Another Reader Email on the MCAT

Here are some excerpts from an email I got today and my response. I figured some of my readers that are locked in deadly combat with the MCAT might find them helpful and encouraging.

Hey MSO-
So I’m just two weeks away from the MCAT now. When you were taking your practice MCATs, did you ever have the feeling of “WTF did they get this stuff”? Especially on biology? I took FL5 the other day. What the hell was up with all of the insect stuff?

When I was taking my practice full-lengths, I actually felt like the science passages were all fairly well-written and legitimate topics. I don’t remember the insect passage, but there were definitely times were the material felt like it was beyond the scope of introductory classes. It feels that way because it is. There will be plenty of things which are beyond what you’ve seen in your courses and prep. That’s alright though – the MCAT isn’t testing content knowledge so much as whether you can figure out new things based on what you’ve already learned. The reason I don’t remember the insect passage is probably because it wasn’t asking questions about insects. For example, the MCAT might introduce an incredibly complicated topic from the field of particle physics. It might give you a really intricate explanation about the Z and W bosons, and then show you a plot like this one from CERN, which you have most likely never seen (unless you follow my Twitter feed).

Then, it might ask you to determine which interval recorded the most events per 5 GeV, say 10-100 GeV, 100-500 GeV and so forth. You might not have a clue what is being measured or how the data was taken and the MCAT doesn’t care if you do, because that’s not what it is testing. It’s testing whether or not you can read a plot with labeled axis and draw some very simple inferences from it. That’s a completely relevant skill to medicine, or at least, how I plan to practice medicine. The only reason I bring up CERN is because it was at the front of my mind – rest assured, there will be incredibly obscure topics on the MCAT that you will have never heard of before. The real trick to taking the MCAT is learning to find the simple question that the test writers have hidden among all the advanced stuff you’ve never seen before. If you can do that, then you REALLY know the science.

I remember on the real thing, I got squashed with this ridiculously complex passage that had all sorts of complications. I looked at it, completely befuddled by it, and then went back to what I had told myself for months: find the simple question. Then I realized that the question was really just asking if I could determine velocity and acceleration from a simple graph of position relative to time. I didn’t need to understand what was all over the chart, I just needed to remember that velocity was the time derivative of position. I looked at the chart, identified the quantity in question, circled the right answer, and went on. I later saw in the SDN forums that passage had absolutely murdered other students, but it was incredibly simple, but only if you could see the question the writers had cloaked in all the other stuff. I sort of felt guilty.

I understand your feelings about scoring well but still a little nervous. I am about in the same range that you were (upper 30′s) but still wish I was hitting at least 40, especially since I seem to miss some REALLY easy questions here and there, particularly on the PS if I miscalculate something. Those errors are so easy to make and there just isn’t enough time to double check all of your answers, which is what I am used to doing in class.

As far as scores go, if you’re in the upper 30s, you’re totally set, assuming you’re doing them all under timed conditions. Ignoring verbal, at this point your score is really a statistical fluctuation – it only takes a couple of problems to knock you a point or two and it isn’t something you should worry about. My advice, particularly in hindsight, is to focus on the fact that you’re crushing the practice exams, still have some time to go, and are continuing to improve. Make it about how much you understand well, how solid your test-taking chops are, and how the easiest day will be the day of the real thing. The emotional game of the exam is something that doesn’t get talked about too much, but it’s of huge importance. Second to timing and practice, managing the emotional uncertainty and anxiety is probably the most important thing, and I’m intentionally placing it above content review. All the knowledge in the world doesn’t help you if you’re letting your nerves get to you.

Go back and read my post on the last exam I took – I let a single error ruin me. I had become so accustomed to getting every question on the PS science correct that I let a tough passage burn 15 minutes of my time and absolutely demoralize me. The lesson I learned was to not let perfect become the enemy of the good. It’s really easy to do – you get a 15 on the PS section and figure that you should be doing that every time. Then a rough passage comes along, you get engrossed in it and refuse to let it go. That approach is really natural for people that really know the stuff, but it can absolutely devastate you. The real thing will absolutely have a passage or so in each section that is designed to do this. The writers are laying a trap for you and, if you take the bait, you’ll run out of time on one of the sections and will leave the last ten questions unanswered. I’m glad I tanked that last practice exam, because if I hadn’t, I’d have made that mistake on the real thing and gotten absolutely owned.

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