Day 10 – Health, Wellness, and Stress Management – The Second Key

Ok, so we’re ten days into our 30 GuideDay to MCAT CARS Success. We’ve looked at how to approach passages, how to read correctly, and we’ve talked about timing enough times to last you the rest of your life. Tomorrow, we’re going to start breaking down question types. But today, I want to bring up a topic that some of you will undoubtedly roll your eyes at, but is a topic that has nonetheless proven to be one of the most critical characteristics I’ve seen that separates those who do incredibly well on the MCAT and those who don’t: Health, Wellness, and Stress Management. I know some of you have already stopped reading by now, but of all the students who I’ve taught through the years, those who could stay healthy and could handle the stress always, and I mean always, did better than those who could not. PLEASE READ THIS POST!

The MCAT Marathon:

If you intend to become a doctor, which I’m assuming all of you do, the MCAT will be one of the most important tests you take in your life. Many argue it’s even more important than Step I, Step II, or your boards, because without a solid MCAT score, you’ll never get a chance to take any of the rest. And if you’re striving to get into a top-tier school, the MCAT is the single most important factor in opening that all important interview door. The MCAT is incredibly important. How many of you are sweating bullets right now? I know I was when I was studying for the MCAT. It was one of the most stressful times in my life. Many students make the mistake of thinking that the only thing that will help their stress is studying, but this is false. There are a number of non-MCAT factors that contribute a great deal to your ability to study and score well on the MCAT. The most successful MCATers and medical students are the ones who are able to build a strong foundation of self-care, balance, and support into their lives. It is upon this foundation that they are able to accomplish the amazing things they do. Take this post seriously and try to make a few of the small changes we recommend.

In college, and in particular organic chemistry, I succeeded because I had an incredible capacity to cram. I would be irresponsible the three or four weeks between tests, and then a night or two before, I’d stay up all night and cram the reaction mechanisms into my brain just long enough to write them out for the test. Unfortunately for me, this worked. It worked incredibly well. I consistently scored at the top of my class, but 1) I didn’t learn (or remember) all that much about organic chemistry in my two semesters and 2) I put myself through hell in terms of stress and my health.

I know I am not unique. Many, many pre-meds reading this right now are just like me, and unfortunately, you too have probably had success with the high stress, high stakes “cramming method.” Most pre-meds are very bright people who learn things quickly and usually have to study less than their peers. The problem is that we’ve become so accustomed to this, that this is the way we are tempted to study for the MCAT. We throw incredible amounts of time at the test and run ourselves ragged. We eat crappy food, don’t exercise, and cut corners on the one thing we absolutely cannot cut corners on. SLEEP. In all my time teaching and tutoring students, the ones who were able to go the distance on the MCAT Marathon, the ones who got the ultra-high scores that their friends envied were the ones that not only worked the hardest but had their priorities straight. There were three things all of these students had in common. If you want to set yourself up for success, make these three changes to your life today and give yourself the best chance of do your absolute best on test day. (I make some suggestions below in regards to books and products I’ve used and my students have used in the past. I have no connection to any of the authors, companies, or products that I reference. They’ve just worked for me and my students, and I’m passing them along in the hopes that they’ll work for you too.)

Sleep:

If there were one thing I could change about you right now, just one, it would be that instead of getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, that you’d get 8 or 9 for the entire three or four months you’re studying for the MCAT. Without fail, the students who are sleep deprived in my classes are the ones who do the worst. They are slower to pick up new concepts, their thinking is not clear nor direct, and they can’t remember anything to save their lives. To these problems, their solution is almost always, to work harder and longer. This invariably cuts into their sleep even more, which causes what I call the “death sleep spiral”. Commit from now until your test date to get 8 or 9 hours of sleep. Make this as important as your study time. You will learn faster, remember more, and think clearer. I’ve outlined a few tips below and resources to help. Seriously, do this one thing and it will make a world of difference.

– Set particular times you are going to go to bed and wake up. Stick to these time. If you find yourself rolling around in bed for more than 15 minutes waiting to go to sleep, get up and do something relaxing in low light, like read an interesting, but not too interesting book. Do not study and do not do anything that has to do with an electronic screen. Don’t check your texts or Facebook, the blue light in your screen tricks your brain into thinking it’s seeing sunlight which throws off your circadian rhythm. I’ve actually gone as far in my own life to wear “blue-light blocking” lens an hour or two before I go to bed. It is easily the dorkiest thing I do (and I’d recommend you not wear them and stash them away when a romantic interest comes over), but despite the serious liabilities they pose to my coolness, I fall asleep much easier now!

– Be careful about what you drink at night. Try not to drink any caffeine after 2 pm, and while alcohol might help you fall asleep, it actually makes it much more difficult to stay asleep, so you’re likely to wake up more often at night. Also, if you’re more careful about what you drink and when tapering your liquid consumption as the night goes on, you’ll have fewer bathroom breaks during the night. Nicotine, which is a stimulant, also takes hours to wear off so that can keep you up too. If you’re more than 60 days out from your test, read this book. It helped Jason Marz and Ellen DeGeneres among others quit, and I’m sure will do the same for you. You’ll feel better, think more clearly, and have more energy to study.

– Get comfortable! This usually means, cool, dark, and quite in the bedroom. Easy ways to control this are to get a fan, a cheap sleeping mask, and some decent earplugs or a noise machine.

Walks:

Studying for this test is incredibly stressful! I recommend taking at least one 30-minute walk a day in the middle of your study session. Put in your earbuds, listen to some of your favorite music and just go for a walk. Get some sun, feel the breeze, and remember that there is so much more to life than studying for some dumb old test, no matter how important it is to your future career. I had one student in particular who was studying to take the MCAT for the 4th time when she came to me for help. This was her last shot she said. To say she was stressed was an understatement. One of the first things I told her to do was start taking her dog for a 30-minute walk every day. The difference in her demeanor within just one week was incredible. Trust me on this, go for a walk every day. At least one!

Friends:

Some students study so much that they let their friendship get pushed to the back burner. This is not a good idea. It is very easy to lose perspective when studying for a test like the MCAT. We get tunnel vision and begin to think that the entire world and our whole lives ride on how well we do on this test. There is so much more to living a good and fulfilling life than getting a particular score on the MCAT, and your friends are one of them and will remind you of this when you forget. Your friends are going to know you best, and they’ll be able to support you when you have a down practice test score or need to regain a broader perspective. Do at least one outing a week with your group of friends. Take the night off and enjoy yourself. I promise you that if you attempt to study for 6 to 8 hours a day for 90 days straight with the MCAT being the only thing you do, you will not make it. I have not seen someone make it yet. It is a marathon, and you have to pace yourself.

Other Tips:

– One of the things I did for every MCAT class I taughtwas buy each of my students a copy of the book The Eight Minute Guide to Meditation. It is an eight-week course that takes you through guided meditations for only eight minutes a day. This is a great way to relieve stress in a short amount of time and clear your mind so when you hit the books you’re ready to go!

– If you’re someone like me whose default setting is to be stressed out, this book might be just the one for you. It’s the book for learning ways to cope with stress and become a more relaxed person. I’ve used it and highly recommend it. Check out The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook.

– And for those of you who struggle with test anxiety (Who doesn’t on some level?) this book has helped many, many people pick up easy and practical tips for managing anxiety both while studying and taking the actual test. Check out The 10 Best Ever Anxiety Management Tips.

If you made it through today’s post, you’re on the right track! Doing well on the MCAT involves a lot more than studying harder and longer. You have to manage the other areas of your life and remember that you are human, not a machine. Take these three steps today and you’ll see gains in all sections of the MCAT long-term. Get at least eight hours of sleep every night from now until your test day. Walk for 30 minutes, every day! And get out and see your friends at least once a week! Oh yeah, and don’t forget to do your two passages today. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the different question types.

Today’s Assignment: Do Two CARS Passages Individually, Under Timed Conditions

“To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise, we shall
not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”
– Buddha

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