5 MCAT Mental Health and Prep Tips
The MCAT is an enormous exam, consisting of content from all your premedical undergraduate courses and lasting approximately 6-8 hours. It is also extremely important as one of the final steps before you can be considered for admission to medical school. However, it need not feel like an insurmountable obstacle or a barrier to those who feel stressed or overwhelmed. With the right preparation, perspective, and study tactics, it is an opportunity to show both yourself and medical school admissions committees your accumulated knowledge and exceptional study skills. One set of MCAT study tips you should prioritize are ways of managing stress while studying to avoid burning out or compromising your mental health. Here are our top 5 actionable study tips to prioritize your mental health while studying for the MCAT.
1. Develop a Good Study Plan, But Don’t Be Afraid to Modify It
Developing a good study schedule to follow is one of the most important MCAT study tips you can follow. Your MCAT study plan is critical because disorganization begets stress. Developing a good study plan requires multiple steps. First, set goals based on the amount of time you want to study for, the amount and distribution of material you want to review, and your target score. First and foremost, these goals should be realistic. Do not overestimate your time availability, study efficiency, etc. If you do so, you set yourself up for disappointment and frustration. Conversely, don’t be afraid to be ambitious and shoot for excellent performance, just be honest with yourself about your limitations. Next, break down your goals into smaller chunks. For example, let’s say you aim to complete 10 practice exams and score 15 points higher on your final practice exam compared to your baseline. Given these goals and a full-time study period of 3 months, you might decide to take a practice exam every week except for the first and last weeks and aim to increase your score by 1-2 points per exam.
If during your study period you find that you are being over-or under-ambitious, adjust your overall goals accordingly. You don’t need to get everything correct right off the bat—this should be an iterative process. In fact, you will likely experience unexpected changes or interruptions during your study period. Most of these will be minor, but some will be directly related to your progress and will influence your study strategy. One common manifestation of this is discovering in the middle of your studying that you are stronger in some areas and weaker in others than you originally thought. Maybe you were a chemistry major and expected the CARS section to be most difficult, but you realized that section is very easy, yet you are less comfortable with organic chemistry than expected. That’s ok and adjustments will happen, as aspects of your performance will likely surprise you. Just be open to making changes accordingly to ensure your preparation is going to help you meet your overall goals.
2. Take Frequent, Meaningful Breaks
Taking breaks to break up your MCAT study time is one of those tips which sounds like it can be skipped, but failing to take breaks can result in declined productivity and far less efficient studying. As with any demanding task, frequent breaks are critical. Not only should your breaks be frequent and thoughtfully timed, but they should also be meaningful and constructive. A break should not be a passive passage of time but should instead be an intentional process of rest and recuperation. It is an opportunity to stop your mind from studying or thinking about the material in order to reduce stress, enhance future productivity, and solidify recently learned information. There are a couple of types of breaks you should schedule at different levels. First, throughout your entire study period—whether it’s 6 weeks or 9 months, and whether you are studying part-time or full-time—you should plan to take at least one half or full day off per week where you don’t study at all. Second, during individual study sessions, you should schedule breaks at specific intervals depending on how long each session is. A 2-hour study session might benefit from a single 10-minute break, but a full 8-hour study day should be broken up by several breaks, otherwise, your productivity will steadily decline throughout the day. There are myriad ways of ensuring your breaks are meaningful, for example:
- Do not passively review flashcards or read Student Doctor Network during your breaks; make sure your breaks are completely unrelated to the MCAT.
- Look away from a screen for at least 5 minutes to give your eyes a rest. Read a book, look out your window, or close your eyes and meditate instead.
- Speak with a friend or family member, preferably about something other than studying or life as a pre-medical student.
- Prepare a meal or healthy snack.
- Go for a walk or do a quick exercise to get your blood flowing, which improves focus and memory retention.
Essentially, you want to compartmentalize studying by implementing a hard separation between studying and everything else in your life. In addition to creating meaningful breaks, you should also be as focused as possible while studying so that when you reach your breaks you feel proud of your productivity thus far rather than guilty for not achieving as much as you envisioned. This means eliminating as many distractors as possible. For example, turn off or silence your phone and take it off your desk so that it’s not in your field of vision. Additionally, if you study with music, try to choose a playlist and a music source that will minimize your need to skip ads and fiddle with the track list.
3. Prioritize Self-Care: Eat, Sleep, & Exercise
It’s okay (and often necessary) to temporarily reduce time spent on certain activities while studying for the MCAT, including hobbies and going out with friends. The nature of the exam demands sacrifices, as does the career of medicine. But taking care of yourself cannot be one of those sacrifices. It will negatively impact your performance, which for the MCAT only affects you. But as a doctor, your diminished performance and any mistakes that result will affect your patients. Prioritizing self-care now will maximize your MCAT score and help you get in the habit before your career even starts. The most essential aspects of self-care include cooking and eating well, exercising regularly (even if just for a few minutes at a time), and getting enough sleep (7-9 hours is recommended for most adults). If you have a hard time prioritizing these, consider explicitly adding them into your MCAT study schedule. For instance, try scheduling in consistent wake-up and bedtimes and adding 1-2 hours each day for exercise and cooking into your study schedule.
4. Stay Connected with Friends and Family
While this may not be directly considered an MCAT study tip, it is one of the more important tips to help maintain your mental health while studying for this exam. Rather than distancing yourself from your loved ones to leave more time for studying, it’s more important than ever during studying to connect with your support system. Just make sure they know what you’re going through in advance so that you can reach out on your own time and according to your own terms. Your loved ones will likely want to be as supportive as possible without being intrusive or burdensome, so do yourself a favor let them know how they can achieve that balance. Conversely, avoid social media and sites like Reddit and Student Doctor Network as much as possible. There are bits of useful information and sources of motivation and support, but you often must wade through a minefield of disinformation and negativity to find them. Overall, these sites offer more stress than support and you are better off spending your precious time connecting with friends and family face-to-face (when possible) rather than online.
5. Maintain Perspective
It is difficult to remember while you are in the midst of studying for the MCAT, but what you are doing is extremely unusual. It is not normal to spend hundreds of hours studying for an all-day exam before you can even begin studying medicine. However, it is an exceptional step that you must complete to join the exceptional field of medicine. Maintaining your perspective as this step as unusual and challenging will—perhaps unexpectedly—help you manage your stress. This is because you will feel a range of emotions and heightened stress during your entire study period, but how you respond to these feelings will be very important. If you judge yourself for feeling the way you do, you will only amplify your negative feelings. On the other hand, if you recognize the exceptional nature of the circumstances and remember that life continues to go on as usual outside of your insulated sphere of studying, it is easier to forgive yourself for feeling stressed and anxious. The best ways to maintain your perspective have already been covered:
- Take frequent breaks.
- Connect with loved ones, especially those who are completely outside of medicine.
- Disconnect from social media, pre-med sites where people are discussing their own MCAT studying.
The MCAT is one of the biggest and most important challenges you will face prior to entering medical school. It will be a challenge of intellect, focus, and perseverance, but it does not need to challenge your mental health. We hope these MCAT study tips and mental health tips help you stay healthy and happy during your study period. If you are struggling in any way, remember to always reach out to your support system or find someone to speak with. And if you would like some extra support and study tips from an MCAT tutor, reach out to us for a free consultation to see how we can help you sail smoothly through your MCAT prep!