The MCAT is a grueling seven and a half hour exam that will test a large portion of material covered in your medical school prerequisite courses. After taking a diagnostic test to assess your baseline level of knowledge, you’ve likely followed your MCAT study schedule religiously and now, after all of that hard work, your test date has arrived. From the night before the exam through to test day, this post will help you navigate the exam, manage stress, and help you achieve your best score.
The Night Before
A healthy bit of anxiety can sometimes be beneficial – that’s what encourages you to study hard and keeps you alert during the test – but too much at the wrong time can be detrimental. You’ve studied hard up to this point, and now it is time to relax. Resist the temptation to spend the day before the exam frantically trying to review all of your notes or cram last-minute information into your head: this is not an effective strategy to improve your MCAT score. Raising your stress hormones the night before the test will only ensure that you don’t get a good night’s sleep, meaning you won’t be able to perform your best. If you find yourself becoming anxious, close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and quell your body’s automatic “fight or flight” response.
If you haven’t already done so, review the list of items allowed in the testing room so you know exactly what to pack. You’ll want to prepare everything for test day the night before, as you don’t want to be scrambling as you run out the door in the morning. Print out your testing confirmation sheet and directions to the testing center, set out your clothes and keys, and pack a few healthy snacks and water for your between-block breaks.
On the morning of the exam, wake up with plenty of time to eat a light, nutritious breakfast and make it to the testing center at the recommended time. When you arrive, someone at the testing center will check your identification and confirmation sheet, scan your palms, and give you instructions for taking the test. Each time you enter or leave the testing room, you will be re-scanned to confirm your identity. This can take a minute or two – be sure to consider this when planning your allotted break time. If you are easily distracted by ambient noise, the testing center will provide foam earplugs for you to use.
During The Test
One of the most difficult things you will deal with during the test is fatigue, particularly, decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon in decision-making psychology. When subjected to a long session of decisions (such as a multiple-choice exam), the quality of a person’s choices decreases over time. That means if you’re not sure about an answer, you’re more likely to guess correctly if the question is one of the first you encounter compared to one of the last. As you continue to answer questions, your brain becomes too tired to systematically use context clues, eliminate answers you know are wrong, and reason your way through the problem to the correct answer. Thankfully, there are ways to beat decision fatigue. Most importantly, use every break between test blocks as an opportunity to walk around, stretch, clear your mind, and have a snack. The MCAT is a very long, hard test to complete so do not forego the opportunity to take a break. Even if you’re feeling confident at the end of a test block and want to power straight through the next block, this will not result in your best possible score.
During the exam, you may encounter a set of questions that seem exceptionally difficult or that deal with concepts not discussed in your study materials. This is especially true for the MCAT CARS, & biology sections. If this happens, take a deep breath, take a guess, and flag the questions to come back to afterward. You can use up a lot of your testing time trying to work through topics you are unfamiliar with, so it is best to return to them at the end of the block.
After The Test
Once you’ve finished the exam, celebrate! It can be stressful awaiting your score but be reassured that you have studied diligently and used solid test-taking strategies to perform your best on the exam. You may recall some questions you answered incorrectly, which is completely normal and does NOT mean you did poorly. Virtually no one gets a perfect score on the MCAT, so everyone will have questions they missed.