I remember facing burnout a month before my MCAT date and panicking. I had just finished my finals week and planned on starting MCAT Self Prep’s Bootcamp (a 30-day study plan that is part of the free e-course). I simply couldn’t bring myself to study for the MCAT. I needed to both address the burnout I was facing and figure out how to minimize it moving forward.
First, what is burnout? According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout occurs when work-related (or study-related) stress causes many symptoms related to physical and emotional exhaustion, including fatigue, irritability, and decreased performance. You can also compare this to the exhaustion stage of General Adaptation Syndrome, which you may recognize from the Behavioral Sciences Quizlet and Our Free 100-Page Behavioral Science Notes.
1. Take Breaks
Taking a break is the best way to limit feelings of burnout. This does not mean giving up studying for the MCAT completely, but rather finding enough time to rest and recover. If you notice your burnout early, it may only take two or three days of complete rest to recover. Personally, it took me four days of complete rest to feel asymptomatic again, and an extra few days may be needed for severe cases. You need to understand that taking time off will actually boost your score more than cramming in extra practice problems and feeling exhausted for test day. Likewise, we recommend taking a full day off the day before your official exam to avoid burnout on test day.
Since we’ve now taken some time off, it will take time to get back to the same level of study. Just like a baseball pitcher needs a month of spring training to get back their stamina, we need a week or so (5-10 days) to get back to studying long hours. I recommend a gradual increase, starting with 25% of the normal work on your first day back, then ramp it up as long as the fatigue, headaches, and other symptoms don’t persist. If you try to push through symptoms during this period, it can seriously delay recovery, so please stop studying as soon as symptoms return and re-evaluate the next day.
It’s not enough to just take time off and jump back into that same, stressful routine, though. The following steps are designed to minimize the stress that you feel and prevent future burnout.
2. Find a Hobby and Schedule Free Time
Studying for the MCAT can feel like a full-time job, and with all of the other requirements we need to meet to be competitive medical school applicants, our calendars fill up quickly. Adding another activity may sound counter-intuitive, but it can be a great addition to reduce stress.
I recommend finding a hobby that doesn’t require too much mental effort (and won’t give you a concussion!), since studying for the MCAT uses so much of that already. Instead of trying to read Crime and Punishment, here are some fun ideas: cooking, listening to podcasts, gardening, playing video games, playing card games, learning a musical instrument, or starting pilates or running.
Notice that these activities all have something in common. You stay active without over-exerting yourself mentally. While you’re just starting out with this activity, you should set aside a set time to do the activity regularly. If I study best in the mornings, I may plan on practicing playing the trumpet after dinner for an hour each night. Other students may start each day with a three-mile run before breakfast.
Feeling burned out? Schedule 1 hour of learning a new skill every day.
3. Take Time to Exercise
You might consider this as just another hobby, but I think this is impactful enough to be worth its own discussion. It’s well known that exercise can reduce stress levels and increase the effectiveness of your studying, so it seems like a natural addition to your study plan.
Add in all the other health benefits of exercising, and this becomes my most important recommendation.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 times a week. Again, this is something that you can ease into your schedule, and the types of exercises can differ. I personally like lifting weights and running, but cycling, going for hikes or jogs, yoga and pilates classes, and many more options could also work!
Exercise also naturally wakes you up! For test day, you could even consider doing 20 jumping jacks or pushups in the hallway for your breaks!
Feeling burned out? Schedule a study break to exercise every day you study.
4. Regulate your Sleep and Diet
Studying for the MCAT is like preparing for a science marathon; any marathon runner would have a relatively stable sleep schedule and plan their meals, so why shouldn’t we do the same?
Having a consistent sleep schedule (7+ hours of sleep every night) can help counteract the fatigue that we feel during burnout. On top of this, it makes scheduling time for hobbies, exercise, and studying so much easier. I recommend trying to fall asleep and wake up within a one-hour range (e.g. wake up between 7 and 8 am, go to bed between 11 pm and 12 am) to best achieve this.
Meal planning is one option that you can consider to increase efficiency. This doesn’t necessarily mean making 14 Tupperware containers on Sundays with meals for the week; it could be as simple as cooking all your pasta at once or making a couple of servings worth of vegetables at a time. Then, you can easily mix-and-match leftovers throughout the week and save time.
Feeling burned out? Commit yourself to go to bed before midnight (without your phone!) every night this week.
5. Maximize Social Support
In medical school, I’ve learned to always ask patients about their support systems. Having people around you to help you cope with stress, help out with challenges, and provide encouragement and emotional support can make tough times easier.
How you maximize your support depends partly on who you receive it from, but the principle is the same: maintain your connections and ask for help frequently. Family or roommates might be able to help with small chores and ease your burden. Scheduling times to talk with friends can make sure you don’t shut down socially. Personally, I schedule Fridays and Saturdays with time for catching up with old friends, hanging out, and calling my parents. I recommend having some regularity regarding reaching out to others and staying connected.
Feeling burned out? Take tomorrow afternoon to hang out with friends or family instead of studying.
6. Set Boundaries Between Studying and Downtime
My biggest nightmare is that my relaxing time is wasted not actually relaxing. Having the Quizlet app on my phone and knowing I haven’t done all my Quizlet cards for the day means I will feel stressed every time I see those notifications. This stress both isn’t productive and pushes me closer to burnout.
To avoid this, I try to separate as much as possible my study activities from leisure. I have no apps for studying on my phone. I have a dedicated desk and browser for studying and avoid using those whenever I’m not studying. If I really want to do flashcards at night, I can go back to my desk and do them there. No need to try and do them in bed and let more locations stress me out. There are many other ways to boost your productivity and happiness at the same time.
Feeling burned out? Create a specific setup for MCAT studies and keep your study confined to that location.
7. Change your Studying Mindset
A major stressor for many students is how far away they feel from their goal. Seeing we have 3 months left of studying, or that we’re 10 or more points away from our goal score, is daunting. Since it takes dozens of hours of study to improve by a single point on the MCAT, the goals seem out of reach.
The best way to avoid this is to re-evaluate your goals and find short-term goals to shoot for. Constantly worrying about the 10 point increase will not help, but how about a weekly goal of getting through the Behavioral Sciences I module in our FREE e-course? If CARS is your weakness, instead of stressing about a 4 point increase, why not set a weekly goal of doing 16 passages and tracking the reasons for why you got them wrong?
Sometimes these short-term goals are hard to design yourself, or you may still set too ambitious of a goal and stay stressed. Finding that social support and using expert resources, like tutoring, can really help to make this process easier.
Timothy is a medical student who has helped over 100 students succeed on the MCAT. Not only did he score in the 99th percentile, he also has extensive understanding of MCAT questioning as he has written most of our practice questions!
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