When I was starting my MCAT preparation, I sought out high-scorers in the grades above me like a bloodhound. I wanted to know what worked. Now, having scored in the 99th percentile myself, other students frequently seek out me for the same reason, and I find myself giving two types of advice: studying tips and performance-enhancement tips.
In regards to studying tips, I think MCAT Self Prep is the gold standard for effective preparation. Consistent content review, with spaced repetition by using both their 5,300 flashcards (only $99) and self-made flashcards (SO underrated!), is by far the best way to build a solid foundation of knowledge for the MCAT. After that, following our MCAT Bootcamp’s balanced practice problem and review schedule helps add some structure to a hectic last month. Since these study planning tips are already well-established, I figured this blog would be more helpful talking about the second category: performance enhancers.
To be clear, I’m not talking about EPO injections in professional cycling or anything like that. Instead, these are little ways you can maximize your potential and control small variables that might shake you on test day. While it might seem extreme to focus on accessory variables when there’s so much content to cover, I can attest as an EMT, an athlete, and a former MCAT student that little things can accumulate and alter performance in high-stress situations. Paying attention to those little things will thus maximize your efficiency and get you the awesome score you want.
With that said, let’s dive in!
Prioritize Self Care
I worked really hard when I was studying–my phone was on airplane mode, I had earplugs in, I put in 8 or 9 hours every day–but I carved out space to rest. Every night, I came home and leisurely made dinner. I’d make some tea and read a nice book afterwards, or play games with my housemates. To finish the night, I’d always spend an hour or so hanging out with my partner. Weekends were also mine. I went on more backpacking trips that summer than I had all my other years of college combined. Taking time to relax was vital for my success. It helped me start each day fresh and eager rather than burned out and grumpy, and made me more effective during the time I was studying.
However, a big key to this was actually recognizing when certain self-care would do me good. There were some weekends where I got invited on trips, but I knew I had a big practice test coming up on Monday and did not want to be groggy for it. I knew that going on the trip would mean I’d spend half my time perseverating over the future rather than actually relaxing. Whereas a younger me might have pushed through and gone on the trip anyway by telling myself “this trip is self-care and you need that,” I started recognizing that I had to be in the right headspace for certain self-care. Know which activities will help you unwind or unplug, and be selective in which larger activities you choose.
For additional information, check out 7 Steps to Avoid and Manage Burnout!
Simulate Test Day Every Time
As I started taking practice tests, I realized changing small details about my routine could greatly impact my concentration. Thus, I started simulating test day meticulously to eliminate stress. I made the exact same lunches and snacks for each practice test so I knew roughly what sort of energy boost I’d get and how my stomach would feel. I drove the route to the testing facility a few times so I knew where it was and what traffic would be like so I wouldn’t be late or flustered on the day of my exam.
If there’s one “little thing” I wish I had practiced more, it was using the testing center headphones. They were super tight and hot so I kept fiddling with them throughout the test, which was distracting. So if you’re interested in simulating the little things, I’d recommend taking practice tests with (somewhat uncomfortable) noise-cancelling headphones. This way, you won’t be bothered by some new stimulus–everything will be totally normal, and you can devote all your concentration to tackling the questions in front of you.
Sharpening Myself Outside the Test
While the MCAT does test knowledge, success also requires skills you don’t necessarily get from reading books and doing practice questions. Those are things like staying calm under pressure or getting into deep focus. I’ve seen a few students score 520+ on multiple full length tests, just to score below a 510 on test day, because they struggled with this aspect.
I worked on this every time I took a practice test, but I realized there was more I could do if I took my preparation into my personal life. So, I started practicing meditation and breathwork to better handle anxiety and stress. Lying down on my bed, I’d pick a phrase that was important to me. Frequently, that phrase was “I know how to take the MCAT.” Then I did a series of 4-counts, meaning 4 seconds of inhalation, 4 seconds of holding my breath, 4 seconds of exhalation, and so on and so forth. I used the same breathing techniques and phrase repetition before my practice tests and started entering my tests calmer.
Likewise, I noticed that the video games I played with my housemates after studying made me jumpy and frenetic. It felt like all the deep focus I worked on during the day was undone by flashy stimuli, so I stopped playing video games and saw my ability to concentrate improve. Removing negative stimuli can be just as important as adding positive ones!
As a final example, I started reading way more in my free time, which can independently help improve your MCAT score! Reading nonfiction made me better and better at slicing through fancy vocabulary and flowery syntax, and I subsequently felt much more confident tackling CARS passages. Similarly, I started looking up biology articles on Google Scholar for practice with science passages. I became more comfortable toggling between text and graphs, and thus became a better reader while saving my valuable practice passages for practice question sessions. Although this is somewhat of a “study tip” rather than a “performance enhancer,” I also recommend reading real research articles because you familiarize yourself with research techniques. This can lead to easy points on discrete questions and faster comprehension on passages.
Overall, I found working on transferable skills (cross-training my brain, so to speak) the most rewarding of all my performance enhancers. Most of these were things I wanted to do anyway. The MCAT simply gave me a strategic excuse to put them into action. Thus, I emerged from my MCAT feeling like I was a better student and pre-med, but also a better version of myself. Yes, you are still trying to get into medical school, but the “bigger purpose” approach gives you fuel when you’re in the doldrums of studying and medical school seems a million years away.
Carving Out Time
You may have heard a professor, mentor, or family member say at some point that multitasking degrades your focus. I believe this applies to all types of studying, including the MCAT. When I started studying, I wanted to give my MCAT my all. I wanted to eat, sleep, and breathe the test, so Monday to Friday I woke up at 7a so I could be in the library and starting to study by 7:30a. I worked out for an hour at 11:30a, and was back in the library by 1:00p. I was a little looser with the end of my day–I aimed for 5:00p, but if I was in the zone I’d stay an extra hour or so. The MCAT essentially was my job.
I had to do some planning, like taking an extra job on-campus the year prior so that I could save money for my MCAT summer, but it was worth it; I felt completely immersed in the MCAT during the day, and could disconnect fully once I ended my studying. My attention didn’t feel scattered, and I was better able to get into deep focus in my preparation. This also gave me ample time to devote to studying–as our CEO, Andrew George, emphasizes in his Create-your-own Study Plan, MCAT prep is a matter of hours studied, not weeks or months.
Those are the “performance enhancers” that gave me an edge and got me my 99th percentile score! Please remember though, these compliment rigorous studying. Breathwork or simulating test day precisely won’t help much if you haven’t studied amino acids, brain structures, and more.
Thus, I highly recommend checking out our other resources on MCAT Self Prep because they are a more thorough dive into my “studying tips” than this blog could ever be. If you have any questions about our resources or want to begin working with a tutor, please feel free to reach out to our team and we’d be delighted to help. Finally, I hope you exceed your expectations on your exam and savor the learning process!
Best of luck!
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