Managing stress is crucial not only for success on the MCAT but also for the long and demanding career in medicine that follows. Learn how to effectively study for the exam while maintaining your mental and physical well-being.
Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
Stress and the MCAT
Stress and MCAT prep often come hand in hand, creating a challenging journey for pre-med students. From the stress of being a premed, applying to medical school, and navigating through medical school itself, stress seems to be a constant companion. However, it is important to recognize that some level of stress may be necessary for success on the MCAT.
“Managing stress is not just important for the MCAT and your success, but just generally for the long term.”
While medical school is demanding with constant studying and a busy schedule, developing the ability to manage stress is an extremely valuable skill.
Being able to effectively cope with pressure was a frequent topic raised during their medical school interviews. Therefore, practice stress management techniques while preparing for the MCAT. This might help you feel well-equipped to discuss their strategies if asked a similar question during your interviews.
Finding the Right Amount of Stress for MCAT Prep
Achieving the ideal level of stress during MCAT preparation can be a delicate balancing act. On one hand, if you’re not feeling stressed at all, it may indicate a lack of investment and effort in your studies. Conversely, excessive stress can lead to burnout or feeling overwhelmed to the point of being unable to make progress.
“If you’re not stressed enough, then maybe you’re not necessarily caring enough and maybe not putting in enough effort to study. If you’re too stressed, that’s also bad.”
It is crucial to recognize that a certain degree of stress is appropriate for such an important test, like the MCAT, which plays a significant role in your medical school aspirations.
However, it is equally important to ensure that stress does not hinder your ability to study effectively or impede your progress. Striving for the right amount of stress can help motivate and drive you towards success while maintaining a healthy balance in your preparation journey.
Effective Stress Management Strategies for MCAT Preparation
Managing stress is likely a more realistic and achievable goal for students preparing for the MCAT compared to completely avoiding stress.
Incorporate stress relief activities into long-term MCATpreparation.
Some effective strategies for managing stress include taking at least one day per week to avoid any MCAT-related activities that allow you to fully relax the mind, exercising regularly, and spending time with non-medical friends.
“If you’re trying to take breaks from the MCAT… If your headspace is occupied by the MCAT or if you’re thinking about it, it’s not a break.”
Set clear boundaries.
It’s also helpful to communicate clear boundaries with others about study and break times. Learn breathing exercises to help calm nerves both during preparation and on test day. The key is finding a balance with some stress to stay motivated, while not allowing anxiety to reach levels that hinder performance.
Treat this as a sprint, not a marathon.
It can be difficult to convince someone studying for the MCAT to make time for stress-relieving activities like hobbies, socializing and self-care. However, Zasca emphasizes that the MCAT preparation period is a marathon, not a sprint. Therefore, taking breaks is essential to avoid burnout that could negatively impact performance.
“The MCAT is a marathon and not a sprint.”
Rethinking Stress Management
It’s important to frame stress management techniques as an important part of effective long-term studying, rather than something that takes away from study time. Students may be more receptive to incorporating recharging activities that can boost mental well-being and focus over the months of preparation leading up to test day.
Studying for the MCAT is often a time-consuming process, ranging from two and a half to six months or even longer based on individual circumstances.
With such an extended duration, prioritizing stress management becomes crucial. Failing to actively address and manage stress can easily lead to burnout, jeopardizing your ability to reach the finish line. The ultimate goal is to approach test day with confidence, able to sit down at the testing center and perform at your best.
Without proactive stress management, this outcome may remain elusive. Hence, taking an active role in managing stress throughout the lengthy MCAT preparation journey is essential for optimal success.
Creative Ways to Manage Stress
Here are some creative ways to help manage stress during MCAT preparation:
– Designate one day per week for complete mental relaxation away from any MCAT-related thoughts or activities. Pursue hobbies, spend time with non-medical friends, etc.
– Incorporate physical exercise like running, lifting weights, or taking an exercise class. Moving the body can work out stress and boost mental clarity.
– Schedule relaxing meals out with friends and family, but communicate clear boundaries to avoid MCAT discussions dominating the time.
– Practice breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques to calm nerves both during studying and on test day if anxiety strikes.
– Get outdoors in nature to disconnect from screens and textbooks. Activities like hiking or simply being in a park can reset the mind.
– Pursue stress-relieving creative outlets like playing an instrument, drawing, cooking or other arts. Finding an escape boosts mental wellness.
Giving Yourself Permission to Step Away
It can be difficult to truly relax and shut off intrusive MCAT thoughts, even during designated break times. Some strategies include:
Spend time with non-medical friends who are less likely to steer conversations back to test topics.
Take a complete break from studying, where the MCAT isn’t even considered. This will help give the mind full permission to unwind.
Set clear boundaries and expectations with peers. Communicating an inability to discuss or think about the exam, may further facilitate relaxing without guilt over “wasted” time away from books.
Learn to say no. Prioritizing one’s mental health is an important stress management skill that allows for meaningful downtime to recharge and prevent burnout.
“Especially with people who may not like necessarily understand how much time commitment you need to put into this stuff, sometimes you need to be super clear.”
Ultimately, when you’re doing your MCAT, it’s important to enjoy yourself in moderation. But you need to be smart about like planning these things in advance and making sure that you’re not going too overboard as well.
Conquering Test Day Jitters: Last Minute Tips for Managing MCAT Stress
On test day, it’s important to prioritize stress relief to optimize performance. Here are some valuable tips to consider:
Practice breathing exercises: Incorporate deep breathing techniques to lower heart rate and anxiety levels during the exam. This simple practice can enhance focus and calm the mind.
Trust your preparation: Remember that feeling nervous is normal, but have confidence in the extensive preparation you’ve undertaken through practice exams. Trust that the skills and strategies you’ve developed will translate into success on test day.
“You really are never going to know everything that you need to know going into the MCAT. And that’s okay.”
Handle unexpected questions: If an unexpected question causes panic, use flagging techniques and swiftly move on without getting caught in a spiral. Remember that most of the test can still be completed successfully.
Maintain routine: Stick closely to your usual routines and avoid introducing new variables that may add unnecessary pressure, such as excess caffeine. Keeping conditions similar to your practice sessions can help create a sense of familiarity and ease.
Perspective is key: Remind yourself that the test is just one step in the larger process. Managing nerves demonstrates maturity, which is a valuable trait in the field of medicine. Your overall performance reflects your mastery over test anxiety.
By implementing these stress-relieving tips on test day, you can foster a calm and focused mindset that will contribute to your success.
Calming Down in the Moment: Tips for Managing On-Test Anxiety
If anxiety strikes during the real MCAT, breathing exercises can help lower a racing heart rate or reduce hyperventilation in the moment. Taking deep breaths through the nose and slowly exhaling through the mouth can induce the body’s relaxation response.
It’s also important not to dwell on difficult questions, as this can compound stress. Tell yourself “I don’t need to know everything” and quickly move on. Focus on applying test-taking strategies to remaining questions within your control.
Remember your extensive practice and trust your preparation. You have proven your abilities already. Anxiety is a natural reaction but does not define your capabilities. With practice, even unexpected questions can be managed.