If you're planning to attend medical school, one of the questions that might be on your mind is when exactly you should start to prepare for the MCAT. This is tied to when you should take the MCAT, but can vary widely by student.
To ensure you're making the best decision for your timeline and goals, you'll want to look at the factors that are unique to you. I find it's most helpful to use the following questions in order to determine when it's best for you to start studying for the MCAT:
When am I planning to apply to medical school?
The MCAT is one of the most important aspects of your medical school application, so you want to be able to have your score before you submit your primary application (so you can know what schools to apply to). Since it's ideal to be able to submit your primary as early as possible in the cycle, it’s generally best to take the MCAT by May of the year you apply, with August being the latest you should sit for the exam.
Will I have enough time to study?
Most students take 3-6 months to study for the MCAT. The reason this varies is not just the overall foundation of knowledge, but also the need to incorporate MCAT studies with coursework studies. Let's look at some of the common times of year that students take the MCAT:
- Considering taking the exam in January?
You'll want to start studying now and allow for a "dedicated" study period over winter break where you can fully focus on the MCAT.
- Planning to take the MCAT in April/May?
Remember that you might be spending the three months leading up to the exam in school, making it difficult to study for both school and the MCAT. In that case, it might be a good idea to start studying well in advance, maybe even the summer/fall before.
- What about taking the exam in September?
You might be fine taking just three months to study since you will likely be on summer vacation and can dedicate more time to studying.
Have I taken all the classes on the MCAT?
The MCAT has 12 classes worth of content on it. For most of these classes, the best way to learn the content is through a formal college class, but some exceptions can be made. Generally, the classes that you should take before the MCAT are the same classes that are requirements for medical school matriculation. This means that many students will learn sociology/psychology on their own. Although it would be beneficial to take psychology or sociology in a classroom setting, it’s not absolutely necessary.
For many students who do not wish to take a gap year, a common strategy is to take all the general sciences + organic chemistry in their freshman and sophomore year, and then to take biochemistry in their fall semester junior year (biochemistry is an absolute must—most students consider it the hardest class to self-learn and it is the most heavily assessed subject on the MCAT). After taking biochemistry, they would then take the MCAT in January or April of their junior year and apply in May. This allows for them to begin their studying as early as the summer before junior year, take all the necessary classes, and then also have winter break to continue studying.
How should I start studying?
Start as if you know nothing. Although you likely remember much of the content on the exam, it might have been multiple years since you learned the material. Be sure to purchase at least one set of prep books (e.g. the Examkrackers bundle) and spend the time going through it all. Even if you believe you remember a subject, it’s still important to go through it again just in case there are rusty areas, or if there’s something on the exam you missed. It will be a lot, which is why it’s important to start early (many students spend over 300 hours studying for the MCAT!).
Throughout your studies, be sure to constantly review content and continue to do practice questions and exams. And remember to stay focused on what's best for you. Everyone will have an opinion on "the best way" to prepare (you'll find that this is the case in med school as well), so practice holding steady to the approaches that set you up for success and you'll be in good shape.
If you are looking for someone to take the guesswork out of the equation, consider working with a tutor. They can carefully construct your plan of attack, guide you in your resource selection to the tools that work best for you, help support you in filling in the blanks for the things you don't know, and keep you accountable to the work at hand.
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