MCAT Prep: How Much Time Do You REALLY Need? (it’s more than you think)

mcat prep in how many months study advice by leah4sciThere’s a ton of generic and conflicting advice out there regarding MCAT prep. Whether it be from inferior articles, ill-informed advisors, non-premeds who’ve ‘heard from somewhere’ or ‘from someone’, and even from friends who took the old exam and don’t realize you’re preparing for a 7.5 hour monster of a test.

A student recently shared an article from USA Today outlining a 3-month MCAT study plan, which she followed… with disastrous results.

With so much conflicting information floating around, how do you know how much time you REALLY need?

The short answer is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, I’ll attempt to break it down and help you figure out what is best for YOU.

As a general rule, I personally recommend ~500 hours of study. This includes:

How you break up the 500 hours depends on how much time you can dedicate per day/week without burning out.

Need help figuring out how to find 500 hours based on your personal commitments? Use this as a guide: MCAT Prep Study Hours to Months Breakdown

For example, in a recent interview with the girl who scored a 518 you’ll see that she only studied for 3 months. She’s an extreme case and most students WILL burn out when trying to cram as she did. She nearly burned out too.

The 3 Phases of MCAT Prep

When setting up Strategy Sessions for my MCAT students and Study Hall Members, I like to organize the MCAT prep process in 3 phases.

Phase 1 – Content Phase

The content phase is just that, a review of subject material you’re expected to know for the exam. Learning the content for the MCAT requires making weekly progress for each subject tested:

  • Physics
  • General Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • CARS (verbal)
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

You MUST give yourself enough time to review and, somewhat master, content before moving on. Simply reading the chapter doesn’t count.

I recommend following my 5-Steps to Mastering the MCAT Sciences.

Some prep companies will have you doing practice passages and questions right away. But let me ask you this:

Are you really getting the most out of your study time by doing a complex passage on torque PRIOR TO UNDERSTANDING TORQUE??
Give yourself enough time to learn and understand the information BEFORE you start heavy practice.

I include an outline of what I believe are ideal lengths for content review based on different students’ learning habits later in this article.

Phase 2 – Practice and Review Phase

Phase 2 is where you start to practice MCAT material, especially full-length exams and passage-style questions.

Phase 2 should last a MINIMUM of 4 weeks, but up to 8 weeks is typical.
This is when you work through passages and REVIEW information related to the questions you missed by taking a full-length test every 2-3 weeks. Only by answering questions and then GOING BACK AND STUDYING the topics you missed will you REALLY develop MCAT/Passage mastery.

Phase 3 – Hard Core MCAT Prep

Think of this as the ‘wrapping it up’ phase. This is the point in your preparation when you’ve:

  • More or less mastered all the content you’re expected to know
  • Done many passages/questions with review
  • Taken a handful of full-length practice MCAT exams to get familiar with testing style, duration, endurance, AND of course, taken the time to review your weak areas.

Now you should be putting it all together
This is the final 4-6 weeks before your MCAT when you sit through a weekly 8am full-length practice MCAT. Your entire week is devoted to dissecting that exam, studying what you missed, and analyzing your strategy/approach/endurance to help you earn just one more point per week.

Then there’s life, family, work, classes, emergencies… and everything else to take into consideration.

Considerations for How YOU Learn

As an MCAT tutor I’ve worked with thousands of pre-med students over the past decade. I’ve noticed that students fall into different categories. Each type of student requires a different amount of study/prep/review time.

Don’t worry if you don’t exactly ‘fit’ into one of these categories. Just use this as a general guideline.

The Super-Savvy Genius Standardized Test Taker

Some students are really good at taking standardized tests. They just study the material, practice for a bit and ace the exam. These students remember nearly everything from science class and can zip through Phase 1 in record time. These students still need a few weeks each for phase 2 and 3.

This includes perhaps 1-2% of students. It’s ok to hate them (kidding).

The Really Good Student

Let’s face it, you don’t NEED every undergraduate MCAT science course to be successful on the MCAT, but EVERYONE winds up having to re-study some content they once knew well.That being said, if you’re a top student who scored A’s in most of your sciences classes AND you remember much of that information,you will NOT have to focus as much time on pure content review compared to most students.

Let me rephrase.

You’ll still have to review EVERYTHING, but chances are you’ll get through the topic of acids and bases in just an hour while the average student may require 3-6 hours on this topic alone. Instead, your focus should be on heavy passage practice and full length review.

The Average Student

The “average” student is well, average. But that’s not a bad thing! “Average” refers to the student who has to work for their good grades; the student who may not get it right away. This student works really hard to pull off an A.

Now before you start feeling bad for these students…
I’ve come to realize that the average students tend to outperform the above 2 categories.

Why?
Because they KNOW AND UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE TO WORK REALLY, REALLY HARD!

If you’re a proud average student, be sure to give yourself ample time for MCAT Phase 1.
This can range from 2 months of full-time MCAT study to 4 months of part-time MCAT study just for content review.
You’ll then have to focus on passages/practice questions (phase 2) and of course, full lengths (phase 3). I recommend 6-8 months TOTAL prep for the average student studying 20+ hours per week.

The Learning-From-Scratch Student

Perhaps you haven’t been pulling all A’s in college. Perhaps you’re the student with a lower GPA who either didn’t apply him/herself consistently throughout college, or simply didn’t get the information at the time. Perhaps you’re the student who hasn’t taken a certain class/subject.

As you study for the MCAT you have to treat the material as if you’re learning it all for the first time.

And since you’re MCAT prep is brand-new learning rather than review, you’ll need the most time to prepare. I’d recommend a solid 3-4 months of full time content review or 4-6 months of part time content review.

This should be followed by passage practice and full length review.

Now before you set your calendar in stone, keep in mind that life happens. Give yourself a few flexible days/weeks to take care of emergencies that pop up. I’ve worked with students who have had to deal with everything from illness, death in the family, relationship drama, car/house trouble, and so much more.

Sometimes you can’t just push these things aside. Sometimes you can postpone by a month or so, sometimes you may need to postpone for an entire year. But if your dream is to become a doctor, and acing the MCAT is your next hurdle, then you WILL find a way to get there, no matter how long it takes.

Because trust me, it will have been worth it in the long run.

I’m curious, what is the craziest MCAT advice YOU’VE heard? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Mona Asadi says:

    I had to bite the bullet and accept that I cannot cram over one summer for this exam. I was a little down on myself at first, but I have a lower-than-competitive GPA, so I have no choice but to ROAST the mcat. After having read this, I’m going to extend my prep by at least 5 months. Thank you, Leah. And a big piece of advice I can give anyone out there is to rule out as many distractions as you can, understand that you will feel like you’re losing touch with who you were before and that’s okay, your real friends will understand if you have to disappear for a while, and to be balanced and make times for the things that count. Oh, and don’t be in a relationship with a pesky person. As mean as this sounds, other peoples’ feelings can’t be that important to you during this time if they can’t understand what you’re going through. Be humble, focus on yourself, get love and give love to IMPORTANT friends and family, and “trim the fat” in your life. Be focused, and be happy. Take vitamins. Drink lots of water. Exercise if you can. Smile often and try to laugh hard at least once a day. Be all about this exam 🙂

  2. Can you recommend some study books besides your awesome videos?

  3. Tarynn Mosquesa says:

    Do you have any pcat prep videos and a prep schedule or do you recommend the same thing as the MCAT

    • I don’t have anything specific to the PCAT. The schedule is different so adjust the times based on what you think you need. I’m not as familiar with PCAT prep to fully answer this

  4. Hey Leah, I was wondering if your MCAT tutorial videos could still be used for the new MCAT format?

  5. This was great advice. Thanks for sharing.

  6. This is gold! Best advise I have ever read. Thanks

  7. I’m considering purchasing the Berkeley Review MCAT books, what do you think?

    • From what I was told
      1- they were created for the old exam
      2- they go into a LOT of detail (too much for some)
      3- they are really good for the student looking for the intense detail

I'd love to hear from you - Leave a comment below