How to Ace the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems Section of the MCAT
June 1, 2017
How to Score a 132 on the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems Section of the MCAT
When studying for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), most students struggle in how to approach the volume of information to process and memorize for the exam. Unlike their undergraduate courses where information is tested in discrete packets, the MCAT requires students to memorize, integrate, and analyze information from a variety of subjects and disciplines. On the biological and biochemical foundations of living systems section specifically, the volume of information is particularly overwhelming for most students. When studying for the MCAT, I improved my biology score from a 30 on the old test to a perfect score (132) on the new MCAT. Below I’ll describe what I learned and how to improve your score for test day.
Scoring well on the MCAT requires an organized system for information intake, review, and analysis. This requires developing a system for note-taking, studying, and testing. During my test preparation, I read a variety of test preparation books and created outline formatted notes. After this, I tested my initial understanding of the information with mini practice sections targeted to that chapter. About a week after reading, I would review the notes and highlight information that I felt extremely comfortable with. After several reviews, the entire set of notes would be highlighted indicating mastery of the information. After this, I took more practice passages and exams to evaluate what content was weak or needed reinforcement. I often returned to my notes and made notations from exams and passages on questions or concepts I struggled with.
This is probably the most essential skill to doing well -- identifying what you do not know. It is vital to take numerous practice exams and passages to identify weak areas. These practice materials develop timing and endurance for the exam. Beyond that, they are a black and white indicator as to whether you are understanding and applying information correctly.
On a side note, students tend to love flashcards. It is understandable as they are an effective study tool for those introductory science courses with large volumes of material that are expected to be reproduced on multiple choice exams. The tendency for students is to try and apply this study technique to the MCAT. While I recommend investing in premade flashcards made by other students or test preparation companies, I do not recommend making your own for content review. Flashcards take a tremendous amount of time to create and are limited in how they test information. The MCAT tests on an integrated and analytical level which reaches beyond memorization. Because of this, flashcards have little yield in terms of score increases and there are much more effective ways to memorize information that we’ll discuss.
A high yield method of studying for the MCAT is in creating your own study materials through charts, graphics, and concept maps. As you are working to cultivate your own materials, you are examining how you know the material and how best to summarize it. This inherently gives you an active learning experience that will promote information retention. In addition, it allows you to integrate information that you are studying and draw connections between concepts. Concept maps are great for this and allow you to easily outline a chapter of information. Drawing pictures and creating visuals for sections such as gastroenterology or even cell biology mechanics is a great way to intake information in a new way and emphasize the key concepts. It is important to introduce information in different forms so that your brain can break up the monotony and have different associations with different concepts.
Another great trick for memorizing and testing your knowledge is a drill I refer to as the ‘blank paper drill’. Once you have finished memorizing a set of information, (e.g. chart, image, or concept map) put your notes away and take out a blank sheet of paper. Set the timer for 5-10 minutes (or longer if needed) and reproduce the information you learned in a similar format to what you were studying. This method is great for interwoven sections like immunology, but also works well for brute memorization such as the amino acids. After time runs out, take out a different colored pen and write in the information forgotten or reproduced incorrectly. Use this sheet as a study tool and then repeat the exercise until you can reproduce the bulk of information without correcting or adding to it.
Finally, the best way to improve your score is confidence. While it seems like an easy concept, most of my students tell me that confidence in their knowledge base and test taking abilities does make a difference in how they perform. Confidence prevents second guessing on answer choices and allows your pacing to stay consistent. When working towards a perfect score on the MCAT, there is so little margin for error that confidence is key. As you approach your exam, know that you have worked hard to earn your score and that will reflect itself on the exam.
About the Author
Jordan is an MCAT tutor for MyGuru. She holds a B.S. in Human Biology from the University of Texas and is starting an M.D. Program in Fall of 2017. She scored a 516 on the MCAT. MyGuru offers customized tutoring in-person and online for the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT, as well as most academic subjects. They focus on helping students develop customized study plans, build core skills, and apply effective strategies.