Answering MCAT science questions

  • What is this exam really about?

    Almost the entire knowledge-base is in the harbor. You have accomplished this through content review. You have a lot of plates spinning now. The core physical and biological sciences are almost all there. All the subjects and subdivisions. That's a lot of stuff! In this course structure we have eighty core subjects from physics through to physiology. Physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, molecular cell biology and physiology. Those are the disciplines. Within each discipline, can see the subject level. Fluid mechanics - enzyme kinetics - pentose phosphate pathway. That kind of thing. Each subject at this level is its own way of looking at the world. It's all laid out there. You own it now in the form of a tacit way you can see things. This is your property now. A complete, general sciences knowledge base.

    You demonstrate that you have a complete knowledge-base by making the world of any MCAT passage intelligible. You move through the passage and bring it all to light in terms of the scientific ideas you have internalized. Your tacit knowledge operates from below projecting an intelligible picture of things onto the passage. An MCAT passage is designed to make this a challenging experience. The big figure of merit of the exam is how well you can sustain your clear picture through the puzzles the passage puts in your way as you move through it.

    How do you make the elements of an MCAT passage come clear to understanding? Different parts of different passages need different approaches. In the final analysis, your basic science knowledge gives you a foothold in any unfamiliar territory. Your knowledge-base is structured and complete. Even if the exam were in two weeks, you would have a ready game for it. Now that you have gotten this far in content review, the exam will start to take on a much more manageable gestalt.

    How do you go about approaching dense molecular biology language in a passage? This is different than how you approach a series of organic chemistry reactions or tables of data within an MCAT passage. Solve an MCAT passage by making sense of its elements in a timed performance.

    Always take whatever time you need at the beginning of any MCAT passage. Rehearse the beginning. Establish contact. Give yourself time to form a view into the world of the passage. You will see passages unfold from the clear space of comprehension you took the time to establish at the very beginning.

    This is much better than muddling through the beginning and never getting your footing. There is a tendency to feel the time pressure and keep moving forward through dense molecular biology language, for example, in the hopes it will start to make sense in the research part of the passage. It won't get better there. Invest the time you need to get your footing. That investment of time will save time. The research part will make clear sense because you took the time to understand the underlying science at the beginning of the passage.

    Every moment in an MCAT passage you are asking what part of science helps you understand what you are reading right now? You are always asking. Make it a game for every single passage element. Open the doors to what you know and let it talk to you. Encourage your knowledge-base to chatter. Squeeze out all the meaning. Projects the MCAT passage into your imagination through recognition and synthesis with what you know. The exam tests how well you can project the scientific scenario of the passage into a clear picture beneath the light of general science ideas in your mind. Focus into the passage and read at a pace that allows your general sciences knowledge-base time to process and articulate what it knows about what you are reading. This is working as it should when you find you are predicting many of the questions while you are reading the passage.

  • Read the question stem carefully

    Take your time and read every word of a question stem. Read it like it's the text of a law trying to put you in jail. As pure sensory input, nothing looks as much like a proposition as its exact opposite. Read it carefully to achieve its true gestalt. Part of the multiple choice test-writer's art is the intentional construction of failure pathways for your executive function.

    Wherever possible, try to answer the question stem by itself.

  • Answer the question stem by itself

    Wherever possible try to answer the question stem in your mind as if it were a short answer question before reading the answer choices. You don't have to finalize an answer. The point is to have a disciplined method of pausing a moment to think independently about the question stem before starting to read the answer choices. There was a moment when the test-writer was sitting at their desk with only the question stem too. They thought of the right answer first, and then they came up with their second best answer. Their second best answer is designed to act like a magnetic pull and anchor your thinking. If you wait until reading answer choices to start your thought process, you will give the second best answer the opportunity to dictate to you how you should be framing the question.

    Imagine a subtle question about the rationale for an experimental control. These often seem really difficult, but answer a question like this to yourself before reading the answer choices. For a question about an experimental control you would try to come up with the potential confounding variables the researchers are trying to eliminate with the control. When you start reading the answer choices, you find the correct answer right there in front of you. One of the other choices is a wrong answer with lots of hand-waving and jargon. That one actually would have seemed really compelling if you'd jumped right in, but now it has a totally different gestalt than it would have had. You see right through it. You see it for what it is. Wherever possible, try to answer the question stem before reading the answer choices. Don't go into the answer choices like a babe in the woods.

  • Don't commit too soon

    No matter how tempting the first decent answer sounds, practice withholding judgment and process all the answer choices before you commit. Give them all equal weight at first. Often it will be clear, and you quickly get to the answer and move on. However, with a subtle, difficult question, be satisfied to get down to the two best at first. Don't make the first decent sounding answer the 'king of the hill'. This may put the correct one in the position of having to fight an uphill battle. Get down to two answers, and then attack them both. One will have a weakness in its armor that you can find. Choose the least worst of the two. That's going to be the right answer.

  • Let a question be easy when it wants to be easy

    Familiarity with the basic knowledge-base is the difference between a 120 and a 124 in a science section. Neither score is awesome, but for the exam designers, it's important that there be good test-retest reliability between the two. The difference needs to be as reliable as the difference between a 126 and 130. For this to be possible, there must be many easy questions on the exam. In any section of the MCAT, about a third of the questions are just easy. Even the hardest passages have a few easy questions. Don't psyche yourself out. If it looks easy, it's easy. Just make sure you have read the question stem carefully. Make sure you have read all the answer choices. Then choose the best answer. You know it's the correct answer. It is the correct answer! Let them be easy when they want to be easy and move on.

  • The difficult questions

    There is another third of the questions which are genuinely subtle and difficult. You get down to two possible answer choices in a difficult question, and neither one seems to be all that great. Sometimes they both seem to be pretty decent. Which one do you choose? Practice closing your mind to what's seductive about each answer choice. Plug your ears against the Siren song. Don't think about what's right about each answer. Think about what's wrong. Go on the attack. There are many ways an answer may disqualify itself. When you go on the attack, the correct answer will be strangely impervious to attack. It will be like a smooth stone, but you can find a weakness in the other one. There is something in every wrong answer that makes it unsound. You might not love the one that seems impervious to attack, but that's the correct answer. It's the least worse. Choose that one. Flag the question and move on. Don't go on a fishing expedition in the passage. Don't centrate. You can come back later at the end of the section and look at it again with fresh eyes. If it turns out you don't have time at the end of the section, it's even better that you moved on.

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