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When to write the MCAT

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on and do not possess insider information on the MCAT or on medical school admissions. This is only based on my personal experience.  I am merely provide some opinion that might help out a fellow premed out there. 
 
A highly motivated reader sent in a question on when to write the MCAT.  This is a follow-up to my original post: How to study for the MCAT
 Many people I know have written it first or second week of August, and I was planning to do so. I did notice on your blog, that you suggested earlier times, such as the last week of July. Is there a reason that you took it in July, and even recommend June over August?  (Thank you and credits to the reader who asked this question.)
 
First of all, since you're a second year,  are you applying for medicine at the beginning of third year? And if so, are you planning to apply to UBC med exclusively? Or will you also be applying to Toronto, MacMaster, etc? If you're not applying until 4th year, then August anytime is fine. It won't really matter to you when you write it because you'll have your MCAT score report well before you apply. Study burn-out can still be a problem that applies to you.
 
If you are applying in third year, then there are several reasons why you might want to write the MCAT earlier than in August.
 
  1. It takes a month to get your score back.  Knowing your score before working on your applications can save you a lot of money and time that you can instead spend on just your top choice schools.  For example, if your CARS is not higher than 128, UCalgary Medical School and U Alberta explicitly do not accept out of province applicants with a CARS score lower than 128 (for proof see https://www.ucalgary.ca/mdprogram/files/mdprogram/applicant-manual-2017-2018-final.pdf ). On the other hand, if you have a highly competitive score, then you may feel more comfortable investing the money in applying to multiple schools.
  2. There can be an accident at the testing center that may require you to rewrite. I heard of this actually happening in the form of a power outage (the MCAT is computer based). What if you can't get a test date early enough to meet your application deadlines?
  3. Filling in your medical school applications take a lot of time. There is a lot of work to do for your applications that can't be finished in just 2 weeks at the end of August. - Well technically, it can be done but it would be much stressful than if you had a greater amount of time to work on them. This is the key reasons that I sometimes wish that I wrote my MCAT in June rather than in July. If you're exclusively applying to one school e.g. UBC Med, then this is less of an issue since you won't need to spread out your time among multiple applications. 
  4. Study burn-out is a big problem. I think studying too long for the MCAT can be a bad idea. If you're just too sick and tired of studying for so many months and have trouble focusing/feeling motivated, your score might go down. You also start to forget material that you learned early in your study regime. This is similar to the experience of trying to remember something you learned all the way back in September when you're studying for December finals. 
  5. The law of diminishing returns applies here. If you study for longer than what is sufficient, you might only see a slight improvement or no improvement at all. Most of us hit a plateau when studying for the MCAT and it may be an unwise investment of time to studying for a whole extra month just for a 1 point improvement.
  6. You want time to relax before school begins. Imagine studying intensely for the MCAT and then starting school without any time to rest and recharge. You don't want to start your semester off on the wrong foot!  If you are a nontraditional applicant, this likely does not matter to you.
Take my advice with a grain of salt because picking your MCAT date ultimately depends on your personal preferences and what will happening in your life at that time. But in conclusion, if you are a second year intending to apply to medicine in third year, then the earlier you can write your test the better.
 
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How to study for the MCAT

 When should I take the MCAT? How long should I study for the MCAT? How do I study for the MCAT? What courses should I take to prepare for the MCAT? How do I stay motivated to study for the MCAT?
 
While preparing for the MCAT, I relied on blog posts like this to plan how to study and so  this is how I will give back 🙂
 
Start with a positive attitude towards the MCAT
My GPA isn't a 4.0 so I treated the MCAT as a great chance to prove that my academic abilities to medical schools. The MCAT was a gift, rather an obstacle, that I was grateful for. Though there were definitely times I wished I was out hiking in the glorious weather, I still enjoyed studying for the MCAT overall.  There are a ton of reasons why I enjoy studying for the MCAT, including the fact that my learning is all self-directed and the content and questions are genuinely interesting, and I got to make a new friend/study buddy! It was important to set a good mindset for  my studying - make studying for the MCAT is fun and nothing to dread. 
When should I write the MCAT? 
I wrote my test on July 28th after my second year.  That said, if you don't have heavy travel in May and then work full-time like I did, I highly recommend picking June 30th. A June 30th date would allow you to get your score back before you start writing your medical school applications and so you know which schools are you competitive for. For example, if your CARS score is lower than 130, you might decide not to apply to Alberta, Calgary and McMaster.
 
The first reason I chose to write after my second year because I freshly completed course content tested on the MCAT including physics, biochemistry, psychology and sociology.  The second reason is that I wanted to try applying to medical school in my third year, which may or may not be what you want to do - the pros and cons of that choice would need a post of their own.
 How should I study? 
I studied intensely for 2.5 months. I started doing practice questions 2.5 months before my test. The start of content review is technically winter break of second year when I made a first pass through the Psychology /Sociology content review.  Studying for my university courses was doubled as studying for the MCAT since most of my courses were topics tested on the MCAT.
 
Try to avoid taking the test more than once. There is a popular suggestion on the forums to test without studying at all or only studying for a couple weeks just to "get a feel of the test" and then re-taking the test. I think you should just do once but do it right. Here's why:
  1. It is very expensive  as it costs ~$490 to write the MCAT each time.
  2. It can un-demotivating to write a test when you feel unprepared and come out with a score you are not happy with.
  3. You can't erase a bad score from your records and some schools look at all your scores regardless of a better score on a later re-write.  
Do a practice full-length before you register for your exam date.
In January or February if you're aiming to test in the summer.  I think it’s important to get a feel for the exam early on rather than wait until you’ve finished all your content review first before taking an exam. 
 
Don't Push Back Your Exam Date I think burnout would have unavoidable if I studied any longer. Three people I knew pushed their test date back and all did not feel a substantial benefit to their studying. You might procrastinate more if you tell yourself that if that if you're not ready, you can just push back your date. Choose wisely and stick to it.
 
How do I stay motivated?
Staying motivated to focus for hours that is hard. I honestly believe that it was really important that I kept having a lot of fun during my months I was studying for the MCAT! I want to emphasize it is not the actual content review or the questions that are. Your biggest hurdle is to keep yourself studying hour after hour, day after day, week after week.
 
My one piece of unconventional advice is make fun plans for your time off from studying. You can still see your family/friends/significant other and do things you love if you wake up before everyone else and get a chunk of studying done.
 
It's possible to travel while studying for the MCAT if you want to. Early in my studying, I travelled for a research conference. During off times, I was completing my target number of practice questions while lounging by blue water before going to the conference BBQ with my co-workers. I extended my travels to shadow a physician in another city and visit a friend. I kept my priorities in line and said no to nights out in order to study (and to be alert for shadowing) but I still got to fit in sight seeing and quality time with my friend.
 
When I was back to work at home in Vancouver, I still had spent time with my grandpa and brother and rest of family, was there for friends who needed me, did things I enjoyed and slept a decent amount. I don't like the popular premed saying, "You can only pick two: Enough studying - social life - sleep". Yes, you do have to say to fun plans quite a bit but if you're budgeting your time right, you should be able to block out the time to relax. Go do all the fun things a summer ought to include, which is critical for warding off burn out!!

 

 Balancing work and studying
 I'm glad that I had a conversation with my supervisors know about my careers goals and the MCAT, and was then able to adjust my schedule so that I would be able to do a practice test at 8 am each week. I was originally afraid having such a conversation would seem like I had poor work ethic but in fact it was not seen as a big deal at all. So, don't be afraid to ask for what is needed!Balancing other obligations with the amount of studying. Even though during the year, I, like every other student, juggle multiple commitments but in the end, I am a full time student with dedicated time to attend class and learn. Studying for the MCAT was more challenging because in the summer, I wedged studying in pockets of time when I wasn't working at my job. I now have a much deeper respect for individuals that work full time and work towards a degree on the side – if that’s you, you’re incredible! It’s totally do-able but not a walk in the park!
 
Exam Day
I felt totally calm and not nervous at all on my exam day. If you think of all intense studying you have behind you, you too will feel invincible against the MCAT. One of the exam centre representatives cracked jokes with me so I got a good laugh or at least a smile before I started and at every break. I actually expected to score lower from my practice scores but was pleasantly surprised. I think I was more positive and calm mood the day of the MCAT than during my practice tests and that made a big difference!
What I want to tell discouraged studiers
I know you're going through periods of ups and downs of motivation. I personally felt down when I got lots of questions wrong.  I did question whether I was "smart enough" to be suitable for medical school a good number of times, and I regret wasting time on a thought like that.
 
So, don't beat yourself up over the down periods when you felt like you made so little progress during your study session. Don't beat yourself up too much if you get distracted. It's natural to be imperfect. Sometimes you will get distracted. Sometimes you will fall behind. If you're getting distracted, it actually means you need to go take a break instead of pushing yourself to exhaustion!
 
 When you don’t do as well you would like on tests or feel unmotivated to study, remind yourself of the reasons that you are pursuing your dream of medical school. When you are struggling, don't be afraid to talk out your feelings with the incredible and loving people that have and are putting their support behind you.
 
To the next MCAT writer, you believe in you!
Shanna
 
 
 
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How to prevent procrastination

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It’s difficult to totally stop procrastination but there are things we can do to devote our time to more important things than endless social media.

In this post, read about:

  • A surprising reason why overachievers may procrastinate
  • Realistic steps you can take to change your mindset and environment to optimize focus
  • Specific programs and techniques to prevent social media distractions on your phone and computer
Photo credits to KushandWisdom

You are not a terrible lazy person if you procrastinate. You are a perfectly normal person trying to do the best you can and you are not perfect all the time.

I attended a Procrastination Masterclass for Perfectionists held by Sam Brown who proposed that you might be procrastinating because you are a type A high achiever that has high standards for yourself and you’re working hard towards ambitious goals.

Reasons we might procrastinate on studying are:

  • We set standards too high and unrealistic for ourselves e.g. we expect to be studying every single minute for 12 hours straight.
  • Doing things other than studying seems more appealing and interesting
  • We feel lost and confused because the material is challenging and intimidating
  • We feel frustrated
  • Other negative emotions

According to Sam, avoiding studying and relying on cramming is a form of self-sabatoge. You’re afraid that you try your hardest and you fail. So instead, you procrastinate so if you do fail, you have an excuse to tell yourself e.g. “Oh I didn’t spend enough time studying”. Essentially, you know that you didn’t try your hardest so it feels acceptable that you failed because you can believe that if you did try your hardest, you would have succeeded.

We value decent grades and learning the material in courses well so we don’t want to self-sabotage. We want to truly put in the best effort we can and produce the best output possible.  So let’s try to implement some barriers to decrease the amount of time spent procrastinating. Notice that I said decrease not eliminate.

What changes to your study routine can boost your focus?
  1. Keep your big goals in mind. These could be: ace this final, get a good GPA, get into your dream professional or graduate school. And write out your big goals by hand often to remind yourself about what is important to you!
  2. Decide on the 2-3 important goals you will accomplish today. As a student, I only study 2-3 subjects a day rather than try to study for all 6 of my classes on the same day.
  3. Start with something short, easy and productive to feel good at the beginning of the day. I personally find that starting with something extremely difficult can deflate your motivation while starting with something doable can fire you up to accomplish more.
  4. Surround yourself with a motivated study buddy. Ask a friend to study with you to motivate each other to get lots done.
  5. Study outside of your room when you feel distractible. I personally love to study at school but coffee shops or your dorm’s lounge area are other options.
  6. Recognize what distracts you and set up barriers to accessing those distractions.
What barriers can you set up to prevent access to distractions?
  1. Block distractions on your phone using the app Freedom (http://bit.ly/2BnkHhg)
  2. Only open 2-3 programs at a time
  3. For computer distractions, install the Self-Control app for Macs and Cold Turkey or Stay Focused for PCs. Block Tumblr/Instagram/Facebook/and other distracting websites. But learn from my mistake, don’t disable Youtube or you’ll unable to watch videos posted by your professors.
  4. Kept your phone hidden in your backpack rather than up on the desk.
  5. Delete excess social media apps. You can keep the most important one or two to you but definitely delete apps that drain hours of your time that you could instead use to spend quality breaks with your friends and family.

Let me know which ones you like and any suggestions you have!

Hope your studying is awesome and you can achieve your target grade for your next exam!

Shanna