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 to start their MCAT prep, let alone know 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 dependent 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 start studying for the MCAT.

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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.

Wondering what you are up against? Check out the infographic below to see why the MCAT is so hard!

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. So in addition to practicing with sample MCAT biology questions and chemistry questions, as well as MCAT physics equations, you should review sample MCAT CARS practice questions and expert answers to get used to the test format. 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.

The 4 sections of the MCAT:

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 should you 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. 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. Whatever MCAT test and release dates you choose to consider will also affect when you should start studying.

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 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 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.

Keep the following items in mind when you decide when to start your MCAT prep in earnest:

Keep in mind MCAT CARS

The CARS section of the test is the one that students find the most challenging to prepare for. Why? Because you need to learn how to review MCAT CARS passages and improve your critical thinking and reasoning, rather than learn new content material. In other words, you cannot prepare for CARS by reading textbooks.

Your MCAT CARS strategy should always include challenging reading, and the earlier you begin working on increasing your MCAT reading comprehension, the better. So, when you reflect on when to start studying for the MCAT, keep in mind the skills you need to develop or improve for the CARS section. Simply put, start preparing for MCAT CARS by reading challenging texts as soon as you decide that you want to become a doctor and that you have the MCAT looming on the horizon.

Set a time limit

There is such a thing as too much MCAT studying. If you give yourself endless time to prepare, you will never improve your knowledge or skills, and therefore will not get a good MCAT score. Having a time limit will force you to review, practice, and keep the content fresh in your mind. We recommend having no more than 6 months to prepare for the test, because any longer may result in you forgetting everything you learn at the onset of your preparations.

Plus, remember that MCAT prep is very challenging and time-consuming. You do not want to go through it forever and burn out before you even take the test. So, set a limit on how long you can dedicate to prep and try to stick to your schedule as much as possible.

So how long should you give yourself? If you are going to study part-time, i.e., around 10 hours per week, you should give yourself 6 months to prepare from the moment you take your MCAT diagnostic test. If you are studying for the MCAT full-time, around 20 hours per week, give yourself around 3 months from the day you take a diagnostic. 

Have a look at some MCAT trends below:

MCAT study timeline

The chart below indicates when you should start studying for the MCAT if you plan on using our 6-months MCAT study schedule

How to Study for the MCAT

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 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 MCAT chemistry questions. 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 MCAT study schedule.

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. If you are struggling to create your own customized study plan, reach out to an MCAT tutor or prep agency to help you get organized. This can really alleviate a lot of the stress and anxiety about MCAT prep.

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

Conclusion: Consider Professional Help

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 how to improve your MCAT CARS score, 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.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with regards to when to start studying and how to stick to your schedule, getting help from a professional MCAT tutor or MCAT prep course may be very beneficial. These professionals can help you gauge your baseline and provide the best strategy for getting ready for the exam. Remember, you want to get the best possible score in your first sitting, so you do not have to worry whether you should retake the MCAT. 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 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?

The first half of your MCAT prep will be mostly content review. You should still do some practice tests and quizzes during the first half, but your second half of MCAT prep schedule should include at least 1 full-length practice test a week, along with practice quizzes and content review, especially of the content you miss in your practice tests.

6. Can I get into medical school with low MCAT?

Yes, it is possible to get into medical school with low MCAT, 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.

7. Can I avoid the MCAT?

Yes, there are some medical school that do not require the MCAT, but these are few and far between.

To your success,

Your Friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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