What to do when you don’t understand a science passage on the MCAT Exam

Posted by Emily Leven on 10/2/15 10:00 AM

 If you relate to Michael Scott, you've come to the right place!

One overarching theme of the MCAT exam is its unusual application of basic knowledge (well, “basic” once you’ve completed four years of pre-med classes and studied for a few months). Passages will often present familiar phenomena in the context of complex systems, or expect test-takers to predict the outcomes of perturbations to the novel scenario they’ve just described.

For this reason, it’s actually quite likely that you will see things on test day that you’ve never read about before, and that’s not only manageable, it’s to be expected. Here’s how to deal with it:

1. First things first: don’t panic!

Take a deep breath. The MCAT is a scaled test, which means that you are being graded in comparison to other people’s performance. Chances are that if YOU think this passage is impossible, other people are really struggling with it, too. You’re not automatically behind if you answer some of these questions incorrectly.

2. Pull out anything recognizable from the passage

The key is to pull out anything you know from the passage (there will be something in there you’ve seen before!). Keep track of these things with the trusty passage map you’ve been practicing and try to figure out the gist of what’s going on.

Example #1: Maybe the passage explains an experimental design and presents its results. Even if you have no idea how to interpret these results, pay attention to:

  • Which variables they are presenting
  • How they are compared to each other.
  • Units, as these are often helpful in eliminating wrong answer choices (more on this later).

Example #2: Maybe all you recognize is one word, the name of an organelle, perhaps. The next step is to think about:

  • Where that organelle can be found
  • What biochemical functions it performs
  • How these functions are regulated.

Already, you have a lot more context for any upcoming questions.

3. Highlight keywords and important information appropriately.

Since the new MCAT exam shows each question on a different screen, it’s not as easy as it used to be to skim all the questions before reading a passage. But this doesn’t mean you can’t pay attention to keywords while you read, and doing so will make it easier to jump back to important topics once you reach the questions.

In general, pay attention to:

  • Anything in italics
  • Any term you don’t recognize or whose meaning you don’t know

You may encounter one of those terms that they’re expecting almost nobody will know, so chances are they’re going to ask you about it. Be careful not to over-highlight, though. It’s only a helpful tool if the yellow stands out!

4. Answer what you DO know.

Let’s say you read the passage and you mapped it out and paid attention to parts you recognized, but you still feel a little shaky. That’s OK. Many passage-based questions are actually Free-Standing Questions (FSQs) in disguise. While it may be helpful to understand the passage and confirm your inferences and answers based on specific parts of the passage, it is not always necessary. Sometimes the questions can be answered with scientific knowledge you already have- you’ve studied a lot of content to prepare for this test, and this is where you get to use it!

5. Use clues in the answer choices to help eliminate wrong answer choices.

In most cases, you will be able to answer at least one answer choice based on process of elimination, and that leaves you with a 75% chance of guessing correctly. But luckily, you’re not just guessing blindly- your guesses are educated. Two rule of thumbs can be helpful here:

  • You know that an “extreme” answer choice probably isn’t right (words like “always,” and “never” are considered extreme). If you really think an extreme answer is correct (e.g. “the Krebs cycle NEVER occurs in red blood cells”), you should be able to find a specific part of the passage that backs it up. This could mean that it’s explicitly stated, or that something in the passage supports the inference that lead you to your conclusion. In the context of this example, if the passage states that “red blood cells are anaerobic” this supports your inference that the products of glycolysis will never enter the Krebs cycle, which requires the presence of oxygen for oxidative phosphorylation later on.
  • You also know that units provide a great deal of information. If you can estimate the order of magnitude of a correct answer, you can probably eliminate at least one, and often two, wrong answers with confidence. In addition, sometimes the units give you a hint as to the computation required to answer the question (sometimes it’s not so obvious what the question is even asking you to do in passages you don’t understand). If you see a unit that you know can be broken down, write out the “longhand” of the unit and see if you can work backwards with dimensional analysis to get the right answer. For example, if you see answer choices in Newtons, make sure you identify that you are ultimately looking for a calculation that results in [kg * (m/s2)].

5. Answer everything else.

Hopefully, by using the techniques we’ve already talked about, there won’t be too many questions like this, but sometimes it just happens. There is no penalty for guessing, so ANSWER EVERY QUESTION. This applies if you really have no idea and want to move on for the sake of time, but it also applies if you are in the last thirty seconds of the section and have too many questions left to read through them all. Click on an answer choice for all of them, and then go back and try to answer a few questions after reading them and giving them some thought.

Finally, remember that every question is a new chance to earn points, and that your performance earlier in the section doesn’t affect this. Don’t let one tough passage throw off your game for the rest of the test!

For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our MCAT tutors: How is the MCAT Changing in 2015Getting over Test Day Nerves for the MCATQ&A with the Director of Harvard’s MD/MBA Program. Looking to work with Emily Leven?  Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.

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Tags: MCAT