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Active Learning Study Tips for the MCAT

11 min


someone taking notes and using laptop to study for MCAT


Preparing for the MCAT requires many hours of consistent studying and a well-defined schedule. Although sticking to a schedule and putting in the hours are necessary, they are not sufficient. So we’ve put together a list of active learning study tips for your MCAT!


Your performance on exam day will only be as good as the quality of your studying, which is determined in large part by the study skills you employ. Everyone learns and studies differently in some regards. For example, some focus better in the evening and others in the morning, and some can only focus for an hour at a time whereas others prefer longer uninterrupted study periods. However, certain features of learning apply to all of us. Of these, perhaps the most important is active learning. Passive learning amounts to wasted hours of studying because the information will be misunderstood, forgotten, or never even truly learned if your attention is not completely directed towards the material. Active learning, on the other hand, ensures time well spent in terms of acquiring new knowledge, making sense of it, integrating it with other knowledge, and ingraining it into long-term memory. Achieving consistent active learning requires your constant dedication; read on to find out what steps you can take to practice active learning for the MCAT.



Mix Up Your Study Schedule


Change your study schedule day-to-day so that you don’t get into a routine that is too fixed. This refers only to content—having a routine in terms of timing, study session length, breaks, etc. is crucial. Those ensure your focus is consistent. However, if you study the same subject at the same time every day or always after the same subject, you will get used to seeing material at a certain time of day or paired with another set of material. Although on exam day you will take the four sections in a pre-determined order that’s the same for everyone, each section will include integrative content related to other subjects. Therefore, you will be the most prepared if you are used to seeing every subject at various times of the day and in multiple orders. Similarly, you should frequently intermix questions from different topics throughout a single study session, so ydou are integrating ifferent but related concepts to achieve a more global understanding. Because this requires so much effort, it will require active thinking and learning to make those connections.



Complete Practice Problems and Review Every Answer (Whether Correct or Incorrect)


The MCAT is a multiple-choice exam, so one of the best ways to prepare is to complete hundreds or thousands of practice questions. Focus on trusted, high-quality resources that offer accurate practice questions along with rationales for each answer. UWorld meets each of these criteria and includes unique extras such as illustrations and performance tracking, making it a great resource for MCAT. While completing practice problems, the best way to make sure you are learning actively is to double check that you’ve read the entire vignette and can rephrase it aloud before answering the question. Additionally, take advantage of the detailed explanations available for each answer by reviewing all of them, whether you got the question right or wrong. (You may find that sometimes you reason your way to the correct answer but actually misunderstood the question, indicating room for additional learning.)



Take Notes While You Read


Reviewing core material, especially from pre-med classes that you took early in college (e.g., general chemistry), is a fundamental part of MCAT preparation. Whether you are reviewing your own notes from class or a test prep book set, you will likely read a lot before transitioning to practice questions (or as you complete them). Reading for hours at a time can easily shift into a passive and unproductive activity if you are tired, bored, or anxious. Active reading requires your full attention, so consider integrating note-taking into your reading to ensure your mind is active and engaged. If you are using your own college notes, you might either decide to restructure your notes (see below) or add to them as you read, documenting new facts or related concepts you’ve discovered since taking the original class. Or, if you are using a test prep book, annotating as you read both helps you slow down to think and builds in frequent mini-breaks. Taking notes will transform your passive learning, into active learning. This is one of the more important MCAT study tips you should take notice of.



Restructure Your Notes to Synthesize and Solidify Knowledge


After you finish taking notes on a topic, one of the additional study tips we can offer for your MCAT study period is to restructure or reformat your notes. This is not the same as re-writing your notes; the goal here is not rote memorization by repeating what you’ve already written in exactly the same way. Rather, the idea is to test your understanding and find new connections among material by thinking about what you’ve learned and recreating diagrams, tables, or summary points. This strategy is especially helpful for biochemical pathways, organic chemistry reactions, and physics concepts that can be easily illustrated.



Make Flash Cards and Follow Best Practices


As you read notes or review practice problems, make flash cards for key facts and especially challenging or hard to remember concepts. Be careful to use flash cards wisely though, as they can be a way of simply sinking hours into rote memorization that achieves little more than short-term pattern recognition. However, if you abide by the following flash card best practices (which are broadly applicable to Anki and other formats), you can get the most out of your time and supplement your other active learning strategies.

  1. Make sure you truly understand a concept or fact before you make a flashcard for it
  2. Keep each card as simple and concise as possible (do not copy entire paragraphs)
  3. Include diagrams and tables when possible
  4. Mnemonics are incredibly helpful, but don’t overuse them
  5. Embrace redundancy (make multiple cards explaining tough concepts in different ways)


Your MCAT prep is in your hands, and you can set yourself up for success by following these study tips for active learning. These are major, widely used strategies but this list is not exhaustive. Think about how you study best, and most importantly, make sure that you are interested and engaged in what you are doing because then the learning will come more naturally!

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