How Far In Advance Should You Study For The MCAT?

Like most premed students, this is something I struggled with when it was time to start thinking about the MCAT. 

The MCAT is a very difficult exam and it’s also a very important part of your medical school application. So wouldn’t it make sense to start preparing as early as possible for it?

The answer to this question is not so simple. While it does help to have the time to review more material, there are two important factors to consider:

  • The forgetting curve: Simply put, this means that overtime we start to forget material we learned. If you study as far as a year in advance, the material you focused on in the beginning will slowly fade away unless reinforced. 
  • Burnout: Equally important. If we strain ourselves by studying for one single exam for too long, you will lose motivation to study. It’s crucial that we are most productive with our studying during the final weeks leading up to the MCAT!

There are a lot of things to consider, but the ideal length of time to study for the MCAT is 3 to 6 months depending on the individual’s situation. This is plenty of time to have a strong grasp of the content and take plenty of practice tests. 

Keep reading as we dive deep into reasons why you would take more time or less time to study for the MCAT. 

Overview Of The MCAT

Here is a quick overview of the MCAT for those who are brand new to the whole process.

The MCAT exam is broken down into 4 sections:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems.
    • 95 minutes long with 59 questions total: 10 passages, 44 passage-based questions, and 15 discrete questions
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.
    • 90 minutes long with 53 questions total: 9 passages
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems.
    • 95 minutes long with 59 questions total: 10 passages, 44 passage-based questions, and 15 discrete questions
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior.
    • 95 minutes long with 59 questions total: 10 passages, 44 passage-based questions, and 15 discrete questions

This is a total of 6 hours and 15 minutes of test-taking. You also get two 15 minute breaks and one 30 minute break for lunch between sections. 

When factoring in check-in and check-out time, you can expect the exam to take you around 7.5 hours of your day. 

The MCAT is designed to test you on every standard premed prerequisite course. Therefore, it is helpful to take the premed/MCAT prerequisites before taking the exam!

How Much Time Do You Need To Study For The MCAT?

When thinking about how far in advance you should study for the MCAT, it’s important to understand how much time you need to properly study. 

Experts recommend that you spend about 200 – 300 hours studying. Of course, this is based on the average student. It’s possible you may require more or less time. 

When considering how many hours you should put into studying, you need to make sure you give yourself enough time to do the following:

  • Have a good grasp of all the prerequisites
    • This is going to vary a lot based on the individual. Some students will have excelled in Biology but need a lot of help in General Chemistry. Others might be physics experts. It all depends. 
    • If you have taken upper level biology or chemistry courses, this would also factor into how much you understand MCAT topics.
    • One way you can test if you have a good grasp on the prerequisites is by taking an MCAT diagnostic test. If you score above a 505, this means you have a good grasp. If you score below a 495, you will need to do quite a bit of review. 
  • A strong understanding on the high yield MCAT information
  • Take around 10-12 practice tests
  • Break days
  • Days to catch up

The first 2 bullet points are going to factor into time the most. If you need a lot of refreshing on topics, you will need to factor in more time. 

Planning on taking the MCAT soon but you don’t know where to start? Check out our FREE ebook that guides you through the entire MCAT study process using my effective practice-centric method!

How To Structure Your MCAT Schedule 

If you are a full-time student, you will probably only be able to study part-time. If you are studying during a gap year or during summer break, you should be able to devote a full-time schedule which means you won’t need to start as early. 

If you plan on studying full time, 30+ hours per week, you should be taking at least 1 break day per week to avoid burnout. 

If you are studying part-time as a full-time undergrad student, your schedule will not be as consistent. You will want to study extra during easier periods of your semester and slow down during busier times (Such as midterms).

This is all going to depend on you as an individual, but there are plenty of resources out there to help you get started in building an MCAT schedule.

If you like to have full control over your schedule, check out our MCAT self prep guide! If you need some more hand-holding, check out our review on Magoosh’s MCAT course.

When You Start Studying For The MCAT Depends ON Your MCAT Date

Before you decide when you will start studying, make sure you take a look at the official MCAT test dates. This might seem obvious, but some students don’t realize that certain months have fewer test dates than others. Perhaps the month you plan on taking the MCAT actually doesn’t work out for you based on previous commitments. 

Here are the AAMC’s official MCAT dates.

Once you have an MCAT date in mind, simply go back 3 to 6 months and that’s when you should start studying. 

When you do pick your MCAT date, make sure you commit to purchasing your spot sooner than later. I can’t stress this enough.

I personally made the mistake of not locking in my MCAT test date early enough.

When I was studying for the MCAT, I was planning on taking it in August. I knew which date I wanted to take the exam, but I procrastinated on paying for my seat.

When I finally got my credit card out, all the spots at the location near me were filled up!

In fact, the closest MCAT testing center for that day was an hour and a half away. This meant that I would have to pay for a hotel the night before and sleep somewhere foreign or leave very very early the morning of. 

It was a bad situation to be in because I didn’t have any other options. In the end, I lucked out. A spot opened up about a week before the exam and I jumped on it. 

The moral of the story is DO NOT procrastinate on securing your MCAT spot. 

Don’t Have An Open Ended MCAT Test Date

Part of the reason why we want to commit to an MCAT test date is to put a little pressure on us. Don’t be that student who won’t stop studying until they “feel” like they are ready. 

When you do this, you end up procrastinating way more. It’s important to have a deadline so that there is accountability on your end.

You want to feel the pressure of a looming test date so that you are more motivated to study!

We Start Studying For The MCAT Day One Of College

The reality is, you start studying for the MCAT when you start your premed courses. Even though we aren’t actively studying for the MCAT, we are learning the important building blocks on the subject.

It goes without saying, that getting into medical school and becoming a physician is more than just getting good grades. You want to immerse yourself in the subjects and enjoy the learning process.

After all, a physician is a lifelong learner.

When you are immersing yourself in the subjects and learning for the sake of understanding vs just getting a good grade, you will have a much stronger understanding of the subjects. When you have a better grasp of the sciences, you will naturally have an easier time studying for the MCAT when the time comes.

One strategy is to study MCAT content while taking your premed courses. This was something suggested to me by a previous MCAT tutor. 

Consider purchasing an MCAT book set, such as Kaplan’s, early on and reviewing concepts in the Kaplan books as you go over them in class. This will not only help you start thinking about the MCAT but you will also see improvements in your regular class. 

Is It Important To Take The MCAT Prerequisites Before You Start Studying?

You technically don’t have to take all the MCAT prerequisites before studying for the MCAT but it is highly recommended. 

Here are the MCAT prereqs:

  • General Biology I + II
  • General Chemistry I + II
  • General Physics I + II
  • Organic Chemistry I + II
  • Psychology and Sociology
  • Biochemistry (Doesn’t have to be an advanced chemistry major course)

All these subjects are covered on the MCAT. If you haven’t taken one of these courses, you will need to spend extra time reviewing content.

Keep in mind, this is the bare minimum. Ideally, you would have taken other upper-level courses such as Anatomy and Physiology which can definitely help with the MCAT.

When Are You Applying To Medical School?

When you take the MCAT depends a lot on when you plan on applying to medical school. If you plan on applying your senior year of college so that you can transition straight into medical school, you must factor in when the application cycle starts.

Medical school applications open as early as May one year before matriculation. It is important that you apply as early as possible! Therefore, if you are a junior and it’s time to take the MCAT, you may not have the option to study for the entire summer.

Technically speaking, you can apply to medical school with a pending MCAT. However, keep in mind that they can’t make a decision on your application without your scores.

Let’s not forget, medical schools do rolling admissions. The longer a medical school has to wait for your MCAT score, the less likely you will be picked for an interview!

Other Ways You Can Strengthn Your Medical School Application

The MCAT isn’t everything. You really should spend time doing extracurriculars as well. 

In our premed gap year post, we listed a couple of medically related jobs you can obtain to boost your application.

Spending too much time studying for the MCAT can detract from other activities that help your medical school application! 

Should I start studying for the MCAT in high school?

This is almost always pointless. By the time you are ready to take the MCAT, the exam could be updated into something completely different like it did in 2015. 

However, studying for the MCAT doesn’t strictly start when you crack open an MCAT book. General curiosity about science and learning will only benefit you in the end. 

The MCAT relies a lot on scientific articles. Because of this, students who have a deeper understanding of the sciences will have an easier time deciphering material out of these articles. 

So the sooner your start developing your love for the sciences the better!

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