Now, you're well into the journey of studying for your MCAT, and the test is about 10 weeks away.
Congratulations! This is the great part. Not the most fun part, or the part where you can finally breathe. Actually, most days you probably feel like you might want to pass out, or throw your MCAT books out of the car window straight into oncoming traffic.
But you wont, because this is the great part. The part that shows you just what you are made of, and proves to you that you can, in fact, do hard things. This hard thing, in particular, is becoming a doctor. In my shadowing experiences, I have witnessed how doctors push through difficult situations and create space to work through their challenges. When it comes down to the wire, as time seems to fly when your test gets closer, I believe that you are exercising those same skills that you will need with your future patients. That vision is exactly what got me through the weeks leading up to my MCAT exam, and I hope that Part II of Making the MCAT will encourage the same vision in you.
In Part I of Making the MCAT, we spoke about how I took an MCAT prep class. This class was through the Princeton Review, and was offered through my college. I signed up for the class because I received a scholarship, although I did not plan to take the MCAT until at least 6 months after the class ended. Usually, students choose to take the MCAT immediately after a prep class because, at that point, this information is so recently reviewed that it is easier to remember. Although I considered this potential advantage, I decided to wait for two reasons: 1) because I did not feel that the class provided training in standardized test strategies as much as it offered a very thorough content review, and 2) because my study style is extremely independent, and although I appreciate group work and opportunities for group study, I need extended periods of time to really digest information all by myself. Even if you also have a more independent study style, I would suggest that you consider a prep course. Reflect on the way in which you want to use your time and the potential benefits of taking a class. If you believe that a class would be a worthwhile investment for you, even if you want to tack on some time for independent study after the course ends, explore your options! There are so many prep classes out there, both in-person and online, and they are all full of fellow future docs who are making a serious investment in their dreams. For that reason alone, prep classes can be great learning environments.
Really, I have always been an independent learner, and although the prep class fell short of my needs in some areas, I would not say that the class was worthless. In fact, the class helped me to focus my study during the last 10-weeks leading up to my exam in a way that I could not have designed on my own. About 4 months before my test, I constructed a study plan based on the structure of the prep class, but one that incorporated elements of my own learning style like reference sheets and question drills. This schedule details a 70-day study plan, including a itinerary for the week of your exam. I have shared this schedule with some of my closest friends who successfully "made the MCAT," and now it is available to you through jasminafricali.com! You can find it here.
Since completing my exam, many people have asked me what topics are the most difficult and which subjects to focus on. I do not have a clear answer for that, because my strengths and weaknesses are unique to me- as yours are to you. I can say, however, that each of the five sections of the exam are important. The writers of the MCAT won't make one section ridiculously hard and then give you a break on the next section because you might be worn out. Each section requires an equal amount of knowledge and endurance, and for that reason, I don't advocate for "lopsided" study. I really liked to study for Psychology and Sociology because I consistently scored above the 80th percentile, so I forced myself to back off on studying for that section as rigorously when I knew that I was confident in my performace. Organic chemistry, however, was significantly more difficult for me. I utilized all of my resources however, to make sure that I maximized the time that I allotted for that subject (huge props to my O-Chem professor for answering all of my text messages full of reaction questions!). Truthfully, I really didn't like studying for Organic Chemistry, which is why I set aside more time to study for it anyway. If you find yourself shying away from a subject because its not your best, set aside even more time to dedicate to it. This is usually how it goes, as I described how I divided my study time. If you are scoring in the same percentile of each section, spend an equal amount of time to study for all of the sections, rather than guessing which one will be "harder" and committing to that section, alone. The ultimate goal is to know each subject that the MCAT covers and to approach each section with confidence. They will all be on the test, I can promise that!
During my independent study time at home, I used several outside resources that supplemented my schedule and helped me to feel like I had some support. Leah4Sci is a website that has tons of basic science reference sheets and other tools that help with content review, particularly in physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and even biochemistry. Sometimes, she had free live seminars that I would tune into, which were really amazing! It gave me the feeling of being in a classroom, but I was able able to tune out of the classroom and finish working out a problem independently if I needed to. She also answered questions in real-time and provided the notes from the seminar through an email at the end of the night. Tuning into these seminar's pushed back my study end-time to about 9 or 10pm, which resulted in 13-14 hour study days, but it was a worthwhile time investment. I also utilized the MCAT Khan Academy videos for quick information refreshers on basic science content, which helped me to remain on track and not over-commit my study time to some of the basic principles that I knew from my previous courses. I also crafted my flashcards for Psychology and Sociology around their awesome videos that go into the history of many terms that are very important in that section. I really enjoyed the Crash Course videos in biology and physics and used them to provide an overview of the topics that I would be studying each day. These videos don't go into intricate detail, but they give enough information for a great "warm-up," the teachers are really funny, and the illustrations are really vibrant and easy to follow. For my practice exams, I used Next Step and the AAMC Official practice-exams.
When I began my senior year, I scheduled my MCAT for January of 2017, which would allow me to knock it out at the beginning of the spring semester. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't trying to juggle a full course load, homework, studying, and managing my nerves about the exam all at once. During the 10 weeks leading up to my exam, I maintained a daily 8am-7pm study schedule with a lunch break and two 15-minute breaks. Part of the reason that I implemented this schedule for myself was because I was able to practice taking two small breaks, which is exactly how it is during the exam. I certainly took snack breaks when I felt like my brain needed fuel or when I needed a sanity breather, but limited my "casual breaks" to no more than a few minutes. My real breaks, where I went to go sit on the couch and do nothing or chat with my parents, I tried to limit to 15 minutes, twice per day. No- I wasn't trying to torture myself! It was a strategic move. During my first few full-length practice exams, I found that I had a tough time separating from my beloved breaks after just 15 minutes. After learning how to maximize 15 minutes during my daily study time, those small breaks really started to feel longer! Maybe I was just starting to lose it (which is a valid possibility), but practice truly makes perfect- even practicing breaks! If endurance is an issue that you are running into during your full-length exams, think about how you can incorporate sitting and focusing for long periods of time or only taking extremely brief breaks during your study time. The exam proctors on your test day are not going to give you a few extra minutes to regroup after your breaks- it'll be time to get going again! It's better to anticipate the pace of the exam and to feel those quick breaks, rather than building up anxiety because your breaks are flying by on test day.
I stayed true to this schedule throughout the holidays, which was really, really, really tough. My family also celebrates a handful of birthdays around that time of year, and I only allowed myself to participate for limited periods time. I felt myself become increasingly detached from spending time with family, which is part of my life that is comforting and recharging for me. After a while, my feelings of separation started to affect my emotional stability during my study time. I became distracted because I felt so lonely! At the peak of this challenge, I remember hearing my entire family having a great time celebrating my grandfather's birthday at the end of December, while I was upstairs studying. I started to read the same biochemistry passage over and over again, and quickly lost my ability to actually read the words. I realized that it was because I couldn't see through my tears and, shortly thereafter, had a complete breakdown. My dad came upstairs and helped me to breathe, calm down, and encouraged me to just take a nap! I woke up feeling a lot better, and eventually went downstairs to be with my family. In that situation, I wasn't able to say no- my body said no for me. I wasn't great at listening to my body when I got overwhelmed, but my family helped me to make sure that I protected my endurance by pacing myself. They also helped me to maintain my study schedule when I felt that I needed to push through, but didn't want to completely miss out on life. During Thanksgiving dinner, about 2 months before my exam, my cousins took turns asking me questions from my phone's MCAT prep app. As my phone was passed around the table, from cousin to cousin, I realized that it was a little ridiculous to drill MCAT questions during Thanksgiving dinner. My family made it clear to me that they wanted to support my studying and see me succeed, while I knew that I wanted to spend time with them, so I allowed for this to take its natural form every now and then by incorporating them into my question drills. Although this was a very small percentage of my study time, it was downright good for my spirit, and absolutely essential to my ability to push forward.
Throughout my study experience, I didn't always put myself or my family first. I definitely didn't put my health first, and I know that was a mistake. I do not regret a moment of my study experience, but I would change the level of respect that I had for myself and my mental health at the beginning of the journey so that it would be easier to maintain that respect as I pushed through. Too often, I told myself that I would be able to "relax after the exam" or "hang out after the exam" or, my personal favorite, "sleep after the exam." Actually, that wasn't true! When the exam was over, I still had to polish and submit my primary and secondary applications, which took an incredible amount of energy and discipline. Bottom line- the MCAT is only the beginning of an incredibly demanding application journey. If you drown in the MCAT, you wont be able to use your hard-earned score because you won't have enough energy to see your application through to successful completion! By abusing yourself, the MCAT becomes a colossal waste of time. I am not saying to take the MCAT less seriously, to be clear. The MCAT is a big deal, a huge investment, and it requires every ounce of your active, healthy, balanced, and focused energy. However, if you dip into your anxious, exhausted, sick, and depressive energy, day after day, you may find that you are not any closer to the kind of medical student or doctor that you want to be, at the end of the road. You may find that you do not have the willpower to finish you secondary applications. You may even feel like you have become too anxious to even sit for the exam.
At times, I felt just like I was heading down that road. Thankfully, I was able to re-center about three weeks before the exam, when I returned back to Atlanta from home, and begun to completely dedicate my daily study time to taking practice exams. At this point, my content review was over, my study strategies were learned and cemented in my mind. In those three weeks, I truly felt the importance of taking care of my body so that I could get through taking an 8-hour exam every other day. By increasing the frequency of my practice exams, I realized how important it was that I remained healthy and felt strong. This was easier when I was apart from my family and had no choice but to keep myself going, but it is an attitude that I encourage every test-taker to adopt in any study environment. Pushing through your study time is training you to push through your exam. Maintaining a great support system during that time is so important, and I could not have survived without my faith and the support of my amazing family and friends, but it is equally important to remember that your support system will not take your exam for you. They won't even be in the room. If you find yourself neglecting to take care of your mind and body throughout your study experience, and completely rely on your support system to bring you back after burn-out, test day will be extraordinarily difficult to endure.
Many students dedicate the day before the exam to relax and refrain from studying, but balance between relaxation and focus is important throughout the entire study experience. Just like you guard your study time, guard your heart from negativity that is oftentimes produced by exhaustion. If your mind is full of facts and information, but your spirit is neglected, the mind will have no direction. On test day, when it's just you and the exam, valuable facts and information can only be accessed if you have committed to safeguarding your mental health. Test day is coming up, and you may feel overwhelmed, but you are way more powerful than you could ever imagine. No one can tell you what you are capable of- that is completely up to you. Truth is, you aren't waiting for test day to make the MCAT, you're doing in right here and now, in your intense but worthwhile study time. Take it one moment, one question, one practice exam at a time. Test day is show-time, but your practice will make better than perfect. Your heart will guide you through your exam, and your mind will follow.