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How the MCAT Can Make You More Human and Less Machine… If You Let It

When I started writing this post, I was going to talk about how to stay on track with your MCAT studies—or how not to become a student-machine in the midst of your marathon science review.

But let’s face it; you’ll basically be trained to become an academic machine in medical school, right? So why fight it now? Just take this opportunity to become a robot, hide with your books in a remote, cavernous corner of the library like Gollum, and you’ll ace the MCAT and medical school.

Well… the truth is more complicated than that.

Is the path to becoming a doctor difficult? Yes, undoubtedly. Will it shape you as a physician? Clearly. But your experiences as an aspiring doctor—starting with your MCAT studies—can only shape you in the ways that you let them. Ultimately, what is most important in your medical training is mastering the sciences while retaining your humanity.

So what does this have to do with taking the MCAT? When I took the exam, I did not (and still don’t) have the robotic, super-exacting hyperdiscipline that most premeds feel they need to perform well on the MCATs. And yet I scored in the 95th percentile working full time with a ten-year gap since physics class and five-year gap since general chemistry class.

As the Examkrackers National Director said after she heard my story, “Katie, I am baffled…by all measures, you shouldn’t have done well on your MCAT. How did you do it?”

I answered honestly: I aced the MCAT by being more human.

I actively researched “life hacks” on how people learn best and how they recharge their batteries. I analyzed the relationship between my physical health and mental aptitude. I became an active observer of my behavior, noting which habits catalyzed my MCAT productivity and which ones did not. In other words, although I did need notable self-discipline to study 12-14 hours every day, I did not rely solely on regimentation and willpower. I also set up my studies to accommodate how my primitive brain and body work—and how this inner “cavewoman” learns best and thrives.

So here are six ways you can be more human and excel at your MCATs:

1. Have MCAT material presented to you as a story.

Storytelling is one of the most effective ways for humans to absorb information, so it comes as no surprise that students can retain larger quantities of material if narrated (ideally colorfully) by another human being. So I personally invested in an MCAT course so my instructors could explain the information to me. I watched YouTube animated videos tell the “stories” of more complicated topics (Khan Academy has a wonderful selection of concise videos to check out). Bottom line, the more fluid and cohesive the explanations, the more likely you are to remember the underlying facts.

With that said, I do have one caveat: If you only have a short time in which to study, you may want to put an emphasis on active learning methods that focus on information recall (e.g. flashcards, practice questions, assessments) and save audio and video lectures for more complex topics.

Want more insight behind the science of storytelling? Check this out.

2. Tackle your toughest MCAT material earlier in the day.

I know many of you will be shocked to know that humans do not have infinite willpower. For those currently sitting near a plate of cookies, or eating the remaining tortilla chips from last night’s takeout, this revelation will not be as much of a shock. (Side note: I just ate the last tortilla chip. Darn. I totally want more.)

So what is a mere mortal to do? Review that annoying Physics fluids lecture or all the biochemical compounds in glycolysis as your first order of business for the day. That way, you will have plenty of willpower in your reserves to push through your more difficult topics…and enough self-discipline left by the end of the day to relax and review easier material. Possibly with a cold, crisp beer in hand if you’re over 21 years old.

To learn more about decision fatigue, click here.

3. Let your mind be creative and play again.

Children acquire a wealth of knowledge before they formally start school—and much of the time, they learn this information through play. It’s one of the most intuitive and natural ways to learn new skills and facts…and as it turns out, adults can benefit from this tactic too. It allows us to stimulate our brain in a stress-reducing and energizing way, boosting our creativity and problem-solving skills just when we need them most. So if you’re looking to memorize amino acid side chains, here‘s a game for you. Write your notes in colored pens, draw out biological structures…I even found an entertaining song about enzyme fundamentals. Just be careful… I definitely have the tune stuck in my head now!

Click here for more info on the benefits of play.

4. Get off the computer and start writing.

Our ancient ancestors’ brains did not evolve to work with computers. Enough said. So, if you’re struggling to remember and understand facts, start writing them down mindfully with a pen or pencil, and it will solidify the material faster and deeper in your memory than typing out notes. And if you want to get really mindful about your writing, try writing with your opposite hand. It forces you to be aware of what you’re writing, helps with a cramped wrist and stimulates your brain think outside of the box, reducing monotony and burnout. Side effect: your mother might tell you she likes your non-dominant handwriting better. Not like I should know this personally or anything….

Here‘s more on why you shouldn’t take notes with a laptop.

5. Burned out and need to recharge quickly? Try comedy.

Like most people, I reach my limits sometimes and need to take a break. During my MCAT preparation, I sought out methods to recharge my metaphorical batteries quickly so I would not lose precious study time. My most effective trick? Watching stand up comedy routines from my favorite comedians, Robin Williams (RIP) and Eddie Izzard. The harder and more frequently they made me laugh, the quicker I felt refreshed and rejuvenated and could get back to work.

It turns out there is a scientific explanation for this method: When we (genuinely) laugh, we release endorphins, which are biologically intended to mask pain—or, in my case, emotional burnout. They cause a short-lasting high that helps us push through both physical pain and psychological hurdles—like getting yourself to study Biochemistry in the 13th hour that day. The more such “happy” chemicals we produce naturally, the more we build up our resiliency to extreme tasks, like marathon study sessions.

If you need a boost, click here.

6. Don’t have the time or motivation to exercise? Take time to stretch.

I hate hearing “exercise more and eat healthier.” I really do. Mostly because you have to give me some pretty strong incentives to put down my favorite salted chocolate caramels and go to the gym. And then I’ll probably argue with you that chocolate has “healthy” antioxidants in it, and driving my gas-guzzling car to the gym is destroying the environment. And then I’ll sit down on the couch. And stay there. For a long time.

For those of you out there like me, I have found that exercise and stretching have some direct study benefits. Yes, I will only admit to direct benefits. You probably have already heard the indirect, long-term ones.

First, if you exercise regularly—especially when doing cardio—it feels kind of like having a psychological catalyst, where the activation energy for completing a task (like MCAT studying) that requires a lot of patience, focus and resiliency is lowered without the aid of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts coffee. When I exercised regularly, I kept more of my espresso money, I didn’t get frustrated as quickly with difficult chemistry topics, the same negative stimuli (e.g. oh my goodness I only have a month left to study) wouldn’t stress me out as quickly, and I felt more grounded and in control of my MCAT preparation.

If you find that you do not have the time or motivation to exercise regularly, stretching will provide you similar short-term advantages. Stretching also increases blood flow, making you feel more energized, grounded and focused. It also releases the same endorphins that laughter does. Honestly—and I never thought I’d say this—it works better than caffeine for me now to combat stress and anxiety. You can look up some simple stretching and y….no, I can’t even say the word, it begins with a “y” and rhymes with “toga” poses online. And even though the-“toga”-sounding-word has a lot of negative connotations for me (I was never flexible), I have found some preliminary YouTube video routines that I can tolerate with both my ego and health benefits left intact.

(Side note: I’ve done the child’s pose around ten times now to help me write this post.)

Here‘s more on how yoga boosts brain production.

So what’s the bottom line? There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” Contrary to what people may tell you, you do not need to be a tense, robotic study machine to do well on your MCATs. By optimizing your natural human tendencies, you can relax more, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, uncover a psychological endurance that will help you beat the MCAT marathon and leave you more human in the process.

Namaste, fellow premeds.

This post was updated in October 2019.