As if studying for a good MCAT score and applying to medical school wasn’t stressful enough, 2020 has added even more stress and uncertainty to the process. Whether your MCAT is in a week, a month, or not until 2021, this list of tips will help increase your confidence when test day finally comes.
So why exactly am I giving you tips not related to studying? Studying is definitely the main thing you do to ensure a great MCAT score but it’s not the only thing you should do. Like the title suggests, the purpose of this post is to help you feel more confident on test day. I prepared in many ways besides studying to make sure I showed up to the right place, had time to eat despite the shortened breaks, and had zero anxiety the morning of my exam as far as getting out the door on time and making sure I had a good breakfast (my exam was at 6:30 am).
First let’s start with a quick recap of the changes to the MCAT exam for 2020. Altius test prep has a really good visual and more detailed explanation.
- Exam length is shortened to 5 hrs and 45 minutes
- The shortened exam means there are less questions per section and the 2nd optional lunch break (which used to be 30 minutes) is now only 10 minutes
- There is no tutorial in the beginning which means you have to use your practice exams to learn how to use test features (highlight, strike out, etc.)
- The traditional 8 am start time is gone. The new options are 6:30 am, 12:15 pm, or 6:00 pm
- Scores for all the MCAT exams taken for the rest of 2020 will get there scores back in about two weeks (compared to about four)
Before we talk about what I did for my exam, keep in mind that 1) everyone is different so the things that I chose to focus on leading up to my test may be totally different than what would work for you. Take all my suggestions with a grain of salt and only use them if you know you will benefit from it and 2) whether you choose to try none or all of these tips please remember you don’t have to do it perfectly! These tips are meant to ease your stress, not add more. Be flexible with yourself when things don’t go as planned.
If you are…
More than a week from test day
1. Consider taking a shortened practice exam to simulate the new format
Breakdown for timing – Shortened vs Old Exam:
1.58 vs 1.61 minutes per question for all three science sections (including reading the passage)
1.688 vs 1.698 minutes per question for CARS (including reading the passage)
Pros: You have slightly less time per question and if that stresses you out then there are already plenty of options to get your hands on a shortened practice exam!
- You may already have purchased practice exams before they shortened exams. If so, companies like Next Step Test Prep created shortened versions and if you haven’t received any info on switching what you purchased to the shortened version you can email them. I don’t know about other companies, but Next Step Test Prep will most likely give you the option to practice the shortened version without paying extra.
- You can buy 4 shortened exams for $99 from Next Step (now called Blueprint MCAT).
- If you don’t want to spend money Altius, Kaplan, and MCAT-prep all offer a free shortened practice exam.
Cons: Students typically prefer to use only AAMC material the last 4-6 weeks leading up to their test date. Unfortunately, AAMC practice exams have not been changed to represent the shortened version. So you either have to squeeze in an additional test (which may actually be easy if your exam was rescheduled to a much later date) OR you may only have two weeks until your test and adding another practice exam would make you too burnt out. The latter was the scenario I was in. I chose not to add a shortened exam to my study schedule and just be extra mindful about timing for my last practice exam. (Optional: explain what I right down timing wise)
2. Take your last practice exam with a mask on
If you’re already a nurse and you’ve had to wear a mask for an entire 12 hour shift then I don’t really think this is necessary. For me I decided to do this because although I do wear a mask a lot working as an EMT, I had never worn one for longer than an hour. Plus, I read a post that someone posted in a premed FB group I’m in and she said after a few hours the straps make your ears hurt really bad. I didn’t think that would happen with the typical surgical mask I was used to wearing, but I didn’t want to find out I was wrong on test day and be in discomfort.
If you find that this is a problem for you, then you can try elastic or adjustable ear savers! Once again though, don’t try something out for the first time on test day! If you have taken all your full lengths already then just wear it around the house for a few hours and make sure it’s easy to remove and put back on. You will have to take it off to eat or drink water during your 10 minute break so it needs to be easy to quickly put back on or at least allow you to pull it down to your chin to eat so you can just slide it back up.
1 week from test day
3. Plan out the details of test day
I love to plan. I’m also very visual so I don’t just think of a plan in my head, I write it down in my planner. Below is how I decided to plan my morning, but like I said, plan whatever works best for you.
5 AM: wake up & get dressed (clothes laid out the night before)
Breakfast: my boyfriend made me scrambled eggs while I made my coffee and warmed up my overnight oats
Pack lunch: I had a list in my lunch box so I didn’t forget to add two boiled eggs, a small milk, and a cheese stick
5:45 AM: leave the house to get to testing center by 6 AM (I put a post it in my car to make sure I didn’t forget my ID, lunch, and my mask)
Speaking of masks, the testing center does not provide them! I put a few masks in my car a couple days ahead of time so I didn’t have to worry about leaving them at the house. If you don’t want to order surgical masks (because of shortages) Etsy has soooo many options. You can find super cute (and cheap) ones, or spend a little more and they have some that don’t even have to wrap behind your ears like these. Just make sure to order them early!
4. Make it a routine for the next 5 days
Okay, so I’m totally aware that some of you might have class, work, kids, and many other life factors that would prevent you from changing your routine for a whole 5 days. The same concept applies though if you are able to maybe do it two or three days.
I had a Friday exam so the Saturday before, I started to wake up at 5 am everyday. On Sunday, I went grocery shopping and got everything I needed for the week and on test day. Thursday, the day before my exam, I did a total run through of how I wanted my morning to go. I ate breakfast, had coffee, packed my lunch, and drove to my testing center by 6 am. Doing this allowed me to be anxiety free the morning of my real test date. I knew I had plenty of time, knew where I needed to go, and knew I would wake up well rested despite the early time. It is also smart to read the MCAT essentials document provided by AAMC so you know exactly what you need to bring, what you aren’t allowed to bring, to learn the check-in procedures, etc.
5. Average 8 hours of sleep the week of your exam
This is a hard one if:
1. Life is busy and you’re normally lucky to get 6 hours of sleep per night.
2. Your exam time doesn’t line up with your current sleeping schedule.
If you are used to going to bed at midnight and waking up at 8 pm then that’s great that you’re getting a good amount of sleep, but if you do that up until the day before your exam, then all of a sudden try to go to bed at 8 pm and wake up at 5 am for your 6:30 am exam 1) it’s going to be nearly impossible to fall asleep and 2) you are going to feel like a straight up zombie because your body is not used to waking up that early! That’s definitely not how you want to feel when you start your test so just plan your sleep schedule accordingly so you feel awake and well rested if you’re taking the morning exam.
On the flip side, if you love your sleep and are always in bed by 9 pm, you will definitely need to adjust if you are registered for the 6 pm exam. A week before your exam it would probably be ideal to start staying up until at least midnight since you will be testing until 11:45 pm.
6. Decide what snacks you want to eat during breaks
All the optional breaks are 10 minutes long for the shortened version of the exam.
The process: If you decide to take a break, you have to raise your hand and wait for someone to walk up and escort you out, then you stop at their desk to show your ID, scan your palm, pull out your pockets, and pat down your waist and legs. After that you can go to your locker for food or run to the bathroom. When you’re done you have to do the exact same process over again then they will escort you back to your seat.
The point is, if you are like me and skipping breaks would make you too ravenous to function, you should pick snacks that are filling but quick to eat. Boiled eggs and milk worked perfect for me! I had plenty of time to snack and go to the bathroom for all three breaks despite the check out and check in process.
7. Talk to your roommates/SO/friends
Roommates: If your roommates don’t know that you have to wake up at 4 am on a Saturday for your MCAT exam that could cause easily avoidable stress. The last thing you want is for them to have people over the Friday night before your test and you can’t fall asleep because they are drinking and playing games in the living room. If you have a good relationship with your roommates just politely let them know that you would appreciate a quiet night before your test!
Friends: Maybe you don’t have a car and would love a ride the day of your MCAT exam. Ask in advance if their schedule allows them to give you a ride. That way you won’t have to rely on the bus or Uber the morning of your exam. Just be considerate and don’t ask the last minute!
Significant other: A week before my exam I asked my boyfriend if he would make breakfast for me the morning of my test. It was nice because I wanted to leave the house by 5:45 am, but really didn’t want to wake up earlier than 5 am! Since he woke up with me and made my eggs while I got everything else ready, I got to sleep until 5 am and had plenty of time without having to rush. So ask your SO for whatever you need and they will be more than happy to help! Ask them in advance and keep reminding them if they are super forgetful like my boyfriend!
8. Drive to your testing center
You don’t want to have to worry that you wan’t be able to find the correct building on test day. The building I went to was in a parking lot with four similar buildings and it wasn’t super obvious where exactly to go. Also, there is always a chance that your maps will take you to a location across the street or to the wrong parking lot. Just eliminate that variable and drive to your testing center before test day!
9. Take the day off from studying
If possible I would highly recommend doing this at least the day before your test. Maybe you have to request off without pay or pay someone to cover your shift. This might make money tight and I understand that is tough. Just remember that this test is important to you and you have probably sacrificed a lot of time, money, and effort already to hopefully achieve your goal MCAT score. I know first hand how much hard work that takes so believe me when I say you deserve to be set up for success. Worry about the money later and take the day before your exam off! If that’s just not possible for you, that’s okay! Just do whatever else you can to be prepared!
Congrats, you are now ready to crush you MCAT exam!
Being prepared = confidence
Don’t let all the studying you have been doing go to waste by not being prepared for the big day. Read my other post about what I learned after taking the shortened exam here.
Save this post, share with your friends who are taking their exam soon, and comment below if you plan to try some of these tips. I wish you the best of luck on your upcoming MCAT exam!