MCAT Study Schedule: How to Create an Effective Test Plan
February 10, 2017
How to Create an Effective MCAT Study Schedule
Hi, my name’s Travis and I’m an MCAT tutor with MyGuru. One of the services I provide for students is helping them create a study schedule for the MCAT. In fact, study planning might be the most important part of the MCAT preparation process. Preparing for the MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s good to have a plan that works for you! To build an MCAT study schedule for yourself, you should consider the following:
1. When is your test date?
Obviously, your test date will influence how you plan your MCAT study schedule! When it comes to picking the test date, though, there are strategic considerations to be made. For example, AMCAS applications open for submission in June, so while you might tempted to take the MCAT in the summer when you are free of classwork, it may not be the best move if you plan to apply that year. Especially when the AMCAS application takes a lot of time and energy – writing a personal statement, filling out the activities and experiences section, asking for letters of recommendation – you don't want your MCAT prep to take the back seat!
Sometimes, taking a class concurrently with your MCAT studies can kill two birds with one stone by fulfilling graduation requirements AND helping prepare you for the MCAT. Taking Biochem or Physiology while preparing for the MCAT will keep these high yield subjects fresher in your memory! If you have a heavy class or work schedule, though, it may be best to take the MCAT at a later date to allow you to devote more time and energy to studying. Keep these things in mind when picking your test date.
2. How much of your time can you devote?
It’s a good idea to estimate how many hours a week you can give to studying in light of your work/class/extracurricular schedule. Reading a review chapter and answering section questions can take anything from 1-4 hours, depending on whose prep book you’re using, the subject matter, and how quickly you read and do math. On average, I find students often need 2-4 hours for Physics chapters, 1-3 for Chem and Bio, and 1-2 for Psych/Soc. You can use these figures to timebox the chapters in your prep book day-by-day in a study calendar, and determine when you will be finished with content review. Students who can devote full-time hours to studying can typically finish Next Step’s books in about a month, for instance.
3. How much time will you have after content review?
I recommend people take a full length, or one of many diagnostic exams available online, to get a feel for the format of the test and determine what areas they are weak in based on their scores. However, I think it’s good to front load the content review before getting heavily into doing practice exams. The MCAT is about drawing connections between science topics, and you will be more likely to see these connections the more content background you have. When making your schedule, time box the content review, then anticipate that you will want at least 6 weeks where you do nothing but practice by taking full-length practice tests and using resources like question banks provided by the AAMC or test prep companies.
4. Don’t get burned out.
Taking a practice test is an all-day event – the MCAT is a grueling 7 hours long. Doing full length exams back-to-back can be a draining experience. Therefore, I recommend spacing full lengths 2-3 days apart, and working on “lighter” practice like the AAMC Qbanks, Khan Academy passages, or resources provided by test companies. Some companies, like Kaplan, offer an online quiz bank where you can generate a list of questions by topic. This can be particularly useful to bone up on areas you did poorly on in a previous practice test.
I recommend doing one of the two (as of this writing) currently official AAMC full length exams right after you finish content review, and then the other 2-3 weeks before Test Day. That way, you can see how your studying has prepared you to work with the official material, which test prep companies can only try to mimic (with varying levels of success). This way, you can evaluate where you stand and potentially push back your test date if you do not feel ready (you DON’T want to take the MCAT multiple times! Do it once and do it right!)
I also recommend assigning yourself one day a week to not think about the MCAT at all and do whatever it is you like to do to relax and take care of yourself. As you will learn for the Psych/Soc section, stress is NOT conducive to effective mental function! Give yourself regular breaks so you don’t grind yourself down.
5. Cram low-yield/obscure and problematic topics in the last two weeks.
As you take practice tests, you may notice there are topics that confuse you again and again. You should make a list of these and devote extra attention to them on test day. As well, you may frequently come across obscure topics or questions that hinge on unusual problem-solving methods. It’s good to make note of these and cram as much review of them as you can in the time shortly before Test Day, especially if you already feel comfortable with high yield topics. You cannot, unfortunately, realistically know EVERY obscure topic they could ask about, but reviewing ones you’ve seen before may help bring something useful to mind when you see a difficult question on Test Day.
About the Author
Travis is a MyGuru CAT tutor in Chicago. His background includes a BA Sociology and History, Rice University, a pre-medical Post-Baccalaureate Certificate, Northwestern University, MA Sociology, Loyola University Chicago, two years tutoring science for college athletes at Northwestern University, and a year's experience tutoring the MCAT. He has also written over 400 practice questions for a new MCAT prep book.