The answer to “how long does it take to study for the MCAT” is rarely a satisfying one. The answer is “it depends”. In reality, there are two questions behind this question:
- How long will it take you to study for the MCAT?
- How long should you study for the MCAT?
The answers to these two questions will also vary per student, but the AAMC says that on average, pre-meds will spend 240 hours over 12 weeks studying for the MCAT. But of course, you want to be an above-average test-taker.
Based on helping tens of thousands of pre-meds reach their MCAT score goals, here are six questions to ask yourself when determining how long you’ll need to study before test day.
Let’s get down to it. While the MCAT isn’t strictly a science knowledge test—you’ll also need a ton of critical thinking skills to succeed—you will need a strong grasp of the core MCAT sciences to do well on the exam. You’ll need at least one year with labs of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. In addition to that, you’ll want to have taken some biochemistry coursework, as well as introductory psychology and sociology courses. The more well-versed you are in the science topics that will be tested on the MCAT, the more time you can spend focusing your prep on strategy and timing. Conversely, if you’re a few years out of undergrad or if you never majored in science at all, you’ll need to devote much more time to content review.
The time of year you choose to take the MCAT will greatly affect your availability to study for the exam. For example, if you take the test in March and are also enrolled in college classes or a post-bacc program, you’ll be studying for the MCAT while also trying to keep up with assignments, mid-terms, and other school-related obligations. If you don’t test until June or July, you may have more school-free time to devote solely to MCAT prep, even if this means applying later in the cycle. To be ready to start your MCAT prep in earnest, you’ll need to have completed your pre-requisites (or possibly taking them at the same time), have time available to spend on MCAT prep, and make sure all of these factors line up with application deadlines. The earlier you start to think about your timeline, the better you can plan.
Pre-meds are perpetually busy with schoolwork, clubs, research, shadowing, and part-time jobs. Others are juggling full-time work and family commitments. Look at all of your current and upcoming commitments—for the semester and for the year—to gauge how much time you have available for MCAT prep. Some semesters are generally busier than others. If you’ve taken on a long-term research project, or play a larger role in your pre-med student club, take that time into consideration. Of course, if you’re not in school and are working full or part-time, consider your work schedule and how much time you can spend in the evenings or on weekends reviewing content and taking practice tests. Students with heavier time commitments outside of MCAT prep should think about prepping over 4-6 months especially since, even with the very best planning, life happens and you’ll appreciate having a little leeway in your timeline. Don’t have as much on your plate? You could fit your prep into 2-3 months. Caveat: longer isn’t always better. For example, you don’t want to spread out your prep over a year or longer or you risk losing your momentum, forgetting what you reviewed, or having the MCAT completely take over your life.
One of the most difficult parts of MCAT prep is assessing how much work you’ll need to do to hit your target score. Start by taking an MCAT practice test or diagnostic exam to get a baseline score. Next, look at the medical schools you’d like to apply to. Where is your baseline score compared to the average matriculant? The farther you are, the more work you’ll need to put in. You can’t prepare for what you don’t know, so don’t put this part off. It can be scary, but you’ll come away armed with information. And remember, your baseline score is just that. It’s your starting-off point, not a determinant of where you’ll be in 3-6 months.
You already know you can’t cram for the MCAT (we hope) but beyond that, how do you learn and absorb information best? Do you like to study in shorter bursts every day or will your schedule require you to fit your prep into fewer, longer chunks? More caveats:
- It’s not realistic (and definitely not recommended) that your prep plan relies on studying for 8-12 hours a day, seven days a week for months on end. For one, you probably don’t need that much time and also, don’t do that to yourself.
- How many hours you think you can prep per day and how many hours you can or will prep per day can be pretty different. Be realistic and err on the side of caution.
Taking an MCAT prep course can be a great investment. It will keep you accountable, on a schedule, and make you much more efficient in your studies. That said, a prep course is a… course. To get the most out of your MCAT prep course, you’ll spend time attending class, watching science tutorials, and practicing. One of the benefits of a prep course, beyond having all your study resources in one place, is that you won’t waste time learning anything that won’t be on the MCAT. Select a course that fits your time, schedule, and learning style the best, and stick with it.
Answering these questions will go a long way toward determining how long you’ll need to study for the MCAT to be ready for test day and get your best MCAT score.