Last Minute MCAT Study Tips

For some, studying for the MCAT can be the most stressful part of their academic career, especially right before the exam date, but does it have to be? Feeling prepared for this exam doesn’t have to come at the cost of sleep, health, or doing the things you love. What if I said you might even enjoy studying for the MCAT?

Here, we’ve brought together 7 tips to help you feel prepared, grounded, and excited as you study, especially in the days leading up to the exam!

1. Understand the Exam Structure

Ask: how can I know where I am at any point during testing, and what’s expected of me?

Even if you’ve been studying and reviewing for a while already, you may still not know how the exam is actually structured – so, let’s begin there! In 2015, the MCAT was revised after many years without changes; now, it reflects a greater focus on applying the skills and concepts you will need most upon entering med school (rather than memorization, as was often emphasized in past exams).

The test is divided into 4 main parts:

Chemical and Physical (95 mins)

  • The main topics covered here are general chemistry, introductory physics, biochemistry, and organic chemistry.
  • There’s no need to memorise the elements – you will be provided with a periodic table!

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (90 mins)

  • The main topics covered here are the humanities and social sciences.
  • Practice reading quickly without losing comprehension, as some of the passages are quite long – you will benefit from knowing how to pull out the main points and set aside less relevant information.
  • You will only be tested on information provided in the passages; no need for outside resources or knowledge (except maybe specific terminology!)

Biological and Biochemical (95 mins)

  • The main topics covered here are introductory biology and biochemistry, with some general chemistry and organic chemistry included.
  • Again, no need for a periodic table – one will be given to you.

Psychological and Social (95 mins)

  • This section asks you to bring together what you know about psychology and biology, then to apply logical and reasoning skills to problem sets

Although you will need to prepare yourself for a long testing session – this exam can take anywhere from around 6 to 7 hours! – you are also permitted a couple of breaks (between 15 and 30 minutes) throughout. To complete the exam on time, plan to spend around 2 minutes on each question, or a little less. Know how to pace yourself!

Check out the foundational concepts for each section. This will help you orient yourself around what kind of knowledge and conceptual process is really being asked of you.

2. Do a Practice Run

Ask: how can I prepare myself for what the testing session will be like?

  • In case you haven’t yet taken a practice exam, make sure to do so, preferably at least a few days before your exam. Exam Genius has a list of some of the best books you can use in preparing for your MCAT (if you find free practice test materials online, just make sure they are post-2015 changes)
  • Set up the space as you expect it will be. What does it feel like if the room is colder than you usually keep it? What about sitting in a less comfortable chair for extended amounts of time? And if you are used to having sound or music around, how does your mind stay focused and keep rhythm without it?
  • Move through a full-length exam, noticing how you work with time; plan out the times you will want to take your breaks. How many questions/sections can you work through before you notice your attention wandering or focus becoming less sharp?
  • Move through a full-length exam, noticing how you work with time; plan out the times you will want to take your breaks. How many questions/sections can you work through before you notice your attention wandering or focus becoming less sharp?
  • Maybe even visit where you’ll be testing, to minimize the things you don’t know and add to the things you do know – your mind will already be full on test day, so keep the surprises to a minimum!

3. Sharpen Your Skills 

Ask: how can I work actively and confidently on the things that are most challenging (for me)?

  • Know what testers find challenging in general. Review a list of concepts that are commonly missed: for example, you might review how to interpret types of data/statistics, as these are often missed by people who otherwise understand the material (especially important as this exam is very focused on not just knowing facts, but applying concepts!)
  • Compile a list of things that you’ve struggled with – study those concepts which have presented a challenge to you, personally; is there there any sort of conceptual link between those things you find challenging? (hint: most likely, there is!)

4. Trust Yourself

Ask: how can I shift my focus to all the things I do know, all the ways I am prepared?

  • Walk through some problems you feel you have mastered; can you explain them to someone else (why they matter in general/what they offer in conceptual understanding, how they are being applied in a specific question, etc)?
  • Prepare your materials and anything else you’ll need (for navigating to the testing location, parking, two valid forms of ID, confirmation email, any needed medications, food, a back-up mode of transportation, someone to wake you up) so it isn’t on your mind the night and morning before testing.
  • Rely on what you do know during testing or while doing practice exams; for example, when working through a question, imagine what a right answer would look like before looking at the choices.

Only if your first thought doesn’t appear among the choices, then you can go through and cross out choices that really don’t make sense to you. Looking too early can greatly impact the confidence you have in what you know!

​5. Re-imagine the Test

Ask: how can I reclaim what this exam means to me?

  • While many people will go in thinking of the MCAT as the make-or-break-it test, think of all the stress that creates for them (yes, remember that others are struggling with some of these same questions, too!). Surely, if anything is going to impact your testing, it will be the anxiety of placing all your focus on this one thing. Whatever scores come after the exam will just be the test-makers’ approximation of what you know, and they do not represent your complete knowledge and all the things you have to offer.
  • Rather, think of the exam as an opportunity to explore all the things you have learned, to bring them all together in one place and apply what you know. And you know a lot!

The test is a conceptual playground, a set of puzzles that will allow your mind to make new connections. Perhaps you have never had a chance to stop and think about how everything you’re learning all fits together. How great is it that you have this opportunity? Enjoy it!

6. Prioritize Self-Care​

Ask: how can I know and meet my other needs before the test?

  • Make space for things beyond studying (if you want to) – remember that while you have the option to study, you also have the option to rest, to play, to laugh, to smile, to go outside, to make food that you love, to watch your favorite show, or to do nothing at all and let your mind turn off for a while. The test is only one part of your life experience.
  • Communicate with others about your needs; let those around you know what you are experiencing and working through so you can minimize any outside challenges or distractions, big and small. Others who care about you would probably appreciate knowing some ways they can take care of you and support you in something that is so important to you! Think of them as allies, people who want to collaborate with you in achieving your goals.

7. Get Your Rest

Ask: how can I do my best to be fully alert and present on test day?

  • Get into a routine of sleeping and waking up at certain times the days before your exam; knowing what your schedule looks like and keeping it consistent will be another way to keep yourself grounded on the day of testing.
  • Exercise or explore physically to release any excess energy throughout the day; this can become part of your routine or just something you use on days when your mind is especially racing.

Super last minute tip: if you find yourself really unable to sleep the night before the exam, go ahead and take 20 minutes to jog, dance, or whatever you are able to do (and finish with a comforting bath or shower!). That 20 or so minutes will go a lot further to helping you rest well than spending another hour or more in bed stressing over how you can’t fall asleep.

  • Most importantly, just be sure to give yourself some space to let your mind rest – maybe don’t even study on the last day!

Most people will want to spend the whole last day cramming, but this may actually limit your performance on test day; by overwhelming yourself with the things you feel you don’t know, you will undo the confidence you have built from all the things you do know. Plus, all that crammed information will most likely disappear or get confused with other things you studied more thoroughly.

If you are struggling with feeling stressed on the day (or days) before testing, don’t hesitate to go back and revisit the tips above. Have you followed them and done what you could to prepare? If not, spend some time thinking on them, as they can help you figure out how you can most benefit from the time you still have.

And once you have worked through these tips and found what works best for you, congratulate yourself! You have really put the work in and are on your way to having an awesome testing experience, sharing a bit of your brilliance and connecting all the incredible things you have learned.

Who knows – maybe you’ll even find that the exam was a little too easy.

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