"Oh god, the MCAT" is the thought on every student's mind when they're facing this exam.
In two recent articles we talked about the basics of setting up an MCAT study group and developing an MCAT study plan. But honestly, even with the best group and clearest plan, you can find yourself starting to feel really swamped.
We're the developers of the world's most effective flashcard app, and our team of MCAT flashcard authors has over 50 combined years in MCAT tutoring. Many of us on the team are fascinated by the learning process and the techniques that help students excel. That naturally includes how to manage stress and optimize learning.
The key to managing MCAT stress is simply to remember that stress and anxiety are nothing more than physiological processes—they are grounded in your body. So to manage stress, manage your body. Let's dive into some tips.
Tip 1: Manage your diet and exercise
Start with the fundamentals: diet and exercise. You can fall into the trap of grabbing quick, easy junk food if you think you need to be studying uninterrupted for 16 hours at a time. You might barely have time to realize that proper hydration can reduce stress.
You might even feel like making time for a trip to the gym will cut into your study time and hurt your MCAT performance.
Neither could be farther from the truth!
Getting at least half an hour of aerobic exercise every day has been shown to have all sorts of benefits for your brain’s cognitive functioning. Don’t try to do more than two or three hours of uninterrupted study at a time. After that period, you need to get up, move around, and give your brain a rest.
[Don't think you have time to balance studying and exercise? Think again! Here's how to study while exercising]
When it comes to diet, you don’t need to do anything fancy. Just stick to Michael Pollan’s simple seven-word mantra: “Eat food; not too much; mostly plants".
[Want to dive deeper into learning, nutrition, and exercise? Check out our article on how to optimize your brain health for studying]
Tip 2: No distractions
One of the major sources of stress is feeling like you’re not accomplishing anything, despite spending what seems like thousands of hours with your butt in the chair. To that end, you need to make sure that when you sit down to do MCAT work, you’re actually doing MCAT work.
Put your phone on silent and leave it in another room. Put in earplugs, wear headphones, or use noise-blocking earmuffs—anything that will help you stay focused and on task.
[Our Brainscape MCAT flashcards will help you focus by dividing your studying into flashcard sets. Check them out.]
Tip 3: Don't fret over practice tests
The final major source of stress for most students is practice tests. It’s easy to freak out if you score unexpectedly low. I have all of my students, about two weeks before the real exam, do what I call a “positive review” as a way to combat obsessing over wrong answers on practice tests.
Normally, when a student reviews an exam, there’s a tendency to just want to skim past the questions they got right, and then to slow down an obsess over questions they got wrong. When students get an assignment of “select ten questions from each section of the test for us to go over” they will, without fail, select only questions they got wrong. That makes sense from a learning point of view, but it also creates stress.
To help combat stress and build up MCAT mojo, students should do the opposite of their usual approach. The assignment is simple: take and review a full length practice MCAT, but only review the right answers. As you click through the test, ignore anything you got wrong. On each question you got right, slow down, review it carefully. Congratulate yourself on your cleverness and luck. Select questions for us to review during a tutoring session, but only select 5 questions you got right from each section. Focus on why you got it right, and how you’ll get questions like that right in the future.
By doing this kind of “positive review” of a test, you can help maintain a focus on success that leads to confidence. Confidence that can then, in turn, banish your MCAT anxiety and the stress it brings.
Tip 4: Do meditation or yoga
Finally, you should strongly consider a routine habit of meditation, yoga, or some other way to effectively manage your stress. Research has shown that both meditation and yoga have major positive benefits for managing stress. These both also help you develop stronger focus, so they'll serve you well in Med school, too.
What's next? The application process
Last, remember stress can actually be a good thing. It can help make sure you're motivated and that you actually put in the work to ace the MCAT. For more, check out what you can do to use exam stress to actually improve performance.
Now that we’ve gone through study groups, setting out a study plan, and managing the stress that comes with prepping for the MCAT, let’s shift our attention to med school itself.
In our next article, we’ll go over some important tips about the med school application process.