Whether studying for the MCAT or other prerequisite classes, maintaining consistent study habits can be challenging. For some, a lack of motivation causes you to spend hours scrolling endlessly through social media before getting started. Others may find themselves distracted or losing concentration after only putting in 15 minutes of work. Either way, a consistent study schedule is key for success on the MCAT. After analyzing hundreds of students who have created their Customized Study Plan, we have discovered that the students who log consistent hours outperform their peers. Here are 6 practical strategies that will best help you study when… you don’t feel like studying at all.
My name is Theo, and I took the MCAT in 2019 and got a perfect score! Having gone through the MCAT journey myself and now watching dozens of students do the same, there are two main problems I’ve seen that can decrease motivation when studying for the MCAT. The first problem is feeling like you aren’t doing enough. There is so much material in front of you and so many practice questions to get through, yet we often feel like we aren’t making any progress. Almost every time I tried to sit down to study, I ended up taking 30 minutes before I genuinely started to hit the books. The other problem that I and my students face is stress. Doing well on this exam is incredibly important for success in the medical school application process that you feel like the world is on your shoulders.
Therefore, your problems with studying are likely not due to a lack of motivation. If anything, we have too much motivation and too much pressure built up in our head to study effectively. Instead of trying to increase your motivation for MCAT studying, you need to remove distractions.
1. Put Your Phone Away
This simple step is the most important, and I’m sure I am not the first person to give this advice. We are addicted to our phones. While this advice is simple, it’s the hardest for me to follow. If I have access to my phone, it’s almost impossible for me to make it through a zoom class or study session without getting distracted. But I made a switch. Before studying, I try to charge my phone in another room. If I forget and feel my phone in my pocket (or even worse, in my hand), I’ve made a pact with myself to just throw my phone across the room. The key principle is that you should not be able to see or touch your phone from your chair. This phone addiction is linked to the convenience of having phones at our fingertips, so by making it more difficult to access our phones, we can slowly adjust to a new normal.
Pro tip: remove notifications, delete distracting apps, or take a social media detox for a week.
2. Block Distracting Websites
I use an awesome Google Chrome extension called BlockSite that allows you to block distracting websites and redirect you to a productive page for customizable hours. Similar extensions exist for every browser as well. This method takes advantage of another barrier to changing our behaviors: willpower is not enough. The more you can automate systems to work in your favor, the less you need to choose to follow them. I only had to choose to install BlockSite once, instead of choosing every minute to be productive instead of wasting time scrolling through Instagram. By reducing the number of times that you need to choose to be productive, you reduce decision fatigue. Then you have more mental energy to devote to your studies.
3. Start with a Daily Checklist
There are a million task managing apps and tools out there to help you prioritize your many commitments. I use Trello! Daily checklists are critical to MCAT productivity because they sustain momentum. Momentum can be important for succeeding in school and daily life, but it’s even more critical for the MCAT. The MCAT feels like an impossibly tall mountain to scale: there’s more content than you’ve ever had on one test and it’s spread out over months. If you can slowly chip away at that mountain and feel the accomplishment of working through the content, those students enter the MCAT Bootcamp with confidence and energy. Momentum on the micro-scale is just as important as momentum on the macro-scale. To take advantage of this in your daily routine, we recommend adding a very simple daily task to the beginning of your checklist. That way you can start the day knowing that you’ve already accomplished something. This is why you should always begin the day by making your bed.
Checklists also allow us to prioritize the tasks we hope to accomplish. For this reason, when you sit down to study for the MCAT or school, number your checklist from most to least important. Then, simply start with the most important task, no matter how hard it is. Most of us start with the easiest task first. However, this leads us to approach harder and more important tasks after we have expended lots of mental effort throughout the course of the day. Doing what’s important first ensures that you will never have to cram for a deadline or stress about being behind. It also sustains your momentum; if life gets in the way of your plans, at least you already accomplished the most important things that needed to get done.
Pro tip: Incorporate prioritization into your MCAT Study Plan. After doing the behavioral science modules, I recommend working through the remaining science modules from hardest first to easiest last. This way, if you are behind in your content studying, at least you can rush through the easiest content at the end.
4. Pomodoro Technique
One of the most popular methods for tricking your brain into studying when it doesn’t want to is the Pomodoro technique. The basic premise is that you set a timer for 25-minute intervals of study with 5-minute intervals of a break in between. In this way, you study for 50 minutes every hour with time to relax so that it never feels overwhelming. There are plenty of apps that can aid you in this method, as well as my personal favorite app: Forest. With Forest, you set a timer for the given amount of time that you want to study. In that time, a little seedling will start to grow and sprout. But if you look at your phone, the seedling dies! I don’t know why this works for me, but something about killing a cute animated tree makes me committed to not check my texts.
For those who have tried the Pomodoro technique and hated it (like me), try other methods of structured study! Knowing your own study style and what works for you is key to maximizing your effective study hours. I personally take a long time to get into a flow state. Getting in the groove is rare, so if I am in the mood to study I need to stay in it for as long as I can. Having breaks every 25 minutes is the worst for me, because those 5 minutes inevitably turn into an hour. So, I need to remove the amount of time that I take breaks as it gets me out of my rhythm. While I can’t study for 4 hours straight, I aspire to take longer, uninterrupted blocks of study, and then take longer breaks after. This way, during these longer breaks I can truly relax without checking how many minutes I have left before I need to dive back into the books.
5. Schedule your day with a calendar
Another powerful tool to get you to study when you don’t feel like studying is planning how long a task will take. Breaking up your day into manageable chunks simplifies your definition of success. Even if you’re easily distracted, you will still know exactly what you are supposed to do. I use Google Calendar to schedule everything, from MCAT tutoring to when I need to leave to catch the bus. A calendar is also a great way to set deadlines for yourself when they aren’t set by a professor or research administrator. When applying for medical school, I used calendars to keep track of every deadline and missing pieces of my application. This organization was a large contributor to getting accepted.
6. Create Your Own Study Plan
Getting and using the create-your-own Study Plan Course was the most important key to my MCAT success. Not only did it help me track my progress, but it also gave me daily accountability to myself to reach my goals. The method is simple, to improve your MCAT score, you need to put in the work to get there. Based on the difference between your current score and your goal score, the customized MCAT Self Prep algorithm will tell you roughly how many hours you need to study. This course helped me see that in order to be successful, I would need to set daily and weekly goals for the hours that I needed. I wanted to say that if I ended up being unhappy with my score, I had done my part. Therefore, I held myself accountable every week to study the amount of time that I promised myself on my study plan.
There are many, many days that I don’t feel like studying. But we’ve all made a goal to be component and compassionate doctors one day. The reality is, there is a massive amount of work that goes into becoming a great doctor. With these strategies, I hope you can chip away at the work to be done and together we can look back and be proud of all the work that we’ve accomplished.
Theo Bennett scored a perfect score (528) on the MCAT and has been accepted at Harvard, UPenn, Columbia, UCLA, and other top 10 medical schools across the country. You can learn more and sign up to work with him one-on-one here.
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