Studying for the MCAT as a non-traditional student is challenging. The good news? The average medical school matriculant is 25 and rising every year, putting non-traditional applicants in good company. Still, studying for the MCAT when you’re a few years removed from undergrad — or if you were not a science major — is going to be a challenge. Here are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind as you approach your MCAT prep and your application to medical school.
1. Determine your starting point
Non-traditional applicants to medical school are a diverse group, and depending on whether you’re just a year or two out of undergrad with a strong science background or whether your college years are well behind you, you’ll want to do conduct an honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses before you start your prep or pick a test date.
Have an undergraduate degree in science or have completed all the usual pre-requisite courses for most medical schools—at least one year with labs of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics—within the last 1-2 years
If this is you, your science knowledge is still relatively fresh, but you’ll still want to devote a significant amount of time to content review, especially subjects you were less strong in, or subjects you never took. We’re looking at you, biochemistry, psychology and sociology courses.
Have an undergraduate degree in science or have completed all the usual pre-requisite courses for most medical schools—at least one year with labs of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics—but are three or more years removed from undergrad
You’ll be surprised by how quickly your basic chem and bio knowledge fades once you’re out of practice. The farther you are from your undergraduate career, the more time you’ll need to spend reviewing foundational concepts to make sure you’re ready to “play” with what you know on the new scenarios the MCAT is going to present.
Did not take the pre-requisite science courses in undergrad or your undergraduate science grades were less than stellar
In this case, you will benefit greatly from taking (or retaking) core science courses or pursuing a post-bacc program designed specifically to bolster your academic credentials or getting you up to speed on your pre-requisite sciences. These programs will help you focus on the science you’ll need to succeed on the MCAT and in medical school later on.
2. Get to know the MCAT
Once you have a good idea of how much pre-work you’ll need to do, you’ll want to become familiar with the MCAT itself. You’ll put a lot of time into prepping for the MCAT— students report spending 240 hours on average studying for the exam — but the good news is that you don’t have to relearn all the biology you ever learned or everything you covered in physics. Take a look at the test blueprint, that’s the AAMC breakdown of every topic, sub-topic, and sub-sub-topic that could be tested on the MCAT to get a better sense of which science topics you’ll want to brush up on and which you can safely skip.
Better yet, take an MCAT practice test or a diagnostic exam. Your Kaplan prep course comes with a diagnostic exam but whether or not you take a prep course, you’ll want to see how the MCAT tests the core sciences, behavioral sciences, and critical reading skills. It’s important that you understand that the MCAT assumes every test taker will have a basic science knowledge. The challenge will come from being asked to use that science in new contexts, use reasoning skills, and of course, keep to strict time constraints.
The other advantage of an MCAT practice test is that you’ll see how you might score if you took the test that day. It’s a good reality check into how much work you’ll need to put in. That’s actually a good thing. Your practice test score is just a snapshot of where you are right now. It does not tell you where you can be or will be when you’re done studying.
3. There’s never enough time
“I just have so much time on my hands, I don’t know what to do with all of it” — said no MCAT student, ever. The truth is that studying for the MCAT in a way that will get you to test day feeling prepared and confident takes a lot of time—much more time than you think. The more obligations you have in your current life, the more strategic you’ll have to be when it comes to using your MCAT prep time efficiently. Pro tip: many an MCAT student begins with the utmost optimism with plans of studying eight hours a day, seven days a week, all the way to test day. This is just not realistic and is a recipe for burnout. But even more modest study plans can be derailed. Maybe it will take you much longer than you anticipated to get up to speed on biochemistry, or maybe you’ll come down with a case of strep throat that sidelines your prep for a few days. Your ideal prep window is 3-6 months, depending on your workload outside of MCAT prep. If you are working full-time or attending classes (or both), you’ll want to study over closer to six months. This allows you to maintain momentum and also gives you flexibility in case some elements of your prep take longer.
4. The medical school application timeline is the same for everyone
It’s helpful to think about the year you’d like to begin medical school and work backward from there to decide when to apply, when to take the MCAT, and when to start prepping for the exam. In almost all cases, you’re looking at beginning the process — studying for the MCAT — between two years and 18 months before you matriculate.
The application window for new fall matriculants starts in June the year before. For example, if you wanted to start medical school in the fall of 2020, you would apply to medical schools starting in June of 2019 when AMCAS or AACOMAS officially opens for submissions. It’s important to note that no application is considered complete without an MCAT score.
Now, let’s peek ahead. Once the application window begins in June, you can start submitting applications and responding to secondary application requests. Schools will start to send out interview invitations over the late summer and fall, and start admitting, waitlisting, or declining to admit students at the same time. A few more things:
- The latest MCAT exam date usually falls in mid-September
- The earliest application deadlines to select medical schools are in late September. The rest will fall sometime between October and December
- The earlier you apply once AMCAS opens, the better your odds are for admission
Next, let’s look back. With AMCAS almost always opening the first week of June, you’ll have to have taken your MCAT no later than the beginning of May (it takes up to a month to get your scores back) in order to be able to hit the submit button early. This means that your MCAT prep should have started no later than January.
Consider all your obligations, from school to work to family, and make an honest assessment of whether this timeline and these months make sense for you. Then, make adjustments to your prep schedule to make sure you can be on track and on time for all deadlines.