9 Expert Tips for How to Study for the MCAT | MedSchoolCoach

How to Study for the MCAT: Study Tips from 99th-Percentile Tutors

Dr. Ken Tao

Posted in: MCAT

Table of Contents

The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) takes approximately 7.5 hours from start to finish (a 9-hour test day, with breaks) and spans 230 questions. These questions will test your ability to excel in medical school — that’s why the MCAT is a vital part of the medical school admissions process. 

Studying for the MCAT takes a significant amount of time, and it’s important not to let that time go to waste. We’ve compiled study tips from some of our top tutors, so you have the best chance at excelling on this crucial exam.

Don’t leave your MCAT exam to chance: invest in high-quality MCAT tutoring with MedSchoolCoach.

1. Start Early

Plan to begin studying 4-6 months in advance of your scheduled MCAT exam date. It’s possible to study in less time (3 months is usually the minimum requirement), but you may need to sacrifice other commitments and rest to cover the material well. Having enough time to prepare will ensure you’re ready on test day (not trying to cram) and retain the material for med school. 

On each study day, set aside 3-6 hours to prepare. If you know you’re able to benefit from longer study periods on certain days (like 8 hours on a Saturday), work that into your schedule from time to time. Some students get overwhelmed by this amount of time, though — don’t force it if it doesn’t work for you.

2. Plan a Balanced Study Schedule

A balanced study schedule for the MCAT means integrating various study elements while ensuring you get enough rest and personal time. You should also plan to tweak your schedule as you go.

Distribute your study hours among different resource types like textbooks, flashcards, and online materials. Take a baseline diagnostic test at the beginning of your study schedule so that you understand what concepts you know and what you’ll need to review most heavily.

Pencil in regular practice exams and use the results to enhance your studying. Review each question thoroughly, especially those you got wrong, and make a list of science topics and concepts to review based on your results. (For instance, if you got 3 questions about the citric acid cycle wrong, add that to your list of things to review.)

We recommend allocating specific days or sessions for focused content review mixed with days dedicated to practice questions and exams.

Make sure to include breaks and days off to prevent burnout. A balanced schedule should also adapt to your personal learning style and pace so that no single aspect of preparation overwhelms the others. This approach not only helps you cover the entire breadth of information but also prepares you for peak performance on test day.

Your MCAT study time is valuable enough that you should give yourself time to optimize it regularly. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you navigate how to optimize your study schedule over your total study time:

  • Figure out what study frequency works best for you. Some pre-med students benefit from 15-20 minute spurts throughout the day of content review, while others prefer hours of uninterrupted time every other day. Test different review frequencies to understand your needs.
  • Use various resources and review types: Self-quizzing with flashcards, practice questions, and online tools like the MCAT Prep app or Khan Academy is a vital part of studying for the MCAT. However, other methods can be equally as effective, like group discussions and study sessions on a particular topic or teaching tough concepts to others to reinforce your own understanding of it.
  • Use review time to understand the mistakes you made on your most recent full-length practice exam. MCAT practice test questions offer great insight into how well you’re preparing, and looking over your errors helps you understand the correct approach for next time. This improves your knowledge base and hones your test-taking strategy.
  • Document your progress. Documenting your review sessions and the outcomes helps track your progress over time. Note down what topics you reviewed, mistakes made, and lessons learned. This documentation can be invaluable for refining your study plan as you go.

3. Understand, Don’t Just Memorize

Understanding concepts rather than just memorizing facts is vital for MCAT and future medical school success. 

Ethan Bott, a 99th percentile MCAT scorer and tutor, highlights the importance of this approach in his test prep: 

"I realized early on that the MCAT is a critical thinking test more so than a knowledge-based test."

This perspective shifts the focus from just memorization to grasping the underlying principles of each subject. You’re encouraged to apply knowledge to different scenarios, which is essential for the analytical nature of the MCAT (and a future career as a physician).

Another 99th percentile MCAT scoring student, Owen Ezell, shares his thoughts on this concept, too:

"Students often misunderstand the role that science content plays on the MCAT. They spend most of their time trying to memorize flashcards, textbooks, and cheatsheets, thinking that alone will improve their score. The problem with this approach is that the MCAT isn't like a typical college exam. Most of the exam is passage-based and requires you to integrate your science knowledge with brand-new information presented in the passage. The MCAT is actually a giant critical thinking test — the science content is just the backdrop.With that said, my recommendation is to keep your content review focused on the actual exam. Go through your practice tests, find all the questions that you missed, and list the science topics related to those incorrect answers. Then spend the next few days reviewing those exact topics. After that, do some more practice passages to evaluate your progress, rinse, and repeat. By keeping your content review exam-focused, you automatically prioritize the highest-yield topics without even having to think about it."

The idea of understanding concepts also translates to the math-related questions on the MCAT. You’ll do better with the math if you get the concepts and use effective shortcuts (like understanding how to round and developing good number sense). 

4. Take High-Quality Practice Exams

Regularly incorporating high-quality practice exams, like those from MedSchoolCoach, is a key component of MCAT prep. These exams simulate the actual test environment, giving you an insight into the MCAT’s format, timing, and types of questions. They should be a regular part of your study regimen, ideally after a solid content review.

After completing each practice test, carefully analyze your results. This analysis lets you identify strengths and areas needing improvement. Adjust your study plan based on what you glean from what you got right and wrong. 

In fact, we recommend conducting a careful review of your incorrect answers after each practice session: 

  • Why did you get those questions wrong?
  • If there was a gap in your science knowledge, what subject or topic should you review to address it?
  • If the problem was related to reading comprehension or test-taking strategy, what’s a takeaway you can draw that will help you avoid similar mistakes in the future?

As you get closer to your test date, you should increase the frequency of practice exams and gradually reduce how often you do content review.

Get ready for test day! MedSchoolCoach’s practice exams are the closest in the world to the actual MCAT.

5. Create a Strategic Approach to CARS

The CARS section demands a unique strategy, as it’s the only section focused solely on reading comprehension. The section title is literally “Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills,” so it’s important to prepare by stretching those mental muscles.

CARS requires you to analyze and understand passages, not just recall facts. To excel, focus on comprehensively understanding each passage and identifying key themes and arguments.

As Camille Villar, a 99th percentile MCAT scorer and student at Baylor College of Medicine, puts it:

“I read the passage thoroughly before even looking at any of the questions. While reading, I would highlight important nouns, claims/main ideas/thesis statements, and actions/events. After each paragraph, I’d pause and quickly ask myself to paraphrase/summarize what I just read before moving on to the next paragraph (e.g., I’d think to myself, “this paragraph is about ___”). After reading the whole passage, I’d quickly remind myself of what I told myself for each paragraph (to get an idea of the general structure/flow of the passage), and then I’d tell myself what the overarching main idea of the passage was. Because I went through the passage so thoroughly and because I focused on intentional highlights, answering questions was usually faster for me (if you understand the passage, you’ll understand what part/argument of the passage a question is testing you on faster). Overall, for each passage, I spent 5-7 minutes on the passage and 3-5 minutes on questions. I recommend figuring out exactly what parts of the process you struggle on. Once you do that, adjust/change something about your strategy and see if that helps or hurts you. Repeat until you hit something that works! (For example: I plateaued on CARS until I told myself to pause between each paragraph and tell myself what it was about.)”

Read Next: Requesting MCAT Special Accommodations & Extended Testing Time

6. Prioritize High-Yield Topics

High-yield MCAT topics are those that appear most frequently on the exam. 

Our tutors analyzed the official AAMC MCAT practice exams to learn which specific topics were tested most frequently. The subjects test-takers see most frequently on the MCAT are introductory biology, biochemistry, general chemistry, and psychology

In addition to the highest-yield topics by number of questions, make sure to understand your highest-yield topics. You may be comfortable with the material most likely to show up in the Psych/Soc section but need more review of the topics you’ll find in Bio/BioChem (Biological and Biochmical Foundations of Living Systems).

Consider working with a tutor to understand which topics will be the most highest-yield for you as an individual.

Learn more about how to prioritize high-yield MCAT topics in our full guide.

7. Practice Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a vital skill for the MCAT, particularly in analyzing complex passages and questions. Here are some tips for critical thinking practice as you get ready to take the MCAT for the first time or retake it:

  • Analyze, don’t just read: In the quote above, Camille highlights the importance of thorough passage analysis in the CARS section. She suggests reading each paragraph attentively, highlighting key points, and summarizing main ideas. This approach helps to quickly locate relevant information for answering questions.
  • Use incorrect answers to examine your thought processes: Learn from your mistakes by understanding why an answer was incorrect. Reflect on your thought process and identify where you might have gone wrong in your thinking. Alternatively, if your reasoning was okay but you were missing some science knowledge, make sure to review that concept thoroughly in a future study session.
  • Simulate real exam scenarios: Practicing under conditions that mimic the actual MCAT can enhance your ability to think critically under pressure. Regularly take timed, full-length practice tests to build endurance and adaptability.

Incorporating these strategies into your study plan will sharpen your critical thinking skills, preparing you not just for the MCAT, but also for the challenges of medical school.

Read Next: How Long Does It Take To Get MCAT Results?

8. Take Care of Your Body and Mind

Don’t forget to prioritize your physical and mental health as you spend time preparing for the MCAT. Adequate rest, balanced nutrition, and stress-reducing activities play a significant role in your overall performance. 

Aim for consistent sleep patterns and follow a diet rich in nutrients that support cognitive function (read: not cheap Ramen for every meal). Get regular physical activity to enhance your focus and reduce stress. Mindfulness practices like meditation can also be beneficial.

Remember to take breaks and do things you actually enjoy to maintain a healthy balance. If you experience signs of burnout, don’t hesitate to adjust your study plan or seek professional support.

On test day, be careful not to over-caffeinate. If you normally start the day with a cup of coffee, don’t load up on a few Red Bulls — this will just make you jittery and unfocused. You’ll get a lunch break, but bring snacks that will satisfy your hunger without making you want a nap.

9. Invest in MCAT Tutoring

The MCAT is one of the most difficult exams a student can sign up for, which makes sense — it’s the introductory test of whether or not you can keep up with the demands of medical school.

With a challenge like the MCAT in front of you, top-notch support can be the make-or-break help that can get you to the next level. Make sure any tutor you work with has previously scored very high on the MCAT and is familiar with how to get you ready for the exam.

Our tutors have spent more than 10,000 hours with pre-med students getting ready for the MCAT. Students who work with MedSchoolCoach score around 12 points higher, on average, versus their diagnostic or previous exam attempts.

The Best 6 Study Resources

MedSchoolCoach has a comprehensive library of MCAT study resources to make your study schedule a cinch. Here’s what we recommend (both of our own and other resources): 

FAQs

MCAT Go has several free lessons. We also frequently recommend other free MCAT resources including MCAT Masterclass (full-length video lessons), Anki, and Khan Academy

For some students, 3 months is ample time to prepare for the MCAT. However, most students need to divide their study time between 4-6 months or so, as it takes around 350 hours of total study to be ready.

You won’t get a calculator, but you’ll have access to scratch paper and the periodic table on test day. 

The MCAT consists of four sections

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/Biochem)
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)

Your raw score on the MCAT is scaled to a score between 472-528 (combining four sections scored between 118-132 points). 

Sections on the MCAT are (purposefully) more or less difficult on any given test day. The AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) uses a scaling process to ensure that students aren’t penalized or rewarded for how difficult any section was on their test day.

The MCAT is incredibly important to your application. It’s one of two data points (the other being your GPA) that med school admissions committees use to gauge your readiness for their program.

That said, a lower-than-average MCAT score may not preclude you from an acceptance. You’ll need to apply to schools that fit your score range, but know that a strong GPA, personal statement, and letters of recommendation also go a long way.

Picture of Ken Tao, PhD

Ken Tao, PhD

Ken is the Director of MCAT at MedSchoolCoach. He is an alumnus of UC Berkeley and Harvard University, boasts degrees in Bioengineering, Molecular and Cell Biology, and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. Ken previously worked with undergraduate students at Princeton Review where he was the only tutor certified in all subjects. Ken was one of the highest rated MCAT tutors ever and a teacher trainer. He founded Magoosh's MCAT division and has written content for dozen's of MCAT books and guides.

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