MCAT Survival Guide

Academic Guidance

MCAT Survival Guide


The most intimidating aspect of the MCAT for me was the expectation that students only take it once. At least in high school when taking the SAT and ACT, if I scheduled the tests early enough, there was always the chance to take it again and try to improve my score. Of course, there are plenty of successful students who take the MCAT twice, so while that is a perfectly viable approach, most students ideally want to prepare for it only once. Because the MCAT is generally considered a “one and done” test, I found that learning to cope with this level of stress was just as important as the actual content studying.


In regard to studying content, there are a number of organized classes and study materials available. Many are pricey, but I found it worthwhile to have a class that forced me to show up and meet benchmarks every week. Knowing your own study strengths and weaknesses will help in choosing the study method that is best for you. Students usually spend anywhere from 2-5 months studying for this test. I appreciated having the opportunity to ask questions and clarify material that I did not understand, even after reading it thoroughly. It was also helpful to know when to take my first practice test and to have insight into how to interpret my scores.


A side note about scores: most people (myself included) begin with practice scores much lower than their target scores. There is frequently a "threshold point," beyond which you are able to consistently score in your desired range. So, don't be too disappointed if your first 3-4 practice tests are not where you want them to be. They should motivate you to study harder and target your weak areas, but they should not discourage you.


Looking to the personal side of life before the MCAT, expect your social life to take a hit. However, that does not mean abandoning your friends or never leaving your room. I limited myself to going out one night per week in the two months before the test and I made sure that I was using the extra time to study, not for watching movies or the like. It was initially strange to spend Friday nights in the library, but after a couple weeks I really started to see improvement in my practice scores. Tell your friends and family that you are preparing for the MCAT and that it is a stressful time. Often they will understand and try to help you in any way that they can. There were a few times when the stress overwhelmed me and I coped by talking through my experiences with my mom, keeping up with regular yoga practice, and getting enough sleep. Everyone has different coping mechanisms, so make sure to identify yours before the first time you get a bad score on a practice test. And during this process always remember what my high school English teacher liked to say, "The best part about hitting your head against a wall is that, eventually, you stop."


Each practice book has its own advice for test day, but there were a few specific things that I found helpful to know ahead of time. The exam proctors fingerprint and use a metal detector on all examinees when they enter and exit the testing area. The MCAT is given on computers and you will be offered noise-canceling headphones to wear while you take it. You are given scrap paper, which you have to return to the proctors. I was a bit thrown off by this environment, so prepare to be surprised. The setting certainly should not impact your performance, but knowing what to expect will make it easier on test day. All of the other test day instructions (bring snacks, dress in layers, etc.) should be in your preparation materials- these are just a few tidbits that I wish I had known earlier in the preparation process. In all, solid preparation will lead to a gratifying score. Although MCAT preparation is an arduous process, it means you are near to the goal that you have been working towards for a number of years already. Knowing that I had studied as thoroughly and intensely as I could have was one of the primary ways that I reduced my test day stress.