How To Study For The MCAT As A Non-Traditional Student

June 25, 2024

minute read

The MCAT is no fairytale. A lot of aspiring doctors put rigorous time, effort, and a lot of focus into studying for it. But it’s an added hardship when you are a non-traditional student and have been far removed from the academic world for quite some time.

Say, your last exam taken was years ago, and you are bound to take your MCAT in a few months. That’s a pretty tough scenario you’ve got there.

Too many premeds on forums dole out tips on how to study, which mostly just involves empty affirmations like “You can do it! Just focus and study.” But we know that’s easier said than done, especially if you have been out of the routine of school.


Especially since a few of us were nontraditional students as well! We faced the same struggles but we managed to figure out how to study and do well enough on the MCAT to get into med-school. Today, some of us are tutors and have guided many other non-traditional MCAT test-takers to achieving their score goals. 

Having been in your shoes, our first piece of advice for you is don’t let this get to you! There are a lot of resources out there to help you get on track with your review and be exceptional at it.

Retrain your focus into acing one of the most important exams of your life and leverage these and the many other MCAT study tips and tricks we have for you.

Assess How Ready You Are To Take The MCAT

First things first, assess your current level of readiness to take this test.

Where do you stand in your knowledge of Chemistry/Physics and Biology/Biochemistry? CARS and Psychology/Sociology can be learned in a few months. It's the sciences that can take some work and having a background in both is helpful.  

Non-traditional students who want to take the MCAT can have completely varied scenarios. For example, you may have an undergraduate degree in science, completed the prerequisite courses, or have taken a few science-related classes. 

If that’s your case then chances are your science acumen is still relatively fresh and you can still remember the concepts and theories. You might want to refresh your knowledge about the sciences a little bit, dedicating more time to your problem areas and the subjects you did not take.

If you do not have a science background, have not taken any science courses in undergrad, or it's been a really long time since you have, then this is a great time to start taking or retaking core science courses that would help propel your science comprehension to the MCAT and even med school level.

Establishing Your Dedicated MCAT Study Time

The keyword here is "dedicated". 

Make sure it’s a time that you can realistically commit to.

Learn your mind’s “weather”—is there a time of the day where you feel lazy and sleepy?

If so, don’t set that as a time for studying. Make the most of your day by learning to recognize which times of day your brain functions better. 

When push comes to shove and you find yourself in a short time to even tune in to your “weather,” be prepared to make some sacrifices. The MCAT isn’t like any other exam, it’s a test of rigor, endurance, and thinking in a certain way.

For example, there was Valentia V.,  a non-traditional applicant who:

1. Had graduated 5 years before her MCAT test date and it had been 10 years since she had taken some of the pre-requisites! Basically she felt like she was starting from scratch!

2. Was also a stay-at-home mom to an active-toddler

3. Was pregnant for almost her entire MCAT journey (she was 24 weeks pregnant when she wrote the MCAT!)

You can imagine what her schedule must have been like...

She dedicated 700 hours of studying over 6 months…

And ended up scoring a 514 on the MCAT!

So sometimes it takes a level of dedication that you have to be mentally prepared for. By the way, you can read her full story and learn about her 3 “phase” approach to MCAT studying by clicking here

Sometimes to get in those needed hours of studying, you need to make MCAT studying your second nature...

Making MCAT Studying Your Second Nature

Now that you’ve set up a dedicated study time, prep your mind to becoming accustomed to studying. Even in the simplest scenarios, like when you’re driving and you see an animal crossing the road, program your brain to think about it in a scientific way.

Think of evolution, or biology, or biochemistry, as you watch an animal crossing the street. This way, it becomes easier for your brain to recall concepts when it's important. Mainly because it is a smart and direct application of what you have learned during your study time.

Try to make those neural connections as much as possible! You can also listen to audio lectures or definitions while driving, or read go through flashcards while waiting in line. There are endless 'down time' options to keep the studying going.

We bring up this tip because a lot of the nontraditional students that come to us for tutoring have created a level of lifestyle that includes a lot of responsibilities which the average student doesn’t have.

These responsibilities are on top of the distractions most of us already deal with, plus these responsibilities sometimes ARE the distractions (e.g. kids :P).

This often puts our students at a further disadvantage and makes it even harder for them to put in the hours of focused studying required for mastering the MCAT.

Which is why we always recommend to set up a dedicated space for MCAT studying for those times when you DO need to get focused...

Setting Up Your Dedicated Space for MCAT Studying

And studying only!

If you’re only studying in your room, set up a study table without distractions—only your study materials and maybe some special things that inspire you and bring you joy.

If you have a library or coffee shop to study in, find a spot that is relatively far from other people who are studying or hanging out. Go at a certain time of the day, set up everything in your table first (like getting water or coffee) before diving right into your studying materials.

Now a lot of nontraditional students are often going the medicine route because of a realization they had...

They felt that ‘Dr.” calling that we all have felt at some point in our lives, that moment that changed our lives forever. So naturally, there’s an excitement in the air.

An excitement to pop open the books, to "study for this ‘one’ test that’s the biggest barrier holding me back from becoming a med-student!"

We love the excitement, and we want you to keep it all throughout your MCAT prep, BUT this excitement to just jump into books can be quite dangerous to your MCAT score if you haven’t first taken the time to understand the nature of the MCAT...

Understand The Nature of The MCAT and What Is Actually Being Tested

Abraham Lincoln was quoted for saying:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Diving into straight MCAT books is like going at the tree in the first hour. It’s going to be extremely inefficient and will draw incredible amounts of energy and time from you to achieve your goal.

You need to spend some time understanding what you’re up against. You need to plan a strategic study schedule that has been proven to work (not one that you randomly came up with). You need to understand how to use the practice exams, when to take them, which ones to use, how to analyze them, and so much more.

You need to assess whether it’s smart for you to take a diagnostic exam and see where you’re at. You need to know what the MCAT is ACTUALLY testing, what skills are required to be ‘above average’ on this exam...

We can go on and on because there's a lot of prep work that's important, but all of this is sharpening the axe! It’s being strategic and planning, so that when you do jump into studying, you know exactly what you’re doing.

After years of top MCAT scorer research, we realized this is where students encounter the biggest challenges - it’s in not doing their due diligence, and quite frankly not knowing how to study for an exam like the MCAT.

Not knowing that it’s not an exam like a normal college or university exams. And this is especially true for non-traditional students, who tend to be a little more disconnected than the average premed.

Jennifer, another aspiring doctor who was a nontraditional student when she took the MCAT, had this epiphany when there was only a month left before the took MCAT...

She had been studying for 4.5 months and saw a one point increase in her score!

She couldn’t figure out what was going on until eventually it clicked, and in that month her score shot up from a 501 to 511. Here’s what she said when we interviewed her after:

“I have a 3.98 GPA, so I did not immediately resort to changing my study habits. They had been working for my undergraduate coursework, why not for the MCAT? But I finally realized that the MCAT is NOTHING LIKE your average undergraduate course. The writers of the MCAT are not necessarily testing how well you know the TCA cycle (although you must know it!) they are testing your ability to think outside the box.”

You can read her full story here as well if you’re interested. When we realized this is what’s causing the biggest struggle for almost every student writing the MCAT, we created that blueprint for them, that shows them "how to sharpen the axe.

Somebody had to create it because barely any student spends the time to do it themselves! It’s a strategy guide to the MCAT that is sourced strictly from our research of top MCAT scorers. You can access it here. It’s the same map that Jennifer and Valentina and thousands of other students have used to help them increase their MCAT scores. 

Just keep in mind that the MCAT has the potential to be one of the most rewarding tests you will ever take in your life.

At the very least, make sure you know its structure and nature well. Just so you can have an idea of how much pre-MCAT work you have to do. 

AAMC resources online will help you get to know the basics of it. For example, know how long the MCAT exam day is, so you can structure your practice exam days in a similar way to really get the feel of what the actual test will be like.

Another example is to know how the MCAT exam is divided into sections and mark which sections are the hardest and easiest for you, so you have an idea of what subject to dive into studying more.

Or, you can muster up the courage and take an MCAT practice test, or a diagnostic exam. This way you’ll get an idea of how the MCAT tests the behavioral sciences, core sciences, and critical reading skills.

Get A Jumpstart Back Into Being Competitive For The MCAT By Not Going At It Alone

As a nontraditional student, there are already several barriers on your path to med-school...

For example, sometimes it’s the constant wonder and doubt if you’re definitely making the right choice for your life.  Sometimes there’s the constant comparing of yourself, or a lot of nay-sayers around you, discouraging you and instilling fear when you’re just trying to be positive and follow your passion.

Point is, it’s not easy going at it alone so having the support of someone who gets you, and meeting them regularly through your MCAT prep, is incredibly helpful because at the end of the day, mindset plays a massive role when it comes to succeeding on the MCAT.

If you’re in our free community and get our emails, you know what a huge emphasis we place on having the right MCAT mindset!

But aside from just support, working with a reliable MCAT mentor/tutor is one of the smartest hacks a nontraditional MCAT taker can use to jumpstart themselves back to a competitive position.

Regardless of where you’re at in your MCAT prep, having someone hold your hand until test date, analyze your strengths/weaknesses, plan your study schedule for you, go through practice questions with you, assess how you think through answer choices, show you gaps in your thinking, show you how they think through it all, and work with you so you can start absorbing the correct way to think through passages, and so much more…  is invaluable!

Keep in mind not every tutor is the same. It’s important they struggled to increase their scores so they can relate to you. It’s important they have a focus on strategy and not just content you can learn from anywhere. It’s important they had an impressive score increase so you feel confident that they can do the same for you, even when there is just a month or less left before your MCAT.

These are the kind of MCAT mentors you’ll find at MCAT Mastery. You can learn more about us here. 

Lastly, we want to leave you with Rachel’s story, who at 34 years old decided to change careers from business/finance to medicine!

She said for her, “failure was not an option”, and we get that many nontraditional students are feeling the same way!

She struggled with confidence throughout her journey and if you’re in the same boat, know that you have what it takes. Honestly, you’ve made it this far. You’re smart otherwise you wouldn’t even be considering your dream of practicing medicine.

The MCAT doesn’t determine who you are in any way, it simply means you need to change your approach. You need to develop a more strategic approach. That’s all. It’s not about if you’re good enough, or if you’re smart enough, none of that. 

We know you can do this. 

Feel free to reach out if you ever have any questions,

The MedLife Mastery Team
Your "MCAT Success" Mentors

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