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Surviving (and Thriving) After the MCAT

by Allison Chae and Nikhil Jaganathan

It’s finally over: you’ve taken your MCAT. Your flashcard streak lapses, your MCAT study schedule is blank, and you’re no longer spending hours reading internet posts on ways to improve your CARS timing. After the MCAT, it seems like the hard part is finally over, but, for many, it has just begun. 

Understandably, we tend to focus most of our efforts on MCAT prep and performance up to the day of the test, but this can leave us feeling quite unprepared for the “waiting period” that occurs before the score release date. So, what to do after the MCAT? This time is often marked by a lot of changes and uncertainty, so I’ve put together some of my best tips for navigating this period.

Right After the MCAT: Congrats! Now Please Relax. 

Whether it’s the Red Bull you pounded during the break or just your own epinephrine coursing through your body, when you walk out of the testing center, your thoughts are likely to be racing. 

Now is a great time to reach out to your support system. Feel free to debrief them on how you felt about the exam, but also do your best to listen to them as they remind you how hard you’ve worked and how accomplished you should feel. After all, you completed months of studying and worked so hard–you should be proud of yourself for taking a notoriously difficult exam!

An unfortunate reality is that most of us do not leave the MCAT test feeling awesome. Even many of my students who later learned that they exceeded all of their practice test scores have sent me long emails about the real test being more challenging or nit-picking at small mistakes they believe they made. 

My best advice here is to remember how you felt during your MCAT practice exam. When you were on your lunch break or staring into the void on your screen before your score popped out, did you really feel that great? Most of us would have to admit that we didn’t, and it can be really helpful to keep that in perspective when evaluating our performance on the actual test! 

So, leave the test armed with this knowledge and tightly gripping that little piece of paper that lets you know your test will be scored, find a way to celebrate your accomplishment, and stop thinking about the MCAT for today. Catch up on your favorite TV show, curl up with a fun (nonmedical) book, or get some good sleep!

I Can’t Relax–What if I Need to Retake the MCAT?

Thinking about whether you should retake the MCAT? My first question to you is did anything catastrophic happen? And no, I’m not talking about a stressed-out premed catastrophe like not being entirely sure on an MCAT question or two. (Your score on the MCAT is typically the average of your AAMC full lengths, but this can vary, so don’t obsess on numbers right now!)

I’m talking about out-of-the-ordinary events like getting in a car accident on the way to the testing center or leaving half of a section unanswered. If this is the case, planning and studying for a retest may be in order. 

Otherwise, I’d recommend waiting it out before paying more registration fees or picking your study schedule back up. Having a plan for how you will adjust if your score doesn’t come back the way you want it is good, but in most situations, I wouldn’t recommend having a plan that includes any studying or scheduling prior to getting your score back. MCAT burnout is real, and giving yourself that time to relax and refocus is only going to benefit you, even if you do retake.

I am aware that a lot of premeds have set themselves on applying during a certain medical school admissions cycle, and this advice may be incongruous with that plan. Having been through this process, my biggest takeaway is that the application cycle takes a lot of effort and time, and you only want to do it once if you can help it. 

So if you’re thinking about retakes, consider giving yourself more time. Applying a year later but with a score that you’re proud of, more relevant activities, and more time to polish up your application may be the better option!

You’ve Thought About Your Backup Plan. Now Stop Thinking About the MCAT. 

Please try to remember that nothing you do in the month after the MCAT test is going to change your score. Time spent pondering it is probably going to give you a lot of unnecessary stress and have absolutely no benefit. This includes pouring through internet forums or looking up questions you remember struggling with. 

Gather up all your MCAT books and materials and put them away somewhere safe. As tempting as it is, I wouldn’t burn them quite yet either. You never know when they may come in handy for yourself or a friend. I was personally able to reuse many of my P/S flashcards when I took an introductory psychology course! With your materials out of sight and the MCAT out of your mind, it’s time to shift your focus with the following questions.

What Do You Need to Do? 

I always tell my students that I want them living and breathing the AAMC material in the final few weeks of MCAT prep. Unfortunately, this often means choosing to limit our focus and effort on non-MCAT tasks during this time. 

In the days following your MCAT exam, it’s a good idea to take an inventory of your existing responsibilities and deadlines that may need some attention. For many MCAT test takers, this includes courses in school or an upcoming med school admissions cycle. 

For your classes, you may find that you can use your MCAT exam experience to your advantage! For me, studying for classes certainly seemed easier by comparison. I also continued to utilize the new study tools I had developed, such as spaced repetition, flashcards, and using more acronyms and silly connections to remember details. 

If you’re diving into an application cycle, it’s important that you make yourself aware of the dates that you can submit your applications via AMCAS/TMDSAS/AACOMAS, since timing is a huge factor in the application process. Make a list of major deadlines and apply early if possible so you can avoid the stress of last-minute applying! Hopefully, all of those hard days studying gave you some time to consider your motivations for pursuing medicine.

What Do I Need?

We all know it’s important to find balance in our lives, but in practice it’s often very challenging. During my studying, I certainly found that I didn’t put nearly enough effort into activities to promote my physical and mental health, and I think most MCAT test takers have had a similar experience. 

As you rearrange your schedule around the absence of MCAT studying, leave room for these very important aspects! I cannot stress enough the importance of sleep, exercise, relaxation, and time with those we care about in keeping us healthy and sane. 

Something else I’ve come to realize is that these actions are connected: relaxation and exercise help you sleep better, better sleep helps you relax and be happier, and all of these things will help you be healthier and better able to handle your many roles and responsibilities. It is important to begin making these aspects a habit and priority now, as they will be crucial for your well-being in your medical education and as a physician.

This is also a great time to explore new methods of staying healthy. For the time-crunched premed, combining time with social sports leagues or practices like yoga can make that list feel a little less daunting. If you find yourself dealing with a lot of stress (what premed doesn’t?), then looking into mindfulness and meditation practices is a great option. 

I’ve seen positive impacts on my sleep, relaxation, and interpersonal connections, and studies have even shown that it could help you with test-taking!

What Can I Do?

Once you’ve accounted for your deadlines and scheduled some self-care, consider ways to spend more time on new or existing activities. In the wake of MCAT burnout, throwing yourself into work that you feel passionate about is a great idea! 

If you don’t already have any positions that fit this description, look for opportunities that will allow you to explore interests, develop skills, or connect with others. I found that I was especially thankful for my volunteer positions related to my interests in medicine, as they really helped to reinvigorate me and remind me why I was pursuing a career in the field. 

The work and activities section is also a hugely important aspect of the medical school application process, so any time you spend beefing up this section is time well-spent! This is your time to pick back up your guitar, work in a research lab on a subject that sparks your interest or get more involved in a club like Doctors Without Borders. (I signed up for my university’s EMT program to get hands-on experience in trauma and medical emergencies.)

My biggest tip with any extracurricular you pursue, medical or not, is to keep some sort of record or journal. It doesn’t have to be anything formal, but take a minute to jot down any moments that stand out to you. This journal will become an excellent resource for writing your application, answering interview questions, or even just reflecting on your experiences! Mappd is a great tool that helps you keep track of your activities. 

Phew. That’s a lot, huh? With all these things to focus on, the dreaded waiting period should fly by!

Start on Those Med School Applications

And what should you do after you get an MCAT score you love? Then it’s time to finish up those medical school applications! Blueprint’s team of medical school admissions experts are here to help transform your application and take you from an accomplished premed to a competitive med school applicant! Schedule a free consultation to learn more about our consulting packages.

MCAT is a registered trademark of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which is not affiliated with Blueprint.