year of university. This is because most of the coursework required for the MCAT is covered in first and second year classes. These courses include introductory biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, and biochemistry. Every single student is different in the amount of weeks, months, and hours they put into studying for the MCAT. 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.

Have a look at some MCAT trends below:

How to Study for the MCAT

Learn about the MCAT.

Now that you know when to start studying for the MCAT, it's a good idea to begin your studying by learning everything you can about the MCAT. The AAMC has a variety of important resources on its website for individuals taking the MCAT, including the required MCAT essentials, which includes information on registration, important policies, and test day information. If you're looking for more information, review the following pages for additional resources:

What is a good MCAT score?

MCAT prep basics

Minimizing stress and maximizing your MCAT score 

Determine your baseline.

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 practice 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 the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section. This will help you tailor your studying appropriately to ensure you are strengthening areas of weakness. When you take a full practice test, it's best to do it in one sitting. This is the most effective way to simulate the real exam and to help you get a sense of your pacing. As the MCAT is a timed test, with a maximum allotted time for each section, you need to make sure you are not spending too long on each question, otherwise, you could find yourself running out of time to complete the majority of questions on the test. This is also a good way for you to gauge any other areas of weakness. Perhaps you were exhausted, had trouble concentrating or were even hungry which could have been distracting. It's important to identify these difficulties so as you progress through your studying, you can experiment with ways to combat these issues such as getting a good sleep the night before, and eating a protein-rich meal beforehand.

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 first gathering resources, it's important to keep in mind that the first set of resources you should focus on gathering is content-based resources. After all, once you've completed your baseline test, there is no need to take another practice test until you've had the opportunity to learn more of the required coursework. 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 are those which will test and apply your knowledge such as practice tests, flashcards, and practice questions. Also, it's a good idea to take an online or in-person preparation course which most people find are worth both the time and the money.

Create your own unique study plan.

Now that you've acquired the tools necessary for your preparation, you'll need to create a schedule to organize what you'll work on each week, otherwise, all of that information and pressure is going to feel very overwhelming. 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. 

Check out this sample six month study schedule below to help you create your own:

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