To exam buffs and MCAT tutors, the MCAT is one of the most beautiful exams out there.
When it comes to exam elegance, it is the standardized test version of Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” What makes the MCAT so beautiful? Well, unlike some things that are only beautiful on the outside, it’s the core of what the exam is all about. While the MCAT ostensibly covers a wide range of topics, ranging from physiology to physics, it’s actually only interested in one thing: your capacity to reason—and it tests that capacity masterfully.
This crux is where most students get confused: clearly an exam that covers a lot of material shold demand an encyclopedic understanding of that material, right? Wrong.
Students spend far too much time during their preparation obsessing over the details of gluconeogenesis or quantum numbers, and not enough time thinking about and manipulating the core concepts underlying them.
Mastering the MCAT is less about facts than it is about concepts. It's less about knowledge than it is about intellectual agility. But students are often too distracted by the expansiveness of the material covered to recognize this.
This shift in paradigm has three important implications for doing well on the exam.
First, when it comes to studying, it means that time is better spent working through practice questions than memorizing obscure facts (i.e. it’s all about study skills). Trying to memorize facts to do well on the MCAT is like looking at pictures of the track to train for a marathon.
Second, if the exam is about reasoning, there are then two ways to come to a correct answer: rule out the wrong answers or rule in the right one. But students rely too heavily on ruling in the right answer. In fact, students are often hesitant to choose answers that they can’t verify to be correct even when they can verify that the other three potential answers are certainly wrong. Knowing that wrong answers are wrong is just as good as knowing that the right answer is right.
Finally, students are often obsessed with the perfect answer, rather than the mere best answer.
Students get frustrated because the correct answer is often imperfect; it’s not the way worded the way they would have worded it or its not as complete as they would like. But remember, the MCAT is about reasoning—choosing the correct answer from three wrong ones. So the best answer, however imperfect, is the right answer. Choose it, and move on.