Introduction to MCAT science passages
Working through the science passages at AAMC Section Bank over the next few modules, one goal will be to learn more science. A second goal will be to learn about the particular nature of MCAT science passages. In other words, we are also learning how to take the test. Science learning goals and test-taking goals are not in conflict with the MCAT. Study the test. The better you understand the thought processes at AAMC, the better you will understand the quality of scientific reasoning you need to bring to medical school. The MCAT isn't only an obstacle. It's also a vehicle to help you prepare for medical school. Seeing the exam from this perspective makes the test more interesting and your success more certain.
Each module going forward in this course includes a brief discussion of "MCAT Strategies". We'll be presenting ideas to help you gain insights on the exam and add to your repertoire. Some of these ideas will be variations on themes we previously discussed within the CARS lessons. Much of our earlier advice for CARS regarding time-management, focus & flow, and strategies for multiple choice questions pertain to the science and psychology sections just as well as CARS. However, science passages present different challenges than CARS pasages. Earlier in a CARS lesson we talked about what it means to clear a CARS passage. In this module, let's discuss what it means to clear a science passage.
Everything in a science passage is intended
There's a fundamental difference between MCAT science and CARS passages. The author of a CARS passage is always doing their best to communicate. Of course there will still be challenges in comprehension. Those challenges are the reason the CARS passage got selected in the first place. However, at a fundamental level, the intentions of the author of an MCAT science passage are different. The science passages were not selected. They were constructed by AAMC.
Every MCAT science passage was constructed at the granular level to be a challenge to comprehension. Everything in the passage is intended as a test. Reading an MCAT science passage is a timed performance to make the elements of the passage intelligible in the light of scientific reasoning.
Things become intelligible to human beings by virtue of being part of a pre-interpreted and holistically structured background of meaning. This is how everyday comprehension works in our practical day-to-day encounters with people, things, and through language. Your general scientific knowledge base is working to become like your everyday common sense. It is working to become a background that tacitly discloses an open intelligibility towards entities and processes in physical systems and in living systems. An MCAT science passage is constructed to see how well this educational process has been going for you.
Clearing a science passage
Think of reading a passage as if you were clearing a field. You are 'making a clearing'. You do your best to exhaust the meaning. Taking the time you can afford, you bring everything you can to the light. You do your best. When you're in the zone, there is a sense of confident, engaged immersion.
The writer of the passage is not going to be easy about it. Sometimes the start of a science passage presents a volume of information which is impossible for the human mind to process at the pace of normal reading. Beginning this type of passage is like opening a door and getting sprayed with a firehose. Don't worry. This is the intended effect. Slow down and give yourself time to process. Study and understand what's going on. It doesn't take that long, and you'll get the time back when you get to the research section in the passage and you understand its rationale.
Watch for instances when the writer of the science passage is being cryptic on purpose. They might tell you that a protein binds its substrate through an interaction involving a positively charged residue in the active site. If they were actually trying to communicate, they would tell it's an arginine residue. They know what it is! Why didn't they tell you? Because it's a purposefully constructed challenge. If you are active in your reading and making the passage disclose its meaning, you will think to yourself that it must be a lysine or arginine as you are reading. You know the question is coming.
Just like clearing a field, sometimes you hit a stump or come upon a dense tangle of thicket. Trust yourself. In the science passages, you will occasionally run into things you feel practically certain are beyond the scope of undergraduate level MCAT science. Maybe the data in the passage research portion was generated through Assay for Transposase-Accessible Chromatin using Sequencing (ATAC-Seq). You know what this is? It's great if you do, but AAMC wouldn't expect foreknowledge of something that advanced. Don't stress. You know the scope of the fundamental knowledge base. It's guaranteed that ninety nine out of one hundred people taking this exam do not have comfortable foreknowledge of ATAC-Seq. It's graduate level molecular biology. AAMC put it there to see if you can keep your footing. You hit a stump, so you make a fence around it. Turn it into an open question and clear as much as you can. Always reach an accommodation. You can see the rationale for the scientific assay from the context of the passage. The researchers are looking at three different cell populations. The data is telling them which of two enhancer sequences upstream from the promoter are active in each cell line. That's the purpose of the assay. You have reached an accommodation with it. You are managing an open question. AAMC is interested in seeing that you know how to do that. You're doing fine.
The challenges in the science passages are all on purpose, so don't be surprised by them - the brutal beginning - the cryptic reference - the out-of-scope lab technique - the noisy data - the experiment with three manipulated variables. You are never in trouble. You know your science, and you know what the test-writer is up to.