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How to Start Studying for the MCAT

April 5, 2021
Part 1. IntroductionPart 2. What is the MCAT? Part 3. How to Start Studying for the MCATPart 4. MCAT Challenges and Tips for Overcoming Them Part 5. FAQsPart 6. Conclusion

Introduction

If you’re wondering how to start studying for the MCAT, you’re in the right place. It is no wonder that when it's time to finally start studying for the MCAT, students want to know the best way to prepare. Balancing work obligations, a full course load, family, friends, and life in general can be enough of a struggle. You’ve probably heard stories from other premed students who went to prestigious colleges; their GPA was amazing and they had a variety of experiences - yet, were still rejected from every med school.

Despite obvious achievements, these students probably had less than ideal MCAT scores. The process of getting into med school, as you know, is extremely difficult. Think of the MCAT as being in the top tier of what admissions committees look for when they are evaluating an applicant. Many qualified students don’t get into medical school because of a low MCAT score. Low scorers end up with these marks for many reasons, the main one being that they weren’t prepared. This guide will cover the MCAT basics including how to start studying for the MCAT.

What is the MCAT?  

The MCAT, Medical College Admission Test, is without a doubt, one of the most important tests for medical school admissions. This test is a computer-based, multiple choice, standardized exam that is required for admissions into most medical schools in the US and Canada. 

The Association of American Medical Colleges administers the test to provide medical schools with measures for looking and comparing an applicant's qualifications and readiness for med school. Admission committees look at your MCAT score and GPA to assess your academic foundations. 

If you prepare well in advance and study thoroughly, a high score on your MCAT will not only have a positive impact on your med school application but it will also give you a competitive edge over applicants. However, you shouldn’t just assume that you can easily achieve a high score on the MCAT. This exam is way more difficult than a college test; the MCAT is an interdisciplinary exam that tests your knowledge of subjects such as physics, chemistry, and biology. In addition to this, the MCAT tests your problem-solving skills by requiring you to “reason beyond the text” in the difficult MCAT CARS section of the test. 

Another challenging  aspect of the MCAT is that it's designed to last approximately seven and a half hours. The exam is to be completed at a slow and practical pace since obtaining a high score demands intellectual endurance. 

Breakdown of MCAT Time Structure:

7h and 30 minutes of “seated time” (including breaks) / 6 hours and 15 minutes is the overall content time (not including breaks). 

1. Optional tutorial: 10 minutes

2. Section 1: Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (59 questions)

3. Optional Break: 10 minutes

4. Section 2: Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS 53 questions)

5. Lunch Break: 30 minutes

6. Section 3: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems  (59 questions

7. Option Break: 10 minutes 

8. Section 4: Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (59 questions)

9. Void question: 5 min 

10. Optional Satisfaction Survey: 5 mins (12 questions)

On the MCAT, you are required to show your mastery of the courses you have taken to solve the problems asked. You must have a deep understanding of a concept to be able to apply it to the MCAT. Just knowing the answer won’t be enough to score well on this exam. 

Four Sections of the MCAT:

1. Psychological, Biological, and Social Foundations of Behavior - 95mins 

2. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems - 95 mins

3. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems - 95 mins 

4. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (MCAT CARS) - 90 mins 

Pie graph depicting the four MCAT sections


Each of these four sections of the MCAT is scored between 118 to 132, the median being 125. Overall, the total test score ranges from 472 to 528, with a median of 500. 

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior 

- This section takes 95 minutes to complete 

- 44 passage-related questions, 15 stand-alone questions = 59 questions

- Score range from 118 to 132

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems 

- 95 minutes to complete

- 44 passage-related questions, 15 stand-alone total = 59 questions 

- Score range from 118 to 132 

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems 

- 95 minutes to complete

- 44 passage-related questions, 15 stand-alone = 59 questions 

- Score range between 118 to 132

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) 

- 90 minutes to complete

- 53 passage-related questions

- Score range from 118 to 132

Subjects you may be tested on: 

1. Biology

2. Physics

3. Organic Chemistry

4. Research methods and statistics

5. Psychology

6. Sociology

7. Ethics and Philosophy 

8. Cultural Studies 

9. Social Sciences and Humanities

10. Biochemistry

There are many possibilities of what you will be tested on so make sure you’re well prepared. These sections are often integrated, meaning that subjects aren’t tested independently. There will be overlapping areas of concentration. 

When considering your overall MCAT score goal, it is a good idea to look at the minimum requirements for the schools to which you’re applying. The MCAT is administered around 25 times per year between January and September. It is recommended that you register for your MCAT test date early, so you can get your first pick at a location, time, and date.

How to start studying for the MCAT 

You must prepare to pass and achieve a high score on the MCAT. If you can, you should start preparation by choosing classes that will prep you for the exam. While you’re in college, review your coursework regularly. Most of what will be on the MCAT exam will be covered during your first and second year of undergrad. On average, students require around 10-15 hours a week to study for the exam. This is over a period ranging from 3-6 months, depending on the individual. In total, you should aim for 250-300 hours of total study time. Follow these steps below to start studying effectively for the MCAT: 

Learn About the MCAT

The AAMC has created a fantastic document, the MCAT Essentials, to give you a thorough overview on everything you need to know about the test. Start by reviewing this information, then move onto the next steps we have outlined below. Here are some quick MCAT history facts:          

- The MCAT was created in 1928 by the Association of American Medical Colleges for one purpose: Admissions to medical colleges (primarily in the U.S and Canada)

- In the 1920s, there was a great influx of med school dropout rates (5 to 50%). This lead to the development of the MCAT, a test that measures readiness for medical school 

- The test went through multiple different phases as times changed. The most recent change was released five years ago. The MR5 committee surveyed residents, medical students, and medical school faculty about concepts and considered everyone's opinions. 

- The largest changes in the exam consist of the realms of psychology, sociology, and biochemistry concepts. Biochemistry was added because of the survey results showing that these concepts are one of the  determining aspects for success in medical school curricula. 

- The addition of cultural and behavioral material was also recommended five years ago to provide a solid foundation for learning this material in med school.

Determine Your Baseline

How close are you currently to reaching your goals? How much time do you need to dedicate to studying? To answer these questions, you’ll need to take a full-length MCAT diagnostic test to determine your baseline. You need to know what level of knowledge you possess in order to succeed. In addition, you’ll be able to determine areas where your knowledge is lacking. It is also important  to get used to the format of the MCAT and how the questions will be asked. 

Determine Your Goal Score

Which med school do you want to attend ? What MCAT score do you need to achieve to be seen as competitive? Looking at the previous years class profile on medical school websites is a great place to start. You should aim to meet or exceed the average accepted MCAT scores. 

Acquire Study Materials

It is also important to acquire useful study resources during this time. Talk to people who have already taken the MCAT. Use online resources to your advantage. Use free MCAT tests and practice them as much as you possibly can. The Association of American Medical Colleges has plenty of advice on how to study for the MCAT. Including personal stories, you can find here: Association of American Medical Colleges

The AAMC even has an MCAT Essentials Guide you can use. We also recommend you use an online calendar. This is a great way to keep track of and accessing personal study plans on the spot. You can also share a calendar with other colleagues so you both know each other's schedules and can help each other out. 

Take Time to Learn the Different Formats/Structures and Their Time Lengths

Understand that the MCAT is broken down into different formats (read above to learn about all of them). A quick recap: there are three, 95 minutes sections and one 90 minutes section. You will be given optional breaks in-between all sections. 

Find Your Ideal Study Schedule

Determine when you should start preparing and for how long each day. Look at your goal score in comparison to your current baseline score. Be realistic about the time it will take to get there. You will need to map out how much time you have each week to study. Find out what kind of time-commitment you’re able to make each week. Be sure not to burn out and take time for other obligations such as: work, classes, family and friends.  

Build Stamina by Taking Practice Tests

The MCAT is a very long test. As previously mentioned, you’re likely to spend about 8 hours at the test centre. Taking practice tests will allow you to build up the extra stamina you need to do well on the real test. You should also be frequently reviewing these tests. We recommend tracking practice exams on a spreadsheet to help you learn and improve. This will give you a clear indication of if you’re prepared and meeting your goals.

Study Your Work (Failures and Correct Answers)

On practice problems, study materials, and tests - go over each correct answer and failure. This is helpful for your long-term study goals. Once you have identified your weaknesses, you will have to put more time into those areas. Your study schedule can be altered in order to meet this goal. 

Take Care of Yourself Mentally and Physically

In terms of building stamina, you must prioritize not only your mental health but also your physical health. Ensure you are well rested,  hydrated, and take regular breaks. Overall, the state of your body will have a direct impact on your mind. Take care of both. 

MCAT Challenges and Tips for Overcoming Them 

1. Emotions are Running High

Premed students often mistake the MCAT as only a mental test. However, it's a physical and emotional test as well. You will have to identify what  emotions are part of the journey and start controlling them so you can work them to your advantage. For example, most students are fearful of taking the MCAT. Fear is an emotion that paralyzes us from real growth. 

Gain Control Over Your Emotions

If you have no control over your emotions, you will put off studying for your MCAT for as long as you possibly can. The entire process is a long one, procrastination will not help. If you let your negative emotions control you, you won’t perform at your best. 

Build Confidence

Remind yourself about how far you’ve come. Do not dwell on your weaknesses and instead, practice building them up. Acknowledge your strong points and which parts of the test you know you’ll ace. 

Healthy Habits

Take good care of yourself during the months leading up to your MCAT. Go to sleep at regular times, drink a lot of water, and exercise regularly. You’re going to need to be in tip-top shape mentally, emotionally, and physically to do well on the exam. 

2. The MCAT is a Passage-Based Exam

Almost all of the questions on the MCAT will be paired with a 7-paragraph passage. This format adds layers upon layers of complexity to the exam. Memorization will not serve you in this case. You will need to synthesize the information between passages. Study and learn how to quickly analyze graphs and practice digesting specific information.

3. The MCAT Asks a lot of Questions (230 to be Exact)

Students often struggle to finish sections of the exam in the amount of time you have to complete specific sections. To combat this, beforehand - take a lot of long practice exams. Make sure to take your practice tests seriously, as if they were the real deal. Even take breaks as if it were the real test. 

4. The MCAT Tests Many Different Subjects

For each subject, choose the most effective strategy for each of the question types. If you know for example you’re not good at organic chemistry, put more time into practice questions relating to that subject. 

5. The MCAT is Timed

The timing of the MCAT is a big challenge for students. You can overcome this by keeping track of your  timing while doing your practice tests. It's important to do these tests often, so you can get to your targeted time goal.

FAQs 

1. How much time should I spend studying for the  MCAT? 

We recommend a minimum of three months. If you have the opportunity to start earlier and prep your courses around the MCAT, that would also be a great opportunity to gain an advantage.

2. How much does the MCAT cost to take? 

The MCAT costs $310 during regular registration periods. However, this price increases if you reschedule or register late. 

3. When is the registration period? 

The MCAT is offered between January and September. The test is administered approximately 25 times a year. 

4. When is the best time to take the exam?

We recommend taking the MCAT the year before you want to apply to medical school. If you leave it until the last minute, there is more room for error. Also, the added stress of rushing to take the MCAT will only result in poor grades. 

5. How often can I take the MCAT exam?

The exam can only be taken a total of 7 times in a lifetime. You can take it up to three times in a single year (if you fail it the first time). 

6. Should I take the optional breaks?

You can immediately go on to the next portion of the exam if you don’t need a break. However, if you don’t take a break - you don’t save that time for the next section of the exam. We highly recommend that you take your breaks. You may feel like you can push through, but fatigue has a certain way of catching up to you. Use your breaks to drink, eat, take a rest, use the restroom and to give your mind a break. Pacing yourself is important so you don’t burn out.

Conclusion

By following the steps presented in this guide and putting them into practice, you will be much closer to getting into the school of your dreams. The MCAT takes a lot of patience, endurance, emotional, and intellectual power to complete. It is best to take control of your wellbeing during the months leading up to the test to do well. With determination, consistent studying, and avoiding procrastination, you will be able to achieve your desired score. Knowing how to start studying for the MCAT can be daunting but  by following the advice presented in this article, you’ll have the opportunity to  achieve an excellent MCAT score.

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