Test Day Strategies – MCAT, Step 1, and Step 2CK

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One of the – and arguably the biggest – day in the life of a premed student is test day. Here we’ll review high yield concepts to make sure you maximize your test score on the big day. Taking the MCAT, Step 1, or Step 2CK? It makes no matter, as the approach and principles we’ll be exploring here apply to all exams.

The overarching principles that we have found to be successful are two-fold, and very simple: be well rested; be mentally sharp. Sounds like a simple enough recipe, but here is how to go about them to make for a sweet test score.


The Day Before the Test


Quit studying by mid-afternoon or late afternoon at the latest. The extra studying will do more harm than good at this point – only tiring you out, increasing your level of stress, or providing unnecessary monotony.


Get yourself to the test center to familiarize yourself on the driving route, parking situation, and where to enter the building. You’ll be happy you did morning of the test, as it will surprise you how a small level of familiarity will make you more comfortable.


Do something enjoyable and relaxing the evening before your exam. Do not call your ex, go clubbing, or consume excessive alcoholic beverages. Along those same guidelines, don’t start a new work-out routine or diet in the days leading up to your test. Enjoy yourself, relax, but do not deviate from your norm at this point.



Sleep is often overlooked as being something simple, as far as exams go. The general rule has always been ‘just sleep enough before the test,’ right? While getting enough sleep is crucial, there’s a bit more to it than that. Check out how to wake up early and not be miserable.


Start waking up at the time you will be waking up on test day for at least 3 days before the test. A longer adjustment is better. This helps prime your circadian rhythm to align with test day. If you are used to sleeping late and waking up late, your body isn’t going to be able to adjust properly come test day, and you’ll be sluggish with mental cloudiness.This also means going to bed around the same time. If you’re sleep deprived in the days leading up to your test, you will not be well rested.


Understand that you may have difficulty falling asleep the day before the test. This is completely normal. You should be a little nervous. Meditation helps me relax and wind down. My roommates used Nyquil or Benadryl to help them fall asleep. I’m not recommending you do the same, just stating that it worked for them.


You don’t want to oversleep. I set extra alarms and alarm clocks which benefitted me twofold: First, there was no way I would wake up late. Second, the peace of mind knowing I wouldn’t oversleep actually helped me fall asleep.




You must have breakfast day of your test. Skipping breakfast will only decrease performance. Breakfast is like leg day. You want to skip it, but you really shouldn’t. Eat a large enough meal that you’ll stay satiated for several hours, but not so large you’re in a food coma. Eat protein and starchy foods with a low glycemic index. I would normally eat eggs, oatmeal, whole wheat toast, and a glass of milk.


If you normally don’t drink coffee, now is not the time to try it out. If you normally do drink coffee, stick to your routine. I rarely drink coffee and the adrenaline was enough for me to not even consider it test day. Know yourself and plan accordingly.


Pack extra snacks. You’ll be working you brain hard for several hours and that’s going to build up your appetite. I would generally bring a sandwich, nuts, granola bars, a banana, and some berries. Again, stick with healthy and light foods. No need to bring your left over greasy Mexican food from the weekend.


Stay hydrated, but not so much that you have to run to the bathroom frequently. Don’t overthink it.


When to Get There

Plan to get there 30-60 minutes before your assigned time. By getting there on the earlier side of things, you will benefit in three ways:


You won’t have to worry about running late.


You will have enough time to use the bathroom and further familiarize yourself with your surroundings (continuing from your trip to the test center the day before)


Be one of the first people called to the testing room. Not everyone surges into the testing room at once. People go one by one. But the good news is that as soon as you’re inside, you can start. This also means you will benefit by leaving earlier, and not being subject to people leaving before you and being noisy or distracting you. Going early also means less time sitting around letting your mind wander and getting stressed out. The last thing you want to do at this point is psych yourself out.


At the Test Center

There are a plethora of things that will distract you during an exam, and everyone always has their pet peeves. Cut down on them with these tips:


Using earplugs and possibly the ear muffs provided at the testing center to minimize noises can certainly zone you in and leave your focus solely on the test.


If they let you pick your seat, choose one away from the door to minimize the distraction of people walking in and out. The age-old habit of students to turn to look at a new-comer in a classroom is hard to break – don’t let yourself succumb to such.



The MCAT allows optional break time. USE IT. Your attention span is limited. Pace yourself by taking breaks when allowed, even if you don’t feel like you need to. I recommend for the 10 minute breaks: get out, go to the bathroom, drink some water, have a quick bite, and go right back inside. There can sometimes be a line to get back in, and you don’t want any extra stress if you can avoid it.

For Step 1 and Step 2, you have the flexibility to plan your breaks between sections at your discretion. Plan your break time wisely. Some people do the first two blocks back to back when they are fresh. Again, understanding that our attention spans are limited, I recommend taking a 5-minute break between blocks 1 and 2.


Be Confident

You’ve climbed the mountain that is studying for a major exam. Your studying is complete. Don’t waste all that hard work and energy by cramming, psyching yourself out, or letting doubt into the picture. Be confident and think positive because congratulations, you’re almost done!

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