“If you don’t pick a day to relax, your body will pick it for you.”

Lately, I’ve been seeing this unattributed quote floating around the Internet, usually in meme format. Cheesy as it may be, it’s crazy how stark a turnaround it represents from the sentiments that were common just a few years ago, which were more along the lines of “Greatness doesn’t take days off.”

Can you smell the toxic capitalism?

The truth is that great people do take days off, and the mindset that taking breaks is a sign of weakness is actually both mentally and physically unhealthy.

Studies have found that overwork is correlated with a significantly increased risk of heart attack and stroke. That might not seem immediately relevant to you, but it’s also associated with a weakened immune system. So if you don’t pick a day to relax, your body may very well choose for you to take a week or more off when you suddenly come down with the flu or worse.

All of this means that the recent societal trend toward self-care and valuing study breaks is a really positive one. But in the midst of MCAT prep, it can still be tempting to think that this doesn’t apply to you, that you can’t afford to take breaks.

I’m not trying to dismiss these feelings entirely; they’re natural and to some degree unavoidable. But I do want to impress upon you that taking days off will help your performance, not hurt it, as long as you do it rationally.

And so, in this article, we’ll discuss the best MCAT prep approach to taking study breaks, whether you’re just beginning to formulate your study plan or—because it’s never too late—you’re already deep into your prep.

But first ...

Who are we and what do we know about study breaks research?

I’m so glad you asked!

We’re Brainscape, the brains (*snort laugh*) behind an adaptive flashcard learning app for web and mobile. Our goal in designing this platform was to help students who are learning for high-stakes exams like the MCAT to study in the most efficient way possible (and remember what they learn for longer).

But in the immortal words of the Boromir meme: one does not simply create an app for learning without nerding out on the cognitive science of learning.

Boromir meme MCAT Brainscape

Told you he said that.

And so the Brainscape team spent years deep-diving the abyssal realm of cognitive science, using the key learning principles we learned to design an app that helps students learn. Sorry about all the “learns” in there.

We then teamed up with MCAT expert Clara Gillan and a whole host of other subject-matter experts to distill the entire AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) syllabus down into over 4,200 question-and-answer flashcard pairs, which are optimized to help you master the necessary facts to score well on the MCAT.

Brainscape’s certified MCAT flashcards; Best MCAT prep
Brainscape’s certified MCAT flashcards are the perfect resource for building that essential science foundation for the MCAT. But more than mere facts, these flashcards are packed with strategy tips and hints to help you draw connections between topics and subjects.

Awesome, I would like Brainscape’s MCAT flashcards!

During this research, we also branched out into all the good and bad things that students encounter when trying to study for exams, like studying in groups: should you do it? Can music help you study? What’s the best way to take notes? And how can you overcome the greatest of all foes to productive studying …

A ridiculously attractive partner.

Just kidding. I mean: PROCRASTINATION (dun-dun-duuuuuun!)

This exhaustive research—the fruits of which you can read all about in the Brainscape Academy—is exactly how Brainscape became masters of study methodology. So, to answer that original question: how do we know about study breaks research?

Because we researched that research.

And now we, together with Clara Gillan—MCAT supernerd with a score of 526 and the Director of Product at MedSchoolCoach—are here to give you the best MCAT prep advice on what maketh good study breaks.

Let’s get started …

(P.S. If your partner is ridiculously good-looking and a terrible distraction, check out Brainscape’s guide on how to cope with distractions during MCAT prep! Also, don't forget to use Brainscape's customizable MCAT study schedules and MCAT countdown planners to help you lay out the micro-steps towards your ultimate goal of crushing the exam!)

How often should I be taking the day off during MCAT prep?

Marking a calendar for MCAT prep

To an extent, this depends on the length of your study plan. If you’re taking three to four months to prep and your schedule is fairly light, one day off per week is extremely reasonable. If you’re taking longer, multiple days per week can be okay, too.

Having said that, we’ve worked with many students who have really crazy schedules, like nurses working 12-hour days, three days per week. In such situations, it’s unreasonable to plan to study on those days; either it won’t happen and you’ll feel bad about yourself, or you’ll get some studying in but retain the material poorly.

Do yourself a favor and—if you expect certain days to be dominated by other obligations—ensure that your MCAT study schedule plans for those days off, starting now. Even if you aren’t sure which days you’ll be working a month or two or three from now, knowing roughly how many days per week you won’t be able to study will really help you decide on a reasonable study plan length.

(Do you want more tips? Here's how and when to take study breaks for optimal learning ...)

What if I only have a few months to study?

Many of you might fall into the opposite bucket, where you have a shorter amount of time to prep. Say you have two months until your test date. I would actually argue that you should still be taking the day off once per week.

If you think about it: two months is about eight or nine weeks, so this only means eight or nine days off until your test date. This really isn’t a ton of time, and the benefits it can confer to your health and your productivity on the other six days of the week can be enormous.

What if I only have weeks to study?

At this point, you can consider taking a half-day off per week instead of a full day, as long as you’re disciplined about not letting your studying bleed into that half-day. But I would do this cautiously, and if you find yourself getting to a point where you’re so behind that even a half-day doesn’t seem like something you can spare, I would highly recommend considering moving your MCAT test date.

This is a situation that I have so much empathy towards because I’ve worked with tons of students in this same exact boat, where it feels like the only way out is to study all day, every day. Unfortunately, even putting quality of life aside, the score-related outcomes of this approach are very rarely good.

What makes for good study breaks?

Chihuahua with champagne; best MCAT prep

Let’s say you now know how many days off you plan to take, whether it’s multiple per week, one per week, or a half-day per week in extreme cases. What should you do on these days, assuming you don’t have other obligations? And how can you avoid feeling guilty the whole time?

My general rule here is that you should try to do things that benefit your physical and mental health. This way, you’re improving your MCAT outcome indirectly. One thing that clearly benefits health is exercise, so if you don’t have much time to go for a run (or even a walk!) on study days, do that on your off day. If you can get into nature, somehow, even better.

Another thing that has verified, demonstrable benefits to mental clarity and physical health is seeing people whom you like and enjoy hanging out with. It’s highly common for MCAT students to feel isolated from their non-premed friends while they’re studying. Do yourself a favor, and plan to see those friends on your off day.

I’d even go so far as to say it’s worthwhile to plan your off day around when your favorite people are available because I cannot stress enough how good this is for you. Even spending time with pets or watching your favorite show can mimic some of these benefits.

Okay, what if hanging out with my friends means getting a hang-over?

Girl being hangover with party decorations

Ha! The struggle is real!

Time with friends can sometimes bring up a, shall we say, approach-avoidance conflict with regard to the whole “physical and mental health” thing. For instance, what if the main activity you do with your friends is going down to the pub? As someone partial to that pastime myself, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that even this can be a good use of your day off, due to its capacity to remind you that you’re still a person with a life.

However, as always, it’s important to be realistic. If you can partake with as much moderation as possible, great. If not—say, if you know you’re going to be hungover the next day—I recommend getting creative with your “day” off. For example, if you’re going to a friend’s party on Friday night, you can study for a half-day on Friday morning, take Friday night and Saturday morning off, and get back into studying on Saturday afternoon.

This won’t work for me: taking the day off makes me feel too guilty

Man thinking about taking the day off

If you still don’t think you’ll be able to take a day off without guilting yourself over not studying, there are other ways to cope.

One way that takes advantage of your own psychology is to plan to go somewhere other than where you normally study. If you typically study at home, you’ll associate the context of home with MCAT prep, and it’ll be very difficult to, say, binge a Netflix show in the same chair you took an FL in just a few days prior.

Make a change. Take your breaks away from home by going for a walk or watching Netflix in the bath (just don’t drop your device in the bathwater).

By that same token, try studying at the library or your local coffee shop. Sometimes, a change of scenery is as good as a holiday. You could even go for a walk and silently teach what you’ve just studied back to yourself. This is called the Feynman Technique and it’s a really effective trick for reviewing knowledge you’ve just spent hours learning.

OR put away the books, pick up your device and spend some time running through Brainscape’s MCAT flashcards. It’s a change of pace from the textbook and an engaging way to test your subject knowledge.

Brainscape dashboard MCAT
Ah, Brainscape’s dashboard! It’s from this central hub that you can access the 7 units, 42 decks, and 4,213 flashcards that comprise our expert-curated collection for the MCAT. Our adaptive learning app for web and mobile compels users to engage active recall and metacognition to learn, while the spaced repetition of flashcards ensures more efficient studying.

Here’s one final tip: spend your day off reminding yourself why you wanted to be a doctor in the first place.

If you had a relative with a health problem when you were a kid, call a family member and ask them about their experiences with the healthcare system. If you thought brain surgery was cool, read articles and watch videos about awesome surgical advances.

Or if you’re like I was and you first wanted to become a doctor because you loved Grey’s Anatomy, watch reruns. And through all of the soap opera ridiculousness, imagine what you’ll be like when you’re a doctor: who you’ll work with, how you’ll interact with them, and the wide variety of human experiences you’ll encounter and learn from.

(There’s a lot of potential for quality daydreaming in there …)

Attractive celebrities; best MCAT prep

A final note on the need for good study breaks

The best MCAT preparation requires consistency: consistent, daily study habits. And yet, paradoxically, if you don’t take a few good study breaks here and there, you’re almost sure to hit a wall, whether it’s a mental or physical one.

This really emphasizes the importance of creating a detailed study plan at the outset of your MCAT journey; one that portions out your study time intelligently, with sufficient time to allow for at least one day off per week. You’re human. You need a break.

No matter how stressed you may feel about taking the day off, as a premed, time to decompress is actually one of the most valuable things you can do (provided you spend it wisely). And it will pay huge dividends in energy and motivation for a long time to come!

(For some of the best tips on studying efficiently for the MCAT so that you have time for study breaks, check out Brainscape’s MCAT guide.)