How To Study for the MCAT While in College | by Med School Motivation | Nov, 2021

Med School Motivation

It’s not only possible to get a top score on the MCAT while studying for college courses, but it constitutes the preferable method. Most premeds are going to take the MCAT in the Spring or Summer of their Junior year of college in preparation for applying as a senior. A smaller portion will take the MCAT during the Spring semester of their senior year, giving them room for a “gap” year between undergrad and matriculating to medical school. Non-traditional students and those planning to go back to medical school after time away from college are the group most likely to prepare for the MCAT without concurrently studying for other classes.

However, many of these students are also forced to study while juggling full time jobs and other family obligations. The principles that apply to undergrads with busy class schedules and volunteer commitments can just as easily be substituted for non-traditional premeds working forty hours a week.

Time management is key in both premed coursework and studying for the MCAT. More than ever, it becomes important for students to avoid succumbing to the allure of procrastination. It’s also a time for officially learning how to triage your tasks for the most benefit. Regardless of your obligations and course load, you have time as an undergrad student for everything. The trick is finding that time, and then applying yourself to the greatest effect. Here are some keys to keep in mind:

  1. Never procrastinate. It happens. College students and young adults are some of the greatest procrastinators on the planet. It feels good to put off. Particularly in the high stimulation, high social environment of a college campus, there is always something more exciting to do than studying the same pre-medical sciences. However, procrastination is like going into debt: you’re spending time you don’t have, to enjoy experiences you don’t deserve. When you procrastinate, you make the decision to be unhappy and unfulfilled until you do the task at hand. You cannot fully enjoy your free time when you know that there is something more important that you are putting off. As Barbara Oakley shows in A Mind for Numbers, procrastination is only painful until you start the task. Just getting started, even without completion, is enough to alleviate the negative feelings of putting off what you know needs to get done. Fight procrastination by focusing on the science. If you can just get started studying, all of the apprehension and negativity will go away.
  2. Have a plan for each day. It’s unrealistic in college to have the type of planner typical of high-level CEOs with private staff: you can’t always account for each hour in your day and it neglects the spontaneity that is part of the charm of your college years. Instead of writing out tasks for each hour of the day, it’s better to make a list of what needs to be done. For example: 2 Hours of Studying Behavioral Sciences (MCAT), Finish revising History Paper, 1 Hour Studying for Cell Bio (Class), Read Organic Chemistry Chapter 12 (Class). This method leaves the timing of your day loose, but it requires discipline to complete the tasks. However, it also favors efficiency and effectiveness. The faster you can complete your tasks, with better results, the more free time you have for pleasurable activities.
  3. Create incentives in your schedule. The worst thing students do while studying for the MCAT, particularly when also taking college courses, is removing the things they enjoy from their daily schedule. You want to create incentives in your schedule. If you love going to the gym, don’t stop because of the MCAT. Instead, use those moments as a way of rewarding your hard work. Don’t skip the Friday night partying just because of the MCAT. However, it’s a different story if you can’t get the work done. If you can’t complete your study quotas, if you can’t make A’s in your coursework, if you can’t fulfill your volunteer and research obligations, then you don’t deserve the incentive. It’s not about becoming a robot that lives, breathes and sleeps MCAT, it’s simply about creating the conditions for getting the highest score possible in addition to your coursework and social life. The MCAT is hard. It requires a significant amount of time invested over months. But people rise to big challenges. David Schwartz wrote The Magic of Thinking Big to capture the idea that companies and employees going after big projects are not only more productive, but often find substantial success. Elon Musk has become the embodiment of this principle. While most people struggle to work a 9 to 5 job, Musk has founded three, billion-dollar companies (PayPal, Tesla & SpaceX), and fundamentally reshaped the human race. He does it by working far longer than most people (famously averaging hundred-hour work weeks), in addition to using his time effectively. If Musk can shoot a Tesla into space, you can at least make a good score on the MCAT while fulfilling you other college obligations.

Triage is a word you will see many times in your medical career.



1. (in medical use) the assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients or casualties.

Specifically, when it comes to studying for both the MCAT and traditional coursework, triage is the way you designate tasks that deserve your immediate, or at least preferential, attention.

Let’s picture a scenario:

It’s Monday. You have a Physics exam on Thursday. In addition, you have an eight page research paper due in a week. You are four weeks out from the MCAT and need to take a practice exam soon.

What do you do?

Triage your time for the most benefit. The MCAT is an incredibly important component to your medical school acceptance, but it’s not the only thing on your application. Despite being your primary focus for months, you have to give adequate time to your coursework to ensure you are making the best grade possible (A and A-). In the above scenario, at least in the days leading up to your exam, Physics becomes the paramount study focus. You should be diverting a disproportionate amount of your time to ensuring a good grade on the test. However, that doesn’t mean ignoring the MCAT. It simply means adding an extra hour or two to studying Physics and getting that work done first. If you were typically spending four hours a day on the MCAT, you may have to cut back to three or two and a half, but you still continue prepping. You also have to invest steady work into writing your paper to avoid cramming on the weekend. And, as stipulated in the scenario, you need to squeeze another practice exam in. Here’s how you could do it:

Spend the majority of your study time Monday — Wednesday preparing for Physics. Give a consistent two to three hours towards the MCAT. Spend at least one or two hours working on your paper (compiling sources, writing your thesis, etc.). Once the exam is complete on Thursday, you can shift your added physics study time to writing your paper. Spend Friday taking a full-length practice test (yes, the full eight hours). Then, use your schoolwork time on the weekend to devote primarily to writing/completing your essay, while spending a few hours each day reviewing your scored practice exam.

It’s never going to be perfect, but you have to make time for everything. Shift your hours and effort towards the tasks that are most demanding and have the greatest impact. If an Organic Chemistry homework worth 0.05% of your grade is due, don’t stop everything just to get it done. Part of prepping for the MCAT in-semester is learning to cope with the just enough amount of studying for your college coursework to make A’s while freeing up the most available time for MCAT prep. It’s not always easy, and it’s going to require more time devoted to schoolwork/studying than what you have previously invested in your academic career. But remember: the MCAT is only four months of intense work. Being a physician lasts a lifetime.

A Mind for Numbers by Professor Barbara Oakley–If you don’t have time to read the entire book, at least check out the chapter on procrastination. Nothing will help you overcome the compulsion to procrastinate more than understanding the science behind it and how to cope with academic malaise.

The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz–Schwartz’s classic has been a bestseller for decades because it applies to a broad number of fields and industries. The bottom line: you get what you incentivize. People work harder, longer and with greater ingenuity when given big projects that have substantial rewards. If you elevate your expectation (such as aiming for a 4.0 GPA and 521+ MCAT score in the same semester) you will be amazed by the outcomes.

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