Amateurpupil's Unconventional Guide to the MCAT

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Sep 17, 2022
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Hi Friends. I'm relatively new to SDN but have been active on the premed subreddit for years under various pseudonyms. I'm sharing this today because I feel I have some knowledge that may be helpful for others in the position I was in around this time last year. With that said, please take what you find valuable from this and ignore what you don't. I don't have all the answers, but I want to share as much as possible, hoping that some of you can find some utility in the lessons I learned.

I was fortunate (for various reasons discussed below) to do very well on my MCAT. For total transparency, I received a 519 (129/131/129/130), and I spent about 12 weeks studying over the summer. I used the unscored AAMC sample as my diagnostic, and according to the most accurate score estimator I could find, I received somewhere around a 506 on it. I realize this is already a ~65th percentile score, but my goals were loftier, and I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Now, the reason I titled this my "unconventional" guide to MCAT is that—after this paragraph—I do not plan on discussing many specifics about the resources I used. This is not because I don't want to share what worked for me as far as resources go, but because I think plenty has been written about all of the resources available and their relative advantages and disadvantages. In addition, I don't want to discuss specifics about how I used each resource because, frankly, I did not use them as effectively as I could have. I don't want to preach about a study plan that I couldn't bring myself to follow. For example, I got through less than 20% of UW and almost none of the AAMC official practice material besides the Full Length (FL) exams. With that said, I did have a successful study period, all things considered. I learned concepts deeply, improved my test-taking endurance, adjusted to challenges as needed, and (notably) scored highly.

However, this guide is not about how to score highly. At least not directly. I don't know your current level of content knowledge, budget, resource access, goal score, or anything else about you. I plan to share in this guide the process I used to create a schedule, prevent burnout, combat life challenges as they arose, adjust on the fly, and—most importantly—maintain a consistent level of productivity over a long period. I attribute most of my MCAT success to these factors, which has led me to write about them instead of the resources themselves. I firmly believe that the best study plan will still be unsuccessful if the person following it (and their other roles and responsibilities) suffer as a result.

One more thing I'd like to say: there are many factors at play in my situation that I am incredibly privileged to benefit from. I am not going to call out each one in the guide itself because I think it would distract from the content itself. Still, I'd like to acknowledge here my privilege to make many of the decisions I did and express how grateful I am to have been in the position I was in.

With that said, let's get into it.


Towards the end of my sophomore year, I decided I would take a gap year to give myself ample time to study for the MCAT. My thinking was that it was necessary since my GPA is not stellar. Although there is more to medical school applications than stats alone, I knew that a high MCAT would help my application greatly. This gap year afforded me the summer between my junior and senior years to focus on my MCAT only. In the spirit of transparency, I did not have a job during this time.


Late in the spring semester, I started planning my summer. I have always been a big planner and "productive procrastinator," so how better to put off late semester responsibilities than to open up a fresh spreadsheet and start thinking about plans that are weeks to months away? No better way.

All jokes aside, I recommend starting your planning at least a month before your study period's start date once you have registered for an exam. I don't think there's much utility in planning earlier than that or if you don't have a test date scheduled yet, as you might waste a lot of time—especially if you're in the middle of a semester.

What I did, and what I suggest you do, is do extensive research on which resources to use (via SDN, Reddit, upperclassmen friends, etc.), make a list of the ones you plan to use, find out how long they should be expected to take, and record this data somewhere. It doesn't have to be a fancy spreadsheet. It can be with pen and paper. But get it out of your head and into some form that can be easily visualized and referenced when needed. Below is a list of made-up resources and accompanying times necessary to complete them to show what I mean.

01 - time estimates.png

One thing I learned about myself throughout this process was that I am NOT as disciplined as I would have liked to believe. Various factors, many of which are too complicated to precisely adjust for, will cause your plan to take longer than estimated to complete. I took about 1/3 longer on any given resource than initially estimated. As a result, I recommend using this as a starting point. Add 33% to your time estimates, and then record that as well. Here's that illustrated once again:

02 - time estimates extended.png

Reminder: you do not have to get this granular with your planning. This is just what worked for me early on to get a no-nonsense objective look at the task I was up against for the summer.

Available Study Time​

In a perfect robot-student world, we'd be able to grind out our MCAT studying consistently, with no drops in productivity, and without breaks in the shortest amount of time possible. Fortunately, we are not robots, and this is not how we work.

To create a sustainable plan for long-term study success, we must balance being honest with ourselves while not selling ourselves short. I would advise you to take a hard look at how much work you can reasonably get done in a day in a typical semester and cut it in half. This isn't because I don't believe in your ability to study long hours for months on end, but because it is safer to underestimate your power than to overestimate it, in this case. Tell me, would you rather be a week out from test day and have only taken two full lengths because you overscheduled yourself, or be able to take one full-length per week for a month leading up to test day with ample time to review each? We both know your (and my) answer to this, and the former situation is what I am hoping to help you prevent.

Go ahead and google "days between [FIRST STUDY DAY] and [YOUR TEST DATE]" to get an idea of how long you really have. For me, this was 80 days. Now, of course, I didn't study every single one of these days, and I don't think you should either.

Rest and Recovery Time​

The next order of business is to figure out how much rest time you need per week. This can take any number of forms. Here are a few examples:
  1. Full rest day(s): This means, of course, taking an entire day (or two, etc.) off to rest and recover. This may be ideal for some people (it was for me), but it might cause anxiety or restlessness in others, especially if you're used to constantly working every day in college.

  2. Half/partial rest days: taking a section (morning, afternoon, evening) or half of a day off while spending a few hours doing MCAT work in the other portion of the day. This was a technique I used effectively on days that I felt my focus was lacking, but when I knew I couldn't afford to completely abandon my studies.

  3. Short rests: This, in my opinion, is the least effective option overall but is very useful on days where a lot has to be done, and there is very little time to do it (think: you overslept, you have an unforeseen distraction, etc.).
I ended up settling on 1.5 days of planned rest per week. I decided to give myself all of Sunday (Formula 1/NFL fan here) and half of Saturday off each weekend. Whatever you think you need, try your best to be honest and realistic with yourself.

Filling Your Days​

By now, you should have an idea of 1.) how much time you will need to work on MCAT material during your study period and 2.) how many days you have available to do so after subtracting rest days. Where do we go from here? Well, all 24 hours in a day are obviously not available to you for studying. Let's figure out how many are. The easiest way to do this, in my opinion, is to start subtracting.

Sleep (Duration and Schedule)​

Sleep is an essential and non-negotiable component of each day. As college students, we are all too familiar with deprioritizing in exchange for more studying, socializing, or whatever else seems more important.

I am here to tell you—and this is the one part of this guide in which I am not afraid of sounding preachy—you NEED to do your absolute best to get enough sleep. Your ability to think critically and reason through complex problems is impaired when you don't sleep enough, not to mention the health benefits of getting enough good-quality sleep. Take this study period as an opportunity to do your future self a favor and prioritize sleep. You will not regret this.

Let's say you know that you function best with at least 7 hours of sleep (this is my magic number). I recommend you plan a bedtime and waketime that allows at least thirty minutes of buffer time for falling asleep, waking up from stressful dreams (yes, they can happen), or other factors that may affect your rest.

For me, this meant getting into bed at 9:30pm and waking up at 5am. I know; 5am seems crazy. I'm a morning person through and through, and I feel best when I go to bed and wake up absurdly early. Most of the time, school, extracurricular, and family commitments make this difficult to consistently achieve. Still, last summer, I had one goal, and I had no reason not to make this schedule a priority for myself.

This brings me to an important point. Everyone has an ideal sleep/wake schedule, and if you feel best if you go to bed at 3am and wake up at 11, then by all means, do that! I don't believe anyone should be judged for what time they wake up or go to sleep. However, with few exceptions, the MCAT is administered around 8:30am. If you tend to be a "late" sleeper, you need to get comfortable working towards an earlier wake-up time throughout your studying. There is no way around this, unfortunately.

Here is an example of my calendar at this point in my planning. I spend about 30 min getting ready in the morning and before bed, so this leaves me with 16.5 hours left in the day:

03 - sleep.png


Now, I'm not going to demand you start exercising now if it's not already something you do regularly, as creating a new habit and trying to stay focused on the MCAT may prove too much work. However, if working out is something you do (or would like to do), I'd put this #2 on the priority list, right behind sleep. Yes, I mean above actual studying.

My reasoning for this, while it may be controversial, is again based on my personal experience. In general, all other things being equal, I felt that a day consisting of no studying but some exercise was more of a "win" in the long run than a day with no exercising but some studying. I think there are two main reasons for this:
  1. In the long run, staying consistent with exercise has been a more difficult habit for me than studying. I studied a lot during my childhood and throughout my time in college. It's easier to continue to do something than to begin anew, and exercising consistently has been difficult for me growing up. Because of this, I felt that on days I had worked out but hadn't studied much, I had tackled a challenge regardless of my studying not being very productive, whereas when I studied but didn't work out, I felt that I was putting myself in a position that encouraged burnout, which worried me. If this isn't the case for you, maybe this is a moot point.

  2. Exercise makes me feel good! Moving my body is perhaps the most natural thing I can do, and after exercise, whether lifting, running, biking or just going for a long walk, I felt like I had done myself some good mentally and physically. After a day of only studying, however, I might have learned a lot, but I would feel guilty and often stiff or sore as a result of not getting some exercise in.
With all that said, if you'd like to prioritize exercise, step one is making time for it. For me, I drove to the gym (~20 min) immediately after getting out of bed and having some overnight oats (which I highly recommend, by the way). I'd spend about 90 min at the gym, so with commute time factored in, I budgeted about 2.5 hours per day for the gym. This might be excessive for you or not be enough, depending on how far your gym is and your goals, so don't worry too much about my numbers. Below is my calendar with gym time (and some buffer for showering/changing when I got home) added in:

04 - gym time.png

Side note: I had "gym" time scheduled every day but didn't lift or do intense exercise every day. Sundays (and sometimes Wednesdays) were reserved for long walks. Don't over-exert yourself!


By now, I'm sure you can see where I am going with this: find what you need to do every day to have a realistic and healthy schedule for yourself, and make time in your day for it. Next on my list of priorities was ensuring I had enough time to eat three meals. This may not be an issue for you, but sometimes I am "too busy" and skip lunch, for example. This is obviously not ideal, and I sought to ensure this was not a common occurrence—so I scheduled "meal time" into my day. I enjoy structure like this, as it gives me something to look forward to after a hard block of studying!

Here's the calendar with time for meals added in:

05 - meals.png

Everything Else​

Continue doing this until you've added everything you'd like to do daily or weekly. Some examples are prayer time, social time with friends/family, a part-time job, etc. If you have a job, your work schedule will likely be the most limiting factor when it comes to making your schedule, so start there, if necessary.

Don't be afraid to add "free time" to your calendar. This may seem counterintuitive, but without it, you might find that you don't give yourself time to decompress, and as a result, you might overwork yourself. This ties back into the rest section above—be honest with yourself, and listen to your body and mind.

Here's an example of what your schedule might look like once you've added your other priorities:

06 - everything.png

I tried to keep my mornings and early afternoons open for studying and to schedule other activities for the evening when possible.

Study Time (At Last)​

Ah. We have arrived. We've scheduled time for all of our priorities, and now it's time to see how much time we have for studying. Remember, for this example, we're assuming the most ideal scenario—you having total control of your time—but remember you can take pieces of this that you like and use them to make this process work best for your situation.

With the example schedule above, we have 34.5 hours left per week to study. Is this enough? Let's consult our earlier duration estimates for our study resources. Earlier, we ended up with an adjusted total study duration of ~300 hours, which, when divided by our 12 weeks (or however long you have), is 25 hours per week. This looks doable!

How you schedule your study time is up to you, as many personal factors go into it, like whether you prefer to study in large chunks or short bursts, for example. What I will suggest, however, is that you work towards being able to study for a total of ~6 hours in a 7-hour period towards the end of your study period. This is because the MCAT contains about this much total work time, and if you spend your entire study period working 3hr per day and kicking your feet up, you will hit a wall during the MCAT. We want to avoid this at all costs.

If you're lucky, you might have enough free time left over after scheduling your studying to take an extra day off per week or pool that spare time and take a trip with friends or family. Do what feels right for you! Don't lose friendships over this test—maintain connections with people as best you can. Real friends will meet you where you are and try to stay connected.

Preventing Burnout​

I'm not going to lecture you on how to meditate, stretch, read, go for walks in the woods, or close your textbook any time a concept is frustrating. What I am going to ask, however, is that you spend some time figuring out which healthy coping mechanisms are already present in your life and how you can ensure that you feel comfortable reaching for them when you feel tired, bored, or otherwise not robotically productive in the course of your studies.

Throughout your study period, there will be lots of small wins, both MCAT-related and not. You might destroy a CARS section. You might finally feel the concept 'click' that's been troubling you for weeks. Your favorite sports team might win an important game. You might get good news from a family member. Celebrate these! You are working towards an important goal, but the MCAT should not stop you from experiencing the small joys in life. It is on you to prevent it from doing so.

There will, of course, also be days when the opposite happens. You might bomb a CARS section. You might realize you've been thinking about a concept the wrong way. Your favorite sports team might lose a game. Take these challenges as they come, but never lose sight of the end goal. The MCAT contains 230 questions; for better or worse, how many practice questions you get right or wrong doesn't matter. All that matters is those questions on test day. Remember that as you work towards it. Each mistake along the way is one you get to avoid on test day.

When Life Gets In The Way​

Until now, this guide has largely been idealistic. I believe that "If everything goes as planned, how might I want to do ______" is an important question to ask in many situations, and MCAT planning is no exception. However, life is unpredictable. Sometimes, **** happens.

Here's an example. I'm unsure if you noticed "call partner" on the example schedule above, scheduled for 9pm every night. I had the idea to add this due to my personal experience during my MCAT studying. I was in a long-distance relationship at the time and wanted to make time to see my partner's face at least once per day. This was important to both of us, so it was scheduled—before studying.

However, about midway through the summer, we suddenly broke up. The details are obviously not relevant to this guide. Still, I was facing an extremely distracting emotional and personal situation that had not been a part of my spreadsheet planning. It affected the amount of work I could get done and caused unplanned delays.

Maybe you aren't in a relationship, but unforeseen issues like this can happen to anyone. Perhaps a family member gets ill, or your friends invite you on a once-in-a-lifetime trip that you would hate to miss out on. Whatever the reason, sometimes your plans will change unexpectedly, and being able to roll with the punches is an important skill to have—not just for the MCAT but in life.

I can count on one hand the number of times I finished a study day and felt that it had gone even 90% according to plan. If I had treated imperfect days as failures, I would've given up on studying in the first week. No day is perfect: remember that your study plan is a guide, not a script.

Here's another example that might bring this point home a bit more. During the first few weeks of my studying, I felt like I was in high gear. My plan wasn't perfect, but I had gotten a lot done, maintained my sanity, and felt like I was on track to complete my study plan with time to spare.

One thing wasn't right, however. Although I had spent plenty of my free time keeping in touch with family and friends and my then-partner, I hadn't been going outside much and felt like that lack of nature was affecting me in some indescribable way. So I went back to the drawing board—or calendar app, in this case. I decided to make time every day to go on a 30-minute walk. Importantly, this made it tougher to hit some of my study goals in the days and weeks after I implemented this mandated outdoor time, but it ended up being one of the best decisions I made all summer. Prioritizing 30 minutes of fresh air without regard for how busy my study plan was that day made a massive difference in the long run. Looking back, I think this break might have made me more efficient overall, as the time spent in nature recharged me and allowed me to attack whatever study materials I was working on with a rested mind when I returned. This mandatory nature time is something I grew to treasure so much that I still do it to this day—rain or shine.

Maintaining Your Productivity​

The last major topic I'd like to touch on in this guide is learning to maintain productivity over a long time. While my study period lasted 12 weeks, I've seen some as short as 4 weeks and some as long as 18 months. While the total length of any specific study period is up to the individual student (and whichever constraints they have in their life), odds are, this will be the longest time you've ever spent studying for a single exam, as it was for me.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that studying for the MCAT was the largest project I've ever worked on in my personal life and was by far the most complicated one to plan for.

These two factors—the time it takes to study for an exam like the MCAT and the complex task of planning and executing your studying—are crucial to keep in the forefront of your mind as you embark on this path.

It is helpful to remember that although the MCAT is a huge challenge, the length of time it takes to study for it affords you some leeway when it comes to your studies. You are free to experiment, fail, and, therefore, learn as you progress through your studying. One "off" day here or there will not make a difference in the long run. I know you've heard it before, but studying for this test is more of a marathon than a sprint.

Am I Improving?​

I believe you should consider MCAT studying a new habit you are attempting to build. Like any habit—for example, working out—results do not come immediately. Furthermore, as they arrive, they do so incrementally.

For example, if you work out on Monday, you won't notice that you look bigger or are stronger on Tuesday morning—that's just not how it works. The same thing goes for MCAT studying. If you get a 3/7 on a CARS passage one day, getting another 3/7 a day later doesn't mean you haven't improved, it just means you got the same score on a passage. Over time, you might see that you start getting more 4's, 5's, and 6's than you do 3's, but improvement like this takes time. My rule was to avoid assessing progress in a subject or skill unless there had been at least 2 weeks between data points, but this can be shortened or lengthened depending on your personal needs and the resources you're using.

When to Switch it Up​

While expecting noticeable improvement every day isn't a recipe for success or encouragement, I would also caution you against blindly trusting your past self just because of what 'they' thought would be the best course of action. If you feel something you're doing isn't working, switch it up and experiment. Again, this is something you can afford to do because of the long-term nature of MCAT studying. If you try something new and quickly realize it isn't working for you, you can ditch it early, and in the grand scheme of things, it won't even be a blip on the radar.

I learned this from Ed Catmull's book "Creativity Inc.," in which he describes one of Pixar's most important tenets: Be wrong as fast as you can. It's impossible to know if a decision is correct at the outset, but if you are willing to try new things and be wrong quickly, you are more likely to have enough time to correct course and find a new solution than you would be if you stood idle.

"**** It" Days​

Pardon my french. But this phrasing really encapsulates what I felt when these days occurred. Perhaps the name is explanation enough, but if it isn't, let me elaborate.

For some unexplainable reason--perhaps just human nature—there were some mornings I would wake up and know that I wouldn't get anything done that day. They seemed to occur randomly. It took me a while to start observing these biologically-programmed holidays, but when I began doing so, for some reason, my productivity skyrocketed.

Maybe it was the childlike freedom I experienced when deciding to go explore a state park all day instead of learning about fatty acid synthesis or the way I felt stress melting off of me as I walked into the movie theatre with a large popcorn to watch Top Gun: Maverick all by myself, but something about these unplanned "**** it" days (FIDs) just re-energized the hell out of me. I would have some of my most productive days after FIDs, and I think that not allowing myself to feel guilty for them is a huge reason. Before realizing the importance of FIDs, I often felt horrible after an unproductive day. I would become stressed and feel like I had to somehow make up a full two days' worth of studying in one day, which would compound and further stress me out. Rinse and repeat.

However, allowing myself to relax all day, recharge, and do whatever you want at random times was an essential part of my study plan and something I wouldn't change if I could do it over again.

Of course, this should go without saying, but with FIDs (should you choose to implement them), be sure to make rules for yourself. For me, I decided that I was absolutely under no circumstances allowed to take two FIDs in a row. I feared this might send me into a tailspin of unproductivity that might threaten the study plan.


Well, you've reached the end. Congratulations! The last thing I'd like to say to you all is that if you've come this far—to a point in your life where you are preparing to study for one of the world's most rigorous exams—you should be incredibly proud of yourself.

It is easy to forget the lengths we go to for this dream of ours.

But you're here. You've made it this far. Now go on and do great things in this world!

I hope you found this guide helpful, and if there's anything you think I should elaborate on (or remove, for that matter), feel free to comment or message me privately. I am limited by my own perspective as to what here is or is not helpful, so I welcome suggestions :)

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Awesome. How did you pump yourself up for the test? Was there ever a temptation to dump the test at the end?
On test day itself? I just had my normal morning routine before, but moved the gym to directly after the test.

I listened to some of my favorite songs on the drive over to the testing center, and reminded myself one more time that this was just another FL as far as I was concerned.

And no, I couldn’t afford to think about bailing on the test. I wasn’t able to consider delaying for mostly financial but also timing reasons.
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