Reaching Your MCAT Score Goal: Approaching Each Section of the MCAT
You’re in the process of taking MCAT practice exams, preparing for the real thing. But you’re noticing that you can’t score above a certain range on a given section. You might even be questioning your ability or skill set in that section. If you could just boost that section score up, you’ll be at your MCAT score goal. How do you get better at just a specific section though? Here are some section-specific tips and tricks to use while practicing to boost your sectional scores.
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
CARS is notoriously one of the most difficult sections on the MCAT exam, and learning how to approach it can be key to achieving your MCAT score goal. As the section is not content-based but rather skill-based, no amount of knowledge can help you in getting the right answer. The only way to succeed at CARS is using logic to arrive at the most probable answer, supported by the text. If you’re scoring below 126-127 in this section, you might want to consider trying a different strategy for getting the right answer. Some popular methods that people incorrectly use when starting out with CARS are things like excessive highlighting or scribbling down things they think are important to the passage. The correct way to approach CARS, however, is to develop an understanding of the AAMC test-maker’s question logic and incorporate this logic into your own approach to arriving at the right answer.
Initially, upon referring to the passage, the key thing to keep in mind is the clue/keywords that are pointing at the answer that the question stem is looking for. In addition, try to understand the flow, tone, and main idea of the passage as you are reading. Doing so is initially difficult, and test-makers working on CARS specifically pick passages with difficult-to-perceive tone and flow. As you continue to practice reading for these literary elements, you will notice that there are keywords and terms that specifically indicate the author’s tone and flow. Observing keywords and relevant lines of text will help you discover the given passage’s main prerequisite to choosing an answer choice correctly: a source in the text which justifies your choice. Even answers to inference questions, like “the author will most likely agree with which of these statements?”, must have a basis in the text to be correct. You will never be given a CARS question that asks you to use any outside knowledge—in fact, trying to apply outside knowledge to a CARS question is a common mistake that misleads students and can actually make the CARS section even more difficult. Try to think of this as a positive! As opposed to being based on a content fact that you can’t recall, or a definition that you did not get to review, all the information you will need to answer any CARS question is present in the given passage.
As for the question stem, go through a few practice exams and write down what the question is asking as well as the question stem. Try to find similarities between questions and what they’re asking while disregarding passage-specific content that might be in the question. There are only so many questions that can be asked, and every single question on a CARS section fits into a category, despite being masked as a unique, passage-specific question. Doing this for questions you have seen will allow you to understand what these categories are and be able to quickly categorize and assess new questions as you encounter them. To answer any CARS question, the key is to understand the question stem and what it wants. Discern the author’s main idea, tone, flow, and clue words, synthesize an answer, and see which given answer choice most accurately fits your predicted answer. Essentially, try to answer the question without the answer choices if you can. If there is a similar answer given, you will know you are on the right track. Here are a few generic CARS questions, and some suggestions for how to approach them:
If the question asks you “Which of the following, if true, would ____ (strengthen/weaken) the author’s point/claim of ___…”
This question is asking you to:
1) Find the quoted statement in the text. It may even be the main idea of the passage, or of a paragraph in the passage
2) Find what gaps there are in the statement’s support or lack thereof. There will generally be keywords in that paragraph that point to the flaws
3) Before assessing the answer choices, try to formulate an answer in your head, and then pick which answer choice fits it best
If the question asks some form of “The author implies/suggests/infers…”, this question is asking you to:
1) Find the section where this idea is being implied
2) Understand for yourself what this idea could imply or mean in a greater sense
3) Choose the answer that is least grandiose and stay far away from any assuming answers, or answers that make strong/bold statements that have not previously been alluded to in the text. The answer will most likely be something that has the fewest conceptual, suggestive, or implicative distance from the initial idea.
Once you actively work through this mental process enough times, you will easily be able to read any CARS passage, see through the question stem for what it wants, and locate the answer in the text. Since CARS is not about what you know, the number of questions you do will not necessarily correlate to a better score and reaching your MCAT score goal, but it will lead to a better understanding of the different types of questions asked and the trends/patterns that are most common. Once you have uncovered these trends, you can work to improve your skills – be analytical and read critically. An expert tip is to read the CARS passage as if you were a critic or a teacher – try to grade and critique the author!
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (C/P) and Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (B/B)
Unlike CARS, all four of the sciences tested in these sections rely on a solid knowledge base for their content, in addition to the logical manipulation necessary for selecting the right answer choice. The MCAT is all about applying what you know to an area you know nothing about. Having a solid base is important here, but it often isn’t enough, especially when you encounter second- or third-order questions that are designed to test your ability to extrapolate what you know to higher level thinking. Very rarely will you read or encounter a passage of which you have a prior understanding. The official MCAT is fond of using things like formulas you had never see before, proteins and enzymes with confusing and similar names, and biochemical syntheses that can be difficult to follow. This has a purpose – it is testing your ability to reason what you do know into what you don’t.
Let’s consider two examples of the game that the AAMC wants you to play, using questions from official AAMC material. For example, say you encounter a physics passage about the use of ultrasound waves that lists 4 formulas you have never seen before, with coefficients and concepts that are foreign to you. Not a single question on this passage required a knowledge or even understanding of these formulas or what to do with them, as with many formulas provided on the MCAT. In fact, oftentimes you won’t even have to read the passage to be able to answer the questions. The questions might ask things like, “which of these formulas is most similar to Formula X,” or “if you were to substitute Formula 2 in Formula 3, what units would the answer be obtained in?” All of these questions require a working knowledge of physics, but more importantly they involve a logical game you have to play in order to answer correctly.
Therefore, studying content alone will not help you boost your sectional or reach your overall MCAT score goal. You must come to master the art of manipulating formulas, definitions, and concepts in order to arrive at the answer. This will only come with practice. It is important not to slip into the pitfall of only working towards rote memorization of content when doing content review. Knowing that the formula for the relationships of wavelength and frequency is λ = hc/f might help you on the exam, but understanding this relationship, why it is so, and being able to manipulate and use it in conjunction with other formulas is what the MCAT wants you to do, especially in what little time is allotted per question.
Another example can be encountered through a discrete question as opposed to a passage. Imagine a question that asks you which of the four cations/anions is the smallest. This question requires a working understanding of nucleus size, periodic trends, and how charge affects that. Oftentimes, pre-med students are told to memorize things like periodic trends, and it is easy to remember that nucleus size increases down and decreases to the right across the periodic table. The issue is, unlike for college course exams, the MCAT will not always ask simple, first-order recall questions about subjects like periodic trends. To answer the question comparing the given ions, you will have to understand their respective positions on the periodic table and understand how their cation/anion charge would affect their nuclear radius. This is something that cannot be done if you do not understand why nucleus size is what it is, and why periodic trends are what they are. Questions like this require a synthesis of known information to answer an unknown question. This is what the C/P and B/B sections will demand of you, and this critical thinking is what makes these sections difficult. But with the right mindset, you can make great strides to increase your score.
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (P/S)
The psychology and sociology content of the past MCAT years is long gone. This section has evolved over time much more so than the other sections. For this section, It used to be that you could get away with simply memorizing the Khan Academy P/S section terms, or the 300-page document of notes on the section and do well. But not anymore. Many test-takers have given the new P/S section the moniker of “CARS 2.0,” in reference to how it has become as difficult as decrypting a CARS passage. You should try to use the same strategies listed above for CARS for the P/S section, in addition to making sure that your knowledge of terms and definitions is solid. A lot of the P/S questions end up being just as categorical as CARS questions; test-makers will ask things like “what research could be done to improve this study?”, or “what sociological view is this author taking?” It is highly recommended to complete all of UWorld’s P/S section in their question bank, to increase your familiarity with high-yield terms and gain practice in applying those definitions to P/S questions and passages. In the end, success on this final section of the MCAT comes down to identifying which sociological ideas or psychological concepts and their applications you are having trouble with, categorizing the types of questions you are getting wrong, and working to solidify both your content knowledge and your ability to apply the relevant material to each question type.
Conclusion: Achieving Your Score Goal
Regardless of the section, question type, or content, remember that your best bet on the MCAT is to not only select the correct answer choice, but to select the best correct answer choice that fully answers the question being asked. The reason why it can be so difficult to select the right answer choice on the MCAT is because the test-makers will ensure that multiple answer choices are logically plausible – your job is to understand what it is that the question is asking, and make sure that the answer choice you select addresses the question.
It is no doubt that Improving your score on any MCAT section can be difficult and time-consuming, but ultimately it is well worth it because a single section can make or break your score. Using these tips and working on your skills in the section that is giving you trouble is sure to optimize your study time and will bring you one step closer to reaching your MCAT score goal.