Total Justification: the best question strategy for the MCAT

MCAT study skills
By Henry

What is Total Justification?

Most students pick the correct answer on a multiple-choice practice problem, and think they have gotten the most they can out of the problem; they are wrong. Answering a question on the MCAT is essentially the task of appraising answer choices to see if they fit certain criteria, such as being factually correct or logical in the context of the passage. Appraising answer choices in the context of certain criteria is the meat of the MCAT, and practicing it just once per question is a massive waste. For this reason, I recommend that students explicitly justify why every correct answer is correct, but also, why every incorrect answer is incorrect: Total Justification.  

Where I learned this skill

During college, I had the experience of being thoroughly crushed by Columbia University’s intro biology professor of 30+ years, Deborah Mowshowitz. (If you want to know what I mean by crushed, read her course reviews here where many a student laments their sleepless nights thanks to Mowshowitz). Her exams are both multiple choice and free response combined: you must explicitly justify the correct answer, and explicitly justify why the other answers are incorrect. While it may not be immediately obvious, this requires substantially more thinking than just selecting the right answer. Many of us can feel that an answer is wrong, but defining its inexactitude is a more difficult matter. By requiring so much exploration of each question, Mowshowitz forced her students to learn an exceptional amount not only about correct biological reasoning, but also incorrect biological reasoning. This constant practice of reasoning and problem solving may not have given all her students great grades in her class, but her students do score disproportionately well on the MCAT, and for me, it was because of this strategy 

Additionally, I also encountered the tactic of Total Justification while getting a drink in a midwestern bar during a layover while talking to an exceptionally accomplished LSAT tutor. I asked her what her best LSAT tip was in exchange for my best MCAT tip and she said “students should be able to justify why every correct answer is correct and why every incorrect answer is incorrect, because they will be able to recognize both logic and illogic, as well as soundness and lack of soundness. Additionally, they will really get to know the test: what makes right answers right and wrong answers wrong.” I have quoted her because I could not say it better myself, and because she has a very LSAT way of describing the benefits of the tactic. MCAT students don’t typically think of logic and soundness, however the answer choices on the MCAT should be examined in exactly that fashion. 

Why you should use Total Justification

Despite the fact that this advice is simple, I can’t understate how powerful it is. If you explicitly justify every right and wrong answer choice on every problem in every problem and practice set that you do, while you may have done only 1,000 questions, you will have appraised 4,000 answer choices. This will make you 4 times as prepared as someone who just answers 1,000 problems in a simple-minded fashion.

Furthermore, by finding an explicit basis for assessing every answer choice, you will avoid falling victim to the myriad psychological effects that occur during the course of the MCAT. Also, you will have confidence in every answer choice. I can’t understate how important that is. On hour number 5, when you are sick and tired, the confidence of knowing that you can explicitly justify your answers is very encouraging.

The last benefit is the increased diagnostic power of using Total Justification during the study process. While the simple approach to a question may call upon one or two pieces of knowledge, explaining why the wrong answers are wrong requires additional knowledge, meaning that you are assessing 4 times as much knowledge per question compared to just the simple approach. This helps not only to solidify the memories of that information but also finds more of the gaps in your knowledge that need rectifying. 

Further steps

Using Total Justification is the highest yield strategy that I teach my students, however, its effect can be potentiated by incorporating many other strategies, such as spacing and interleaving your problem sets.