If you’re planning on taking the MCAT in the next year or two, you’ve probably asked yourself this question: how many months do I actually need to set aside to prepare? The answer to this question is enormously important – the MCAT is a content-intensive and difficult test, so you need to give yourself plenty of time. But how much is enough? Most of the students I tutor set aside 2-6 months to study for the exam, with an average of around 3 months. However, each student is different, so to decide how much time you’ll need, be sure to keep these key points in mind:
• The more non-MCAT obligations you have, the more time you’ll need. Some premed students set aside a summer, often after their junior year, when they fully dedicate themselves to MCAT preparation. For those students, 2.5-3 months is usually sufficient to become completely ready. But many other premeds must balance work or college coursework with their studies, and in that case, more time is often required. Plenty of students can work full-time during their prep and still excel on the MCAT – but if this applies to you as well, consider setting aside 4-5 months instead of 2-3.
• It’s best to take at least 5 full-length exams. The MCAT has a run time of 6 hours and 15 minutes, and that doesn’t include breaks. Since you’ll want to practice under test-like conditions, this means that every practice test you take requires nearly an entire day. If your personal schedule has few “empty” days that you can use for this purpose, you may need to extend your timeline or move obligations around. (Note: I say “at least 5” exams is optimal here, but like any other aspect of MCAT prep, this depends on your circumstances. Careful review of each practice exam taken is much more important than cramming in as many tests as possible.)
• Your timeline should depend on your goals and familiarity with the material. When I work with a student, the first thing I attempt to determine is the student’s level of familiarity with MCAT science content. If you feel a little rusty on the material, don’t worry – most students don’t remember the ins and outs of acid-base chemistry or projectile motion from their undergrad classes! However, the more of the content you need to re-learn, the longer you should plan to prep. It’s best to have at least 1.5 months of “strategy only” preparation (spent on practice passages, full-length exams and review, etc.), so any content review will need to be added onto this time.
• You don’t need to study for 8-12 hours per day. Here’s a slightly more optimistic piece of information! I can’t tell you the number of students I’ve met who believe they need to prepare for 12 hours, 6 or 7 days per week. Not only is this unnecessary, it can lead to burnout and frustration when life’s events inevitably get in the way. I typically advise my students to study for 4-6 hours on a typical MCAT day, with the obvious exception of practice exam days. If you use your time efficiently and constantly reassess your weaknesses, you’ll find that this is more than enough time to improve – and you won’t need to put your entire life on hold. On this note, it’s generally better to prep for, say, 4 months at 4 hours per day than 2 months at 8 hours per day. And take days off – your performance will benefit!
With this information in mind, you’re ready to start planning your own MCAT preparation and take the next step on your premed journey. Good luck!
Clara Gillan is the MCAT Content Director at Next Step Test Prep and has been teaching and tutoring for five years. She scored a 526 on her own MCAT, with perfect scores in the CARS and bio/biochem sections. Her favorite part of test prep is finding alternative ways to explain tricky concepts. Clara also plays an important role in the development of Next Step’s practice tests and other resources, where her top priority is making content as representative of the official exam as possible. In her free time, she runs a Girl Scout troop in Los Angeles and loves watching movies.
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