Ten Strategies to Avoid Burnout While Preparing for the MCAT

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!

Related post: How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

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How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me for some tips to prepare for the MCAT. I would be happy to share the techniques I used and in particular what I learned from having sat it 3 times over a period of 10 years! I didn’t feel my scores on the first two attempts were competitive enough for medical school and hence my decision to take it a third time. The retakes are so far apart in time because of some unexpected life circumstances and our decision to start a family before medical school. I was very happy with my final scores from my 3rd attempt which are a definite improvement compared to the first two attempts.

Take 1, 2005: Score 27P

  • Study duration: Approximately 3 months during the summer (while working full time) after I graduated from university.
  • Resources: Examkrackers (EK) and Princeton Review (PR)
  • Strategy: Content review and practice questions from EK and PR.
  • Lessons learned: I focused too much on content review, memorization and not enough on understanding the concepts and practicing questions. I did not have very good test-taking skills and ended up running out of time on the exam, leaving several questions unanswered. I also had not practiced the writing section much.

Take 2, 2008: Score 28S

  • Study duration: Approximately 3 months while working full-time.
  • Resources: Examkrackers (EK) and Princeton Review (PR)
  • Strategy: Content review and practice questions from EK and PR, 2 full-length AAMC exams. I also did a writing sample question every lunch-time at work.
  • Lessons learned: My strategy had not really changed much from the first time around aside from the full-length exams and working on the writing sample. Although the writing section is now obsolete, my point in mentioning this is that regular practice improved my writing score from a P to an S (the highest you could get is a T).

Take 3, 2015: Score 512 (roughly translates to a 34-35 on the old MCAT grading system)

  • Study duration: Approximately 4 months of informal reading (it was something to do while breastfeeding and changing diapers around the clock!) and then 4 months of serious preparation while on maternity leave with baby number 2 (at least 15-20 hours per week during those last 4 months)
  • Resources: Khan Academy, Examkrackers (EK), 101 passages in MCAT Verbal reasoning, Examkrackers 1001 questions in MCAT series (Chemistry, Physics, Biology), AAMC online official guide (120 questions), AAMC question pack (720 questions), 2 AAMC full-length exams (old MCAT version), 1 AAMC full-length exam (new MCAT version),
  • Strategy: Since my score had not improved significantly the second time around, I knew I needed to revamp my entire approach to the MCAT. I first combed the internet for various tips on preparing for the MCAT and the general principle I found was understanding the fundamental concepts rather than rote memorization, and then…PRACTICE!PRACTICE! PRACTICE !

Take Home Lessons:

During my 4 months of concrete MCAT preparation, this was my approach:

  • I drafted a study schedule for the entire 4 months leading up to the exam. I think this step is key because although it can be difficult to know how long each chapter will take, you need some idea of what you are going to study when so that you do not run out of time at the end, especially since the latter months are crucial for practicing questions.
  • I spent the first two months studying. I would read a chapter for leisure as if I was reading a book and then re-read the same chapter and answer the questions at the end of the chapter to make sure I understood the principles. This was also the period when I prepared flash cards, formula sheets and other short notes. The material to study for the MCAT is voluminous so I wanted to narrow the concepts down to something I could leaf through fairly quickly during my final review.
  • During the first two months, I would also listen to Khan Academy videos while performing other tasks. It can be an efficient way to study if you have to commute, do house chores, breastfeed etc.
  • During the last two months, I mostly practiced questions and noted down any problem areas to be reviewed later. I also wrote down some of the questions I had gotten wrong so that I could attempt them again later. I also reviewed flashcards periodically to refresh my memory.
  • Key point when practicing questions: I would time myself strictly. Whatever set of questions I was doing, I had the goal of completing it in 1-2 minutes. If you calculate the number of questions on each section of the actual MCAT (53-59 questions) and the time you have to do it (90-95 minutes), you really only have 1-2 minutes to answer each question (some will take longer, some less).
  • The AAMC practice resources were critical to building my confidence because I became so familiar with the MCAT testing environment that I did not feel intimidated on exam day.

I hope this post has been helpful to any aspiring doctors planning to take the MCAT. There are many approaches to prepare for the MCAT. This is just what worked for me (the third time around, that is!). In a subsequent post, I will provide strategies for you to be at your best on exam day. Happy studying and good luck!

Additional reading: MCAT 2015: Is 508 the new 30?

Image courtesy of anankkml at freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of anankkml at freedigitalphotos.net

Exam Results Are In…The MCAT Has Been Conquered!

The MCAT is an exam that many aspiring doctors have to take in in order to apply to medical school. It is a brutal, almost 7-hour long exam that requires months of preparation and studying. I sat the exam on August 5th and after weeks of waiting for my MCAT results, my scores finally came out today. I am thrilled, excited, relieved and grateful to announce that it went well!

It was a very special moment when I logged into my account to check my scores. My husband was standing beside me at the computer, my children were scrambling around on my lap trying to get a good view of the screen, with my son Caleb shouting enthusiastically, “I want to see mummy’s exam! I want to see mummy’s exam!”

Family members and friends had been praying for this moment. My brother Jonathan had been texting me over the course of the day with funny messages like “drama…suspense…on tenterhooks” as we all eagerly awaited the results. I had decided in my mind before viewing the results that whatever the scores were, I had done my best, I had studied hard and I had given it to God.

This was not the first time I had done this exam. It was actually the third time. The previous two times (in 2005 and 2008), I had a very difficult time with the verbal reasoning section. At the time, I didn’t think my MCAT results were competitive enough to apply to medical school so I decided not to apply. There were moments I felt like giving up on this exam, felt like giving up on medical school altogether.

I am so fortunate to have family and friends who believe in me and who did not give up on me. In fact, they did not allow me to give up on my dream. I remember my husband cornering me in the kitchen one day and asking me if I was sure I didn’t want to do medicine anymore. He didn’t want me to have any regrets. My brother Jonathan also kept encouraging me not to give up and motivated me to keep going. So I revamped my study methods, focused on doing many more practice questions and developed better test-taking strategies than on my previous attempts of the MCAT.

My support networks have been so instrumental in allowing me to focus on my med school dream. I remember countless nights of my husband washing the dishes and helping out around the house while I studied for the MCAT (although he confessed he was happy when the MCAT was over and I was back to cooking more interesting meals than chicken, potatoes and peas almost every night!).

It’s hard to believe that 10 years after my first attempt at the MCAT (back when it was still the paper version), it has finally been conquered! I am ecstatic! I owe it all to my wonderful support networks and to the strength God has given me to keep going and to be confident in my ability. The MCAT used to intimidate me. This time around, when I walked into the exam room, I knew I was going to beat it. I am excited to keep going with the medical school application process. It’s a long process but I’m motivated!!

Whatever dream you may be following, keep at it! You may stumble a few times, you may want to give up, you may wonder if you can really succeed. I believe you can succeed. In fact, I know you can. Be confident, don’t be afraid to fail a few times before that final success comes your way. It will be worth the effort and it will prepare you for even bigger challenges ahead!

Here is the break down of my MCAT results:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems: Score 129; Percentile rank of score: 93%
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills: Score 128; Percentile rank of score: 90%
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems: Score 128; Percentile rank of score: 87%
  • Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior: Score 127; Percentile rank of score: 78%
  • Total MCAT Score: 512; Percentile rank of score: 88%

For tips on how to excel on the MCAT, particularly if you are retaking the exam, read my post How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes.

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MCAT conquered!!! So happy with my results!

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Conquering the MCAT…and Dealing with the Loss of a Loved One

Today, I received the very sad news that one of my beloved uncles from Scotland (my mother’s brother) has passed away following a period of illness. I am trying to process the news and come to terms with it. I spoke to my mum in Kenya and one of my brothers in the States and it was good to cry and reminisce about the wonderful memories we have of my uncle. Even though I am a whirlwind of emotions right now, my brother Jonathan gave me a great talk on focusing on my MCAT tomorrow and we will talk further and grieve as we need to after the exam is done. Jonathan reminded me that my uncle would be very proud of me and want me to give the exam everything I’ve got. I am dedicating the exam to him as I remember that I am fighting for a dream that will help to heal people who are sick and suffering.

I have done my best to prepare for the exam. And now…it’s in God’s hands. I trust in him for the best outcome and for his comfort and healing during this difficult time.

Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Thank you to all my friends, family and blog readers who have been so encouraging and supportive. A special thank you to my husband who has been holding the fort and helping out with housework and watching the kids while I studied. You have been so awesome!

If you could all keep me in your prayers tomorrow, that I may be calm, focused, and that I will excel, I would really appreciate it. To all those doing this important exam…you can do it! Stay positive!

In honor of my Uncle Alan (top second from the right). This picture was taken in Kenya in 2007 when Uncle Alan visited from the UK to celebrate our wedding with us.
In honor of my Uncle Alan (top second from the right). This picture was taken in Kenya in 2007 when Uncle Alan visited from the UK to celebrate our wedding with us.