Evidence-based Strategies to Optimize MCAT Preparation

As you start thinking about medical school admissions, you will repeatedly hear that the MCAT is a marathon, not a sprint. This means that the endurance and stamina required to master this exam – physical, mental, and emotional – must be built gradually over time. Nevertheless, there are ways to make the preparation more efficient. Below are 3 evidence-based learning methods that have been shown to be effective in maximizing retention and recall during an exam such as the MCAT:

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1/ Spaced repetition

The term spaced repetition stands for the strategic spacing of review and recall. In other words, this refers to more frequent review of newer material and a gradual increase in the length of time between subsequent reviews. In the beginning of learning, you can space review intervals for any topic closely together (e.g., 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day). As you begin to become familiar the material, you can make the review intervals systematically longer (e.g., 5 days, 1 week, 2 weeks). This practice is basically the opposite of cramming, and it enables review before a topic is forgotten, thereby enabling the brain to store the information as long-term memory.

2/ Interleaving

Interleaving is a study technique that involves the alternation of topics/subjects. This helps prevent brain fatigue and boredom from studying the same concept for too long. It also enables the brain to make more logical connections between concepts and topics that are not dependent on arbitrary associations. However, interleaving is only successful once you have already familiarized yourself with a particular topic and less so if you are trying to understand something for the first time.

One popular way of practicing interleaving is the Pomodoro Technique, which involves engaging in tasks for 25-minute blocks. After each block, there is a short 5-minute break. MCAT study experts recommend switching topics after every two Pomodoro blocks. Note that this interval might not work for everyone, so choose and stick to something that works for you.

3/ Active recall

Active recall refers to the intentional retrieval of stored knowledge to answer related questions. A study published in Educational Psychology[i] compared short- and long-term retention of information between students who used active recall because of repeated testing and students who relied on learning through rereading. The data showed improved short- and long-term retention among students who were exposed to repeated testing in the form of short answer questions and multiple-choice questions. In fact, long-term memory and learning were even more robust among students who practiced short answer questions vs. students who practiced multiple-choice questions.

Another study[ii] investigated the effectiveness of interleaving combined with active recall and found that while each strategy was effective in improving recall, the effect was much more pronounced when the two techniques were utilized together.

Thus, enrich your MCAT study with spaced repetition, interspersed with practice problems, to engage in active recall and improve long-term retention of your study material.  

And as always, take care of your mind and body as you prepare for this rigorous exam – eat healthy, drink plenty, sleep enough, breathe slowly and deeply and be kind to yourself. All the best!

[i] Tova Stenlund, Anna Sundström & Bert Jonsson (2016) Effects of repeated testing on short- and long-term memory performance across different test formats, Educational Psychology, 36:10, 1710-1727, DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2014.953037

[ii] Tracy Linderholm, John Dobson, and Mary Beth Yarbrough (2016) The benefit of self-testing and interleaving for synthesizing concepts across multiple physiology texts, Advances in Physiology Education 2016 40:3, 329-334, DOI: 10.1152/advan.00157.2015

By Doris Tabassum
Doris Tabassum Associate Director, Graduate School Advising