Studying for the MCAT: How to Manage Stress

August 8, 2011
Lauren Poindexter

It’s the week before the MCAT, the day before your organic chemistry final, or the morning of your first medical school interview and you’re struggling to organize your own thoughts, feelings, emotions, fears, hopes, and expectations. And that’s just YOU! Then there’s all the “outside” stress to deal with, too, like your roommate’s noisy new boy/girlfriend, Aunt Jen’s cancer scare, the road trip with friends you’re missing out on, and the challenge of meeting next month’s rent. Sometimes, it can feel like too much, and in order to have the clarity of mind needed for success we need to re-prioritize our attention! The next time you feel the stress mounting, use these handy tips to help keep your emotions in check and get things done.

Internal vs. External

Bob Verini, Jeopardy Champion and Kaplan’s Executive Director of National Academics, led multiple workshops this June and July at our MCAT Summer Intensive Program. In his first workshop Bob discussed a vital issue for all pre-med students: managing stress. During the discussion Bob elicited examples of stressors from students and placed them into two separate categories: internal vs. external. Internal stressors are those that originate from within and are controllable, while external stressors are those that seemingly come at us from nowhere and that we cannot control. Identifying which type of stress (or the mix thereof) that you’re dealing with can go a long way towards helping you manage your life.

Here is a short list of some of the common stressors seen among pre-meds:

External:necessity of the exam, demands of medical school admissions committees, parents’ and significant others’ expectations, interruptions when taking a practice test, temperature of the testing center

Internal: our own expectations of success/failure, time management, organization of our study materials and approach to last minute preparations, setting the alarm on Test Day, communicating with friends, family, & significant others, ability to focus during a full-length exam

Working consistently to manage the stresses of pre-med life will enable you to succeed on not just the MCAT, but in other areas as well. Juggling stressors is an integral part of being a doctor and the sooner we learn how, the better off we’ll be in med school, residency, and eventually in practice. Wherever you are on the spectrum of calm, cool, and collected, take a few minutes to complete the following “mini-workshop:”

1) Scribble a list of all the stresses in your life. Do it as stream of consciousness, without punctuation or formal numbering.

2) Go through the list and assign each concern to one of our two categories: internal vs. external.

3) Develop “action” points for each concern. What specific action or decision can we make to address this issue and lessen its ability to derail our success?

4) Bring your plan to fruition!

Simply understanding better what our stressors are can go a long way towards dealing with them – that’s Steps 1 and 2 above. However Step 3 is often more difficult for students, so here are a few suggestions to help you adapt to the different stressors:


- adjust the importance of or your attention to external stressors (lessen, minimize, or ignore things that are truly out of your control)

- rework your treatment of or response to these stressors (healthy reactions)

- use them as incentive to succeed, and feed off of them!


- reevaluate your own expectations and standards of success or failure

- keep yourself accountable and motivated by methodically employing the Kaplan tips, techniques, and tricks for managing your MCAT studies

- release stress and avoid burnout via your favorite non-MCAT activities such as walking, jogging, yoga, hiking, time with family and friends, organized sports, playing music, reading for enjoyment, mini-vacations, or watching a movie

- maintain a healthy lifestyle for optimal immune system function and emotional stability – get adequate sleep and enjoy a healthy diet

Stress is a natural part of human life, especially in medicine; as you probably know from your studies, small amounts of stress can actually be a good thing. However, it’s how we deal with the stress that makes or breaks us come test day. The most successful pre-med and medical students are those that see challenges as opportunities for growth and confidence-building and are able to employ healthy coping skills to manage the emotional roller coaster that is the life of a physician.

Lauren Poindexter

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