The 5 Most Common Mistakes Students Make While Studying for the MCAT

Written and edited by the MCAT Self Prep Tutoring Team

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I wish I had been warned of common MCAT mistakes before I started studying for the MCAT. As the first pre-med student in my family, I had no one to help me filter out the good MCAT advice from the bad. The summer before my junior year of college, I had three or four friends start studying for the MCAT they would take in January, and I started to realize how big of a test it was. I spent the next hour on Youtube and Reddit looking for MCAT advice and immediately regretted it.

Not only did I hear a lot of intimidating strategies, but many of them contradicted one another. Should I focus on content first, or be doing practice problems only to study? Do I study CARS every day, in small chunks, or just wait until the month before test day? And what really is the best way to approach a CARS passage? I quickly learned that reading a random student’s perspective actually confused me more than helped me, so I gave up reading those completely.

After four years of helping students study for the MCAT, I’ve seen the same MCAT mistakes pop up time and time again. After seeing hundreds of students fall into these traps, let me explain why you should avoid these common MCAT mistakes.


1. Not building in enough time to study

Out of all the MCAT mistakes you can make, this is by far the one with the biggest impact. When I first have a free consultation with a student, I ask them how many points they want to improve by and when they want to take the MCAT. If they tell me they want a 15 point increase before their test next month, and they won’t change their test date because they’re committed to applying this cycle, it’s a no-win situation. There’s virtually no chance of improving by that many points that quickly. We would have to talk about either changing their goal score or changing their test date. 

So, how long do you need to study? That depends on your baseline skill level and your goal score. If a student has a diagnostic exam score of 485 and needs a 508 to be competitive at their favorite program, they will need to study hundreds of hours more than someone with a diagnostic exam score of 492 and the same goal score. Our Create-Your-Own Study Plan course has instructions on what to use as a diagnostic exam and a Study Plan that you can customize based on your previous experiences. If you’d like extra help or guidance with this, Tutors can also help you generate the right plan for you!

Above are 2 screenshots from a model study plan’s sections on “What to Study” and “Weekly Study Timeline”. These look at the difference between your goal score and current score, tell you what to study, and give you space to plan out how you will cover this material and track your progress and hours studied. You can see more about these from Andrew’s Inside Look article and videos.

2. Spending too much time on Reddit, Youtube or Student Doctor Network

When I first started preparing for the MCAT, I made the same mistake so many of my current students do. Feeling a little anxious about the MCAT or curious what people who just took the test thought about it? Those are understandable thoughts, but actually spending the time to go read all of these won’t actually make you feel better. More likely, you will start comparing yourself to these strangers, feel worse about your own progress or studying, and be even less motivated to keep working. I like to call this “spiraling” since it’s hard to escape this pattern of behavior. 

Why are so many of these resources net negatives? Think about the people who are posting on these forums. If someone has time to post on these forums, they’re not studying during that time. People who post here are not a representative sample, but rather the highest achievers that may not be relatable and people struggling to improve on their own. Seeing these extremes won’t actually make you feel any better, and can only add to your stress levels. 

Is the MCAT Stressing You Out? Fight Back with these 5 Key Habits!

3. Believing passage reading is their only problem

One of the most common things that I hear from students is that they think content knowledge isn’t the issue, and that if I ask them any question, they would be able to answer it. Then they go and score a 493 on a full length, getting many discrete questions incorrect. 

Realistically speaking, if a student is scoring below a 510, there are still some content holes that could be filled; if a student is scoring below 500, then a comprehensive content review using our Free Ecourse is needed. It is likely that both content knowledge and passage reading are issues, and students should be committed to working on both of those as they study.

4. Delaying CARS studying

CARS is by far the hardest section of the MCAT to improve upon. Over my years of teaching, I’ve seen huge differences in the time needed to study per point improvement. For a science section, it takes students an average of 50 hours of studying to improve their score by one point; for CARS, it’s closer to 75-100 hours of studying to see that one point improvement. These numbers sound daunting, and are why not building enough time to study is such a huge mistake. 

So, what should CARS studying look like? I’d recommend having a clear goal in mind for what you want to accomplish in that study session, whether it be a specific comprehension strategy from our Ultimate CARS Strategy Course to better understand passages, working on timing, or better understanding a certain type of passage. If you find a passage that you really struggle with understanding, a tutoring session could also help identify your MCAT mistakes and build a study plan to improve in those areas.

5. Looking for gimmicky strategies

When students have studied for a few weeks and have not yet seen big improvements, they can grow frustrated and look for quick ways to add a point to their scores. Sure, some companies may recommend reading questions before reading the passage, but is your working memory big enough to store all of those questions and still fully understand the passage? If you’re struggling with timing, is it really worth taking a minute or two at the beginning of a section to “triage” passages, or should you use that time to try and answer the difficult questions?

Despite what some companies, Youtube videos, or blog posts may recommend, I think common sense should guide your MCAT approach. If you struggle with timing, do some timed practices and work on getting through the material. If you struggle with understanding passages, focus on reading practice, and becoming a good reader. Don’t waste time on silly “strategies” that limit your potential for growth. 

Studying content, practicing passages frequently to become a better reader, and getting individualized help with your biggest challenges are foolproof ways to improve. Plan your test date far enough out that you can do all of the studying that you need. Avoid wasting time or spiraling on student forums. 

If you are looking for more personalized help, feel free to request a free consultation with me or any MCAT Self Prep tutor. Good luck with studying!

Warm Regards,


MCAT self prep tutor Timothy NolanMCAT Self Prep Elite Tutor Timothy Nolan

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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