1 Easy Way to Improve Your MCAT Studying

Studying. In order to do well on the MCAT and get into medical school, or even to graduate college, you’re going to have to study. Now in other posts we’ve talked to you about what specifically you need to be studying to do well on the MCAT (see "Studying for the MCAT CARS Section on Your Own" and "What the MCAT Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills (CARS) Section is Testing")but in this post we’re going to talk about studying itself and how to be better at.

You’ve experienced it before. You’re sitting at your desk trying to study and you start to get distracted. You feel the overwhelming temptation to check facebook, read Buzzfeed articles, look at old pictures, etc - anything but actually studying. But what if we told you there is a scientifically proven way to help prevent yourself from getting distracted? That means more efficient and effective time spent studying, which not only equals less time studying but makes you more productive. Sound too good to be true? It’s not.

The key to more effective studying is Cognitive Reappraisal. Now what’s that? It’s the process of changing the meaning of a situation in order to modify it’s emotional impact. We’ve talked before about how your mood affects your performance (see "Why Mood Management is Critical for Scoring Well on the MCAT"), so it shouldn’t be a surprise that your mind set affects your performance too.

You can use Cognitive Reappraisal to increase focus, enthusiasm, and performance while studying, and it’s a pretty easy process. You just have to consciously think about the positives over the negatives. Don’t think of studying in negative terms, like “Oh I wish I was going out with friends instead,” “gah, I have to study,” “I don’t want to be doing this right now,” etc. Instead, consciously think about it as an opportunity: “Hey this time spent studying is worth it. It gives me the chance to do great on this test and really set myself apart from other medical school applicants. Studying right now is helping me achieve my dream of becoming a doctor and that’s way more important to me than some stupid party I might be missing out on right now.” See the difference? Feel the difference in how each mindset makes you feel?

Not convinced this actually works and will make you more productive when studying? Let’s look at the actual study and science behind it.

A group of college students were divided into 2 groups. Group A was the control group. Group B was the experimental group. Both groups were brought into a lab and instructed to learn information about 20 wines (their aroma and vintage year) in 10 minutes. They then completed a questionnaire assessing their level of enthusiasm and a memory test about the wine.

After this first test, Group A was instructed to do their best on the next learning test. Group B was also instructed to do their best; however, they were also encouraged to consider the next task as an opportunity to train and improve their memory, which, they say, “is an important key to success at [their] university.”

Both groups were then taken into another lab and asked to learn information about 20 new wines. This time, there were two pictures pasted on the wall in front of the desk from a Wechsler memory test. After 10 minutes both groups were brought back into the first lab and asked to complete a questionnaire assessing their level of enthusiasm, a memory test about the new set of wines, a memory questionnaire about the two pictures that were posted on the wall behind their desks, a new visual memory test, and a manipulation check.

For the new visual memory test, another picture from the Wechsler Memory Scale was presented to each student for 30 seconds. Each student was then asked three questions about the picture and were given a score based on the level of detail they were able to recall. Their results here were compared to their results when asked the same questions about the 2 pictures that were posted on the wall behind their desks. The goal was to create an idea of each student’s base level of detail recall to see if the Cognitive Reappraisal actually had an effect.

For the manipulation check, each student was asked to rate their agreement with the following statements on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much): “While I was studying, I thought of the benefits of this task for my memory.”

To measure enthusiasm, students rated the extent to which they experienced various emotional states using a 7-point Likert scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much).

Can you guess what the results were? First, for the new visual memory test involving the Wechsler picture show to students for 30 seconds, there was no significant difference in how students performed between Group A and Group B. As for the the manipulation check, Group B scored significantly higher, meaning Group B “thought of the benefits of this task for [their] memory” while studying much more than Group A.

The results of measuring the difference in students’ susceptibility to the temptation to be distracted showed that Group A (the control group) recalled more information about the two Wechsler pictures on the wall than did Group B. This suggests that participants in Group A spent more time looking at these pictures than did the participants in Group B. Therefore, Cognitive Reappraisal was effective in reducing temptation susceptibility.

What about enthusiasm levels? The measurements for both groups show that enthusiasm was maintained for Group B (the Cognitive Reappraisal group) but that enthusiasm decreased in Group A. The lesson? Cognitive Reappraisal effectively helps students maintain their enthusiasm while studying.

That’s great, but what about actual performance. That’s what matters right. Will Cognitive Reappraisal actually help you perform better on the MCAT? According to the results of this study, yes. Group B showed a significant increase in performance between the first and second task while Group A’s performance remained constant.

So what this study showed is that Cognitive Reappraisal not only increases your focus by making you less susceptible to distractions, but also helps you remain enthusiastic and actually leads to an increase in performance. Something as simple as thinking about studying for the MCAT in a positive way can help you do better on it. And for a test that essentially determines the rest of your career as a doctor, you want to boost your performance in any way you can.


Leroy, V., Grégoire, J., Magen, E., Gross, J.J., & Mikolajczak, M. (2012). Resisting the sirens of temptation while studying: Using reappraisal to increase focus, enthusiasm, and performance. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(2), 263-268. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2011.10.003