How to Start Studying for the MCAT

April 25, 2024
6 min read


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

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

Reviewed: 4/25/24

Wondering how to prepare for the MCAT? You’re in the right place. Read on to learn more about how to start studying for your MCAT!

Your MCAT score shows med school admissions committees you have the foundational knowledge and aptitude to succeed in a rigorous curriculum. Understanding test content through continued studying and revision is key to your success! 

This guide will cover the basics of how to start studying for the MCAT so you can shoot for a stellar score and improve your profile. Let’s jump in! 

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How to Start Studying for the MCAT 

How to Start Studying for the MCAT

Achieving a high MCAT score takes hard work and preparation. MCAT prep starts with choosing classes that teach you content you’ll see on the exam. A lot of MCAT content is taught in college-level science courses. 

Based on a recent AAMC survey, applicants reported studying for three months on average for 20 hours weekly. This works out to approximately 240 hours of MCAT prep time.

Tips on how to start studying for the mcat

These steps can help you understand how to begin studying for the MCAT. 

Learn About the MCAT

The AAMC’s MCAT Essentials document gives you a thorough overview of everything you need to know about the test. Brushing up on the MCAT’s history can also help you better understand the test and its purpose:     

  • 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 led 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 largest changes in the exam consist of psychology, sociology, and biochemistry concepts. Biochemistry was added because survey results showed these concepts to be one of the determining aspects for success in medical school curricula. 
  • The addition of cultural and behavioral material was also recommended in the last decade 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 score. 

You need to know what level of knowledge you possess to succeed. In addition, you’ll be able to determine your strengths and areas of improvement. It’s also important to get used to the format of the MCAT and how questions are asked

Determine Your Goal Score

Which med school do you want to attend? What MCAT score do you need to achieve for a more competitive application? Looking at the previous year's class profile on medical school websites is a great place to start. You should aim to meet or exceed the average accepted MCAT scores to strengthen your profile. 

Steps to start studying for the MCAT

Acquire Study Materials

It’s important to acquire useful study resources during this time. Use online resources to your advantage, take practice MCAT tests, and use them as much as possible. The AAMC has plenty of advice on how to study for the MCAT.

We also recommend using an online calendar. This is a great way to track and access personal study plans on the spot. You can also share a calendar with other colleagues, so you know each other's schedules and can help each other out. 

Learn About the MCAT’s Format

The MCAT’s format is broken into different sections. There are three 95-minute sections (Bio/Biochem, Chem/Phys, and Psych) and one 90-minute section (CARS). You’ll be given optional breaks between sections.

MCAT Sections

Find Your Ideal Study Schedule

Determine when you should start preparing and for how long each day. Evaluate your goal score and current score. You’ll need to map out how much time you have each week to study for a detailed MCAT study schedule

Determine how long you can prepare for the MCAT each week. Be sure not to burn out and take time for other obligations!

Build Stamina By Taking Practice Tests

The MCAT is a long test. You’ll likely spend about eight hours at the test center. Taking practice tests allows you to build 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 (Incorrect and Correct Answers)

On practice problems, study materials, and tests, ensure you review each correct and incorrect answer. This is helpful for your long-term study goals. Once you’ve identified your weaknesses, you can put more time into those areas. Your study schedule can be altered 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’re well rested, hydrated, and taking regular breaks. Overall, the state of your body directly impacts your mind. Take care of both. 

MCAT Challenges and Tips for Overcoming Them

Knowing how to study for the MCAT includes avoiding and overcoming potential challenges. Here are some situations you may face and expert MCAT tips on overcoming them like a pro.

Emotions are Running High

Pre-med students often mistake the MCAT for only a mental test. However, it's also a physical and emotional test. You’ll have to identify your emotions and how to use them to your advantage. For example, some students may be fearful of taking the MCAT. Here are some ways to overcome runaway emotions on test day: 

  • Try to gain control over what you’re feeling: Feelings aren’t facts; even if you’re afraid of not performing well, that doesn’t mean it will be true. Try to reframe your feelings: fear of not doing well can be flipped into determination to do your best. 
  • Build confidence: Remind yourself about how far you’ve come. Don’t dwell on your weaknesses; practice building them up. Acknowledge your strong points and which parts of the test you know you’ll ace. 
  • Healthy habits are key: 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 will need to be in tip-top shape mentally, emotionally, and physically to do well on the exam. 

You’ll Need to Do a Lot of Reading

The MCAT is a passage-based exam; almost all questions will be paired with a several-paragraph passage. This format adds complexity to the exam. 

A great way to get around the reading you’ll need to do is to practice reading and understanding similar texts, brush up on your skimming skills, and learn how to quickly pull key information. 

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 allotted to complete specific sections. To combat this, take a lot of long practice exams. Comfortability with the exam’s structure and question types can help you learn to solve questions quickly and get through them all! 

The MCAT Tests Many Subjects

For each subject, choose the most effective strategy for each question type. For example, if you know organic chemistry isn’t your strong suit, put more time into practice questions relating to that subject. 

One of the best MCAT study tips is to practice with subject types as often as possible. For example, don’t study only biology for a week-period; ensure you’re mixing it up with other subjects to keep your mind fresh. 

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 during practice tests. It's important to do these tests often to get to your targeted time goal.

Remember, speed often comes after accuracy. Your first few practice tests should be focused solely on finding correct answers. As you gain more comfort and knowledge, you can improve your speed. 

How Long Should You Study for the MCAT? 

We recommend studying for at least three months before your test date, although how long it takes to prepare for the MCAT depends on your proficiency. According to the AAMC, test-takers usually spend 240 hours on average preparing for the test. This works out to studying approximately 20 hours per week over 12 weeks. 

However, how many hours it takes you to study for the MCAT depends on your baseline and ideal scores, your proficiency, and which med schools you want to apply to. 

FAQs: How to Study for the MCAT

Still have questions about how to get ready for the MCAT? Then check out these FAQs! 

1. How Early Should I Begin Studying for the MCAT? 

We recommend studying for the MCAT at least three months ahead of your test date, but starting even earlier can give you more time to become comfortable with test content! 

2. When Should I Take the MCAT? 

We recommend taking the MCAT the year before you want to apply to med school. Taking the test a year before the application cycle also gives you time for a potential retake

3. How Many Hours Should I Spend Studying for the MCAT? 

The answer depends on your baseline and goal scores, how much time you have before your test date, and how confident you are with MCAT test content. According to the AAMC, test-takers spend 240 hours on average preparing for the test. 

4. How Do I Start Preparing for the MCAT? 

Before studying, you should determine your baseline score, identify a goal, determine how much time you can allot weekly to review, and identify areas you can improve in. 

5. What Is the Most Effective Way to Study for the MCAT? 

Unfortunately, there is no one “most effective” study strategy for the MCAT; everyone learns and prepares differently. Perhaps you love flashcards, explaining topics to another person, or another study method. If you aren’t sure how to study for the MCAT, consider speaking with a seasoned tutor! 

6. Can I Prepare for the MCAT By Myself? 

Some candidates may prefer to study for the MCAT by themselves. However, an MCAT tutor can help you develop a winning study schedule, work through areas you struggle with, and ensure you stay on track. Ultimately, you’re the one who decides what works best for you.

Final Thoughts 

The MCAT takes patience and to complete. You can achieve your desired score with determination, consistent studying, and avoiding procrastination. Knowing how to start preparing for the MCAT can be daunting, but following the advice in this article makes you better positioned to make the most of your MCAT prep!

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