How to train yourself to relax while writing the MCAT

Posted in: MCAT

by Alexis

Writing the MCAT is an intensely stressful experience: the test itself is approximately seven and a half hours long (seated time), and is immensely difficult; the results determine whether or not you can join your chosen profession. Being a doctor can be equally stressful: you’ll face new and difficult experiences every day, and you’ll have to think on your feet, learn and adapt as you go.

To that end, preparing for and writing the MCAT could be an opportunity. Now is the time to find ways to cope with the stress and the anxiety of a high pressure profession. As you prepare to write the MCAT, work on finding the stress reduction and coping mechanisms that work for you.

The key is to try different techniques, and practice them. Work on them early and often, so that you’re set to write the MCAT and equally set to be a doctor.

Here are some strategies that you might want to try out.

  • Try deep breathing exercises. Your breathing might be contributing to your stress levels. Quick and shallow breathing can create more stress, and can make it more difficult for you to think clearly. If you find yourself getting anxious, practice taking slow and deep breaths. 

Here’s how it’s done. Breathe in through your nose. Make sure that the breath is deep and even, and that it comes from your abdomen and not the top of your chest. You can even place a hand on your abdomen to make sure that it’s filling and expanding. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Try to relax your jaw as you let out your breath. Try taking deep breaths like this until your mind clears and you relax. Just the temporary change of focus can allow you to come back to the question at hand with new energy.

Remember that for this technique to work, it must be a consistent practice. Try it early and often, every time you feel stress of pressure in the weeks leading up to the exam.

  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. There are many approaches to mindfulness and meditation, many schools of thought and innumerable books on the subject. Look around, ask for advice, and find the technique that works for you.

One popular method to try during an exam also asks you to switch your focus. In other words, the system asks you take your attention away from the question that’s causing you stress or concern, and to turn your focus to your body. Many students report that they relax on exams by closing their eyes, and tuning in to their body’s sensations, the feeling of their arms against the table, of their feet on the floor, etc. They use this inner focus to relax their bodies and clear their minds. Once their minds are clear, then many are able to look at the exam again, and to work with focus and without panic.

Again, for this method to work, you must start your practice weeks or even months before the exam date.

  • Build and use a relaxation palace. Like the memory palace, this technique asks you to create a space in which you can retreat, when you need it.

In the weeks and months before the exam, create an inner world into which you can retreat if you feel overwhelmed by stress or pressure. Choose a location in which you feel safe. This can be a familiar place such as a childhood room or a library carrel. It could also be a fictitious environment, a location from a book or a movie. Practice visualizing it, and populating it with whatever furniture it might require. Every time you feel stress, practice closing your eyes and walking inside. Take a similar route every time you go inside, and look at similar objects. This inward focus can help you to calm your breathing and clear your mind.

The best way to feel relaxed is to feel prepared. The best way to feel prepared is to be prepared. Find out more about expert instructors and intensive preparations sessions at