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 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 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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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.
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 gap year before medical school, 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. Decide which MCAT timeline works best for you and when you’d ideally like to take the MCAT. Be sure to schedule a date far enough in advance of your medical school application deadline so that you can still retake the test if you decide to.
Check out our video for a condensed discussion:
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 number 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 to start your MCAT prep in earnest:
#1 MCAT CARS study
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 have the MCAT looming on the horizon.
#2 Setting 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 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, that is, 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 3 months from the day you take a diagnostic.
#3 Part-time and full-time study hours
If you’re still an undergraduate student, you’ll have fewer hours to study for the MCAT and will therefore need more time to adequately study. If you’ve already graduated or you have full-time hours to devote to studying, you may need less time. Evaluate how many hours you can dedicate to MCAT study. For instance, if you have multiple extracurricular activities, a part-time job or coursework taking up a chunk of your schedule, you'll likely only have a few hours each week to squeeze in some studying. If you're on break from classes and only work part-time hours or have fewer extracurricular commitments, you may have room in your schedule for more study hours. Keep in mind that you’ll need to give yourself rest days and work MCAT studying into your employment or coursework schedule. Be honest about how much time you have to dedicate to studying and prepare a reasonable timeline for yourself. If you’d rather take and study for the MCAT when you don’t have any other distractions, consider scheduling your MCAT on a date when you have a break from school, and plan your study schedule around this date.
#4 Diagnostic test results
We recommend taking a full-length MCAT practice test, or diagnostic test, to gauge not only what subject areas you need to focus on while studying, but to determine how much time you will need to study. If you’re not sure when to start studying for your MCAT, taking a diagnostic test and reviewing your results can help. If you’re scoring well below where you want to be, give yourself closer to the 6-month mark to begin studying for the MCAT. For students who are scoring well but have some subject matter areas they need to work on, start studying at the 3-month mark.
Considering an MCAT CARS prep course to help you study? Here's how one can help:
MCAT Study Timeline
The chart below indicates when you should start studying for the MCAT if you plan on using our 6-month MCAT study schedule.
How to Study for the MCAT
1. 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, including getting a good night’s sleep and eating a protein-rich meal beforehand.
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. 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 includes 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 to be worth both the time and money.
3. 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 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.
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 regarding 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.
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