Self-studying for the MCAT
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Self-studying for the MCAT with

Are you considering self-studying for the MCAT as an alternative to expensive test prep products? You may choose self-study for being more economical, but it could end up being more effective too. Learn how you can successfully carry out your self-study with

Where to begin

  • Prerequisite coursework for the MCAT
  • General chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Introductory physics
  • Introductory biology
  • First-semester biochemistry
  • Introductory psychology
  • Introductory sociology

Your preparation for the MCAT should have already begun with your prerequisite coursework and experiences in and out of the classroom that develop your critical thinking and analytic skills. The amount of content review you will need to do for your MCAT prep will depend on how much course material you retained.

Your overall prep strategy will be a balance of review and practice, with a stronger content base allowing you to spend more time on practice. At its core, the MCAT is a critical thinking test, so while you will need the content base to draw from, you will be doing most of your MCAT-specific learning during practice.


Three sections of the MCAT (Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; and Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior) are designed to emphasize deep, integrative knowledge, tested through scientific analysis and reasoning.

During the course of your review, you will need to solidify your understanding of the Foundational Concepts for each of these three sections. reflects this content structure with the ability to specifically track your progress along the topics in each Foundational Concept.

A dedicated space for periodical assessments of your strengths and weaknesses shows you what percentage of topics have been considered strengths, and for each topic, a breakdown of the percentage of times that topic was assessed as a strength. Keeping a visual reference to the proportion of topics you have performed well on helps you quickly narrow your focus to building up your remaining weaknesses.


The fourth section is Critical Analysis and Reading Skills. It tests comprehension and analysis using material from a wide array of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. While you do not need to have a background in or perform dedicated review for the subject matter encountered in this section, you can develop your general sense for the kind of topics you will see by regularly critically reading texts such as periodicals or essays from current events or non-science disciplines.


With so much topical knowledge covered on the MCAT, it is easy to get lost in weeks and weeks of review, putting off practice to when you feel you have enough content under your belt. But you must remember that practice is both essential to learning generally, and for the MCAT in particular, practice will give you an opportunity to see if you truly have the deep understanding required for successful performance.

Additionally, you will benefit from the experience of practice testing to hone your test taking skills. For the MCAT you need to have the ability to maintain focus within each section, to quickly context switch from one section to another, and to perform under test day conditions with the endurance to make it through the entire day. helps you to begin to understand patterns in your performance by providing the structure for tracking and analyzing each of your practice tests on a question-by-question basis and in overall factors such as nutrition, environment, and caffeine intake.

Learn from your practice testing experience by tracking and analyzing your results on section, passage, and question levels along with factors that may be affecting your performance.

Planning and Logistics


With self-studying you have the greatest range of materials to select from and the option to mix-and-match to suite your learning style. Practice materials are available from the AAMC as well as a range of third-party publishers. If you are working with a limited budget, you may decide to focus your purchasing on practice tests and try out free resources for content review such as textbooks you already own, the Khan Academy MCAT Collection prepared in partnership with the AAMC, and other online resources.

For your review materials, you will want to take into consideration the ways that you learn. Are you an audio or visual learner? Do you find lots of graphics helpful or distracting? Is the process of creating flashcards helpful to you, or would it be a better use of your time to purchase or borrow some? If you learn well by teaching to others or asking questions, you may want to include a study buddy in your materials list!

The Review & Resources section provides references to resources that cover each topic along with a growing collection of review articles.


Even with the prerequisite coursework completed, you will want to spend a significant amount of time on review of the content covered on the MCAT balanced with sufficient practice. For decades, the popularly recommended total number of hours to study for the old MCAT was around 300. Now with the addition of biochemistry, psychology, and sociology topics, you may be looking to spend upwards of 450 hours to prep.

Keep this timeframe in mind when considering your test day and balancing MCAT prep with all of your other commitments. Studying for the MCAT in a 3-month period would take a full time commitment [ 12 weeks x 40 hours/week = 480 hours ]. If you already have a full-time schedule to work around, you will need to widen your prep period.'s Study Plan Builder can quickly show you a schedule that fits your timeframe, calculated from factors such as your test date, availability, and scheduled off days.


Your schedule is where self-studying can give you an edge over other prep methods. By self-studying, you are committing to prep on a schedule that works for you. Even if you decide to use a schedule created by someone else, you should be mindful of your progress and allow enough flexibility in the schedule to make adjustments as you go.

Your MCAT study schedule should reflect your prep strategy for balancing review and practice. If it has been a while since you took the prerequisite coursework or an early diagnostic exam shows significant content weaknesses, you will want to front load a lot of your content review, but keep in mind that practice aides the learning process and can help you monitor your progress. A general rule of thumb is to practice early and practice often.

Whereas a one-size-fits-all MCAT study plan may simply drop in practice tests at regular intervals in between evenly (or randomly) distributed review, you can build more effective study plans with a little forethought into what needs to be achieved.

Multiple study plans, each focusing on a particular goal or compartment of your MCAT prep, can combine together to give you a balanced and cohesive prep schedule. can organize even the most complex study schedule with optional color coding!

Macro Scheduling Ideas
  • rotate over all sections every week to keep content fresh as well as build context switching you'll need for test day
  • keep a running list of weaknesses and regularly devote a study session to reviewing one or two
  • go "out of order" if you get in the doldrums just going through review material start to finish
  • schedule a question-by-question review for every practice test you take
  • use the results of your most recent practice test to dictate what to go over next
  • enforce off days to avoid burnout
Micro Scheduling Ideas
  • include simple forms of practice such as written/verbal recall or flashcards in each study session
  • build endurance and focus gradually by starting with short study intervals and increasing the time
  • plan to study during the time of the day you are most alert
  • begin to follow a daily schedule that mimics test day
  • fill non-study time with passive learning such as listening to audio material (even make your own!)

Nearing test day you should be done with your content review and focused purely on taking and going over practice tests. However, be certain not to save all of your practice tests for last, as they are a great source of learning material and can help you identify your weaknesses along the way. will help you visualize your progress with practice test tracking and analysis.

Staying on track

The ability to stay on track is another advantage of self-studying. You can follow your own needs with the option to slow down over difficult material or move quickly with familiar topics. By planning your study schedule before you begin and tracking your progress along the way, you'll quickly see whether the schedule you created is maintainable.

Save yourself from becoming overwhelmed by your MCAT prep with a clearly organized study schedule and visual display of your progress in each area of your prep.

Making adjustments

Making adjustments to your study schedule or strategy are key to self-studying. If you do fall behind the schedule you set out, hopefully it will have enough flexibility that you will be able to move some things around and catch up pretty quickly. However, intending to catch up and falling farther behind can be avoided by accepting the new shorter time constraint and shifting the entire schedule to fit. performs this action for your with easy calculated redistribution of your scheduled study sessions.

Be ready to add new activities to your schedule. For example, if you find you have a hard time analyzing passages, you may want to schedule to work with a tutor for that specific goal. If you find yourself forgetting material that you reviewed weeks or months ago, add some re-review sessions to quickly go over your notes for those areas. makes it easy to make adjustments to your study plan with drag-and-drop rescheduling.

How to Make Self-study effective for you

Successful self-study is a No-Fear method of preparing for the MCAT because you are planning and adjusting your prep to your level of preparedness. You are not wasting time on overly familiar topics or study tactics that don't work for you. You are taking the time to develop understanding instead of pushing through material just because that's what's on the schedule. You can approach every missed practice question, confusing topic, or confounding passage as an opportunity to develop strength for test day.

Here's what successful self-studying for the MCAT is not:

  • sprinkling in a few chapters of passive reading every now and then
  • starting at chapter one and trying to get through as much as possible before test day
  • taking practice test after practice test without reviewing them
  • feeling like you know a topic and moving on without testing yourself
  • drifting through study material until two weeks before test day, then cramming

Instead, you will be:

  • actively reading, listening to, watching, and reviewing your study materials
  • consistently monitoring your strengths and weaknesses
  • understanding your practice test performance by reviewing each one
  • adjusting your study schedule to address weaknesses uncovered in practice tests
  • following a balanced and achievable study plan

Empower your self-study with the organization, structure, and progress tracking that you need to feel confident in your prep and be ready on test day.

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