As I was planning on studying for the MCAT (the Medical College Admissions Test) a couple months ago, I told myself something like this, as I was trying to motivate myself to study for the behemoth that is the 7 and a half hour exam:
"Ryan, you're going to study 12 hours a day, stay 100% sober, and take 14 practice tests over the next three months."
Well, a week before my MCAT, I have not accomplished these summer process-oriented goals, not even close. I have written before about how perfectionism is an attempt to be your own God, and here I was shamelessly trying to be my own God. No, I have not studied 12 hours a day - although there are a couple of days I've come close, the reality is that I've averaged somewhere between six to eight hours of studying a day, with a lot of variation depending on how motivated I feel. I have not taken 14 practice tests - I've barely pumped out seven. I have not stayed 100% sober.
But that doesn't mean I'm not satisfied with the progress I've made along the way. From my first diagnostic practice test to my last full-length practice exam, I improved my score 25 points, almost 6 to 7 points per section. No matter how well I do on the real thing a week from now, I have to be satisfied with that growth. But if there were things I would have done differently and ways I would have approached this exam differently, this is what I would have told myself three months ago, and what I would tell anyone who is taking the MCAT soon.
You need to have a life.
Who actually studies 12 hours a day? I had this epiphany the other day - 90% people who tell you they're studying 12 hours a day aren't studying productively for 12 hours a day. I know this because I am one of those people - studying two hours, getting really tired, taking a two hour nap, working out, studying another two hours, watching YouTube videos, running errands, and then studying another two hours and going to bed is what people really mean when they "study 12 hours a day." What I really meant was that the MCAT was on my mind 12 hours a day.
I blew off hanging out with my friends and having a social life a couple of times the past couple months, and now I seriously regret I did. The key to doing well on the exam and doing well holistically is balance - and having a life, hanging out with friends, spending time writing and doing things I enjoy were all a part of that. One thing that made sure I wasn't doing too much and burning myself out was being on my college cross country team. The past several weeks, I have had an obligation to run 80 or more miles a week, and when that happens, there was a severe limit on my ability to study 12 hours a day.
Another big thing I learned was this:
Don't spend time comparing yourself to others. You have to do whatever works for you.
I shamelessly admit that I spent too much time on the MCAT Reddit page seeing how people raised their scores from somewhere in the 30th percentile to somewhere in the >100th percentile. In doing so, not only did I feel bad about myself and feel more and more impatient about my slow pace of progress, but I didn't realize that it was statistically impossible for as many people to score 524+ (100th percentile) on the exam as the number of people who said they did. It was upon first scanning the MCAT Reddit page that I first set those unrealistic expectations for myself.
I'm the first person to tell people not to compare yourself to others and not to care what other people thought, and here I was doing precisely the opposite of what I preach. There were people who said that they improved their scores on the MCAT by being 100% sober and studying 12 hours a day for three months, which was why I wanted to do the same. There were people who made 5000 flashcards, which I obsessively downloaded and made on my computer.
What I realized was you are not those people. You have your own style and ways of doing things - I wrote 150 pages of my own notes, which helped significantly more than some other person's flashcards.
It's a game of the patience, persistence, endurance.
I cannot tell you how many times I've felt like giving up only 10 to 15 minutes into a full-length practice test of the MCAT - the fact that I had to sit in a chair for the next seven hours felt excruciating. I cannot tell you how many times I did give up and just wait the next day, when I had more energy and motivation, to finish it.
But somewhere late in my preparation, I learned this: it is a very long exam. I can't tell you how many times, too, I've gone through a passage in the CARS (Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills) section, understood absolutely nothing about the passage, came back to it some other time and gotten every question in the section right. I can't tell you how many times I thought I was going to fail a passage and knew nothing about whatever topic they were testing, only to see that I did know it. Every cliche there could possibly be about life applies to the MCAT - it truly isn't a sprint, it's a marathon.
You need to remind yourself why.
The original reason why I wanted to be a pre-medical student and a doctor, coming into college, was a series of circumstances that afflicted my family. A not so noble and extrinsic reason for wanting to be a doctor was because my parents want me to be one. Several times down the line, I lost motivation and forgot about those reasons. Every time I gave up on studying or gave up on a practice exam, I had to remind myself why I started in the first place. Writing this article is one of those times.
"I want to be a doctor because my parents want me to" and "I've already taken all the pre-med courses" were sentiments I had to seriously reckon with multiple times in the process - I needed something better, something more to push myself intrinsically. It said something to me that I'm inherently passionate about almost everything I do, and completely not passionate about the medical school application process and this exam - I'm not ready for medical school right now. I felt that before. I don't know what the future holds, and I don't know if I ever will be ready. God might have that plan for me down the line, or he might have some other plan. Reminding myself why has been a more challenging battle than ever studying any of the material on the exam, and that is a battle I will keep reckoning with as I go into my last year of college.
The truth is there's a chance I might not even go to medical school, and might not even be a doctor. I'm at a very transient stage of my life where that bridge is very far down the road, but the no matter my career and life choices, and no matter the outcome, studying for the MCAT has taught me many life lessons and traits that will stick with me for a long time. It has taught me to be more patient, it has taught me to have more balance, and it has taught me not to compare myself to other people, and those lessons are far more valuable than the score.