How To Stay Focused On The MCAT

February 2, 2024

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Top scorers have pinpointed one main reason why students miss the correct answer on their practice tests and score lower than they should.

You know how after a practice test you review your answers only to find out you got questions you knew the answers to wrong? 

Well, there's a reason for that: somewhere along the line, you probably lost focus 😬 ...

Your MCAT Mastery mentor, Emily (a 521 scorer!), figured out early in her MCAT prep that retaining focus was one of the biggest tools to answering questions correctly…

And in this video, she wants to make sure that you also know how to tackle that problem! We'll pass it on to Emily from here!

One of the first things that I have all of my MCAT students do is create a why I missed it sheet. Here's how it works – they go through every question that they missed on their practice test and list the reason that they got it wrong.

Now, one extremely common reason is that they lost focus, but that's not how they explain it. Usually, it looks like they missed a keyword, didn't understand a passage or the question, made a silly error, or maybe were nodding off during the test.

If that sounds familiar to you, you too might have a problem with maintaining focus on the MCAT. I know it was a problem for me, my worst ever practice test happened when I was nodding off and I couldn't seem to bring back my focus.

However, don’t worry! I’m going to teach you my favorite technique to recenter and refocus when you're testing so that you can use every single second of your testing to your advantage.

The MCAT Is Long And Our Attention Spans Are Short!

The MCAT is a seven-and-a-half-hour long exam.

Yes, that includes two 10-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch break, but that's still a really long time to maintain attention.

I don't know about you, but I certainly struggle to maintain my focus from 8:00 AM to 3:30 PM straight.

What you and I would usually refer to as an 'attention span' is typically called sustained attention by scientists.

In 1947, Norman H. Mackworth published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggesting that the average adult loses focus after about 45 minutes spent on one task.

Again, in 1979, another scientist named Raja Parasuraman published a study in science further suggesting that 45 minutes is this cap where most adults start to lose focus.

Now, it's worthwhile stating that not all scientists agree on the utility of the idea of sustained attention or an attention span. They like to point out that every individual will vary their amount of attention from task to task and person to person.

However, the popularization of techniques that allow us to increase our productivity by working for a short, concentrated period of time followed by a break shows that a lot of people struggle with maintaining attention over long periods of time.

The extremely popular Pomodoro method, for example, suggests that you only spend 25 to 30 minutes on a task before taking a break and walking away.

Even if you take all of the breaks offered to you on test day, you'll still need to focus for 90 to 95 minutes at a time. That's about double what McWorth suggested and nearly quadruple what the Pomodoro method would suggest.


How To Identify When Your Focus Might Be Drifting

Now, there's nothing wrong with losing focus while testing! You are human. It is likely it will happen to you. 

But, what's important is that you make sure you notice it. The problems arise when you either don't notice that your attention is drifting or don't do anything about your attention drifting.

Do you remember when I mentioned that practice test that went really poorly for me?

The problem wasn't that I started nodding off and that I didn't know what to do about nodding off. You might have a different problem. Most of us are short on time for one section of the test, or at least one section, and we don't want to waste time by being zoned out or drifting off.

You want to use every second you have available to you. Learning to notice when your attention is drifting is a skill that you'll develop over time. 

The Key To Remaining Attentive During The MCAT

What I'm going to teach you right now is what you can do to bring your attention back once you notice it is drifting. Now warning, I'm going to lead you through a little stretching and breathing exercise. 

So if you can, you might want to make sure that you have nothing in your hands, that your feet are firmly planted on the floor, not up on the chair with you, and that you are ready to move a little bit. 

I recommend you watch my video for this part to better see what I'm talking about!

So, the first thing you want to do is you want to sit up straight in your seated position.

Next, roll your shoulders back, and then you're going to weave your hands together in front of you so your palms are facing out. Press your arms straight and raise them up overhead and take a deep breath in as you do this.

When you’re ready to exhale, lean all the way over to the right.

Inhale back up to center. Wait here for a second and exhale over to the left.

Now, inhale back into the center, drop your arms, and roll your shoulders. 

Now that we're done, you should find yourself seated in an upright position with your belly button stacked on top of your pelvis, your ribs on top of your belly button, and your shoulders on top of your ribs.

You should create space between your ears and your shoulders. Make sure that you have good posture. Now you are ready and focused to pay attention to this test. 

That stretching routine only took us 15 seconds.

I regularly watch my students start to crumple themselves into a ball as we work through trickier questions, and they become more and more stressed.

Watching them go through this breathing routine, resetting their posture and their breathing is like wiping away all of that stress. It gives them a chance to start anew to really tell their mind that they are ready to focus on the task in front of them.

This is a technique that you can use in the testing room, on your breaks, or while you're studying to make sure that you are getting the most out of your time with your study materials.

Focused Testing Is The Most Efficient MCAT Prep!

Now that you are refocused and ready to crush some MCAT studying, why don't you take a second, and look at our free email course on some other strategies that will help you absolutely crush your studying based on well-being, wellness, and of course, test-taking strategies.

Additionally, if you want more tailored strategies that you can use, tips and techniques on your test day, maybe consider getting paired with a tutor like me.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do a stretching routine with me today. I really hope that you now feel ready to focus on all of your MCAT goals.

It's Not Fair.

Did you find Emily's strategies and exercise helpful?

It’s not fair - writing a 7.5-hour long test and keeping your focus throughout the entirety of it is not normal for most people.

But with the right strategies you’ll learn in our courses and by working 1:1 with a tutor, you'll actually get to a place where you'll be above the curve, and doing well on the MCAT won't be a problem for you. 

So don't give up and keep doing more of what you already are…

The MedLife Mastery Team
Your MCAT Success Mentors

Your MCAT Success Mentors

About the Author

We're a team of future doctors passionate about giving back and mentoring other future doctors! All mentors on the team are top MCAT scorers and we all are committed to seeing you succeed in achieving your physician dreams ???? To help you achieve your goal MCAT score, we take turns hosting these Live MCAT Courses and are also available for 1:1 private tutoring!

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