When I started studying for USMLE Step 1 (“the boards”), I wondered which aspects of MCAT studying would come up again. Some biochemistry topics felt comfortable (amino acids and protein structure), and some topics required more learning (urea cycle and nucleotide metabolism). Yet, at the end of the day, building a quality study schedule really reminded me of my own MCAT studying and my years of tutoring. Of course the material is different, but building a study plan will always have the same key elements:
- Resources to use and checklists for using them
- Tracking my practice problem performance
- Weekly study timeline
Weekly study timelines never change. You know how much time you have in a week, your upcoming commitments, and plan your studying around those activities. Whether it’s preparing for the MCAT, finals, block exams in medical school, or the board exams, doing this type of planning helps you create realistic goals and sets you up for success. I even modified the MCAT Self Prep weekly study timeline to track my early progress.
Once you’ve put in 98% of the hard work, scored well on practice exams, and have reached the final week of preparing, your weekly study timeline serves a very different purpose. Before that week, it’s all about maximizing effective study hours, making sure there are no significant holes in your content knowledge, and honing your strategy. But with just days before your actual test, a new priority emerges: being at full strength on test day.
Most advisors and people who’ve taken the MCAT before will tell you to take a break the day before your exam. What’s the point of solidifying 10-15 new pieces of information (of which, maybe none or one will be tested) if it means you’ll be fatigued on test day and only working at 80% or 90% of your full potential? The MCAT is a marathon, with 39 passages and over 6 hours of actual reading and answering questions. Starting the day at 100% energy and focus is the top priority since it can profoundly affect how many questions you get right.
A big part of being 100% on test day is avoiding burnout. To learn more about this, check out our previous blog on 7 Tips to Avoid Burnout. Now, what is the best way to plan that final week of study? I’d recommend working backward in the following order:
- One day before the test, plan on studying for 0-2 hours. No practice problems, only reviewing high yield topics, and the minute you feel fatigued or tired, stop immediately. Am I feeling tired when you wake up? Don’t study at all. Don’t risk being fatigued on test day.
- Two days before the test is the last real day of studying, and you should heavily focus on notecard review here. Practice problems are for building a strategy and showing you what areas you still need to study; as your last real day of learning, this is too late. Focus on topics you have seen before but don’t have fully memorized.
- 3-5 days before the test is far enough out that new practice problems can be done. If you haven’t exhausted the AAMC question packs and section bank, use those now (and convert those questions into predicted AAMC scores using our Study Plan). The focus should be on memorizing high-yield details and understanding the foundational concepts.
- ~6 days before the test is the last day, I would recommend doing full-length exam. You need time to recover from these long tests and enough time to actually review those answers and learn the material you missed.
With all of this free time built into the final week and stress about the exam, how can you effectively spend your time? My top tip would be finding a form of physical activity and socialization that works well for you, and planning it ahead of time. If you enjoy hiking, text your friends and tell them to plan a trip a day or two before your test. Even jogging or walking the day before your exam can help you burn that excess energy, reduce your stress levels, and sleep better the night before the exam, which is a big part of being 100% on test day.
If you’re reading this and freaking out about only having a week left before your exam, take a breath and write down those bulleted points. Everyone feels stressed before big exams, even test experts. It’s all about finding the right balance between studying enough to feel prepared and resting enough not to have regrets walking out of that testing center. Those tips above will work for almost any student. Still, if you have extenuating circumstances or want more personalized help building a study plan, we can have a free 10-minute consultation on how a tutoring session could help you make that final push. Good luck studying!
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 and has written hundreds of practice questions!
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