Is the MCAT Stressing You Out? Fight Back with these 5 Key Habits!
Studying for the MCAT can be one of the most stressful endeavors you have ever undertaken in your life. It can be especially stressful considering that you also need to juggle research, volunteering, shadowing, and several other essential checklist items for your medical school application.
In studying for the Behavioral Sciences section of the MCAT, you will learn about something called the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which basically states that there is an optimal level of stress that will enhance performance. If you don’t feel enough stress, you won’t be motivated enough to work hard toward a top MCAT score. If you feel too much stress, you may impede your ability to learn and will not reach your potential.
Because it is most common for students studying for the MCAT to experience too much stress, I’d like to briefly touch on 5 habits that will help you manage your stress in easy, healthy ways. And not only will these habits reduce your stress level, but they will also enhance your ability to learn and focus, boosting your MCAT score:
- Take Regular Breaks. Most pre-meds have a really hard time with taking regular study breaks. Because most of us are of the type-A, workaholic personality type, taking breaks can be extremely difficult to do. We think to ourselves, “Every minute that I am not studying, is a minute lost.” When it comes to taking regular breaks, however, this could not be further from the truth. Recent research shows that brief diversions from the task at hand will allow you to perform better. You can only study for so long before your brain starts to slow down and lose focus. I would suggest breaking your study day into hour-long intervals in which you study for 55 minutes and take a break for 5 minutes. During the 55 minutes of studying, be sure to focus only on the task at hand. Turn off the cell phone, Facebook, cat videos, etc. Then during the 5-minute break, do whatever you’d like as long as it isn’t studying related. To help you in this effort, we’ve embedded short, comedic YouTube videos from Studio C at the end of every video playlist on our site. Feel free to check out my favorite Studio C episode.
- Exercise Daily. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise will actually increase the size of brain areas associated with memory, including the Hippocampus! Exercise will also enhance your ability to sleep well and decrease your stress level. What could be better for a pre-med like yourself?! I personally recommend starting your day with 30 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise that will get your heart pumping and wake up your brain. This way, you can start off your studying with a brain that is alert, active, and ready to learn. One thing that I did while studying for the MCAT was going on walks while I reviewed my notecards. You can simply pull up our Quizlet Practice Questions (as part of our Advanced Pro Plan) on your phone and review them while you are walking around campus.
- Take a Day Off. I know it sounds counterintuitive to take an entire day off from studying when you have so much material to cover, but taking a day-off once per week is extremely important in having a fresh and active brain on the other six days of the week. If you have a really busy schedule and can’t afford to take an entire day off, at least consider taking a half-day off. During this time off, feel free to do whatever you’d like as long as it isn’t related to the MCAT. Many pre-meds get so busy with the MCAT that they forget to do the things that make them happy. Don’t leave your family, friends, and important hobbies/interests in the dust in your effort to achieve MCAT success. These things can provide you with much needed support and fulfillment, allowing you to give studying a full effort.
- Get TONS of sleep. I talk to too many pre-meds who think they can do a full-time job from 8 to 5, volunteer/shadow from 5 to 10 PM, and then get their MCAT studying in from 10 PM to 2 AM instead of going to bed. This is a BAD IDEA! When you are studying hard, the next most important activity to help you remember what you are learning is to sleep. Research shows that sleep is required for the consolidation of memories. Without it, you will struggle to absorb and recall what you are learning. Think about studying like pouring the cement foundation of a building. During sleep, this foundation will harden. Without sleep, however, the cement will not harden, and the building will sink. In a similar way, your MCAT content foundation will never fully form without sleep, leaving you with a sinking MCAT score on test day. As a rule of thumb, you should at least get 8 hours of sleep and you should never sacrifice sleep to study longer.
- Eat Healthy. Whenever I have a student who is struggling to succeed on their practice exams and seems to be burning out, I like to ask them the following question: “What have you been eating lately?” More often than not, the student will tell me that they have resorted to eating food like pop-tarts and hot pockets. Food is the fuel you need for studying, and if you are putting junk in the tank, don’t expect your brain to perform well. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contain essential nutrients and energy substrates that your brain needs to perform processes related to learning and retaining new information. A brain that is well-fed will also have an increased ability to focus. I recommend for my students to take the time out of their study day to cook real food. Treat yourself! Spending an extra 5 to 10 minutes to make a healthy lunch is much more important than what you might have studied during that time.
Well, there you have it – 5 simple strategies that you can implement today to decrease your stress level and enhance your ability to achieve a top MCAT score. Don’t underestimate the power of these healthy habits. They are essential if you are looking to achieve your MCAT dreams.
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