How can you balance studying for the MCAT in a way that helps you keep from getting overwhelmed?
Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
[00:09] Balance is Key!
There is a need to acknowledge the importance of balance in the context of being a premed student, an MCAT test-taker, and an applicant to medical school. The risks of going too hard can cause burnout due to juggling multiple responsibilities and tasks that students have to handle simultaneously. But there are strategies for achieving balance.
Visit Blueprint MCAT for additional free resources. After conversations with many students, it has been observed that balance is a significant challenge for students, particularly during the application cycle.
Balance is a major struggle for students. It is unrealistic to study for long hours continuously. The brain is not built or trained for that level of focus. It is important to be realistic while still pushing oneself to do the best you can be.
There was a poll done among students to gauge their stress levels and it highlights that feeling overwhelmed while studying for the MCAT is common due to the magnitude of the task. Students must engage in critical self-reflection to identify the source of what overwhelms them. Hence, a study planner tool can help with organization and decision-making.
[05:36] Not Having Enough Time
Students often have a feeling of being overwhelmed and feel they are not getting enough studying done or making progress. There are several reasons behind this, like procrastination and difficulty in getting started with studying.
Whether the issue lies in not using time effectively or simply not having enough available hours in the week poses a question. Traditional and nontraditional students have a lot on their plate with extracurricular activities, research, volunteering, and other responsibilities.
Studying for the MCAT requires self-motivation, mental capacity, and the ability to push oneself to do things that are not enjoyable. The importance of consistently studying every day requires mental energy that students often underestimate.
It’s not just about the math of allocating time for various activities, but also about leaving room for relaxation and deep rest. Advocate for a balance between deep rest and deep work.
Moreover, be warned that an overly busy schedule will lead to burnout, declining scores, stress, and feelings of being overwhelmed. The lack of free time may be a contributing factor. You need to have time for fun and activities outside of studying. On the other hand, going out every night may not be feasible, but finding ways to incorporate free time and rest into the schedule is encouraged.'In order to study for the MCAT, you need a lot of self-motivation… You need to be happy and have a strong mental capacity for doing things that you don't like.'Click To Tweet
[09:27] Avoiding Burnout: Fewer Study Hours or Extended Study Period
Students often feel constantly busy and unable to take any days off. They feel like being on a speeding train that they can’t get off. The limited number of hours in a week makes them feel this way. There are two options for those who feel they don’t have enough time to study effectively.
The first option is to study fewer hours per week to avoid burnout and maintain productivity. Stay productive while you’re studying. If you’re not productive while you’re studying, then you’re not using your time effectively. The concept of “deep rest” is necessary to replenish mental energy. Engage in activities that fill up your energy reserves.
Another option is to extend the study period and postpone the exam date. Make adjustments to your commitments and responsibilities. Temporarily step back from volunteer commitments or you can seek support from family members to lighten the load. Be aware of the downsides of completely discontinuing your volunteer work or clinical experience.
This approach can have negative implications for your medical school applications. Therefore, it’s important to avoid giving the impression that you only participated in these activities to meet requirements and then abruptly ended them. Instead, strive for a balanced approach where your commitment is genuine and sustained.
While prioritizing the MCAT is crucial, be cautious about how you portray your other commitments. Don’t make it seem like they were solely undertaken for the sake of application requirements.'Deep breath is important because you need mental energy in order to focus... you need to build up that energy somehow.'Click To Tweet
[11:51] Evaluating Commitments
Consider taking a step back from your commitments without completely abandoning them. For instance, you could reduce your work shifts or temporarily put club meetings on hold while focusing on the MCAT.
Another option is to push back your exam date or drop certain activities for a limited time, as long as it doesn’t have a significant impact on your overall profile. It’s crucial to strike a balance between your commitments and the MCAT, so don’t abruptly stop activities. Instead, explore alternative solutions. For example, offload non-essential tasks like cleaning or cooking.
Minimizing energy-draining activities can go a long way, so consider delegating or simplifying certain tasks. Balancing time is challenging, but it’s essential to make deliberate choices. Reflect on whether having numerous commitments is causing your time constraints.
[14:24] Effective Preparation: Intentional Planning and Balancing
Being intentional with your time and planning your schedule is important in effective preparation for the MCAT. More often than not, you start the day without a clear idea of where to begin or what tasks to focus on. The free study planner tool from Blueprint MCAT is highly useful.
Creating Your Own Schedule that Fits Your Life
In all these preparations, you should address the application process by incorporating dedicated time for application-related activities. It could be working on your personal statement for an hour. Then allocate for MCAT prep and personal activities like going to the gym and having dinner.
Having a detailed schedule that outlines the tasks for the day allows you to follow the plan without needing to constantly think about it.
Being thoughtful about your schedule, particularly for busy individuals, is important. Tackle tasks that have been put off by dedicating an hour or two a week for those. This could involve working on the personal statement or sending follow-up emails to letter writers.
Writing Down Your Study Plan
Build this in your schedule using a calendar and writing things down. Do not keep everything organized in your mind. It is important to relieve stress and mental effort during MCAT preparation. Outsourcing tasks, writing them down, setting reminders, and reducing background noise help you focus when studying.
Shorter periods of intense work, known as deep work, can be more effective than studying for long stretches with distraction. Work sprints of around 40 minutes followed by short breaks are more productive.
Engage in tasks that promote deeper learning and strategy development. Be motivated and mentally present while studying. Remember, constant studying without breaks or balance can lead to burnout.“You can't study 24/7 Because you will go crazy and you will burn out.”Click To Tweet
[18:36] Recognizing the Signs: Knowing When to Slow Down in Your Test Prep and Application Journey
When to Know You’ve Been Studying Too Much
There are indicators to recognize when studying is becoming too much. In this case, realize the need to slow down and accept to push off testing and application.
For example, about a month out from the scheduled test day, practice scores start to hold significant meaning. If your practice scores are still significantly below your target score (15 points or more) within a month of the exam, it’s time to consider pushing the exam date. Within a 10-point range of your target score, it’s considered acceptable.
As the test day approaches, getting within a few points of the target score consistently is ideal for confidence and security.
The Importance of Self-Check- In’s
Self-check-ins to evaluate readiness for the exam and to prevent burnout is always important. A drop in scores despite extensive studying often indicates burnout. That’s because mental exhaustion hinders critical thinking during the exam. Burnout should also be considered for students facing score plateaus.
Pay attention to how you feel when sitting down to study and check for signs of exhaustion and dread. If positive thinking becomes challenging and dread and exhaustion dominate, it’s time to take a step back and consider a break.“I had a week in my own MCAT prep where I had to take a week off. Because I was getting really burnt out, I just was not being productive anymore.”Click To Tweet
It is a damaging mentality to believe that every moment not spent studying leads to lost points, as it can lead to over-ambition, and ultimately, hinder progress.
Again, check in with yourselves, be honest about your capacity and the impact of excessive studying on your scores, and be willing to reevaluate your approach.