A rigid study plan for the MCAT? Do you really have to be that type of anal person to do well on this important exam? The answer is yes.

At Brainscape, we're the developers of the world's most effective MCAT study app, and we're passionate about optimizing the learning process and sharing techniques that help students excel. Managing your time well with a rigorous study plan for the MCAT is one of them.

Consider your MCAT study plan to be your essential blueprint for success: your battle strategy for taking on and defeating the mighty MCAT. There’s a lot of content to get through and an equal (staggering) amount of practice to do. Without a plan, you risk falling behind and developing chinks in your armor.

To that end, when putting your MCAT study plan together, keep these three general principles in mind:

  1. Balance your time between content studying and timed practice.
  2. Be conservative with your goals.
  3. Build-in LOTS of time to review your work.

(Check out the link if you need help choosing your MCAT test date!)

In this guide, we’re going to walk you through each of these essential principles but for a supersized portion of advice on how to create a fool-proof MCAT study schedule, check out Brainscape’s academy guide: ‘The Ultimate Three-month MCAT Study Plan.’

Are you ready? Let’s take a look at each of the principles of a great MCAT study schedule.

Principle 1: Balance different methods

First, your study plan for the MCAT needs to be balanced. One very common mistake we see students make is over-emphasizing one aspect of prep and giving short shrift to others. Good MCAT prep is an equal mix of content review, timed simulation, and passage practice. Let's take a closer look ...

Step 1: Review your content

For content review, you should be using several different resources—like video, MCAT review books, digital flashcards, and concept maps—to give your brain exposure to the material in different modalities.

Your best bets here would be Brainscape’s digital MCAT flashcards and the MCAT videos from Khan Academy (an amazing free resource). The mix of resources will engage your brain and reinforce the information as you go along, thereby helping you remember it better!

Step 2: Learn the content

Once you’ve put together a list of resources to learn the material, you should aim to efficiently memorize it. Research has shown vastly improved retention when students come back and review the material several times, especially after having time to sleep. It’s during that REM and deep non-REM sleep that your brain consolidates long-term memories.

So study a chapter from your book, then make and study some flashcards on that same topic. Go work on something else, get a good night’s sleep, and come back to it the next day. Quickly re-skim the chapter, re-do your flashcards, and sum it all up by watching the Khan Academy video on that topic.

Brainscape's flashcards are especially easy to build into any MCAT study plan, so you can efficiently review content. But why is this method so efficient?

First, Brainscape flashcards use spaced repetition to facilitate your learning. This system repeats information in such a way that you see less well-known material more than the material you've mastered. This ensures that you onboard new knowledge quicker and more efficiently as you study for the MCAT.

Read: 'How to study for the MCAT more efficiently'

Second, our app makes it easy to knock out a five-minute study round wherever you are. Simply keep the website open on your browser or the app open on your phone so all you have to do is flick it open and pick up where you left off.

Third, you can see how much time you still need to fully master a set of flashcards. After every 10-flashcard round, users hit a checkpoint screen that shows them how far they have progressed through the study material, as well as an updated estimate of how much study time they have left to reach 100% mastery.

Brainscape's Mastery dashboard for the MCAT
Knowing how long you have left to master a subject will help you adapt your MCAT schedule appropriately.

Step 3: Practice MCAT questions and passages

You should spend as much time on practicing answering MCAT questions as you do on reviewing (and memorizing) science content.  Knowing all the content down pat won’t help if you don’t practice applying it to those tricky MCAT passages. As a general rule, you should be doing at least one or two MCAT verbal passages every single day. The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of the test is, by far, the hardest to improve on.

For science practice, you should do at least one or two practice passages on each topic you review. Do them on the second day of reviewing a chapter, after having read the chapter once, practiced the relevant flashcards, and watched the appropriate Khan Academy video. If you have trouble with the practice passage, then go back and re-review the relevant content.

Where do you get your practice passages? Typically, MCAT prep books will come with a practice passage at the end of each chapter (note that while Next Step, ExamKrackers, and Princeton Review’s books all come with such end-of-chapter passages, the Kaplan MCAT books have no practice passages in them at the time of writing).

Putting together a full suite of resources is a daunting task, but once done, you’re most of the way there. Next, you should keep the other two principles in mind.

Principle 2: Your MCAT study schedule should have reasonable goals

Be conservative with your goals! Build an MCAT study plan that only includes ~75% of what you think you’re capable of. You’re much better off planning to complete three chapters, and then finding out you’re able to get through four, rather than the reverse. Setting cautious goals helps ensure that you’ll actually achieve them and can help build up momentum and enthusiasm as you exceed them.

Conversely, setting overly ambitious goals and then failing to meet them is a fast way to develop frustration and burnout. As a general rule, I tell students who study for the MCAT full time to plan out three 2-hour study sessions for six days a week and then take one day off each week.

Six hours may not sound like a full schedule if you’re used to working an 8-10 hour day full time. But remember that the MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint. If you do three smaller chunks of studying spaced throughout the day, rather than a non-stop slog of 12 hours of studying, you’re vastly more likely to stick to your MCAT study schedule and to actually learn what you’re studying.

Principle 3: The importance of review in your study plan for the MCAT

Finally, the most common mistake I see students make in their prepping for the MCAT is failing to build in enough time to review their practice. You can read on Student Doctor and other online forums about people who like to brag “oh I took a full length every single day for weeks” or some such nonsense.

To really learn from your practice, you should be spacing your full-length exams out to once a week (at most!) or even once every other week. After taking a full practice MCAT, allocate anywhere from six to twelve hours to review the exam. You need to go question by question through your work, learning from every single problem—not just the handful of tricky ones that you struggled with.

Again, we cannot emphasize this enough. After completing a practice passage or a practice full-length exam, carefully review every. single. question. Allocate something like 1.5x as much time to review your practice as it took to do the practice itself.

Read: 'How to take an MCAT practice test (to get the most out of it!)'

Adding it all up to build a successful MCAT study plan

So, to create a successful MCAT study schedule, follow these general rules:

  • Review content using spaced repetition and multiple modalities
  • Practice MCAT passages every day
  • Do weekly online full length exams, with an entire day to review them
  • Set conservative goals that you can easily meet or exceed

What's next? How to manage stress!

That growing list of to-do's and filled-in MCAT study schedule could look and feel stressful for anyone. Once you’re actually in the thick of your MCAT prep, it can be easy to let that stress overwhelm you. Find out what you can do to manage your MCAT stress in our next article!

And don’t forget to check out ‘The Ultimate Three-month MCAT Study Plan.