Many of my students have come to me from other prep companies, lamenting that they were perfectly able to learn the content and recite the equations and concepts behind them, but were still performing poorly on practice exams. Even more, they often complain that they had never experienced this issue in undergrad. One of the main contributors to this problem is the MCAT’s penchant for including highly technical and novel scientific passages that serve to disorient the test taker upon first glance. Many of these passages start by naming a slew of genes, proteins, and bioactive chemicals linked together in some pathway. Others will include a bunch of complicated figures and data presented in ways you may have never seen before. Here I will illustrate three methods I use to attack these kinds of passages:
- Slow down and collect yourself – maintaining sharp focus and motivation is key to understanding the passage.
- Read each word of the passage slowly and carefully. You should be constantly attempting to link any ideas you read about back to content you have already studied.
- Although you should be paying close attention to the details, don’t get too bogged down by them. Look for the main idea and ask yourself, “What is the point of this? What knowledge does the MCAT want me to demonstrate?”
Additionally, when you are reading a passage that describes protein-protein interactions or mechanical contraptions in physics, you should be visualizing the process in your head the whole time and attempting to piece it all together. When encountering biochemical pathways, it may helpful for you to quickly jot down the order of the molecules and then refer to them when you get to the questions. It is imperative that you have a solid understanding of most of the passage before you get to the questions – neither I nor any of my tutors condone skipping to the questions first or ignoring the passage altogether as many of the answers must be found from the passage.
Finally, when you get to the figures, begin by reading the caption and title (if available) and looking at the axes labels if there is a graph. This will give you an idea of what the data is supposed to show. On graphs, look for trends within the data points – is there an increase or decrease across the points or does it remain constant? Does this make sense in light of the passage? Feel free to refer back to the sentence or paragraph that cites the figure in question. For bar charts or box plots, you should be looking for comparisons. Is one drug more effective than the other (or do the error bars cross and no mention of a significant difference is made)?
Keep these ideas in mind as you read the passages. Remember to relax and as weird as it sounds, have fun! As a future physician, you will be expected to continue reading and evaluating research papers, drug trial outcomes, etc. and pass on that knowledge to your patients in hopes of improving their mental and physical health.
To get a feel for how I approach these passages, watch some of our videos on AAMC biology and chemistry.
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