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Double Duty: Taking the MCAT While Working

Many premeds are advised to “treat the MCAT like a full-time job.” Theoretically, this can be a successful approach as it allows examinees to immerse themselves in the material for more intensive preparation – especially for non-traditional applicants who have not had recent exposure to MCAT material or standardized exams. But what happens when you have to prep for the MCAT while working a full-time job?

With a growing culture of students taking time off for dedicated MCAT studying, juggling both exam prep and a job can seem like an insurmountable task. Fortunately, many premeds accomplish this every year. Here are some pointers for the busy premed to consider when developing an MCAT study plan. (Note: I use the term “job” loosely; this can apply to anyone responsible for a traditional 9-to-5, stacked part-time roles, or even caretaking obligations).

Develop a Game Plan

As with any premed embarking on their MCAT journey, preparation is key. This means conferring with a premedical advisor or other mentors to discuss a timeline for applying to medical school as well as personal goals and readiness for the exam. However, if you’re trying to prep for the MCAT while working full-time, it is also important to acknowledge the elephant in the room – how much bandwidth will you have outside work?

Your working commitments will often be the rate-limiting step for MCAT prep. It is important to ask yourself how much studying can reasonably be performed alongside your job. Consider factors such as physical/mental fatigue, commute times, and shifts between day-to-night work when developing a schedule. It is better to study less, but under optimal conditions, than to force yourself to slog through MCAT passages every time you come off a 12-hour grind.

As most working premeds are unable to completely drop their job to crunch for the MCAT, you should plan conservatively. This may mean a longer ramp-up period to the exam (dependent, of course, on one’s test-taking abilities and comfort with the material). Before creating such a study plan and registering for an MCAT, it is prudent to establish a baseline with a diagnostic exam—get a free diagnostic MCAT from Blueprint! With a diagnostic score, you’ll be able to help gauge how much effort you will need to invest to reach your target score.

Also ask yourself: if faced with a “worst case scenario” at work – when that big deadline gets pushed up a full month or a nasty bout of flu sweeps your coworkers – how much will this place your study plan in jeopardy? Confer with your employer to develop contingency plans for any foreseeable issues leading up to your exam. It never hurts to have allies on the job whilst preparing for a large test.

Critical Timing

If possible, make the calendar work to your advantage. Schedule the final crunch period leading up to your MCAT around a less stressful season at your job, especially if your work comes in ebbs and flows. If you have frequent business travel, ask your employer what they forecast for the coming months. For freelancers, it may be worthwhile to taper the number of clients you take on as you venture towards your test date. Taking vacation days to study is certainly not ideal, but if it means having a day to clear your mind before your test date instead of tiring yourself on a long shift, it will likely pay for itself.

Also, when choosing an MCAT date it is often easier to schedule in line with your most conservative plan and move your date up, if exceeding your goals, rather than planning for an aggressive timeline and repeatedly pushing the date back. The option to push your date back is always available, but it is easier to move a date forward than backwards. With many students scheduling last-minute delays, finding an earlier seat is typically easier than trying to find one a week or two later than your desired date. Also, moving your finish line backward can, depending on your job, force you to take the test during a week you did not protect or plan in advance at work.

To Part-Time or Not to Part-Time?

This is a luxury not all can take, but if faced with a poor diagnostic and a tight test deadline, consider temporarily dialing down your commitments. As stated before, one should strive for quality over quantity with test prep time. If you can afford to reduce hours, in order to be less fatigued during studying, have this option at the ready. Also, depending on your job, some employers may be receptive to you working from home, thus eliminating commute times and allowing for a more seamless transition between work and study.

Studying On the Job?

This is also a highly job and employer dependent situation, but a factor to consider. Some jobs may have sporadic periods of downtime where you can squeeze in practice problems. Whilst working as a lab tech, there would be long stretches of time where I’d be waiting for a PCR cycle to finish or cultures to grow. My superiors were receptive to me using that as study time, which was a win-win scenario. As always, clear communication with your coworkers and employers is paramount.

For those with long or monotonous commutes, you can also turn that ride into valuable study time. Whilst driving, I would play audiobooks or podcasts, which actually made the time fly by even faster. When taking public transit I would do practice MCAT questions on my phone or carry along a practice book. Within a few weeks this became a habit and cut down the amount of time I’d need to study at home.

Reach Out For Help

Know that you don’t have to go this alone. Self-studying is definitely feasible but, if you are not meeting your goals, there are other options that may fit your working constraints. Private MCAT tutoring can be flexible and help reach your target score faster. Make your tutor aware of your working schedule when making your study plan. Blueprint students also get access to live office hours 6 days/week if they need help with a specific subject.

Building Skills for Medicine

As an admissions committee member, I would sometimes ask my interviewees about their MCAT prep experience or review their application to see how many tasks they were shouldering leading up to their exam. Working a job whilst taking the MCAT is definitely not a requirement, but a simultaneously strong performance on both your exam and job is an undeniable gold star.

During medical school—and beyond—you will be asked to study for exams whilst working full-time. MCAT prep can be an eerily similar experience to studying for the USMLE exams, which are required for MD licensure. Most allopathic schools currently provide dedicated time off to study for the first exam, but some do not provide time off for the second. Most schools also require final examinations at the end of each clinical clerkship, which can have students in the hospital for roughly 80 hours per week. As a physician, you will also be asked to take specialty-specific examinations during residency and periodic board certification exams as an attending.

You will rely on the skills you build prepping for the MCAT while working time and time again throughout your medical career. Now is the time to learn how to prioritize and manage your time wisely; for better or worse, this is also a critical time where you might have to sacrifice in order to accomplish your dreams.

The schedule of a non-trad or working student is considerably different than other premeds. That’s why we developed an online MCAT course that’s flexible enough to be completed on your time and the only MCAT Live Course that allows you to modify your class schedule on the fly. You can build your study plan for free when you sign up for a Blueprint MCAT Practice Bundle.

Written by: Halley Darrach, a member of the Blueprint MCAT Pre-Med Advisory Council and a former member of the Admissions Committee at John Hopkins School of Medicine.
MCAT is a registered trademark of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which is not affiliated with Blueprint.