Let’s face it – MCAT prep can be a grueling process! During the two to six months (or more!) that MCAT prep might last for, it’s inevitable that you will wrestle with the question of how to balance MCAT prep not only with other obligations, such as school or work, but with self-care and other aspects of your life.
While there’s no single right answer to a specific question like “can I party on my birthday?”, there are some important principles to keep in mind to help you stay grounded and productive while studying for the MCAT.
MCAT Study is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
To succeed on the MCAT, you must focus on optimizing your long-term effectiveness. Your goal is to be at 100% of your capacity on Test Day, and balance is a key part of making sure that happens. A huge part of this comes down to avoiding burnout, which should be one of your highest priorities. Burnout is a real phenomenon with real consequences. With that in mind, taking proactive steps to keep yourself from burning out is not an excuse to take it easy – it’s a cool-eyed, calculated technique to ensure that you’re performing at your peak on Test Day, when it really matters.
In order to avoid burnout, we recommend that students take one day per week off from MCAT prep, and ideally from academics in general. But don’t just take a day off: approach that day deliberately to make sure you get the most of it. Don’t just randomly waste time by watching Netflix or YouTube, clicking around the internet randomly, or whatever your personal poison is in terms of time-wasting– put some effort into engaging in activities that really help you recharge and re-center, like spending time with good friends or family, exercising, getting out into the fresh air, or sitting down with a good book. Treat your day off as an investment in yourself and your ability to get the most out of MCAT prep.
Active Learning and Thoughtful Review
Another key principle to keep in mind is that successful MCAT prep is not about maximizing the hours you spend staring at a page or a screen – it’s about active learning and thoughtful review, which is best when you’re well-rested and able to focus. This sounds trivial but actually flies in the face of many habits that we learn in high school and college, where we might pull an all-nighter to finish an important problem set or essay. That’s not how MCAT prep works.
If you’re too tired to focus on the details of a biochemical pathway or a physics equation, stop and go to sleep or do something else. If you’re not getting anything out of your review, then it’s not helping you, and you should try to figure out another way to tackle it. What this boils down to is simple: prioritize sleep, exercise, and nutrition to make sure you can study as effectively as possible.
You will also be able to study more effectively if you’re in a generally positive frame of mind. This means that it’s very important to take steps to promote your emotional health. To the extent possible, stay connected with friends and family and make time for other things you love in life, and be proactive in thinking of other steps you can take to be in the best state of mind you can. Again, these aren’t just feel-good clichés: these are deliberate ways to maximize your performance on Test Day. Seriously. MCAT prep is all about playing the long game.
Can You Party on Your Birthday?
So, with this in mind, can you party on your birthday? Maybe. You’ll have to answer this yourself – if your birthday is the week before Test Day, maybe not. If Test Day is far away, you really need a break, and you know that if you stay in and study you’ll just focus on how you’re missing out, then definitely. The key is to remember the importance of avoiding burnout and to be honest with yourself. Don’t burn yourself out, but also stay motivated and focus on your progress. As with many things in life, it’s all about balance.
If you’re just getting started with your prep, Next Step offers a free MCAT practice bundle that includes a half-length diagnostic, access to our first full-length practice test, and a demo of our online course. You can sign up for the free practice bundle here.
Not sure where to start? Set up a free consultation with one of our veteran Academic Managers. They will go over your prep needs and help you decide what prep options are right for you.
By Andrew Dombrowski, Premium MCAT Tutor and Content Developer