The MCAT: one of the most high-stakes tests of your life. It’s no wonder the test has a reputation for stressing people out. A little bit of stress is good and can help you perform better, but too much stress can have the opposite effect. This is explained by the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which says that up to a certain point, arousal (read: stress) can help your performance. When the stress becomes too much, however, performance starts to decline.
Why Is the MCAT Stressful?
If you’re here, you already know why the MCAT is stressful. It’s an incredibly difficult and important test that requires hours upon hours of studying. Studying for the MCAT creates chronic stress, which leaves your body in a constant fight or flight state.
When you’re in an acutely stressful situation—seeing a bear for example—your body responds in a way that gets you out of that situation. When the threat passes, you calm down. The problem with chronic stress is that it doesn’t go away. The stress can begin to cloud your mind with anxious thoughts, leaving little room to focus and study. Your brain becomes focused on fighting a perceived threat instead of memorizing information.
This is why stress relief techniques are essential when you’re studying for the MCAT. They can help you feel better mentally and physically, and they can also help you perform better on the test.
If you search the internet, you’ll find hundreds if not thousands of stress relief techniques. The important thing is to find something that works for you and stick with it, even when you feel like you don’t need it anymore. Some of our tips might work for you, some might not. Find what does, make it a habit, and you’ll likely start to feel some of that stress melt away.
1 | Get Organized
Studying for the MCAT can feel extremely overwhelming, particularly when you don’t have a good plan. There are just so many things to learn and keep track of.
Try making a schedule, breaking your studying down into chunks, and creating a concrete study plan. This will make your studying seem more manageable, and it can help get rid of the clutter in your brain. When you don’t have a plan, you waste precious time and brainpower deciding what to study instead of getting right to work. Maybe you’ll decide to study in the mornings while drinking coffee or in the evenings while eating your favorite food. Creating routines like this can help your brain recognize when it’s time to study.
Well-designed study tools and resources can help you organize your studying, too. They can take the guesswork and uncertainty out of your preparation. You’ll know that what you’re studying is high-yield information that you need to know for the test.
2 | Block Your Time
You probably already know when you tend to be most focused and productive. If possible, make that your study time. For example, if you’re a night owl, fighting against your own nature to study in the morning will only stress you out more.
Block out time to study when your mind is best prepared, then block other periods of your day to make sure you accomplish everything you need to get done.
3 | Exercise
Exercise has been recommended as a stress relief technique so often that it has almost become a cliché. However, it’s frequently recommended because it is an incredibly effective technique.
Exercise releases endorphins and decreases cortisol. It gets your blood pumping to all parts of your body, including your brain. The prefrontal cortex, a part of your brain responsible for working memory, gets more blood flow during exercise and has even been shown to be larger in people who regularly exercise.
Engaging in an exercise that you’ve done so much you don’t even need to think about it can even become meditation. Yoga is a common exercise touted for its stress-reduction benefits, but it’s not the only one that can help. Anything that gets your body moving and takes your mind off your studies will be beneficial.
4 | Sleep
It’s a common picture: that premed student pulling an all-nighter to study for a test. Although common, pulling an all-nighter isn’t ideal. Your body needs sleep to process information and store memories.
We know it can be extremely difficult to get enough sleep when you have so much on your plate, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to relieve stress. Not only will it make your body feel better, but it will help your studying be more efficient as you give your brain time to store the information you’ve studied.
With a good night’s sleep, you’ll wake up refreshed and energized, ready to tackle another day of studying.
5 | Socialize
Who has time to socialize when you’re studying for such an important test, right? Wrong. You can’t study 24/7, and getting together with friends or even calling a family member is a great way to give your mind a break and relieve some stress. When we socialize, we typically laugh, talk about light topics, and relax. After you’ve taken a break to socialize, you’ll likely feel less stressed and more motivated to begin studying again.
You could even try finding an MCAT study group. This can help lower your stress by making you feel less alone as you learn that you’re not the only one stressing about the test. Socializing in this way might even help improve your MCAT score since we tend to internalize information better when explaining a concept to somebody else.
6 | Get Outside
When we spend time in nature and breathe some fresh air, we tend to feel less stressed. In fact, studies have shown that people who are more connected to nature tend to be happier than people who are less connected to nature.
Move your studying into the quad, go for a walk, or find a tree and relax under its shade. If you live in an area where it’s difficult to truly get out into nature, you don’t need to go far. Simple changes like opening a window, playing nature sounds, or looking at pictures of nature can be calming as well.
7 | Practice Deep Breathing
Many students—particularly those who experience test anxiety—like to practice deep breathing regularly while they’re studying. When it comes time to take the actual test, they take some deep breaths before they begin, in between sections, and any time they get frustrated or flustered. If you develop this practice, it can help anchor and calm you on test day.
Try breathing in for three seconds, holding your breath for one second, and breathing out for six seconds. Breathing out for longer than you breathe in can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which then slows your heart rate and tells your brain to relax. For an added bonus, try to make your belly (rather than your chest) rise when you inhale.
8 | Meditate
Meditation has become much more mainstream lately, and there are many apps to guide your meditation practice. Try Headspace, Calm, or MyLife. As you practice meditation, you’ll learn to observe the stress in your body without judging it. When you are able to do this, you can let it pass quicker and more freely when it happens.
A simple meditation and mindfulness practice to try is progressive muscle relaxation. As you work through each part of your body, tensing then relaxing each muscle, it can feel like the stress is melting away.
9 | Take a Break
You should always be taking breaks during your study sessions; otherwise, you’ll quickly experience burnout. Try using the Pomodoro Technique to give yourself structured breaks.
It’s also important to take longer breaks every so often—two, maybe even three days. This might seem like you’re avoiding the problem, but sometimes you need a break to step back and refocus your mindset. If your stress is out of control, try to completely disengage from studying for a few days, let your body get out of that fight or flight mode, and you’ll likely come back with renewed enthusiasm and focus.
10 | Find a Mindless Hobby
Studying for the MCAT is a massive mental workout. A hobby that doesn’t take much brainpower can provide relaxation. This will obviously vary by person; if you’re looking for a new hobby to take up, try coloring (yes, there are adult coloring books!), baking, doing puzzles, or geocaching.
11 | Log Off Social Media
Not only can social media take time away from studying, but it can also feed comparison and self-doubt. When you see how much somebody else is studying or come across someone’s post about their MCAT score, it’s only natural to compare yourself and feel inadequate.
Social media has a way of making us feel stressed and anxious when we’re just trying to relax. You might be scrolling through TikTok or Instagram looking for mindless entertainment only to come across something that reminds you of your MCAT stress. If you’re looking for a quick mental break, try an episode of your favorite TV show instead.
12 | Shift Your Focus
When you’re stressed, it’s often because you’re focused on the negative or on things you can’t control. Instead of thinking about everything you still need to do, try to think about everything you’ve already accomplished.
This might mean keeping a log of your study sessions or taking time to review questions you got correct on practice tests. Keeping a log is a tangible way to see everything you’ve already done. Reviewing questions you got correct is self-affirming, and it can also help you learn by reviewing information.
13 | Set Attainable Goals
A goal of scoring a 514 on the MCAT is admirable, but it’s also daunting. No matter what your ultimate goal is, try setting small and observable goals along the way. Additionally, the best goals are ones that are in your control. This might include studying for five hours, taking one practice test per week, or getting through 100 flashcards.
These goals are more meaningful and actionable than a final score goal. They will also remind you that you are making progress when you’re feeling stressed and down.
Finding a stress-relief technique that works for you while you’re studying for the MCAT is absolutely essential. Of course, you can’t do all of these every day; if you did, you wouldn’t have any time to study. Many of these techniques can be combined. Play a game of ultimate frisbee outside with your friends: you’ll hit exercise, socialization, and getting outside, and if you time it right, you’re time blocking, too.
These techniques are also important because getting through the MCAT is (at least partially) about preparing you to get through med school. If you’re struggling with a lot of stress while studying for the MCAT, chances are you’ll struggle with similar stress in med school. The more you practice stress relief methods now, the more helpful they’ll be to you when you need them in med school.
Memm is a resource that helps take some of the stress out of studying for the MCAT. Memm will help you organize your studying by providing a schedule that adapts as you go, meaning you can take those much-needed breaks without worrying about ruining your schedule. The pre-made flashcards include high-yield information, so you won’t waste time sorting through the low-yield fluff, either.