If you’re wondering how to study for the MCAT there’s a good chance you’ve either just started and want to learn the best approach, or you’ve done some studying and could use a little extra guidance.
Well good news, I’ll give you detailed tips on how to prepare for the MCAT, including the main things you must be doing (and what most students get wrong).
This will be more in-depth than most resources you’ll find online. There’s no run of the mill, cookie-cutter advice here!
Rather, I want you to learn the big secrets that the top scorers intuitively know!
So buckle up as I guide you through the key points for starting and finishing your MCAT prep!
Why trust me?
I’ve been tutoring the MCAT since 2010, I was rated a top-five national tutor, and I’ve been tutoring students full time off referrals alone since 2014.
I’m the guy students go to when they’ve tried everything and nothing is working. We get them from bottom percentiles and med school rejections to 510+ and top of their class.
These tips below are the first things I talk to all my students about!
Table of contents
- 1. Familiarize Yourself With The Test
- 2. Understand What The Mcat Expects From You
- 3. Come Up With An Appropriate Study Schedule
- 4. Realize All Your Mcat Studying Fits Into 3 Buckets
- 5. Avoid The Most Common Mcat Mistake — The Content Trap
- 6. Learn How To Learn Effectively
- 7. Focus On Connecting The Dots Rather Than Rote Memorization
- 8. Take Practice Questions From Day 1! But Take The Right Questions For You…
- 9. Thorough Test Review Is EVERYTHING
- 10. Watch Out For Learned Helplessness, Don’t Rush, And Focus On Having Fun!
- 11. Skip The Group Class
- 12. But Do Get The Right Support For You
1. Familiarize Yourself With The Test
Before you learn how to study for the MCAT, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into!
What is the MCAT?
The MCAT is made up of four sections delivered in the following order:
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (CP) – 59 questions in 95 minutes
- 10 min break (optional)
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) – 53 questions in 90 minutes
- 30 min break (optional)
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (BB) – 59 questions in 95 minutes
- 10 min break (optional)
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; and (PS) – 59 questions in 95 minutes
But beyond knowing the overall format (and how long it is), what really catches student’s off guard is how different the MCAT is from any test they took in undergrad.
2. Understand What The Mcat Expects From You
The MCAT is NOT about rote memorization.
Student’s are often shocked by the format and question types in the MCAT.
If your university didn’t give you MCAT style questions and passages (heavy on critical reasoning and connecting new info to content you know) you will feel lost.
You might even get really overwhelmed.
But once you look at the MCAT for what it is, then it becomes clear why it is written the way it is.
Fundamentally, the MCAT is about showing your critical reasoning skills under pressure.
If you’re not sure what I mean by that, don’t worry. Tip #7 goes into this in detail!
But for now, think about it this way: when you’re a physician, you won’t have all the answers. You will need to take the base you built in college and med school to make inferences under pressure. All while evaluating a ton of data and juggling a multitude of inputs.
So when you start preparing for the MCAT, it’s important to make sure you’re continually improving your understanding of what the test expects from you!
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the fundamentals of studying for the MCAT.
3. Come Up With An Appropriate Study Schedule
Key word being “appropriate.”
I often see students trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
They’ll make this “ideal plan” based on a random test day they chose simply because it’s during a school break or it’ll help them get their applications in early.
But then they struggle and quickly realize they have way too much to do, and they’re doing it poorly.
Yes, some students can study for and get the MCAT done in a few months. But ask yourself, are you actually one of those people or are you trying to emulate someone else?
I truly believe everyone can do well on the MCAT. But that’s only if they have the right plan for themselves.
When figuring out how to study for the MCAT you’ll need to factor in things like your class, work, and extracurricular commitments. You also need to consider how well you learned content in undergrad, what your anxiety level is like, and how much energy you have.
It’s also a good idea to consider how your brain works. Some students like to do lists, and others like time blocking. Some are naturally very organized and prefer to start preparing for the MCAT early, and others tend to procrastinate and cram.
Rather than spending a ton of energy to try and force yourself to be different, get good at what works for you.
I learned this myself when I was a student studying for the MCAT.
I was a procrastinator who always spent too much time trying to come up with the perfect plan. This meant I spent more time planning than learning!
But then I realized something:
I always had a lot of fun answering the questions and learning from them. On top of that, I really enjoyed multiple choice tests simply because it meant I didn’t have to memorize as much ahead of time.
So what did I do?
I stopped trying to make the perfect plan, I started enjoying doing questions and learning from them instead. This resulted in me reading the chapters to get better at the questions!
(Ironically, all the time I wasted making perfect plans, looking at resources, and finding better ways to do things are what made me such a good tutor)
If you’re looking for a study schedule to get you started, click here to get in touch with me. I can either point you to some generic free ones, or if you’d like me to build you a customized schedule we can talk about that as well!
4. Realize All Your Mcat Studying Fits Into 3 Buckets
When figuring out how to study for the MCAT, you need to get familiar with what I refer to as the core “buckets” of preparation. All your studying falls into one of them.
- Content review
- Practice questions & passages
- How you review said practice
*From now on when you see me say “review” I’m referring to this third bucket. I’ll always say “content review” or (CR) if I’m talking about bucket one.
Content review: These are books, notes, videos, and classes. Any of your “classic” studying probably falls into this category. Here’s a breakdown of the best MCAT prep books to get you started.
Practice questions, passages, and tests: This seems fairly self-explanatory, but it’s actually quite important to find the right resources for you. There are a lot of options out there, and what works for some students might be a waste of time and money for others. My guide on the best MCAT practice tests goes into this in more detail.
Reviewing your practice: This is all about going over the questions you took in the prior bucket!
While everyone has their own approach, these are at the core of every good plan to study for the MCAT.
Now let’s play a quick game…
If you had to guess, which bucket do you think is the most important? Most students assume it’s content review aka bucket one.
Others have done some research and heard from others that all you need to do is, “take a lot of tests” so they assume bucket two is what they need to prioritize.
Both are wrong.
As we’ll cover in the following study tips, it’s all about bucket 3!
5. Avoid The Most Common Mcat Mistake — The Content Trap
Want to know the most common mistake students make when preparing for the MCAT?
Overfocusing on content review, without actually getting better at applying that content.
The MCAT is NOT like your class exams.
Don’t get me wrong. You’ll never do well without a great content base.
But so many students come to me saying they’ve studied content the same way they did in college. They worked hard, read books, tried to memorize it all, and watched videos. They even did Anki and paid for a prep class, but their score barely changed.
It’s heartbreaking, especially because the reason for their poor scores is almost always the same:
They didn’t learn how to apply content, and they didn’t get a feel for what content really matters.
On top of this, after a decade plus of tutoring, I’ve found that the students who spend too much time on content review tend to underperform the most in this area.
Why is that? How could they obsess over content review and still not be good at it?!
Usually, it’s because they aren’t being honest with themselves.
Bonus tip: be honest with yourself
And this is way easier said than done. Trust me, I’ve worked with tons of students who’ve told me “yeah I know that” when we cover this.
And they actually don’t.
It’s easy to get into a pattern of excessively rereading content or promising to take practice tests later once you “know the content really well.”
And while you might be thinking that’s just being committed to adequate preparation, there’s something hiding underneath that behavior.
Fear and avoidance.
And this fear blinds you from engaging with the test and our studying.
You can sit there for hours on end, spinning your wheels. And by the end, it feels like you’re just running in place.
Nothing was gained; nothing learned.
Oftentimes you’ll feel like you’re starting to remember the books and content you’ve been reading, but then you’ll go blank when taking practice questions.
That’s why when you get on Reddit or talk to your friends, everyone likes to say the secret is taking a bunch of practice tests.
But the real secret is being honest with yourself, and the practice tests help you do that. They clearly tell you where you stand.
So how do you get out of this content trap? Do an honest assessment of where you feel uncomfortable, then do whatever you have to do to get better at it!
Don’t cling to the content review because you’re nervous about the practice questions. Feel the fear and do it anyway!
Good content review is going to get you a 505 at most (maybe a 510 if you’re a decent test taker). But most likely, you’ll end up in low 500 limbo or potential won’t even crack 495.
Learn your content, but watch out for the content trap.
When figuring out how to study for the MCAT, you need to get comfortable with the way the exam wants you to use content.
6. Learn How To Learn Effectively
I don’t want you to be stuck in the content trap, but I don’t want you to spin your wheels either.
There is a TON of research out there about how memory and learning works, and most of the ideas we grew up with are wrong.
Mindlessly rereading and highlighting have been shown time and again to be ineffective.
Instead, you want spaced and continuous recall.
Anki is a great way to get this spaced recall. But I find that it will still leave you lacking if you do it poorly.
So how do you really use Anki or any recall tactic well?
Make sure you keep asking yourself: Am I really learning the content or am I just getting used to recognizing the words?
It shouldn’t take more than a few days to get a concept down. If it does, something is probably off with your approach.
For instance, the amino acids are probably the single most tested concept on the entire test, but many students go months without learning their amino acids. Sometimes even multiple retakes!
How can this be?! Because of all the points I’ve explained above. I know it seems contradictory, but if you’re just going through the motions, it’s easy to fall into the trap.
If you recognize something but can’t recall it, you can’t apply it.
I see it all the time. Students feel ok when looking at their notes or looking things up on Google. But the second they see it on the MCAT, they feel less confident applying it and they panic.
Researchers call this the “Illusion of Mastery” and it’s the most common detrimental habit students have.
For reference, I can teach the amino acids to most students in 45 minutes. Combined with proper recall on their end, they can learn them all in 1-3 days. That’s it!
But student’s tell me they avoided it for MONTHS before we met. If that isn’t an issue for you, amazing. Go find the areas where it is!
In other words, if you aren’t grasping important concepts, you need to find out why!
7. Focus On Connecting The Dots Rather Than Rote Memorization
So, we’ve covered the content trap. We covered being honest with yourself and avoiding “illusions of mastery” where you think you know something, but really you just recognize it.
Well, I said don’t treat it like a class exam right?
With class exams you can cram, dump out whatever you memorized, and still do okay. That won’t work here.
Why not? Because the MCAT wants you to connect the dots.
They’ll give you a passage which is often on details that are TOTALLY out of left field that you’ve never heard, while ALSO throwing in topics you have been exposed to (both in class or AAMC practice materials).
That means you need to be able to read this and synthesize it without getting too caught up in the details you don’t know. You need to be able to see what is important and what can be ignored.
Then they’ll ask you questions. Some will expect you to really connect parts of the passage, while others are more “seek and destroy” where you are just looking for a clear target hinted at in the passage.
You’ll also get some questions that have almost nothing to do with the passage outside of using the terminology to “jumpstart” into another relevant topic.
It’s almost like you are playing a game where you learn to see what common principles they want to keep applying.
As you get better at this, you get faster. And then you get more confident.
So instead of the content trap, you get a positive snowball effect.
It’s why some people make studying for the MCAT look so easy. They’re just used to studying like this because of their natural instincts, or because they were forced to study this way due to the style of their previous class exams.
They got out of the content trap by connecting the dots.
So how do you get good at this?
It’s simpler than you might think…
8. Take Practice Questions From Day 1! But Take The Right Questions For You…
You HAVE to take all the questions you can get your hands on, and you should do it from day 1.
But how many questions you do and how hard they are will depend on where you’re starting from.
Research backs this up. When we take on challenges that we struggle with, it becomes too discouraging to continue roughly 15-20% of the time.
This means the ideal zone is doing practice questions where you’re getting about 8 out of 10 questions correct.
Now there will be areas where you perform worse than this. I actually have my student’s grit out closer to even 30-50% wrong in the beginning (but with LOTS of reassurance and support).
But if you’re on your own, make sure you’re not picking up bad habits or getting too demotivated.
Some examples of this at work:
If you have a 4.0, love tests, tell me you learned your content well in class, and prove it with a 508 on your diagnostic, I’ll likely start you with difficult full length practice tests within the first month.
If your science is rusty, or you didn’t get to learn it well because all your classes were online, start by dipping your toes in with easier questions in shorter intervals and keep upping it as you get better.
9. Thorough Test Review Is EVERYTHING
If you talk to any top scorer who had good awareness of their study process, they have one thing in common: they did a really thorough job reviewing their tests.
Why? Because it’s SO Impactful. In fact, out of all my tips on how to study for the MCAT, this might be the most important one.
In earlier steps I talked about what MCAT expects of you and how you can use that to get really good at content (aka sharper and faster).
You really only start seeing this for yourself once you review your practice questions.
From thorough practice question review, you get literally everything you need.
- Learn MCAT applicable content
- Connect the dots with your content and how they want you to use it
- See how they set up passages, graphs, and figures
- Practice interpreting everything
- Learn what areas looked difficult in real time but weren’t too bad in retrospect
And so much more.
Only through test and practice question review can you really prepare for the MCAT and learn the test.
It’s why I base my students’ entire schedules around how well they can review.
If there are a lot of gaps, we start slow. If they’re comfortable and can take it all in from the beginning, I have them doing full length tests.
The key to scoring well is how much you can soak in from your review.
Research calls this “deliberate practice.” They have found that the people who are the best in their field all have one thing in common, and it’s not talent.
They review their weak areas with more intensity than anyone else.
You need to do the same.
At least if you want to score well!
10. Watch Out For Learned Helplessness, Don’t Rush, And Focus On Having Fun!
Most of the students who come to me for retake help thought they knew how to study for the MCAT, but they made one of two common mistakes.
They didn’t realize that they were rushing to get it over with, or they would get bogged down in learned helplessness (often feeling like they’re stuck in quicksand). These are hard concepts to explain, so I’ll keep it brief. But if after reading, you find yourself struggling with these, reach out.
If you feel like you’re “holding your breath” or “bracing” (almost like you’re racing through sprinklers that just turned on), you’re not adequately prepared for the MCAT.
In an attempt to get it done and move on, students rush. They don’t want to suffer.
Ironically, they end up suffering more because this builds up mental scar tissue.
They start telling themselves the test is too hard, they can’t do this, they need to give up on their dream.
But this isn’t true. They’re just developing a sense of learned helplessness.
If you are just trying to get through it and avoid the pain, you won’t learn. If you keep seeing all the ways it won’t work out, that’s probably the outcome you’ll get.
So what can you do instead?
Seems silly right?
But bear with me for a moment. Think of any time you’re having fun. You don’t rush and you immerse yourself. Doubt, self consciousness, and anxiety melt away.
When you’re just enjoying the process, incredible things can happen.
You can make studying for the MCAT a game and enjoy playing it!
You could approach it with a mindset of, “I’ll hate the next six months and then I’ll be happy.”
Or you could think, “This is a great growth process where I’ll improve my skills and have fun while challenging myself. Then, I’ll transfer these skills to be even better at classes.”
All the best scoring students learned to make it a game when preparing for the MCAT. And many come back to tell me that they had a better time studying in med school than in college!
So do yourself a favor and find ways to enjoy the challenge while making it fun.
11. Skip The Group Class
You know what isn’t fun? Plopping down a bunch of money for standard group classes only to realize they didn’t do much for you.
I like to say, the people who benefit the most from the group class are the ones who need it the least. Strong readers and test takers who did well with content in undergrad are typically the ones who will score the best in group classes.
But guess what? They would have scored well anyways – likely with less money spent.
And don’t get me started on taking one while managing a full time course load. Few students can handle it.
Of course there are always exceptions, but I built a majority of my tutoring business from student’s who came to me after these group classes failed them.
I’ve also worked for those companies, and while they mean well and have some good products, they really only work for 5-10% of students.
I mean look at the numbers yourself. These common group classes are the predominant way students prep – yet most people end up not getting the score they want!!!
They are too generic and often use very old models of learning. ESPECIALLY ones that are only online.
And to be honest, some of their strategies such as “always try to predict the correct answer before looking at the answer choices” are simply idiotic. This approach makes no sense for a multiple choice exam where the answers are right in front of you.
“Strategies” like that (or really anything they do for CARS) are more about marketing rather than being maximally effective for the individual student.
But as I mentioned, the generic groups can be right in certain scenarios.
For instance, someone who mainly needs some structure but already has good content understanding, test taking, reading, and reasoning skills will probably benefit.
One plus is that they do provide comprehensive materials. So if you’ve already completed a class or signed up already, don’t stress. You can use these materials to help you study for the MCAT more efficiently.
This leads me to…
12. But Do Get The Right Support For You
This is especially true if you’re overwhelmed from the start, have hit a plateau, or if you’re retaking.
Or honestly, even if you signed up for the aforementioned group class. I’ve worked with many students concurrently or after.
Just find the right support for you: whether that’s peers, online communities, classes that are actually a good fit, or 1-1 tutoring.
When learning how to study for the MCAT, each student has different needs. It’s about finding what your good and detrimental habits are and creating an environment to build on the good, while overcoming the bad.
So that’s why I say, a group class could be ok if it’s the right fit. But take some time to contemplate the fit instead of just hoping it all works out.
Any of the support options I said above can be helpful or harmful. It just depends on the student.
Some students get really overwhelmed by advice from their friends or parents. They get dejected or extrapolate the wrong things from reading online posts. Others find it incredibly helpful.
So how do you know what is the right support for you?
Well let’s go back through the tips.
Understand that the MCAT is a multiple choice test that’s heavy on reading and reasoning.
If you have a history of struggling with any of these (multiple choice tests, especially when heavy on reading or reasoning skills), one-on-one tutoring is probably a good idea.
The same goes if you struggle with accountability or feel overwhelmed with what resources to use.
If we look at the core buckets:
- Content review
- Practice questions
- Reviewing your practice
The common generic group classes from the big brands may help for those who need help with content review. It’s unlikely to help for practice questions outside of some accountability, and probably won’t be any good for reviewing your practice.
To be fair, there are others out there who are trying to change this and find a way to make group classes more effective. I say this because sometimes I will refer students there if I feel it will be a better fit for them.
But if you are plateauing, getting overwhelmed, not having fun, and overall stuck, one-on-one tutoring will be hard to beat.
Yes, it’s usually more expensive. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes I’ve had students spend less than they would in a class because they only needed a few tweaks (it all depends).
Ideally, a good tutor can help you identify your weakness and your habits, help you iron out the schedule and materials, and help you see the little areas of improvement that add up to make tremendous change—sort of like a coach.
Above all, any tutor needs to show you how to effectively review your exams. Make sure to ask about this if you’re looking for one, because the majority of your improvement comes from dissecting the practice questions.
Now time for a quick pitch.
If you want great tutoring or simply need help determining what option is the right fit for you, I’m here to help.
I truly believe we offer the best tutoring out there. Our students see a 17 point improvement on average, and over half score in the top 90th percentiles. Click here to get in touch.
Figuring out how to study for the MCAT doesn’t have to be a nightmare. It can actually be fun!
In summary, here’s what you’ll want to do:
Begin with understanding the test and what they expect of you.
From there, your studying falls into three main buckets (content review, practice questions, and reviewing your practice). Don’t overfocus on bucket 1!
Then you’ll want to develop a good schedule to help you prepare efficiently.
And don’t get discouraged! There will be tough moments, and you should never feel bad about needing some extra help.
There are many resources out there for you, and I’m happy to be one for you as well. If you want an expert who cares about your individual situation, feel free to reach out for high-level 1-1 tutoring.
And most of all, good luck crushing the MCAT!