A common and important question students ask me is when should I start studying for the MCAT, and how long should I spend studying for the MCAT?
This is an important question to ask because if you aren’t planning ahead and giving yourself enough time to study, you can end up in the cycle of retaking/reapplying for years.
However, it is actually two different questions that have their own sub-questions to answer first. So let’s walk through each of those!
Table of Contents
- The Importance Of Having The Right Approach
- General Guidelines For How Long To Study
- How Long Should You Study For The MCAT?
- When To Start Studying For The MCAT
The Importance Of Having The Right Approach
When you should start studying for the MCAT is directly determined by how long you should spend studying for the MCAT + what your target test date is.
As I tell students, your target test date should be set to help you achieve the best score for your goals — NOT because you are rushing to get a specific date.
You will need the time you need.
You can’t bake a cake in 10 seconds and expect it to resemble anything delicious, and you can’t take the MCAT before you are ready. Expecting to do well just because you feel you NEED to get it done before apps/summer internships/road trips/life is not a smart approach.
There is no cheating the MCAT.
But Sid, what about applying early?
This is a lot simpler than you think: if you rush to apply early and get a bad MCAT score, what’s it matter?
I will say it again. Rushing for apps just to end up with a low score makes your apps WAY less competitive. So why rush for apps if it makes them worse?
If you care about your app, do it right. And since the MCAT is one of the most important parts of your application, do that right too.
General Guidelines For How Long To Study
Before we get into the nitty-gritty to figure out an individualized plan for you, let’s talk about what the general recommendations are for how long you should study for the MCAT:
Typically students need 3-6 months to study. This is a hard test.
On average, students who do well will put in between 250-400 hours of MCAT studying. However, depending on where you start, it could take you half as much time (or twice as long).
So generally, students are best off starting to study the summer before their Junior year if they have already taken biochem and physio.
If you aren’t ready by the end of summer (or haven’t taken those classes), you can keep studying at a lower intensity during the school year.
In this case, make sure to take a light course load second-semester Junior year, and take it in May. Leaving plenty of time to submit apps in June.
Don’t worry if that doesn’t work for you; we’ll cover how to make an individual plan before we end.
Or, if you want a fully customized plan made to each specific day of your studying, you can reach out to us directly.
What This Means In Hours Per Week
I said earlier on average, a top scorer will put in 400 hrs of MCAT prep. Although this will fluctuate depending on where they start.
A good bet for MCAT studying is to set aside 20-40 hours a week depending on how much time you need for content.
But you MUST always be practicing MCAT thinking, so at least 20 hours will mostly be test and question review.
And then, if you need content work on top, you can add additional hours to your schedule.
I know that may seem backward, but DON’T get lost in content land. Content is NOT what gets you a top score on the MCAT.
So with this being said, if you’re studying full-time, you can do about 4-8 hrs a day with at least one break day a week.
Now, you can see why it takes 2x as long to study with a full-time course load/work.
Realistically you’ll only be able to do a max of 10-20 hrs of PRODUCTIVE studying a week. This means you’ll need to do it over twice the time period.
How Long Should You Study For The MCAT?
So let’s break down the nitty-gritty on how long you should spend studying:
This comes down to about five things:
- Have you taken all your prerequisites, and how well did you understand them?
- Do you have any test anxiety or procrastination habits?
- What are your other commitments?
- What is your target score and is your goal MD, DO, or either?
- What is your starting score?
1. Where Do You Stand with Your Prereqs
Students often get caught up preparing for the content on the MCAT. Many worry especially about their Physics.
But at the end of the day, the focus of the MCAT is primarily on reasoning and reading.
If you haven’t taken a practice test, this really won’t be clear until you take one (we will get to that soon).
The MCAT uses content as a base and then tests your understanding in foreign scenarios that require systematic thinking and analysis.
This consists of lots and lots of reading, all while you deal with the time pressure, while feeling like your entire life is riding on this one test.
This may seem strange, but physicians have to make split-second, life-altering decisions and are faced with new scenarios almost daily, so the MCAT wants to see how you deal with this in their own way.
So with all that being said, why does your prereq content matter?
Well if your base isn’t strong, everything down the chain gets way harder.
Here’s an example:
Most of us can remember how stressed we were the first time we got behind the wheel and drove on the road with other cars flying by. But now, we all have moments where we end up at home and barely remember the drive at all.
That’s because the act of driving was foreign and new the first time. Now it’s pretty much done on autopilot.
So what allows you to have a strong base?
First, it is key you have taken, and ideally done well in and understood your prereq classes.
How do you know if you understood your prereqs well enough?
As weird as it sounds, most of the time you can feel it.
But good indicators are:
Did you get As? Did you feel like you earned your As or was it more of a process of memorizing old answers?
DO NOT fall into the trap of thinking oh yeah I understood it but I just didn’t do well.
Maybe you understood it, but, more likely, you were just familiar with their material but didn’t know how to apply the content, meaning it was “fuzzy.” This won’t fly; the MCAT will make you apply the content.
This can even happen if you’ve put a ton of time and work in (it’s super common actually).
Students come to me who are great workers but are on autopilot. This leads to them not really understanding why the material is presented in the way that it is, leading to more fuzziness.
Or conversely, you did understand but got anxious on exams. Well same thing, MCAT will make you deal with that too.
The MCAT aims to be the ultimate equalizer, and the way it does this is by emphasizing systematic thinking so that anxiety or fuzziness with your content can quickly snowball to a low score.
(Want to know how to start understanding your content? Check out this resource/book)
2. Anxiety Level
So this leads to the next big thing, how anxious are you?
Along with not understanding your content or having strong critical reasoning/reading skills, the mental and emotional sides are the biggest reason students fall short with the MCAT.
This is better served on an individual basis, but I want to mention it because if you get anxious, you might find it harder to study or make progress.
(Not sure if this applies to you? If you struggle with time, too fast or too slow, this is a good indicator. Or if you just kind of check out or feel like you make a lot of dumb mistakes)
However, I promise you it can be overcome.
Often these students need to take a different approach and will sometimes take twice as long as others to get their desired score (mostly because this same anxiety prevents them from reading and understanding their content).
For other students, they’re strong in everything but still can’t get their MCAT to budge. This anxiety can be tackled in 1-3 months!
MCAT anxiety is hard, but manageable. But students typically need some sort of 1-1 coaching + tutoring to overcome this barrier.
3. Existing Commitments
Your commitments are a big factor. It can be daunting to take a full-time course load and take the MCAT on top. I broke down why in the general guidelines section.
For every student I have seen be successful doing this, I have seen 10 others fail.
Typically the ones who pull it off had some time in their schedule to study MCAT only.
Others had such a strong base that they only needed a few weeks to study and were able to spread that over a few months during classes.
Similarly, if you work full time, it’s going to take twice as long because you will only have a few, often low-quality/energy hours of study time.
This is why planning in advance is KEY, so you can work around these issues before you start.
Lastly, please please please cut back on the ECs (extracurricular activities) if you are in classes.
If I had a dollar for every time a student told me well I need more ECs because my grades are bad, I’d be crazy rich (vs now I just get to rant to them as follows).
Uhhhhh maybe your grades are bad because the ECs are cutting into your study time. Having one or two high-quality ECs are better than having a handful, ESPECIALLY if they get in the way of your MCAT.
The amount a person can handle really varies, but an easy way to know if you have too many on your plate is if your grades aren’t what you want them to be.
Focusing on making those better will make your MCAT better, which will make it easier to get in!
With that being said, it is important to have a life and have non-MCAT activities, but if you have class all day, and then commitments all night, it doesn’t leave much time or energy for MCAT.
NOT TO MENTION YOU SHOULD NEVER SACRIFICE YOUR GRADES FOR YOUR MCAT.
Your GPA is one of the biggest factors if you get in or not. You can take your MCAT later or take a gap year, but that C you got because you didn’t have enough time to study for class can’t be changed.
So don’t screw up your GPA for your MCAT.
It would be like saying you’re hungry and then throwing away your dinner. It won’t help you.
4. Your Target Score
Someone aiming for a 505 is on a totally different timeline than someone aiming for a 515 (or a perfect MCAT score).
While this isn’t a perfect estimate, you can assume about a 1 point per week increase in your score.
If you start at 500, and you want a 515, a fair guess is that it will take you about 15 weeks (just under 4 months). If you start at 485, it will take twice as long.
However, please note this formula is NOT Linear. You will have periods of big jumps, and periods of no movement.
The lower your starting score, the more time is needed to build a strong base, and vice versa with a higher starting score.
For instance, I had a student retaking with a 512 (his CARS score was too low to get in) come to me and jump to a 522 in under a month.
This is because his base was strong except for one specific area. We were able to quickly make the changes he was looking for.
But again, a lot of factors go into score increases.
For the most efficient and effective plan, I’d suggest talking it over with a pro if you feel anxious or have hit a plateau, and especially if you’re retaking.
5. Your Starting Score
Lastly, as I already alluded to, where you start has a big impact on how long it will take you.
There are subtle things such as which company you used for your first practice test, which subsections are high/low, and how much stress you feel about taking the first test that factor in.
People who are low across the board will need a lot longer than someone who is really strong in the sciences but low in CARS.
Similarly, if you are strong in CARS and average in the sciences that can be a pretty quick change as well.
Any section that is very low can often take a long time to change. But not always!
I had a student who came to me with a 121 in C/P. After watching my videos his score jumped to 128 in a month and hit the 130s after studying for a total of 2.5 months (495–>512).
For him, his fundamentals were strong. He had a 4.0 GPA. He just needed some work on his MCAT habits, and how to take the info he already understood and simply think about it for the MCAT.
Conversely, if you did not understand half your classes, then you’re effectively reteaching yourself 1-2 years of college, so it will take longer.
Again, it is totally doable, but it is KEY to set proper expectations.
There’s nothing worse than making yourself feel like you suck for not getting your score in 2 months, when you should have aimed for 6 months from the get-go.
When To Start Studying For The MCAT
With all of that being said, when should you start studying for the MCAT?
Using everything we said above, you can work backward to figure out exactly when you should start!
For example, let’s say you want to take it in May 2020 and your diagnostic practice test is a 500.
You know your stuff pretty well, and you want a 520 because you’re aiming for MD only and a research-heavy school. This means you need about 20 weeks.
You can count back from your May test day, add a little buffer, and start studying Christmas break. This allows you to build some momentum before you have to deal with your classes.
And if you want to make it even smoother, you can set it an 8 credit course load during the winter/spring semester.
So the earlier you start planning and preparing the better. But don’t get trapped in the ideal.
Focus on what is realistic. Notice how I worked in a buffer and a lower course load. Why? Well, life happens.
People will get sick (especially that February dread for my cold weather students out there). And you have friends and roommates who want to have birthdays and events. You have exams that take up more time and energy than you realize.
If you try to make the ideal happen, it leaves no room for anything to go wrong, and you’ll still feel bad about yourself even though you didn’t set up a realistic plan from the start.
But if you focus on what’s realistic you can properly evaluate what went wrong, all because you had a more accurate expectation from the start.
Is This Different For Retakers?
The big thing for students in this category is we already know what you did didn’t work in the past. So timeline wise, this article fully applies.
HOWEVER, for many of you, you may not find that the magic solution is simply having the right amount of time.
It’s not just about planning ahead to have enough time, you have to use that time in a way that’s actually effective!
Figuring out how to make it effective is why my retaking students have such a high success rate, even when statistics show most retakers will have a negligible change in their score. Doing the same thing before retaking isn’t going to change anything!
But Sid, I need to take it in May 2020 but it seems like I will need to start in September 2019! It’s already way past that! What do I do?
Your target date should be focused on the most realistic time for you to start and be successful.
So rather than working backwards, let’s have you figure out when you can start. If it’s Dec 2020, then you would aim for August 2021.
NO I CANTTTTTT. MY APPS!
My advice is that you study as hard as you can and do all the right things as if you were going to take it in August. However, if things go faster for you, just sign up for an earlier test date.
But don’t try to force it.
Take the gap year, or apply late and apply again next year if you don’t get in. Then you’ll have the confidence of having an MCAT good enough to get in, rather than being stuck in the never-ending cycle of rushing.
I know these are controversial takes, but let’s see what happens if you do the alternative:
You take it way too early and bomb. Then you have that on your record. And then you apply because you already submitted while waiting for your score since that was the whole point of rushing.
SO then you lose thousands in app money, have to reapply, and worst of all, you lost most of your summer to apps.
This leaves you with only a few weeks to retake but now you’ve forgotten most of what you did in the spring. So you rush it again and do poorly, again.
So now, by the end of summer you have been rejected everywhere, have two bad scores, and worst of all, you have to take a full course load senior year.
And the worst part? You are no better off next summer.
The Better Approach
Try this instead:
If you only focus on your MCAT and figure out your app afterward, you at least know that if you can’t do it faster this year, you will definitely get in next year.
I had a student who followed this exact advice. She actually cried from frustration when I first told her she was caught in this cycle (understandably so, because it’s hard to hear).
She listened. She improved her score. She applied for the next summer, and we did her apps together.
She got 15+ interviews and acceptances including at Stanford, Cleveland Clinic, Mayo, U of M and almost all the schools she applied to.
She has no regrets whatsoever, and actually loved her MCAT studying, her gap year, and her application process because she was never really too stressed or rushing.
When she cried, we talked about it after, she told me, “I feel so overwhelmed with everything and it feels like what you’re telling me is that I can’t do it.”
I told her, no! What I am telling you is you can definitely do it, but the way is to do one thing well at a time. She did just that and it paid off for her more than she (and tbh me) could have ever imagined.
I know the same will happen for you if you plan ahead and set it up in a way to help you succeed!
Multiple factors determine how long you should study for the MCAT, which allows you to figure out when you should start!
I know it can seem overwhelming, but once you dive into the nitty-gritty and make a plan, do your best to stick with it!
This is why it is key to make a realistic plan from the get-go, so you don’t keep feeling the need to change it every day. Plan hopping is a great way to get nothing done.
But depending on your situation, you may need more individualization. Reach out to our team and we can make the perfect plan for you.