How to Study for the MCAT: All You Need to Know

November 21, 2023
4 min read


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

Third-Year Medical Student, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed: 11/21/23

Wondering how to study for the MCAT? You’ve come to the right place. Let’s take a look at the ins and outs of MCAT prep. 

Preparing for the MCAT is not just about studying; it's about studying effectively. The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a challenging exam that plays a key role in your journey to medical school. 

To succeed, you need a solid study plan that aligns with your strengths and weaknesses, a well-structured timeline, and effective study habits. 

In this guide, we'll dive into the key strategies and insights you need to know to prepare for the MCAT effectively and boost your chances of success. So, let's get started on the path to MCAT excellence!

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How to Study for the MCAT

If you’re wondering how to pass the MCAT, you need to know how to approach studying. Prepping for the MCAT requires a strategic approach and a well-thought-out study plan to boost your chances of success in this crucial examination. Let’s break down what you can do. 

Woman studying anatomy on tablet

Optimal Timeline for MCAT Preparation

MCAT preparation requires not only dedication but also a well-structured timeline. To set yourself up for success, consider relying on the following timeline:

Several Years Before the Exam

Before beginning your MCAT preparation, it's essential to understand the nature of the MCAT exam. Taking the time to explore the MCAT's content, structure, and scoring system using official AAMC resources is a valuable step. 

This early research not only sets the stage for your academic success but also guides your selection of undergraduate courses. 

Throughout Your Undergraduate Years

During your undergrad years, keep in mind that MCAT prep starts with your course selection. While excelling in your major and meeting med school prerequisites is crucial, don't narrow your focus solely to science courses. 

Biology, chemistry, and physics are vital, but embracing a range of subjects like humanities and psychology can boost your critical thinking skills. Maintaining this balance will give you a well-rounded foundation.

One to Two Years Before the Exam

Plan to kickstart your MCAT preparation a good one to two years before your chosen exam date. By dedicating consistent weekly hours to study during this period, you'll get a handle on the core concepts and build a strong foundation. 

Plus, early prep gives you room to maneuver. If you stumble along the way, you've got the flexibility to revisit topics and reach out for help. 

Remember that it's not just about putting in hours; it's about making those hours count. So, do your best to understand the material instead of memorizing it. 

Craft a well-structured study plan that incorporates a variety of resources like textbooks and practice questions. Don't forget to regularly review what you've learned to solidify your grasp of the content. 

Plus, make sure your study schedule aligns with your personal learning style, stay consistent, and be flexible enough to adjust when needed. This way, you'll be on the right track for MCAT success.

Months Leading Up to the Exam

As your MCAT exam date nears, incorporate practice tests into your routine. They serve as dress rehearsals, helping you assess your readiness, identify weaknesses, and adapt to the test's timing

Try to mimic actual test conditions, scheduling practice exams for the same time as your MCAT. After each test, review your performance, not just the wrong answers but also your approach to the questions you got right.

Last Few Weeks

In the final weeks before your MCAT, intensify your prep. Review challenging topics, take more full-length practice tests, and refine your test-taking strategies. 

Prioritize rest, nutrition, and exercise to build confidence for the exam. Keep in mind that your prep duration can vary. During this time, self-assessment and adaptability are key for MCAT success.

How Long Do You Need to Study?

Preparing for the MCAT isn't one-size-fits-all. On average, pre-med students invest 300 to 350 hours over several months. But your background, habits, commitments, and practice test results impact your prep time. Master the content and adapt your plan for a personalized approach.

Man studying from books and computer

When to Take an MCAT Exam?

Preparing for the MCAT exam is a big undertaking, and choosing the right date for your test is a crucial part of the process. Let's break down the key factors to consider when selecting your MCAT exam date:

  • Academic Prep: Before you even think about scheduling your MCAT, ensure you've completed the prerequisite courses that align with the content covered in the exam. A solid academic foundation in biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology/sociology is essential for success.
  • Study Timeline: Planning ahead is key. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare thoroughly. The general rule of thumb is to dedicate about three months to MCAT prep. Starting early allows you to master the core concepts and build confidence.
  • Application Deadlines: Different medical schools have different application deadlines. Research these deadlines carefully and choose an MCAT date that aligns with your application timeline. Your MCAT score should be available when you need it for your applications.
  • Test Center Availability: MCAT test dates and locations can fill up quickly, especially during peak testing seasons. To secure your preferred date and location, register as early as possible. This proactive approach minimizes the risk of last-minute changes.

Overall, choosing the right MCAT exam date is a big decision.  Thoughtful planning is key to achieving your desired MCAT score and pursuing your dream of a medical career.

MCAT Sections Breakdown

The MCAT consists of a combination of different sections, each with its own focus and challenges. So, let's break it down.

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

In this section, you'll encounter questions that test your knowledge of biology, biochemistry, and some chemistry. 

It's about understanding how living organisms grow, adapt, and function. You'll also need to understand how cells and organ systems collaborate to make it all happen. 

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

Here, you'll need to blend psychology, sociology, and biology know-how. The questions revolve around how our minds, society, and biology affect our perceptions and actions. 

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

This section combines your knowledge of biochemistry, chemistry, and physics to assess your grasp of the chemical and physical principles governing our bodies. You'll delve into the nitty-gritty of how tissues, organs, and systems function. 

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

This section hones your critical thinking abilities. You'll read passages from diverse fields like ethics, philosophy, and social sciences. Then, you'll answer questions that gauge your comprehension, analysis, and reasoning. 

Best Ways to Study for the MCAT—Strategies and Tips

Model brain inside textbook

Getting ready for the MCAT is a big undertaking, and your study habits can have a big impact on how well you fare on the test. Let’s go over the best way to study for the MCAT. 

  • Find Your Baseline: Before you dive into intensive study sessions, it's a good idea to take a full-length practice test. This will give you a starting point to gauge your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Balance Practice and Content: While knowing your science content is crucial, don't get lost in the details. The MCAT also tests your ability to apply knowledge and reason through complex scenarios.
  • Accuracy Over Speed: It's tempting to rush through practice problems, but it's better to start untimed and focus on getting the answers right. Speed can come later.
  • Build Your Endurance: The MCAT is a long haul, and you need to be mentally prepared. Train yourself to concentrate for extended periods with shorter breaks.
  • Practice with Full-length Tests: Experience builds confidence, so aim to take as many full-length practice tests as you can. This mimics the actual test experience and helps you assess your progress.
  • Simulate Real Conditions: During practice tests, mimic the real MCAT experience. Take breaks between sections, don't snack during the test, and stay in the testing zone.
  • Distraction Training: Challenge yourself by working in less-than-ideal settings to practice staying focused amidst distractions.
  • Manage Stress: Remember, it's not all about studying. Build relaxation and exercise into your routine to keep your mind sharp.
  • Constant Self-evaluation: Keep an eye on your progress and identify consistent mistakes. What kinds of questions trip you up? What's slowing you down?
  • Learn from Correct Answers: Don't just focus on what you got wrong. Analyze your correct answers too. How did you arrive at them? Are there question types where you excel?
  • Private MCAT Tutoring: If you're aiming for top-tier scores, consider working with experienced MCAT tutors who have achieved scores of 520 or higher. Their insights and guidance can be invaluable in fine-tuning your preparation and helping you reach your score goals.

By picking up these study habits, you'll be all set for MCAT prep and improve your odds of scoring higher.


Are you wondering how to prepare for the MCAT? Keep reading to learn more. 

1. How Many Questions Are on the MCAT?

There are 230 questions on the MCAT. These questions are distributed across four sections, each focusing on different aspects of knowledge and skills. It's important to note that the test also includes some unscored trial questions as part of the overall question count.

2. What Subjects Are Covered on the MCAT?

The MCAT comprises four sections:

  1. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BBLS)
  2. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CPBS)
  3. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (PSBB)
  4. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

The first three sections cover various science subjects, while the CARS section focuses on critical analysis and reasoning skills.

3. Is It Beneficial to Study With a Group for the MCAT?

Studying with a group for the MCAT can be a great idea, but it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. It can provide some key benefits like accountability, sharing the workload, and creating a sense of camaraderie. 

However, whether it works well for you depends on various factors. It's important to ensure that the group's dynamics align with your study needs and preferences.

4. What Is the Most Challenging Part of the MCAT for Most Students?

The hardest sections of the MCAT for most students tend to be either Chem/Phys or CARS. However, it's important to note that the level of difficulty can vary from one student to another based on their individual strengths and weaknesses.

5. How Long Should I Prepare for the MCAT?

On average, pre-med students dedicate about 300 to 350 hours over several months to MCAT prep. However, your specific timeline depends on factors like your academic background, study habits, commitments, and practice test results.

Final Thoughts

Preparing for the MCAT is a crucial step in your medical school journey. It's not just about studying; it's about studying effectively. This guide has provided key strategies, from understanding the exam's content to mastering test-taking strategies. 

Remember, your MCAT journey is all your own. Stay dedicated, stay nimble, and stay true to your goals. With the right approach, you can boost your chances of success and take a step toward your dream of a medical career. 

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