How much time should I spend studying for the MCAT?
The amount of study time you need to reach an adequate level of preparation for the MCAT depends on a variety of factors, including the amount of coursework you've completed in the sciences and the general level of your analytical and critical-thinking abilities, among other points. You might need less study time than another student if you have a special aptitude or more personal experience related to MCAT content areas. Whatever your initial skill level, it's very important to begin preparing for your test as soon in the process as you are able. To devise a strong study plan for yourself, follow these steps.
Evaluate Your Readiness
Most students need a minimum of three to four months of regular, sustained test preparation, including content review and practice time. That said, some students need even more time than that. So, in order to ensure that you have as much time as you need to get adequately prepared for the test, it's absolutely vital that you evaluate your initial skill level and general readiness for the MCAT as early as possible. Ideally, you should evaluate yourself immediately upon making your initial decision to apply to medical schools.
There are a couple ways to evaluate your initial readiness for the MCAT. First, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the administrator of the MCAT, publishes the Official MCAT Self-Assessment Package, a set of online evaluation materials designed just for this purpose. After purchasing and completing the self-assessment, you get a detailed analysis of your performance that identifies your strengths and weaknesses and helps you organize an effective study plan. Alternatively, AAMC also provides access to a free full-length MCAT practice test online. While you get a detailed score report upon completing this practice test, the reports and evaluation tools are not as comprehensive as those provided in the Official MCAT Self-Assessment Package.
Many MCAT prep companies also offer free or paid evaluation services designed to help you get a grasp on your study needs. The Princeton Review, for example, offers free on-site and online practice tests, both of which deliver a score report detailing your test performance. If you live near a Princeton Review location, take your score report to a free practice test review session to get personal help building a study plan based on your test performance.
Evaluate Your MCAT Scheduling Options
As you look to evaluate your readiness for the MCAT, you also need to start thinking about scheduling your MCAT test date. The test is administered more than 20 times throughout the year so you have plenty of choices. Once you solidify your test date, you're then ready to lock in a study schedule and get down to the hard work of preparing for the test. To identify a good MCAT test date, consider these important factors.
Medical School Deadlines
In most cases, you should schedule your MCAT test date sometime during the calendar year before you intend to enter medical school. For example, if you plan to apply in 2014 for medical school entry in the fall of 2015, you should take your MCAT in 2014. While this advice is widely applicable across most medical schools, it's still important to research your favored schools in order to identify any differences in general policy or in MCAT submission deadlines. For example, some schools review MCAT results from earlier test dates first, which may influence admissions decisions for students who test later and are consequently evaluated later in the admissions process.
Allowing for Retakes
You should also consider the possibility of retaking the MCAT. If you want to give yourself enough time to retake the test should you need to, it's important to schedule your initial test date as early as possible while still giving yourself enough time to prepare adequately. While no one wants to take the MCAT multiple times, many different life events and test-day circumstances are capable of influencing your test performance. If something goes wrong on test day, it's nice to have the leeway to schedule another attempt.
You're allowed to take the MCAT up to three times per year at a cost of $270 per attempt. In most cases, your scores are made available to you about 30 to 35 days after your test date, so you need to consider the month-long wait time if you want to allow yourself the chance to fit in a new test date before medical school deadlines arrive. Also consider the fact that many test dates fill up in advance. If you live in an area with limited testing locations, you need to factor in the possibility of a delay while you wait for an open test date.
Many students take an MCAT prep course to help them get ready for test day. Popular options include on-site, live online, and self-guided courses lasting from a week or two to several months or more. The Princeton Review, for example, offers a variety of courses to meet virtually any student need, from comprehensive three-month courses to 15-hour courses focusing on just the verbal reasoning section of the test. Kaplan is another top provider in the MCAT prep industry, offering a full complement of course options both online and on-site. If you're interested in professional MCAT preparation, chances are there's a great course out there offering just what you need. However, since the options are so varied in length, it's important to identify the course you want to take before you schedule your MCAT.
Schedule Your Test and Start Studying
Once you've identified the ideal test date, it's time to lock it in and get started with studying. Note that the AAMC opens test dates for registration in two large blocks each year. Test dates for the months of January to May open in the fall of the prior calendar year. Test dates for the months of June to September are released in the spring of the same year. No MCAT test dates are available during the months of October, November, and December.