It's no secret that studying for the MCAT is tough—perhaps even tougher than medical school itself.

Since we're the developers of the world's most effective MCAT study app used by medical students, many of us on the Brainscape team are fascinated by the learning process and the techniques that help students excel. So, naturally, we've done a lot of thinking about how to ace the MCAT.

Our team of MCAT flashcard authors has over 50 combined years in MCAT tutoring. We know what's up when it comes to crushing your exams and getting into the top medical schools.

[Brainscape's MCAT flashcards will become one of your top study aids to really nail the MCAT. Check them out.]

Studying for the MCAT using Brainscape's flashcards
Study for the MCAT using Brainscape's MCAT flashcards.

In this series of posts, we're going to walk you through the entire medical school application process, starting with prepping for the MCAT, talking about the important do’s and don’ts of med school applications, and wrapping up with a discussion about how to survive your first year of med school.

Let’s start with one simple and hugely neglected fact about MCAT prep: the most important way to prep for the exam is free. Simply put, no other tool will help you succeed as much as a good study group.

The truth about MCAT study groups

Study group at a table

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Ugh! Study groups! What a waste of time! I can be so much more productive working on my own. Those slackers will always slow me down!”

As a pre-med student, you were probably one of those focused, hard-working students who had a huge inward groan every time the professor said “now we’ll be doing a group project”. And sometimes, it's true that study groups are not effective. That's why we want to make something clear.

Studying in groups can actually HURT your studies if you don't do it right.

There's a time to study in groups and a time to study independently. For example, in groups you can't personalize the studying according to your weaknesses. So, by making sure you study on your own before group work, you can use the group to help keep you accountable and test yourself.

There are, however, times when study groups will very clearly benefit your studying:

Advantage 1: Creating motivation and accountability

A good MCAT study group will create motivation and accountability. Sure, you’ll have to keep studying on your own using books and effective tools like Brainscape’s MCAT flashcards, but the outside pressure of a study group keeps you going.

Advantage 2: Teaching what you know

A MCAT study group will give you a chance to engage in the one behavior that creates the best possible learning. In med school, they say “See One, Do One, Teach One.” It’s that final step—teach one—that really solidifies the learning. Thus, you’ll learn best with an MCAT study group because it will give you an opportunity to teach your study partners.

[See our article on the Feynman Technique for more on learning through teaching.]

How do you run a MCAT study group?

Studying for the MCAT in study groups

So how do you run a good study group?

We suggest you follow the Rule of Three: Three people. Three meetings a week. Three hour meetings. Three people means that if one person can’t make it to a meeting, you still have a buddy to study with. Three meetings per week will allow you to work on individual prep work in between meetings. Three hour meetings are key because it is hard to stay focused and productive for much longer.

During the session itself, the goal is to create accountability and to teach each other the material. So you should create a study plan together (more on that in the next post) where each person is given an assignment to prep and teach to the group. You might say something like this:

“Okay so over the weekend, we will all complete the first three chapters in the biochemistry book. It’ll be my job to carefully review the practice passage about amino acids and to teach that passage to the group. Rob, it’ll be your job to prep and teach the enzymes passage, and Ameera you can prep and teach the gluconeogenesis passage. Then we’ll all review a verbal passage together.”

Be the judge of your study group

Our last lesson to you is this: Don’t be afraid to “break up” with your study group if things aren’t going well.

You’re not married to your study buddies, and if you find your partner isn’t proving to be helpful or is missing sessions, you should politely suggest that it’s not working out and quickly find someone else to work with.

Also, don’t feel limited by geography when looking! There are tons of free online collaboration tools out there and if you’re at a college that doesn’t have a big pre-med group, you may need to look online for good study partners.

In our next post, we’ll look in detail about how to make a good MCAT study schedule. See you there!