The surge of misinformation bringing question to the scientific enterprise has weaved its way into far more than politics and the pandemic. Far too many online MCAT gurus are propagating massively unrealistic expectations about what it takes to conquer this test; others are misguiding students to leverage suboptimal resources and inefficient study strategies.
I’ll separate the reality from the fluff.
This is the seventh article in this nine-article series – the Dominating the MCAT series – where I will distill everything I have learned in conquering my MCAT into a comprehensive, actionable framework that you can harness and tailor to optimize each aspect of your preparation and test-taking.
If you missed the first article, I would advise you to start there, where I lay three fundamental takeaways that students should carry forth from day one of their MCAT journey and background on my personal experience.
Some have said that the Psych/Soc section of the MCAT has increased in difficulty over the last few years.
I’m not sure what the truth is. However, I realized early on – especially after experiencing the more rigorous P/S section on AAMC FL 3 – that I needed to leverage a strategy that would set me up with three things:
- A rigorous foundation in which the major P/S concepts were instilled within my long-term memory.
- Retention of the most minute details described in the Khan Academy document and 100-page documents.
- Tremendous confidence in my decision-making and processing of information, even when encountering new material that I hadn’t seen prior.
The problem with this section is that there is a very, very minute margin of error. While it is easier content-wise than the other science sections, to score a 131 or a 132, you cannot afford to make more than a few mistakes. Your critical thinking needs to be peaked and you need to be able to dissect details, encounter concepts and material that you have not seen before (as I did on test-day), and trust in your foundation and capacity to analyze information given context. You need to leverage a strategy that will equip you with a robust foundation and ensure that you have the confidence on test day to navigate this decision-making process.
The strategy I used has not been described elsewhere and many people might critique this, but ultimately, it empowered me to earn a 132 on test day – and P/S was never my strong suit beforehand. This strategy is designed in such a manner that your foundation will be strongest in the few days out from your official exam – I recognized this and trusted this process, embracing the fact that there was room for improvement until the very last week of my MCAT journey. I knew that this strategy would translate into me doing better on test-day than I was in the weeks prior.
1 | Rigorous Foundation of Major Concepts | Long-Term Memory
To develop a rigorous foundation of the major Psych/Soc concepts, I leveraged Memm in the beginning of my preparation. I did not read any review book; instead, I dived right into leveraging these cards as a learning tool.
When it comes to this section, do not waste your time watching the Khan Academy videos or reading the K/A document or 100-page guide early on thinking that they will give you a comprehensive foundation into this section. You’re inevitably going to forget most of what you learned and this passive, less-engaging approach will not instill the major concepts in your long-term memory efficiently.
As students, we’re all reluctant to do away with note-taking, reading, and watching videos because we want our learning process to feel comfortable and linear. However, when it comes to mastering these P/S concepts, you should dive right into answering flashcards. This principle of delving right into questions – even for things that you haven’t learned deeply or even seen before – is a key principle of optimizing for efficiency.
Most of us have context on this material even if we haven’t taken a Psych/Soc class, and these flashcards can be leveraged directly as a learning tool instead of solely as a spaced repetition tool. The comprehensive reviews integrated into Memm provide a thorough lens into these topics contextually so you don’t have to memorize facts in isolation the way you’d have to with Anki. You can work through a set of cards, and each time you make a mistake, you can visit the excerpt of the information below and make sense of that piece of information within the broader picture that the excerpt will paint.
Halfway into my preparation, after learning and instilling the information on Memm’s flashcards into my long-term memory, I leveraged Anki Psych/Soc (Milesdown deck) to work through a second presentation of the material. The context was slightly different, and this secondary layer of exposure allowed me to reinforce ideas on a deeper level.
From there, I started using UWorld one month out. This gave me ample opportunity to apply everything I had learned and to make sense of lower-yield concepts and details that I had missed beforehand. Upon reflection, I should not have waited this long to complete UWorld – it would have been better to do it earlier after completion of Memm and do a second pass of it towards the end of my journey.
After completing UWorld and these decks, and working through them regularly every single day, the major concepts that I needed to master to score at least a 129+ on AAMC material were instilled within my long-term memory.
That said, there was still a good chance that I’d face minor concepts or minute details on test-day that I needed to learn. This is where the K/A document and the 100-page document come in.
2 | Minor Details & Low Yield Concepts | Short-Term Memory
I strongly advise that students hold off on reading these two documents until the weeks leading up to their exam, largely because the sheer volume of information in these two documents and the extreme level of detail means that if you were to study the material early on, you’d forget it.
Unlike Memm, Anki, and UWorld, these sacred P/S documents are massively long, and reading them is a passive learning strategy – you’ll forget details and won’t be engaged with the material in a meaningful manner. If you hold off towards the end of your journey, you can cram the information into your short-term memory.
Two or three weeks out from my test, I started working through these documents every night. Admittedly, I didn’t finish the K/A document, and I just skimmed the 100-page document, but I was focused on identifying details that I hadn’t seen before and incorporating them into my short-term memory. I didn’t put as much focus on the big-picture concepts that I knew I had a strong familiarity with.
Working through these documents early on is a bigger trade-off than most students realize. The immense amount of time that has to be dedicated to reading these thoroughly could be better spent elsewhere – and the information you’ll have learned early on won’t be retained.
Using Memm, Anki, and UWorld will instill the highest-yield information into your long term memory, and then these documents can be leveraged (and your short-term memory exploited) to learn and retain minor details until completion of your official MCAT. This requires holding off until the very end, and embracing the fact that your foundation will be strongest in the days leading up to test day.
3 | My Technique for Ensuring Confidence – The Key to a 132
I held off on completing the P/S section bank until the week of my official MCAT. This served me well because the section bank is absolutely brutal – the questions are very challenging to navigate and I was thrown off many, many times given the rigor.
For some, this can be demoralizing. However, if you can embrace the difficulty and keep in mind that it is several steps higher than the difficulty of the AAMC practice tests, then you can use this section bank to facilitate a comfortable transition into the P/S section on test day.
By working on this in the days prior to your official exam, the level of difficulty will have substantial contrast from the level of difficulty you’ll encounter on test day. Personally, this strategy enabled me to transition into my P/S section on test day very, very comfortably, and the psychological benefit this imparts – the confidence that you’ll feel working through the first set of questions on the official exam – can be sustained throughout the section as you ride that momentum.
Given that this was the last section of my MCAT, I pushed hard and I didn’t allow myself any breaks in the midst of the section on test day. The confidence I felt in my decision-making process also gave me a sense of comfort that I sustained. I marked every question I struggled with and I even encountered questions where I was presented with concepts that I hadn’t seen before.
Fortunately, the confidence that was imparted from this strategy left me grounded. I was able to face these questions and analyze them critically – for two of them, I chose concepts that I had not seen before as answers because I trusted my analysis of the question stem, the passage, and the context – which left me thinking that there were certain nuances that didn’t align with the other answer choices as well as they potentially could have had the concept I hadn’t seen before been defined a certain way.
To some degree, I got lucky because to earn a 132 there is a very minor margin of error and I had to guess these questions correctly. However, they weren’t raw guesses – they were founded on a conscious inclination given the nuances in the passage, and I left this section feeling more confident than I ever had before on a P/S section.
With the sheer rigor of that bank of questions, the volume of information you’ve crammed into your head reading the documents in the last few weeks, and the thousands of cards you’ve memorized over the preceding months, you’ll be going into test-day ready to dominate this last section if you use this strategy.