Studying for a test can feel stressful and overwhelming, especially for a computer-based standardized test like the DAT. Many test takers are used to last-minute cramming for tests, but that isn’t a good strategy for longer, more difficult tests (and also seldom leads to long-term learning, meaning that you’ll essentially have to start from scratch again for the next test and while in dental school). The sheer amount of material you need to know when you study for the DAT can be overwhelming, but with judicious, methodical studying you’ll be able to tackle one component at a time to eventually review everything you need to know for Test Day.
The total amount of time you spend studying each week will depend on your schedule and your test date, but most sources recommend that you spend 200–250 hours before taking the official DAT. One way you could break this down is to study for at least three hours per day, five days per week, for three months (13 weeks). But this is just one way. You might study six days per week (though avoid studying every day; you need breaks!) or for more than three hours per day. You might study over a longer period of time if you don’t have as much time to study each week. Or you might find that you need more or fewer hours based on your personal performance and goal scores.
To make studying as efficient as possible, block out short, frequent periods of study time throughout the week. From a learning perspective, studying one hour per day for six days per week is much more valuable than studying for six hours all at once one day per week. Spacing out your preparation allows your brain time to consolidate its new memories, and seeing the material repeatedly over a longer period of time makes recalling the information on Test Day easier and faster. Three hours is an ideal length of time to study: It’s long enough to build up your stamina for the five-hour Test Day but not so long that you become overwhelmed with too much information.
Within those three-hour blocks, also plan to take 10-minute breaks every hour. Use these breaks to get up from your seat, do some quick stretches, get a snack and a drink, and clear your mind. Although 10 minutes of break for every 50 minutes of studying may sound like a lot, these breaks will allow you to deal with distractions and rest your brain so that, during the 50-minute study blocks, you can remain completely focused. Taking breaks more often than this, however, can be detrimental; research shows that becoming fully engaged in a mentally-taxing activity generally takes 10 minutes, so if you stop to check your email or social media, talk with your roommates, or grab yet another snack every ten minutes while studying, you will never be completely engaged and will not be using your time effectively.
If you would like to study for more than three hours in one day, space out your studying with a significant break in the middle. For example, you may study for three hours in the morning, take a two-hour break to have lunch with your friends, then study for another two hours in the afternoon.
If you are unable to study for a full three hours in one sitting, shorter amounts of time can work as well, but you’ll get the most benefit from your studying if you immerse yourself in the material uninterrupted for at least one hour. For brief practice when you only have a few minutes, use flashcards or other quick references instead.
Note that taking some time off can be just as important as studying, though. Just as you should take breaks during study blocks, take breaks during the week as well. Take at least one full day off per week, ideally from all of your professional obligations but at minimum from studying for the DAT. Taking this time allows you to recharge mentally, and any fun or relaxing activities you plan for those days give you something to look forward to during the rest of the week.
No matter what your plan is, ensure you complete enough practice to feel completely comfortable with the DAT and its content. A good sign you’re ready for Test Day is when you begin to earn your goal score consistently in practice.