Choosing an MCAT Test Date: Part 1

One of the more common questions I see from students is, “When should I take the MCAT?” Most pre-meds have heard horror stories from their older peers about the exam, and have a rough idea that the test should be taken sometime in their Junior year. However, I often find that students are either misinformed about or flat-out missing key information that shapes the answer to this question. With the announcement of the 2012 MCAT test dates last week, now is the perfect time to consider your unique situation and ensure that you’re crafting a plan that will put you in the best position for test day success. Here are a few crucial questions that will help you find the proper approach to the MCAT:

What time of year should I take the exam?

Each year the MCAT is offered in roughly 28 different administrations, spread across four different “testing windows”: the Winter (late January), the Spring (March through May), the Summer (June and July), and the Fall (August and September). While the majority of students do take the exam during the Spring window, it’s important to understand why. Many pre-meds are still taking prerequisite courses throughout their Junior year – typically Organic Chemistry or Physics – and thus aren’t prepared to take the exam in the Winter window. However, because the AMCAS and AACOMAS applications cycles start in June (and it takes 30 days to receive your MCAT scores), taking a Summer exam also isn’t an option. The Spring window offers the ideal balance of taking the test late enough to master all of the material while still getting your application in at the start of the cycle.

That being said, a Spring MCAT isn’t ideal for everyone. Students who are confident in their mastery of the sciences can choose to prepare throughout the fall for one of the Winter exams, thereby getting the test out of the way early and leaving extra time in the spring to focus on other elements of the application. Alternatively, students who don’t feel that they can balance a normal course load with MCAT studies may choose to postpone their prep until the summer – but be warned, this puts your application at a disadvantage for schools that use a rolling admissions process.

When should I start studying for the MCAT?

The AAMC recommends studying for at least 3 months prior to sitting the MCAT; in our own research, we’ve found that most students need to spend 250-350 hours preparing in order to feel confident for test day. As a busy pre-med however, the question becomes how you will fit those 350 hours into your schedule; on a 3 month timeline, that comes out to approximately 25 hours of dedicated MCAT studying each week – a tall order when you’re also attending classes, volunteering at the hospital, and attempting to have something resembling a social life.

Clearly, it’s a good idea to start your studying earlier rather than later; changing your 3 month timeline to 4, 5, or even 6 months will drastically reduce your weekly workload and, as a result, help you feel less stressed about the exam. However, you also need to consider how your MCAT prep will affect other aspects of your application; if you’re taking a heavy course load of important classes this fall, it might not be the best time to add another piece to the puzzle.

Now that you’ve got a general sense of when you should be planning to take the exam, check back next week for Part 2 of this article, in which we’ll discuss choosing the right date and time for your exam.

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