4 Key Tips to Avoid MCAT or USMLE Step 1 Study Burnout

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • MST-Avoid-Study-Burnout.jpgOne of the biggest fears students have about tackling big exams like the MCAT and the USMLE Step 1 is getting burnt out.

    The stress, the pressure, and long hours of studying for weeks can take its toll on anyone’s stamina, and it can be challenging to stay motivated as you move into your critical final studying push before exam day.

    Luckily, by following these four tips, you can prepare yourself well to avoid and deal with burnout during your exam preparation.

    1. Get good sleep!

    Almost invariably, every student I’ve tutored was not initially sleeping at least 7 hours per night. The primary reason sleep is so critical is because the main root cause of burnout is stress. If you don’t sleep enough while studying, everything will seem more stressful—every question you miss, every memorization mix up, etc., will feel like a huge crisis instead of what it truly is: a small setback and a normal part of the studying process. Furthermore, when you are sleep deprived, your studying ability, memorization recall, and critical thinking skills will be much worse. This will slow your progress and increase setbacks, which then will seem worse than they are because you are stressed and sleep-deprived.

    Many times, students in this situation end up in a bad cycle where they feel that the problem is they need to study more, so they study longer hours and sleep less, which causes even more issues and more stress until they finally crash and feel they cannot go on. Do not fall into this cycle! Make getting enough sleep your first priority and view it as a critical part of your study plan. (Plus, take advantage of the fact that you can do this now. Sleep usually becomes a much greater challenge once your clerkships and residency begin.)

    2. Exercise regularly.

    Regular exercise during your study period is extremely beneficial for several reasons. Exercise is a stress reliever and will help increase your focus while studying. Exercise will also make you more tired at bedtime, making it easier to fall asleep and sleep well. Studying for hours everyday is a very sedentary activity and can feel very monotonous. The more monotonous it feels, the more it becomes stressful and feels like it will never end, and this leads to burnout.

    If you make sure to exercise at least 30 minutes per day—even if it’s just making time to go for a walk and truly give yourself a break from studying—your day will have more variety, and that goes a long way to avoiding burnout. Often times, students feel like they don’t have enough time to exercise while studying for a big exam. In reality, the exercise saves you time: it makes your studying more effective, relieves stress, and enhances your test taking ability, leading to more progress in less time studying. Make exercise a priority and you will boost your performance and avoid feeling overwhelmed.

    3. Stay present and avoid distractions while studying.

    Engaging in distractions (Facebook, texting, Instagram, etc.) while studying is a big issue that often goes overlooked. When you constantly check your phone or social media while studying, you become far less focused and time efficient. The constant back and forth of mindset switching from studying mode to social mode wastes a lot of time. Many students feel they must spend extremely long hours studying to keep up during medical school or test preparation. In reality, many times these students are studying 15 hours per day while distracted, making their time at least 50% less effective. It is far better to spend 8-10 hours of studying with your full mental attention and no distractions.

    When you’re spending less but more focused time studying, burnout is much easier to avoid. Avoiding distractions leaves much more time for exercise, sleep, and some leisure activities, all of which will prevent you from getting burnt out. Furthermore, distractions will also negatively affect your performance—your full attention cannot be devoted to your practice questions when you were just posting a status update on facebook a few minutes ago. This will cause you to make more careless errors, leading to more stress. Be present and avoid distractions while studying, and you will be more effective in less hours, making the process much more manageable.

    4. Schedule regular time off from studying.

    At the end of the day, we are all humans—not studying robots. Every student needs some break time for a life outside of studying, and it is important to allow yourself some time away from studying. I usually recommend a half-day to one full day off per week. Having that time to get dinner with friends, Netflix that show you’re behind on, and spend time with family will go a long way to relieving stress and putting things into perspective. If you try to save time and be most effective by studying for weeks on end all day everyday with no break time, you will definitely encounter burnout and have to stop studying.

    Students who do this usually end up having to take more time off to get out of a burnout funk than students who planned regular time off from the beginning, and often are so stressed they can’t enjoy the time off. Just like you should be 100% focused on your work while studying, you should be 100% committed to leisure and relaxation during your time off. Worrying about studying or doing flashcards during your time off defeats the purpose of the time off. You should view your time off as an integral part of your study plan and necessary for your success, not as self-indulgent or lazy behavior. Taking leisure time regularly will end up saving you time by avoiding burnout later on.

    Studying for an important exam can seem daunting, but if you follow these tips, you’ll quickly find you’ll avoid burnout and find the studying process far more enjoyable and manageable.