I received a question from a reader about how to handle burnout when preparing for the MCAT. How does one maintain stamina while studying for this important exam? I would like to share with you my tips on what helped me get through those months of preparation. There were certainly moments when I felt exhausted so I knew I had to find ways to attain balance in my life.
Everyone’s situation is different, be it as a student, being employed, having children or other family members to take care of, among other scenarios. Some of the tips below may or may not be applicable to your situation but hopefully there will still be something you can take away from this post that will help you handle those intense months of studying without burning out.
My situation is that I was working full time during my first two takes of the MCAT (in 2005 and 2008) and then on maternity leave during my third take of the MCAT (2015). All these scenarios required effort to maintain balance. Below you will find my suggested tips for keeping your head above water as you prepare for the MCAT:
- Draft a study schedule: On my first two takes of the MCAT, I did not have a clear idea of my study plans. I simply opened books and started reading. The result was that I started to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material and I ended up running out of time towards the end to complete all the material and to practice questions. On my third take, I created a flexible study schedule that gave me an idea of what chapters to study each week. This put me in a good frame of mind knowing that I would eventually cover all the required material and still have time for practice questions.
- Strategic studying: It is tempting to put in hour and hours of studying at a time for the MCAT. I have fallen into that trap and it was not the most efficient because our brains only have so much staying power. I found my recall and grasp of material to be much better when I broke up my studying into blocks of approximately 1-2 hours then took a break for about 15 to 30 minutes. A regular change of pace helps to get the brain back in gear for studying.
- Rotate subject areas: At some point, you may get tired of reading from the same subject area. When I set up my study schedule, I alternated subject areas on each day, for example, Mon-Chemistry, Tue-Biology, Wed-Physics, Thurs-Psychology, and then threw in a verbal reasoning (CARS) passage 1-2 times a week. This kept things somewhat fresh and helped to keep me motivated. Develop a study format that works for you.
- Take care of yourself: Exercising, eating healthily, getting enough sleep and perhaps engaging in one of your favorite hobbies will help you feel more active, physically and mentally strong. Even just a brisk 15 minute walk in the fresh air can do wonders for your frame of mind. Taking the time to pray, meditate and clear your thoughts can also help to renew your focus.
- Take an extended break: Depending on your situation, you may or may not have the luxury of taking a break but if you are starting to feel really burnt out, stop all studying for a few days and if you are using a study schedule, adjust it accordingly. Trying to study at the brink of burn-out may make things worse.
- Be creative with studying: If you are starting to feel a little overwhelmed with how much material there is to cover and you have limited time to study, look at ways to sneak in some additional study time. I listened to Khan Academy videos while washing dishes, cooking or folding laundry. I had flash cards taped to the elliptical in my basement as I exercised, I had flow-charts taped to my bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth. I also always had flashcards in my handbag to whip out if I was out somewhere and I had to wait in line etc. Yes, you may look a tad bit nerdy but you are on a mission to conquer the MCAT!
- Let some things go: As a mother with young children at home, I learned to let some things go so I could focus on my studying. The house was not as clean and tidy as it could have been, the meals I cooked were a bit boring for a while but I kept in mind that all this was temporary and my husband was on board and understood that there were sacrifices to be made.
- Get help if you can: I used to be very poor at delegating and wanted to do everything myself. I learned the hard way that this can lead to burnout in many situations so I enlisted my husband’s help and was very specific about what help I needed. Depending on your situation and your responsibilities, if you can get some help to offset some of the other pressures in your life, this can help you to feel less overwhelmed so you can focus on the MCAT.
- Write or talk about it: Blogging has become a therapeutic way for me to deal with the pressure of the whole medical school application process. I have found a wonderful support group in the blogosphere and I remember receiving many words of encouragement. If you prefer a more personal approach, writing in a journal can also be therapeutic. Talking about your stresses with others can also alleviate some of the pressure and allow friends and family to give you the support you need.
- Be confident: Recognize the person that you are, an individual full of potential who has made this important decision to pursue a noble calling. The MCAT is certainly an important exam but take some of the pressure off of yourself by realizing that there is more to you than the MCAT. You have unique life experiences to bring to the table and the MCAT is not the end of your story! Be confident in your overall ability and uniqueness!
Don’t give up! You may be feeling fed-up and frustrated with preparing for the MCAT but you will overcome it. Be confident and stay positive! You can do it!