MCAT Prep Course vs. Self-Study?

You have many options when it comes to MCAT studying, you can self-study or you can take a prep course. Both options can be effective, but you should consider your goals and circumstances to choose the best path for you.

One of the hallmarks in any pre-medical journey is taking the MCAT. The MCAT is no easy exam, so preparation is essential. But there are so many ways to prepare for the exam, so it is important to settle on a method that will best allow you to reach your goals.

To prepare for the MCAT, you have two options: (1) you can self-study, or (2) you can enroll in a prep course. There are pros and cons to both systems – I have tried both. In this post, I will discuss how you can decide whether you should self-study or enroll in a prep course for the MCAT.

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Should I Self Study for the MCAT?

Consider the benefits and drawbacks to taking a MCAT course vs self-study.

Generally, I recommend self-study as the preferred route for most pre-meds. Self-studying gives you more flexibility, and allows you to tailor your studying to your needs and weaknesses. More importantly, self-study can save you a lot of money. While it can be intimidating to study for such a grueling exam by yourself, there exist many techniques that can make self-study a practical and effective way of preparing for the MCAT.

Self-studying requires dedication and self-accountability. There is no one to tell you what your weaknesses are or give you a study schedule to follow: you will need to identify your problem areas and create plans to address them on your own. There are perks to this of course: self-studying is an intensely personal experience: it allows you to tailor every minute of your studying to address our weakest areas, and it can even be divided in strange ways to fit into a busy schedule. However, if you are a person who has trouble with self-discipline and often find yourself watching Netflix instead of studying, self-study will be challenging as there will no one to catch you or hold you accountable when you fall off task. I would recommend self-studying to anyone who can hold themselves to their study schedule, and have some familiarity with a majority of the material – because learning everything from scratch can be very difficult and time consuming. 

Study Schedule for the MCAT

Make a schedule to guide your MCAT preparation.

It is easy to get steered off course when self-studying. Therefore it is important to set your goals from the start. If you are studying for the MCAT full time (6 hours a day or more) you will want to start studying at least two months before your exam. I recommend taking the first month to review content or knowledge tested on the MCAT (by reading your textbooks and watching Pixorize videos!), while you use the second month to take practice questions, and full-length exams . However, if you have other commitments and cannot study full time, I would highly recommend starting your studying at least four months in advance of your exam date.

When is the ideal time to study for the MCAT? If you are a traditional student, the optimal time to study for the MCAT in the summer after sophomore year. During this time you will have 2-3 months to dedicate just to MCAT studying. It’s perfectly okay if you haven’t taken classes on some of the subjects covered on the exam: most of the science on the MCAT is basic, so you will have no problems learning it on your own. However long you choose to study, it is important that you make and follow a schedule. A good schedule will not only make sure you don’t deviate from your goals, but will also hold you accountable!

Self-Study Materials for the MCAT

Pick up these essential MCAT resources before you begin self-studying.

Now for the important stuff! What MCAT materials or resources should you be using? The market is full of different textbooks and resources, and it can be hard to find the best ones to use. For textbooks, I recommend the Examkrackers Study Set. For less than $200 dollars, you will get all the textbooks you need. I like Examkrackers becomes it gives you just the right about of information and also includes many helpful visuals in the books. Another popular brand is Kaplan MCAT Prep. In my opinion, the Kaplan books are a little too dense and too detailed for the MCAT; you are unlikely to be tested over all the little details they include in their books.

Regardless of what textbooks you choose, it is important to make flashcards of formulas and terms you do not already know. And you should revisit these flashcards at least once a week. 

To supplement your studying, I would highly recommend using Pixorize videos to help you remember challenging factoids in Psych/Soc and Biology. Unlike other review videos, Pixorize provides visual mnemonics that really stick in your memory the first time you watch it. You can try some of their videos for free on the Pixorize Youtube page.

Finally, remember that self-studying does not mean studying alone: you can also link up with other pre-meds and form a study group!

Prep Courses for the MCAT

Different MCAT courses have different benefits – choose carefully.

Prep-courses are a convenient but expensive method to study for the MCAT. Prep courses will generally bundle all the material you need with lectures, practice exams, and tutoring. Some of the most effective courses come from Kaplan, these could cost thousands of dollars. Your local university may also offer MCAT lectures.

Prep courses are most beneficial for those who need a rigid framework, and for those who are learning much of the material for the first time. If you are unfamiliar with much of the material, the course lectures can be a key place for learning – as learning entire subjects (like psychology or organic chemistry) can be a nearly impossible challenge while self-studying. In this case, lectures by teachers who can break down and teach the material efficiently can also save you a lot of time.

Also, prep courses are for you if you learn best through lectures (and not reading). This may be because you are an auditory learner, or because you simply enjoy having an instructor you can interact with – as having an expert in your corner can certainly boost your morale.

But just because you are enrolled in a course does not mean that you are guaranteed a 528 on the MCAT. Just passively attending a course is not enough – you still have to do the studying/learning yourself outside of class. At the prep course I attended, I noticed that I mainly passively sat through lectures, and rushed through the assigned readings in order to stick to the assigned course schedule. This came at the cost of true learning and understanding, which is why I personally prefer self-study.


There are many ways to prepare for the MCAT. You can guide yourself by self-studying, or take a prep course.

Prep courses tend to be more expensive, but they are convenient and can hold you accountable to a schedule. Courses require the same amount of studying as self-studying (or even more), but your study schedule and lectures will be provided for you.

In contrast, self-studying requires a strong will and discipline. However, if you put in the time, you can just as (if not more) successful. Self-studying allows you to design your own course targeting your personal needs and weaknesses – and you can also make it more fun by studying with friends. Also, being more involved in planning your learning can help you learn about the way you learn, which can enhance your experience.

Whether you study alone or take a course, you can certainly reach your target score on the MCAT. Here’s to reaching your goals!

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