When should you start studying for the MCAT? More studying is better, right? Well… not always, and certainly not in the case of the MCAT. It might seem logical to spend as much time as possible studying for the MCAT — one year, even two. However, spending too much time studying won’t do much to improve your score and will probably even lead to burnout.
So, how much time should you spend? Ideally, you should spend three to six months studying for the MCAT. Keep reading as we break down why, explain exactly when to start studying, and suggest other ways to use your pre-med years optimally.
How Long to Study for the MCAT
When you start studying depends on how long you plan to study for. As we mentioned above, three to six months seems to be the sweet spot. Generally, there are two different approaches that tend to be the most successful:
- Study for about three months full time (40-50 hours per week)
- Study for about six months part time (12-25 hours per week)
Why is this the sweet spot? Studying for a short period of time with high intensity often yields better results. The two main reasons are the forgetting curve and burnout.
The Forgetting Curve
The forgetting curve refers to the phenomenon where the further out we are from when a memory was first made, the more we forget that memory. First described by Herman Ebbinghaus, this curve shows that there is a point where studying becomes less efficient because you’ll forget old information faster than you can learn new information. This point is different for everybody, but it generally starts to happen past the six month mark. The more you try to space out your studying, the faster you’ll reach that tipping point.
Spending more than six months studying may result in working harder, not smarter. You’ll likely spend more time trying to retain information you learned in the beginning of your studying, leaving you with little time to learn new information. Best case scenario: studying for more than six months doesn’t do much — if anything — to increase your score. Worst case scenario: studying for more than six months actually decreases your score as you forget crucial information.
Studying for the MCAT is hard. It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. It’s nerve wracking. It’s something that you can’t do forever, and the more time you spend studying, the more likely you are to get burnt out. It’s even possible to become burnt out from doing something you love if you do it too intensely. Assuming you don’t wake up in the morning excited to begin another day of MCAT studying, the risk of burnout is real. The more burnt out you become, the less efficient you’ll become when you study.
When to Begin Studying and How to Structure Your Study Time
So, when you start studying obviously depends on when you plan to take the test, but there are a few general guidelines for everybody. It’s not ideal for anybody to begin studying during their freshman year of college.
The earliest we recommend taking the MCAT is the end of the summer between your sophomore and junior year of college. In that case, we recommend beginning to study no earlier than the spring of your sophomore year.
There are a few caveats to keep in mind if you plan to take the MCAT that early. First, you should have most of your prerequisites done. Very strong students (those who tend to get straight A’s) will likely still do well if they’re missing one or two prerequisites when they take the test. All other students, however, should have all of their prerequisites done before taking the test.
The second caveat is that MCAT scores don’t last forever. According to AAMC, most med schools accept scores that are two or three years old. If you’re planning on applying to med school the summer between your junior and senior year, that shouldn’t be a problem. However, if you delay applying or plan to take a gap year, you could run into an issue where your score is no longer valid.
If you plan on taking a gap year, it’s a better idea to take the MCAT toward the end of the summer between your junior and senior year. In this case, we recommend you start studying no earlier than spring of your junior year.
Because the MCAT testing schedule changes every year, we put together a chart to show you when to begin studying based on what month you plan to take the MCAT.
When deciding if you want to start studying closer to three months out or six months out, think about how much time you can devote to studying per week. As an undergrad, you’ll probably only have time to study 12-25 hours per week since you’ll also need to focus on your coursework. In this case, you should start six months before your test date. People who study during a long break from school or after they graduate might be able to devote 40-50 hours per week. In that case, you can start about three months before your test date.
Because there is evidence that students who study for the MCAT during a time when they don’t have other academic obligations do better on the test, consider scheduling your test at a time when you have a break from school.
Regardless of when you start, you need to give yourself time to:
- Learn all the high-yield content
- Review the content
- Complete multiple practice tests
- Have catch up days
- Take breaks
Reviewing content helps with the forgetting curve we mentioned above, and taking breaks helps with burnout. Reviewing and taking breaks might seem like a waste of time, but they are absolutely essential. As you get closer to your test date, devote more of your time to using AAMC materials because they are the most representative of the test.
We recommend incorporating practice tests into your studying from the very beginning—about two weeks after you begin content review. They can help you get a feel for what the questions on the test are actually like, helping your subsequent studying be more effective. Your first practice test also gives you a baseline so you have an idea of where you’re starting from. Keep in mind that third party practice tests tend to bet deflated; nonetheless, they can still give you a baseline.
Don’t let the thought of waiting until just three months before the test to begin studying terrify you. You’ve been passively studying and preparing every time you’ve taken a prerequisite course. Even humanities and gen ed courses help you prepare, particularly for CARS. Remember that there are other ways to bolster your med school application, too. Focusing solely on the MCAT might leave holes in other parts of your application.
How to Improve Your Med School Application
Rather than spending years studying for the MCAT, you can make better use of your time by focusing on other ways to improve your med school application. Here are some ways you can do that:
- Focus on excelling in your prerequisite coursework
- Participate in research
- Gain clinical experience
- Spend time volunteering
- Seek leadership positions
- Get involved in your community
- Form a strong bond with professors and superiors whom you can later ask for letters of recommendation
- Start to outline and draft your personal statement
- Practice your interview skills
Not only will this be more fun than spending years studying for the MCAT, it will also give you a stronger med school application overall than just a good MCAT score.
The quality of your MCAT studying matters just as much as the quantity of your studying. If you’re able to devote a shorter amount of time (three to six months) to intense studying, you’ll likely see better results. More time studying does not automatically equal higher scores. You can maximize your time while also maximizing your score.
Remember to follow evidence-based learning strategies while preparing for the MCAT and to do what works for you. Take in advice, follow best practices, and ultimately do what feels right to you.
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