Dominating the MCAT Pt 2. | Optimizing Productivity & Studying


The surge of misinformation bringing question to the scientific enterprise has weaved its way into far more than politics and the pandemic. Far too many MCAT gurus are propagating massively unrealistic expectations about what it takes to conquer this test; others are misguiding students to leverage suboptimal resources and inefficient study strategies.

I’ll separate the reality from the fluff.

This is the second article in this nine-article series – the Dominating the MCAT series – where I will distill everything I have learned in conquering my MCAT into a comprehensive, actionable framework that you can harness and tailor to optimize each aspect of your preparation and test-taking.

If you missed the first article, I would advise you to start there, where I lay three fundamental takeaways that students should carry forth from day one of their MCAT journey and background on my personal experience.


Dominating the MCAT Pt. 1 | Everything You Need to Know Going In

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 2 | Optimizing Productivity & Studying

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 3 | Resources & Timeline

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 4 | 4 Month Study Plan

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 5 | Test-Taking & Reviewing | Strategy for Success

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 6 | Mindset, Testing Anxiety & Managing Uncertainty

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 7 | How I Scored a 132 on P/S

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 8 | Deciding Whether or Not to Push the MCAT

Dominating the MCAT Pt. 9 | Tips, Tricks, Rules & What I Would Do Differently


The insight in this specific article is the golden advice that will elevate your performance as a student both on the MCAT and beyond. I would encourage you to read this piece very thoroughly, but if you don’t have the patience and simply want an actionable plan, scroll down to The Ultimate Guideline for Productivity & Studying Optimization. 

The strategies and tactics I leveraged to sustain peak productivity and optimize my studying for efficiency and rapid improvement are evidence-based (tangentially described here) and will maximize your academic performance on the MCAT and in school if effectively implemented.


1 | What the MCAT Gurus Miss

First and foremost, one of the things that really frustrates me about the MCAT advice on the internet is that there are countless students preaching unrealistic, superficial advice. The reality is, and at the risk of being slightly biased and judgmental, that many online MCAT sources are founded on a population of authors who seem to be disproportionately stressed and anxious, and their intrinsic tendencies lead them to propagate unrealistic expectations that other students will read and strive for, only to feel demoralized as they fail to match the standards set on these sites.

Moreover, these MCAT gurus overlook several variables entirely and have reduced what it takes to conquer the MCAT to a simple line: “use these resources, and study 8-12 hours every day.”

MCAT Progress is not solely a function of time spent studying.

The reality is that there are other critically important measures that should be evaluated on the daily to ensure that you are maximizing your MCAT progress. Moreover, if you can gauge these other measures effectively, you do not need to be putting in 8-12 hours of work every day, which is already difficult to sustain for months on end (and arguably not realistic).

In fact, being able to pull on the other levers that influence your MCAT progress will empower you to treat the “8-12 hour daily goal” as only an asymptote towards which you should striveand not the end-all-be-all of a productive day.

It is important that you be able to measure your MCAT progress beyond just time put in because if that is your only metric for evaluating progress, then you are bound to put yourself in a demoralizing position on the days where you fail to hit that quantity of hours. Each day you go to sleep feeling demoralized, your risk of burnout is increasing.

While I personally strived to hit 8 hours every day (which I will clarify below) and 10-12 hours towards the end of my studying, I oftentimes hit no more than 5-6 hours and felt demoralized not reaching my intended goal. Looking back, I strongly believe that striving for 8-12 hours was not even necessary – there are more variables at play than simply the time put into studying, and if those other levers can be optimized, as I was able to do (but failed to embrace), then your MCAT progress will be starkly accelerated.

Again, your MCAT progress is not solely a function of time spent studying, despite what online posts may lead you to believe.

Let me reframe your understanding of productivity and studying more comprehensively and lay some guidelines to follow so that you have a more precise method of gauging whether or not you are making sufficient MCAT progress with each day of work put in.


2 | The Conceptual Basis of Productivity, Studying and Evaluating MCAT Progress

For the purpose of this guide, I am going to refer to “Productivity” as “MCAT Progress,” because every hour of productive work should be translating to MCAT progress, or else it isn’t productive work.

Many mistakenly believe as I did in high school that your productivity, or MCAT progress, is solely dependent on the number of hours you are able to dedicate to your work each day. That is very far from the case.

MCAT Progress from my perspective is dependent on three variables, described in the formula below, which I’ve derived from an equation posed by Cal Newport in Deep Work. Put this on your wall.


MCAT Progress = Time Spent Studying X Intensity of Focus X Study Technique Efficacy


While it is true that you need to dedicate ample time to studying for the MCAT (hundreds of hours), your progress can be accelerated if you can pull the second and third lever: Intensity of Focus and Efficiency. Everyone overlooks these levers because they are the hardest to measure but I can tell you definitively that if you can pull on these two levers effectively, following the guidelines here, it will have a profound impact on your MCAT progress.

My ability to pull on these two levers (which I am still trying to optimize because there is always room for improvement) is what has separated me from my peers at college and enabled me to dominate this test. The reality is that most college students only focus on the first variable: time put in. And despite these intentions, most aren’t even putting in 8 hours of studying – they have the impression that they are.

I will teach you a method to ensure that you truly hit 8 hours of focused, productive work a day, but more importantly, if you can maximize your intensity of focus and efficiency by being deliberate with each study session and leveraging the best learning strategies and tools, then your hourly yield greatly increases: your retention of information is higher, your performance is better, and you can get far more done in a duration of time.

In summary, if you are gauging your daily MCAT progress by asking yourself whether or not you hit 8-12 hours that day, you are overlooking a lot. Instead, you should be answering to whether or not you have maximized your intensity of focus and efficiency, and you should strive for 8 hours of studying each day, being forgiving with yourself if you fail to hit that intended goal.


3 | How to Optimize Your Intensity of Focus & Efficiency | Maximizing the Hourly Yield

When it comes to optimizing your intensity of focus, it is important to recognize that we all have the capacity to naturally generate and sustain a high intensity of focus. Think about those times where you’ve sat down for a 60-question multiple-choice test to complete in one hour – you power through those questions and time flies, and before you even know it, the clock strikes and it’s time to hand in the test.

In that event, you entered a high intensity of focus, or a flow state, where time just seemed to fly by almost blissfully. You were able to accomplish a massive task at hand and dedicate your full attention to the questions in front of you.

That state of mind – that pure focus – is what we want to generate every time we sit down to study. In that state of mind, your retention is maximized and you are able to work at a much faster rate than if you were daydreaming and your attention wavering.

When it comes to optimizing your intensity of focus, there are two principles to keep in mind:

  1. We can all naturally generate a high intensity of focus, but this requires a ritual, or a routine, that will force us to enter that state deliberately every time we sit down to study.
  2. While we can all naturally generate that high intensity of focus, it is difficult to do so regularly – in reality, the focused state of mind we find ourselves in is often dependent on the nature of the task at hand. A more rigorous, time-sensitive task like answering 59 questions in 95 minutes will surely force you to enter a higher intensity of focus than simply reading a review book for 1 hour, where your mind will wander to a much greater degree.

The framework that I will delve into soon will ensure that your intensity of focus is peaked and sustained.

We can also optimize for efficiency, or the yield of a certain duration of time, by centering our studying around only the most powerful learning tools and strategies.

While increasing the time spent studying will surely pay off in terms of MCAT progress, if we can optimize to be efficient and enter a maximal intensity of focus, leveraging the very best techniques, then we can be softer on ourselves about the number of hours being put in, using those hours solely as a guide, because the other two levers will have a compounding effect that the majority of students do not know how to leverage.

I’ve described this conceptual basis to productivity because I want students to trust that whenever they fail to hit 8 hours of focused work a day, they should embrace that if they’ve maximized their efficiency and intensity of focus, they are making far more progress than they might be otherwise be led to believe if they were solely gauging their progress as a function of time put in.


4 | The Ultimate Guideline for Productivity & Studying Optimization

Recognizing that we should measure our MCAT progress through three variables – time invested on the daily, intensity of focus during each study session, and efficiency underlying the learning strategy or learning tool – I’ve organized this section as a guideline that you can adhere to to ensure that all three variables are dialed in.

To lead a productive MCAT journey, your days will be split into two categories: testing days and study days.

On testing days, you will be taking practice tests and adhering to the MCAT-testing schedule, which is rigorous and will force you to enter a high-intensity level of focus for approximately 7 hours. Given that you will be practicing sustaining this mental state for approximately 8 hours straight, these days are the only days that you should be deliberately practicing endurance building.

On Study Days, your focus is not endurance building. It is strengthening your foundation as much as possible, and the best way you can do that is by striving to maximize your productivity, which is not solely dependent on time, but also on your intensity of focus in each task, and the efficiency of your task, which is dependent on the nature of the tasks completed.

Optimizing your Study Days in terms of Time and Intensity of Focus can be achieved with these four rules:

  • Rule #1Initiate 3-4 study blocks every day, each spanning between 1.5 hours to 4 hours of time – Generally, when I did blocks of questions, I would dedicate 1.5 hours to 1 block of 59 questions and 3 hours to 2 blocks of 59 questions. On the other hand, when I reviewed my practice questions and mistakes, I would take things very slowly: I would sift between different sources of information, oftentimes spending about 10-30 minutes reviewing a mistake to really instill that concept in my brain and to ensure that I never get that question wrong again. These review blocks would oftentimes span 3-4 hours.
  • Rule #2Sustain High-Intensity Focus & Make Every Minute Count – My greatest strength as a student and in navigating my way through my MCAT experience lies in my capacity to maximize the utility of every hour I spend working by entering a high-intensity level of focus. There’s a four-step checklist to generating and sustaining high-intensity focus:
    • Watch a motivational video that lasts no more than 10 minutes – I regularly do this before every study session with a promise to myself that I study after the video. (I would recommend any Kobe Bryant interview – tremendous inspiration). If this just ends up becoming a distraction, be honest with yourself and drop this part of the checklist.
    • Set a timer on Google (ex: simply search up 3-hour timer) for the intended duration of time. Do not stop working until the timer reaches 0. If you finish your task very early, then do not get up: switch to another task like practicing CARS or running through flashcards with Memm. Feel free to leverage the Pomodoro technique, but do not stop your Pomodoro blocks (rests included) until the timer on Google hits 00:00. If your goal is 4 hours of studying, put 4 hours into Google and complete ~8 Pomodoro blocks straight.
    • Verbally promise yourself that you will combat distraction for this entire duration of time: firstly, do not touch your phone and do not take any phone calls or text (Mac iMessage not allowed!) while the timer is running; secondly, do not visit social media while the timer is running. Find satisfaction in the fact that you are entering a meditative state in focusing your attention on solely the task at hand.
    • If you need to reach out to a study-peer for a question, screenshot the question on your computer and send it over to him via email or over text, but social engagement ends there. Review it once your timer comes to an end.
  • Rule #3Measure Your Studying with an 8-Hour iPhone Countdown – At the beginning of every day, set a countdown timer of 8 hours. Every time you initiate a study session, start the timer, and when you finish, stop the timer. Your day ends when that timer hits 0. This is the ultimate test of whether or not your “8 hours” are valid – and this is what I used even when I pushed my studying goals to a 12-hour duration towards the very end of my journey. If you forget to have started it and twenty minutes went by, those twenty minutes didn’t count. The timer has to hit 00:00.
  • Rule #4 – Treat Yourself With Compassion When Efficiency is Compromised – when engaging in higher-intensity tasks, you may find your focus and alertness wane. That is completely natural and should not be an excuse to stop working. Spend at least 15-20 minutes pushing yourself to complete the task, and once you feel like you’ve acquired flow, sustain your focus until the Google timer comes to 00:00. You’ll oftentimes hit a breakthrough in your capacity to work when you push through these natural sluggish moments. However, if your focus is obviously substantially reduced for an extended duration, don’t be afraid to get up even though the Google timer isn’t at 00:00. Use that break deliberately, doing something that will rejuvenate you, and come back and initiate the second study block, striving again to hit between 1.5 hours – 4 hours of work. Sometimes a break is needed to boost your efficiency back to what it should be. By ending your studying and coming back rejuvenated, you are ensuring that you are reaping the highest yield you can for every minute spent working, instead of slugging through a poor chunk of time.


To further maximize your intensity of focus, optimize your environment.

  • Don’t place your phone in the same room you study in
  • Create a dedicated Study Zone – don’t watch TV or sleep in the same room that you work in to associate that space with productive behavior, which will shift your behavioral patterns accordingly (I’m not a doctor – find more of this online)
  • Step out of the Study Zone with every break that you take
  • Delete all social media over the course of your MCAT journey
  • Promise yourself that you will deliberately try to generate a high intensity of focus with every study session you initiate
  • Schedule a time to manage administrative tasks & chores (ex: emails, phone calls, walking the dog) so that you aren’t distracted to manage them in the midst of your studying


To maximize efficiency in your studying, leverage the best learning tools and strategies.

  • Complete the most important (active-recall) task early in the morning when you have a fresh mind and peak attention to maximize your yield from that task.
  • Regularly start a UWorld block at the exact time of your test (8:00 AM for most 2022 test-takers) to accustom your brain to thinking critically and answering questions in a focused state at that time of day.
  • Devote massive amounts of time and effort to reviewing mistakes and don’t ever move on until you’ve achieved mastery of every topic.
  • Center your studying entirely around answering practice questions like UWorld and practice third-party blocks. Do not center your studying around reading information or writing and note-taking.
  • Remember that learning is optimized by the process of remembering things, not processing things. This means that when you read a chapter, you learn more when you make a dedicated effort to remember all that you learned; processing the information while you read does not do much and you’ll forget most of what you processed (This is a GIANT tip that most people don’t know about).
  • Practice remembering newly learned information every time you learn by mapping out that information in a spider-web diagram by memory alone, starting with the big picture concept and spreading outwards in the details; then fill in whatever you missed with a different color to separate that gap of knowledge from what you already knew.
  • Minimize note-taking and use flashcards instead – the only time you should be writing information on paper is when practicing recall of information in the form of a spider-web diagram. This should be limited to challenging concepts that you’ve repeatedly gotten wrong.
  • Follow up with newly learned information with flashcards (Memm), which force you to answer questions and encode the information to a much deeper degree.
  • Do not outline your review books – again, delve right into flashcards instead.
  • Don’t create your own flashcards – use Memm (use DTM22 for 10% off)
  • If you have to take notes, do not write bullet points – create spider web diagrams (Visuo-Spatial memory advantage)
  • Leverage Mnemonics
  • Leverage your Visuo-Spatial memory with illustrations & images that contrast and highlight concepts – you can remember visual illustrations (and traces of visual memories) far better than you can words and verbal lessons (and no this doesn’t apply only to “visual learners” – it applies to everyone).
  • Practice the Feynman technique after learning something – force yourself to verbally articulate out loud the concept, synthesizing it into a very simple, understandable manner. This helps encode the information since its a practice of recall.
  • Read a Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) – this book taught me everything I know about learning and transformed my approach before college.


An intrinsic part of the Dominating the MCAT Framework is, again, recognition of the fact that the 8-hour duration in the 3rd rule is only an asymptote towards which you should strive. It is surely not the end-all-be-all of whether or not you had a productive day.

I want all readers to know that you shouldn’t be placing a great deal of internal pressure on yourself if you are having an off day – if that time variable is compromised, as long as you are leveraging the other two levers – the intensity of focus and the efficiency of your learning, then you are making far more MCAT progress than you think.

At the same time, failing to hit the 8-hour intended duration should not become a habit. While you will surely not hit 8 hours of focused work every single day, with some days only hitting 6 or even 4, be reflective and try to figure out why you struggled to achieve 8 hours. Ask yourself what you can do to raise the bar the next day and respond accordingly.

I am advising all students to strive for at least 8 hours a day (and don’t hesitate to raise that to 10-12 hours towards the end of your studying) because it is indisputable that one needs to put in exhaustive, hundreds of hours, to ace this exam. For most, 8 hours is a sustainable goal for months on end, but on certain days, you’ll have to kick it upwards to 10-12, especially in the last stretch of your studying. I think that duration is a little bit tougher to sustain and can lead to burnout eventually.

Use the iPhone Countdown Timer described in Rule #3 to monitor whether or not you are truly hitting that duration of time – it will change your life. It will help you realize how much time you are actually spending as you should and will lead you to put your life in order to get things done.

Key Takeaway: there is more accomplished in a short, optimized duration of time than a longer but inefficient duration – optimizing for what you can’t see (state of focus and efficiency) will take you farther than you can imagine.


Downtime Optimization | Combatting Burnout

To keep your productivity peaked and your studying optimized, the most integral part of your journey is incorporating rejuvenating breaks. This is what I missed, time and time again, and it is what led me and all of my peers to experience burnout and a decline in our productivity and studying. I cannot stress how critical is to schedule downtime and to make a deliberate effort to disconnect from the work and enjoy that downtime when it arrives, whether or not you achieved what you sought to during your work-time.

I would advise all students to take at least 1 day off every single week, and don’t hesitate to take two days off every now and then. On these days, I would separate myself from the work entirely, only allowing myself to practice a daily CARS passage and to keep up with Memm.

I would also advise students to engage in some daily, non-negotiable downtime – a block of time dedicated to something that is thoroughly rejuvenating (ideally should force you away from a computer). Treat this time like a meeting with the Dean – you don’t miss it.

For all the students out there hoping to crush this exam, I understand the reluctance that you might feel at the prospect of taking 1-2 days off every single week – that was me too. I felt that the time off was a tradeoff to studying and felt concerned that it would compromise my eventual score. I was 100% wrong.

While in the beginning, you’ll likely ride a massive surge of motivation, there is going to be a point where the novelty of this journey wears off, where you’ll notice a decline in your motivation to work. It’s completely natural. I responded to this decline in motivation and the decrease in my productivity by putting in more hours of work, staying up later, and studying on weekends. That only fueled the negative sentiment.

If I could go back, I would’ve crossed off 1-2 days every single week and told myself to trust that this is the best thing I can do for myself given that this journey is a marathon, not a race. You need to find ways to burn steam in a healthy manner – exercising and experiencing a sense of social support is as fundamentally important as sleep and nutrition.

Your capacity to sustain high performance for months on end is highly dependent on your mental state and wellbeing. My peers and I heard this from everyone we spoke to, but we overlooked this variable completely – I remember at one point in the summer, several of us hit an all-time low where we despised the prospect of studying and wanted a break. I was lucky enough to overcome that feeling but I know many who ended up pushing their exam, a factor that may have been partly fueled by unresolved burnout. Don’t repeat this mistake and incorporate downtime.


5 | Implementing the Ideal Routine

Implementing an effective, reasonable routine will facilitate you in adhering to the guidelines I’ve laid above.

I personally always held off on sleeping until I hit my targets of the day, but I came to a point where I was able to accomplish these targets within the structure of my routine halfway into my preparation.

This strategy – prioritizing practicing and maintaining a routine, but focusing on solely meeting your daily targets when that routine breaks – will ensure that you’ve accomplished what you sought to at the end of every day, even if you fell off your routine and schedule. This is the consistency that matters.

Accomplishment in the routine should lead you to accomplish your goals – but if you can achieve the latter even if you were forced to abandon the former, you’ve done your job and shouldn’t take on much internal pressure from there.

The ideal routine should force you to sleep at a regular time, wake up at a regular time, eat at a regular time, and engage in downtime (exercise!) on a daily. Personally, when I pushed my test from August to September (described here), I was forced to take my test at 3:00 PM instead of 7:30 AM, which I had to adjust myself to. I shifted my waking hours to ensure that my mind was freshest between 2 PM – 11 PM, which I achieved by studying until the late-night hours regularly and waking up relatively late regularly.

While I wouldn’t advise this to everybody, I would advise everyone to embrace the need to experiment and figure out what works for themselves.

Sleep & Wake Time | Advice for Taking the 8:00 Exam

Make a gradual effort at pushing back your sleep and wake-time until you are able to wake up at the time you intend to on test-day and start studying at 8:00 AM sharp, given that the 2022 MCAT exams will be taken at 8:00 AM, except for a few testing dates that offer 7:30 AM or 3:00 PM in which case you should tailor yourself to those times.

If you have sleep-onset insomnia as I do check out this article. Prioritize optimizing your environment for sleep and don’t hesitate to make an investment into some white-noise generator, a fan, black curtains, etc. Your sleep should not be compromised when you’re studying for tens of hours every single week. I personally would strive for 7-9 hours regularly and would encourage students to strive for 8-9 hours, which is scientifically founded as being the optimal duration for high-quality learning.

If you have a different sleep schedule and are intimidated by the prospect of waking up early enough to start at 8 AM, adjust your schedule slowly. Find a consistent sleep time and wake up time, and dial it back by 30 minutes for at least 3-5 days, and adjust again from there. Keep doing this until you hit the intended time.

Don’t be afraid to take weeks to get your sleep in place, but I would advise that by the time you start doing practice tests regularly, these components of your life should be dialed in.

Study Blocks & Daily Routine | Advice for Taking the 8:00 Exam

Assuming you are studying for the 8:00 AM MCAT, I would advise you to take practice tests at 8 AM sharp on your testing days, in which case the test will run its course until mid-day and you can just follow that schedule. Below, I’ve written out the schedule I would strive to live up to on my study days if I were to take the 8:00 AM exam. I’ve included the resources and tasks that I would leverage at different times of the day as well. Again, figure out what works best for you.

7:00 – Wake & Morning routine [I deliberately skip breakfast to optimize my alertness – do what works for you ]

8:00 AM – 12:00 PM [4 Hours Studying]

  • 59 UWorld Questions (C/P, B/B — not P/S – that is for nighttime) — try to always start this at 8:00 AM sharp to accustom your brain to entering a high intensity of focus and answering questions at that time.
  • Reviewing UWorld Questions — this is the most important task to improve on the MCAT; doing this early in the morning will ensure a fresh mind and peak attention, translating to a higher yield) 
  • Practice CARS
  • Run through Memm flashcards for the day

12 PM – 1 PM – Lunch [eat light and limit carbohydrates to prevent a food coma]

1 PM – 5 PM [4 hours Studying]

  • Review UWorld Questions – you will always be behind on reviewing — use this time for that because that is where the magic happens.
  • Read Review Books & Leverage Memm

5 PM – 7 PM — DOWNTIME – I always overlooked this and extended my studying. Huge Mistake.

  • Hit the gym
  • Go on a run
  • Play sports with friends
  • Hobbies!

7 PM – 8 PM — Dinner

9:00 PM – 10:30 PM [1.5 Hour Studying]

  • Catch up on unfinished tasks (reviewing/questions)
  • UWorld Block of Questions — review it the next day during your Review Sessions)
  • Review Previous UWorld Questions
  • Psychology UWorld Questions + Review
  • Read Review Books
  • Memm

10:30 – Wind Down & Finish up Memm Flashcards

11:00 – 7:00 – Sleep

You will inevitably fall behind. So what do you do then? Adjust the purpose of your work blocks accordingly. Try to focus on hitting practice questions and active-recall tasks first, and once you are caught up, refocus the routine of your next study day to your intended routine. Don’t be afraid to stay up later and wake up earlier but aim to acquire between 7-9 hours of sleep.

Again, I am an advocate of routines, but I believe that beyond maintaining your routine, you should strive to ensure your targets of the day are consistently met.

Scheduling Downtime

Again, I would incorporate exercise into your routine regularly, but if that isn’t already a habit, then I’d focus on scheduling in a daily, non-negotiable block of time to do something that is rejuvenating and forces you to step away from your computer. Whatever that extracurricular activity is – ideally one that is healthy – it should be treated like a meeting with the Dean. You don’t miss it. It’s non-negotiable. Use that time to decompress and make a deliberate effort learning to separate yourself from studying, engaging in that activity, and taking your mind off the MCAT.

Again, it may take students different amounts of time to get these routines and practices in place, and that is totally okay. Strive to have them in place by the time you begin regular practice testing, which should be sometime within 6 weeks of starting your studying.


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