So, your first MCAT exam is on the horizon. You know it’s going to be tough, and you’re wondering when to start studying for the MCAT. The answer to that question varies with each person.
Deciding when to start your MCAT preparation requires you to consider several factors. We’ll discuss these factors in this post. However, you should know that there’s a rule of thumb.
The best time to start studying for MCAT is 3 to 6 months before the exam. Your actual starting period should mostly depend on your time commitments. If you work full-time or attend university, you’ll need more time to prepare; hence, 6 months. If you have a lot of free time, 3 months should be enough.
Knowing when to start studying for MCAT will help you to prepare better. In the end, your hard work and foresight will reflect positively on your MCAT scores.
In the next sections, we’ll reveal how much time you need to fully prepare for the MCAT. We’ll also talk about the ideal time to begin based on your current situation.
Need study tips? We’ve got those too.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
How Long Should You Study for MCAT
The Medical College Admissions Test is no cake-walk. We recommend that you dedicate 300 hours from the months before the MCAT date to studying. From our experience and research, that’s the required time for most candidates to be fully prepared to ace the test.
The speed at which you complete the recommended 300 hours of study will depend on your daily and weekly study schedule.
For example, someone who studies 15 hours a week will reach that threshold in 20 weeks. That is roughly five months.
Another person who dedicates 20 hours a week will be done in three to four months.
If you can afford to, you may study for 30+ hours a week. It will allow you to cover more ground early and take away some of the pressure that comes with your first MCAT.
The number of weeks or months you have before the exam may influence the weekly hours you allocate for MCAT studies. However, that’s not the only factor to consider. There are several others, and we’ll discuss them next.
Factors that Should Determine When to Start Studying
Starting Knowledge Level
Some people discover their strong affinity for science subjects in high school and university. The MCAT has some prerequisite coursework that test takers should have completed in their undergraduate years.
However, while some students excel at courses such as Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, others struggle. Let’s not forget about the soon-to-be MCAT participants with no prior science background.
In essence, we all start our journey to MCAT success at different levels. The lower your knowledge level, the more time you’ll need to prepare, and the sooner you should begin.
A good way to quantify your current readiness and knowledge level is to take a diagnostic MCAT test.
This is a practice test that simulates the MCAT. You should time yourself and sit for this test like you would on D-day.
When you’re done, check your total and section scores. You’ll learn three key facts from the result of your first practice test:
- Your level of preparedness
- How much work and time you need to put in
- What sections you need to work on more
Generally, scoring in the 90th percentile or higher is a sign that you’re ready to take the MCAT right away.
It’s unsafe to assume that you’ll have all the time you need to study. Hence, consider what your schedule could look like now and in the future.
If you’re an undergraduate about to take the MCAT, you should expect to follow a part-time study system. The time most students spend studying in the university is a lot. Adding extra study time requires careful adjustments.
The same thing happens if you have a job. So, even if you’re a graduate who took a gap year, you may find yourself dividing your time between work and MCAT prep.
The worst-case scenario is probably having a part-time job and attending university. You may have to either limit your study time or make adjustments to your commitments.
The less time you have to study for the MCAT, the earlier you should get started.
MCAT Test Date
You should always allow several months between your registration and the actual test date. However, you have no control over the application timeline of medical schools.
Most medical schools will need you to surpass a specific MCAT score before they can even consider you.
A lot of people prefer to have their MCAT scores ready before submitting their medical school applications. If you’re one of them, you may find yourself setting a test date that appears too close.
The closer your exam date, the sooner you should begin preparations.
However, if you ever feel like you won’t be able to cover enough ground before the exam, worry not. You may cancel or reschedule at any time until ten days before the test date.
Physical and Mental Capabilities
Always consider your mental and physical health when creating a study schedule. Determine your mental capabilities by asking yourself key questions. Here are some examples:
- Can you realistically handle X hours of study a week for several months?
- Do you tend to forget old information after some time has passed?
- How likely are you to burn out after studying for four, five, or six months?
Start early if you can only handle a few hours of study a week. Also, consider your current physical and mental state, and hold off if you need to.
If you’re suffering from an illness, you shouldn’t start studying until you recover.
The MCAT isn’t your first test. Before now, you’ve written and passed dozens of other tests and exams.
Think of all your experiences with those tests as raw data that you should process to determine your favorable study habits.
Granted, some habits can be bad, such as not taking breaks in between. However, many of them have helped you reach your current level.
Figure out your good study habits. For instance, some people study best at night and others in the morning.
There are others that study best in groups. If you’re one of them, you may have to set your study schedule (including starting date) to coincide with others in your study group.
Your study habits will determine how many hours a day you can study effectively. Use this info to decide the best time to begin MCAT prep.
MCAT Prep Timeline
Once you’ve landed on a starting date for your MCAT studies, the next steps are crucial to your success.
To keep you from getting confused, we’ve created a highly effective timeline to help you get ready for your test. Check out the six phases of MCAT preparation below.
The worst mistake you can make before the MCAT is overestimating your capabilities. That’s why your first step should be to take an early diagnostic exam.
The resulting total score should be one of several factors that determine when to start studying for MCAT. You should also consider section scores.
The next five phases of this timeline require you to know your strengths and weaknesses. The early diagnostic test allows you to get that info from the get-go.
To ensure maximum accuracy, take the practice test in a single sitting, as you would the real exam. Time yourself accordingly and give it your all.
Now it’s time to gather. Write a list of everything you’ll need for MCAT prep in the next few months. These may include the following:
- Mock or practice tests
- Mock questions
- MCAT prep courses
- Study devices (e.g., laptops, tablets, notebooks)
- Video content
This phase is also an extension of the diagnostic stage. That’s because you should gather resources based on the results of phase one.
The MCAT has four sections:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
If, for example, you discover that you have problems with the CARS section, you should gather enough learning material to help with that. It may also help if you take a special CARS course.
You can use this time to look into hiring a private tutor or joining a study group. Tutors are most effective when your baseline knowledge is weak, and you have little time before the exam.
Once you have everything you need for your study, it’s time to map out your next steps. The planning phase involves creating a study schedule. This should tell you what exact subjects to study every day of the week until the days before your exam.
A plan or schedule comes with the following benefits:
- Less stress while studying
- Better productivity and time management
- Reduces the impact of unexpected events
- Improves dedication
In the end, all of the above benefits combine to give you a high MCAT score.
Later in this article, we’ll talk more about creating an effective study schedule.
Your study schedule is only as good as your dedication to it. Hence, be disciplined at all times and stick to the plan!
This is the stage where you pool all of your resources. The work you put in here will get you from your initial knowledge baseline to knowing enough to ace the test and strengthen your medical school application.
Follow your study plan, consult with your mentors or tutors, and avoid unnecessary distractions. Remember to take regular breaks if you have gaps in your schedule.
Once you’ve covered most of the MCAT topics, you should move to the practice phase. What you do in this period should show in your study schedule. For instance, you may dedicate an entire day to start and finish one practice test.
Note that this stage is not strictly for taking mock exams. Only allocate 70% of your study time to practicing. The rest should be for recapping previous topics you’ve covered. You may also use that time to get more advanced knowledge.
Here’s a good way to combine practice and revisions:
- Take the test
- Check your scores
- Find out what topics you struggled with the most
- Return to your textbooks and relearn those topics
Don’t just skim the answers when reviewing practice test results. Try to understand why you missed a question and what the correct answer should be.
In fact, we recommend that you keep a detailed log of every question you missed during the tests. It should include snippets of info that you can read and understand. These snippets can be definitions, types, examples, or equations related to the question.
- Getting Ready
The last 3-7 days before your MCAT test date fall within the “Getting Ready” phase. This is the best time for you to get things in order. You should take actions that will make taking the exam as convenient for you as possible.
Some of the steps to take are:
- Sleep for at least eight hours every night
- Keep your sleep schedule consistent until the exam date
- Review AAMC testing center policies
- Visit the testing center on a weekday, and observe the traffic situation
- Take note of potential parking spaces at the center
- Eat healthily
- Don’t do too much studying on the day before the exam
How to Create an MCAT Study Schedule
After selecting your test date, the most important phase in the prep timeline is planning. That is where you create a study schedule, as mentioned in the previous section.
Below is a step-by-step guide to help you with that:
Step 1: Gather All Essential Info
The first step is to write down a list of key info that will help you form your schedule. This info includes the following:
- Test date (after registration)
- Start date (based on the factors discussed above)
- All time commitments (work, school, courses or class, meetings, family time, etc.)
- Total study time allocation (should be 300+ hours)
- Weekly study time allocation (e.g., 20 hours a week)
Step 2: Build a Template for Each Week and Day
Next, you’ll create the foundation of a tangible study schedule that will dictate the next few months of your life.
You can design a schedule with pen and paper. If you prefer to build a digital version, there are several study planning apps to help you with this.
Build a template for a week and the seven slots for each day in it.
Next, regenerate that template multiple times until the exam date. The number of weeks you have should correspond with the number of weeks you need to meet your target of 300+ hours.
Step 3: Fill Slots for Time Commitments
Use bullet points or checkboxes to itemize the activities you’ll carry out on a particular day. Fill day slots with your time commitments (see examples in Step #1).
Step 4: Fill Slots for Content Reading
Fill day slots with topics you plan to study and where you’ll be getting the info. For instance:
- Organic chemistry (textbook. Jonathan Clayden, 2012)
Take your time filling these slots. You can allocate the topics based on your current situation and the results of your diagnostic test.
Step 5: Fill Slots for Practice
Fill day slots with items that tell you to take a practice test or review the results of a previous test.
You shouldn’t have any other activity items besides your mock test items. The exam alone could take the whole day.
Step 6: Fill Slots for Breaks
Don’t forget to include breaks in your schedule. You could give yourself free days.
These breaks can also include flexible days. These are days when you have the power to choose between study and relaxation.
You’re all set! It’s time to stick to your schedule and earn success in the MCAT.
MCAT Study Tips
- Take Regular Breaks
Don’t overwork yourself. Studying 16 hours a day will only make you burn out. Keep rest days in mind when creating your study schedule.
- Be Open to Changes
If you notice a flaw in your plan, study method, or learning content, feel free to make changes. Nothing is set in stone when it comes to MCAT preparation.
- Create Daily Goals
Create a realistic goal for each activity item in your daily slot. So, if the plan is to study “Waves,” write down your goal for that topic. For instance, the basics of light and sound waves.
- Keep Practicing
Practice tests are vital. Take as many as you can before your test date. We recommend at least five. They help you to quantify your progress, build stamina, and grow sharper.
- Quality Over Quantity
Speed is not important when it comes to studying. Make sure you fully understand each bit of info before moving on.
- Use More MCAT-Specific Material
Textbooks are great for overall and advanced knowledge. However, MCAT-specific content is more effective.
Frequently Asked Questions
What year do you start studying for the MCAT?
The earliest time to take the MCAT is in your junior year. Hence, you should start to study for it in your sophomore year.
Is 3 months enough to study for MCAT?
3 months is enough time to study for MCAT if you study for 25 hours a week. You’ll need to stick to a strict schedule to complete the recommended 300 hours of study time.
Is 6 months too long to study for MCAT?
6 months is NOT too long to study for the MCAT. You’ll still need to study for 12 hours per week to be ready.
The MCAT may be hard, but giving yourself enough time to prepare makes it way easier. Remember to avoid stressful situations in your prep stage.
Try to get the support of your family and friends as you embark on this long but rewarding journey.
Author at OnlineCourseing