The drawbacks of studying one subject at a time and
how to overcome forgetfulness with a balanced approach
No matter how well you remember your sciences, you WILL have to restudy them for the MCAT. The college student approach to hard science is all about ‘putting in the work that will get me an A’.
Often, this means putting all your effort into homework and online assignments. Sometimes, it’s about memorizing equations and how to punch numbers into the calculator.
But it’s rarely about learning so deeply that you truly understand the information well enough to apply your knowledge to MCAT style passages that might integrate multiple sciences.
This is why I recommend restudying all of the MCAT sciences when you prepare for this exam– no matter how well you did in the class and no matter how recently you finished it.
Now before you think ‘Oh no, this will take so much time!’… realize that if you DO remember the material, you’ll have a much easier time reviewing and thus fly through it.
MCAT Science Review – One Subject At A Time
Human beings are not designed to be multi-taskers. This is a lesson I’ve been learning over the last few years. Focus on more than one thing at one time, and everything suffers.
When it comes to reviewing and relearning the MCAT sciences, many students take the focused approach of studying one science at a time. Learn one, master it, and move on to the next.
It sounds logical. You can put 100% of your focus into the one subject without distraction. However, I believe there are some major flaws in this approach.
Three Major Flaws With Studying One Science At A Time
I’m a firm believer in the FOCUS mnemonic:
But when it comes to the MCAT sciences, I advise against the ‘one at a time’ approach for 3 main reasons.
Reason 1: Momentum Dwindles Over Time
Regardless of how much you love or despise the sciences, when you first begin studying, you’re in the honeymoon phase. It’s new and exciting, and your motivation is strongest.
Even if you try pacing yourself, your first subject always gets your best effort.
You dive in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed: watching videos, looking up references, reading the book and working diligently through practice problems.
Then you hit a snag: a difficult topic that reduces your motivation or a life event that distracts you from studying. And slowly but surely, the initial momentum wears off.
But you’re determined, so you don’t give up. That white coat is waiting for you if only you continue going.
So you slog through it and complete the first subject.
And the second.
And the third.
But with each subsequent science that you complete, your momentum diminishes just a bit.
You remember that ‘Leah mentioned 70-90% mastery in her MCAT Progress Evaluation video’, and so you let your quality drop just a bit and then just a bit more.
When it’s all said and done, you realize that your first subject got the most of your effort, and every subsequent topic, while still complete, suffered just a bit more in overall study quality.
This in itself is NOT a bad thing, because it’s a BIG deal to finally make it through content, and you did!
Reason 2: The Later Sciences Pay the Timeline Price
When I work with students on their strategy sessions and study schedules, I always build in time buffers.
When we set out on a new plan, we have the best intentions, and we are determined not to veer off track. But life happens, so we have to plan for WHEN distractions come up rather than IF.
Say you map out your initial timeline with a plan to complete each science in 2 weeks. That’s 7 sciences over 14 weeks for a 3.5 month Phase 1 timeline.
In my experience this is quite intense, and the average student will not be able to pull it off. But you’re not average, and you can only compare yourself to YOUR progress. So you go for it.
Say you started with physics, the most difficult MCAT science for over 95% of my students. You know how many pages you must complete per day, and you go for it.
Till you hit a snag. You realize that it’s taking you a bit longer to process the information, to make all the unit connections between kinematics, forces, energy, work and power. And your 2 week timeline suddenly stretched to 3 weeks.
But you got through it.
Next you tackle general chemistry, and you’re doing so well, until you wake up on a random Tuesday coughing with a massive headache and runny nose. The common cold didn’t check your schedule, and you’re out for 3 days as you let your body recover.
2 weeks turned into 2.5 weeks, but you got through it.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
As you get closer and closer to the 14 week goal, you realize that the only way to keep your timeline is to make sacrifices and start cutting corners.
And when all is said and done, you find yourself staring at the calendar, convinced that if you cannot complete sociology in just 2 days, then you’re a complete failure.
Pulling off Psych/Soc in 2 days is quite impressive. But at what cost? What have you sacrificed in the process?
Reason 3: Remembering The Earlier Subjects As You Progress
The 2 reasons above are valid, but can be overcome if needed. That’s why I saved the third for last, because THIS is the primary reason why I DO NOT advise my students to work on the sciences one at a time.
Let’s face it.
No matter how smart you are, how good your memory, nor how well you study, it’s only human nature to forget what you’ve learned.
Say you started with physics and even stuck to your timeline. Say you knew your equations cold and felt 100% solid with the concepts.
How much are you going to remember as you put 100% of your focus into Subject 2? Are you really going to remember physics as strongly when you’re knee deep in buffers and titrations?
And say you DO remember your physics well enough. After all, it was just a few weeks ago. How well are you going to remember it by the time you get through Subject 3, 4 or 5?
What was the point of learning it so well, if you’ve forgotten what you studied by the time you finish everything else?
Sure, you can take the time to review every subject weekly as you work through new material, but do you really want to spend so many hours on physics and gen chem and orgo… when you’re trying to meet a biology, psychology, and sociology timeline?
What I Recommend Instead
The MCAT is like a marathon, rather than a sprint. Slow and steady over the long-term.
This means no cramming and no last minute memorization.
The longer your MCAT study timeline, the more important it is to build in time for review. For example, if you follow my 6-Month MCAT Prep timeline, instead of worrying that you’ll forget what you study, why not just assume that you WILL forget UNLESS you do something about it up front?
Review Old Content
If review helps you remember, aim to review often enough so that the material never becomes ‘old enough to forget’.
How do you build this into your study schedule?
Start with a plan that has you focusing on every subject, every single week.
If you see (and review) every subject weekly, you’re never too far removed from any single subject, and so you never give yourself a chance to forget.
How do you cover 7 sciences + CARS on a weekly basis?
Start by creating a balanced study schedule as I teach in Step 4 of my Ultimate MCAT Prep Guide.
Try to allot near equal time per subject.
Have more or longer study blocks for the subjects you find more difficult, and shorter or fewer blocks for those you find easier. The average student needs about 3 times as many blocks for physics as they do for psych/soc.
If you’re studying full time at 40 hours per week, you’d have about 5 hours for each subject, but perhaps 7+ for physics and just 2-3 for psych/soc.
If your part-time schedule allows for just 20 hours per week, that still gives you 2-3 hours per science, in addition to some time for CARS.
And if you’re on such a tight schedule that you can only dedicate ~5 hours to MCAT prep per week, perhaps due to a full time job, class schedule or family, you can still break it up to allow 30-60 minutes per science on a weekly basis.
5 hours per week comes with its own set of challenges and is only recommended on a temporary basis, for example during the school semester. More on timelines here: MCAT Prep: How Much Time Do You REALLY Need?
It’s not just about hitting every subject per week.
If you simply aim to study every subject per week, you may still face the challenges I outlined above. The key to making this work is to be very strategic in your weekly study blocks.
First, review 5 Steps to Mastering MCAT Sciences.
Here’s what a sample 3.5 hr study block would look like, with the specifics explained below.
Let’s break it down.
Review a previous chapter within THIS subject.
To be clear, this is not the very last chapter that you’ve studied. If you learned a chapter well enough, then you should be able to review it within 10-20 minutes.
Say you’re starting chapter 6 in physics today. Your review can focus on chapter 1. Your next physics block will focus on more of chapter 6, but your review will cover chapter 2.
Your next block’s review would cover chapter 3, then 4, then 5.
And when you’re caught up in review, you circle back and review chapter 1 again.
This method ensures that you’re never too far removed from the older chapters, because you’ll see the old material over and over as you progress with content.
Learn New Content
Do not attempt to sit and study for 2.5 hours without a break, as this is a recipe for burnout.
Instead, break up your study time into focused pomodoros, dictated by a natural stopping point.
For example, if you’re watching a 90 minute video to learn, but there’s a natural transition at the 35 minute mark, this is a perfect place to pause.
Take a few minutes to review and process what you studied.
Then take a quick moving break.
Stretch, use the restroom, drink water, get a snack, do some burpees if you’re up for it…
Say your next goal is to review the related pages in your book. This can take anywhere from 15 minutes, if you really know the material, or longer if you’re still figuring things out.
If you get through it quickly, great! Jump into questions.
If you’re struggling and need more time, go as slow as you need, and when it feels like you’ve hit a decent milestone, take another break.
Follow this pattern until you hit the 2.5 hour mark, then take another 5-10 minute mandatory (no screen though) break.
Finish up with Active Writing
Your pre-session review should only focus on logic, understanding and big picture concepts.
When most students try to mix memorization with review, they wind up focusing too much on the details to memorize and not enough on the big picture. That’s why I break them apart.
Ending with about 20 minutes of Active Writing gives you a chance to focus strictly on nothing but memorization. Use some of this time for equations that came up today, and some of this time for equations from previous chapters.
The Benefits of This Approach
Notice that by following this method, you’re never doing too much at once. You’re never burning yourself out. You’re never pushing past your study deadlines.
And most importantly, you’re NEVER giving yourself a chance to forget, because you’re always going back to review.
The focus here is on quality and remembering rather than “gotta finish that one chapter per day because so-and-so said so on the internet and so it must be what all the smart premeds are doing.”
In sticking to this method, it won’t matter if it takes you 1 month to fly through content as a quick review, or 6 months to get through it all around your school, work and family schedule.
Because trust me, 6 months is a long time and a recipe for forgetfulness if you don’t intentionally build in time to review and remember.
If you’re worried that, with your extended timeline, even this method may not be enough, consider stretching your pre-session review to 25 or 30 minutes, and do the same with your active writing.
Or consider adding in a ‘review week’ once a month where all you focus on is reviewing what you’ve already studied in each subject before jumping into the next set of new chapters.