How to Review MCAT Full Lengths
- May 15, 2020
- MCAT Blog, MCAT Prep
Written By: Mathias Jost, MCAT Content Developer
An unavoidable part of any solid MCAT study plan is MCAT practice tests. After you’ve diligently completed your content review, you should be ready to take your first full-length exam; here’s a free MCAT exam to get you started. Though the number of full-length MCAT exams you should take will vary from person to person, be prepared to at least complete all the official AAMC practice tests. It’s also wise to pepper in additional MCAT practice exams into your study schedule. However, simply taking full lengths for the sake of endurance training is not enough. Full lengths offer you a wealth of knowledge and information on your test-taking habits if you know how to review practice tests correctly.
Reviewing MCAT Practice Tests
Reviewing full-length exams has many benefits: It provides insights into the sources of past mistakes, it can uncover information that you completely missed your first time through a passage and it can help you understand the structure of the MCAT far better than you might while only taking full lengths under time pressure. However, reviewing also poses significant challenges. During the review process, you are constantly pitted against your own internal biases, whether it is hindsight telling you that you totally knew that, confirmation bias telling you that this new mistake is exactly the same as the previous one, or overgeneralization wanting to draw overarching conclusions from small, chance trends.
As a result, extracting valuable lessons from full length reviews can depend somewhat on employing a set of strategies that help you extract the helpful lessons from the process and avoid the counterproductive ones. If you’re a Blueprint student, you’re in luck; Blueprint’s MCAT practice exam analytics do most of the work for you!
A Caveat About Statistical Analysis
While tracking why you got a particular question wrong provides useful insights, we’d like to caution a little bit against making premature (or any at all) plans for future behavior on the basis of information discovered this way. Meaning, if you were to discover you commonly change right answers to wrong ones, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should suddenly decide to stick to your answers in the future. The reasoning for not doing so is two-fold:
- – Tracking down the root cause of the error and uncertainty will yield much greater, more generalizable skills less prone to failure than simply establishing a correlation
- – The correlations you do find are very, very likely to be spurious due to the limited number of questions per exam, topic, section, and type. Simply switching 5 times right-to-wrong across 59 questions may represent any type of error – the chance of encountering similar conditions on the next 59 questions of the same section is incredibly low. The difficult questions in your next FL may be on a topic you’re weaker on, and your tendency, in that case, may be to make wrong-to-right switches instead.
Tools for Reviewing Practice MCAT Exams
Here are some tools for your own record-keeping. Use these essentially as you feel is appropriate. In general, you will get the most mileage out of filling the sheets provided out with your own thoughts and explanations, rather than copying down existing ones.
Explain it to your imaginary (or real) friend: The tendency when reading explanations, even when synthesizing information back onto paper, is to be somewhat passive in the process – to accept words as they’re said without reflecting on their meaning, without having to independently verify if this is coherent reasoning.
To avoid this tendency, try to not imitate the correct explanations for problems you are reviewing or for passages you’re dissecting in-depth, but to fashion explanations as if you were explaining the concept to a friend – possibly a fellow pre-med, a friend, or just a disinterested passerby. Explain requisite concepts as if they had infinite patience (if using a real collaborator, bear in mind their patience is likely finite). You don’t necessarily have to put all this in writing. As long as you go through the process of actively synthesizing an explanation, making as few mental leaps, and taking as few shortcuts as possible, you will be surprised how well you start understanding and retaining concepts!
Wrong and flagged answer spreadsheet: This is a fundamental worksheet if you want to track your review progress.
Passage breakdown template: Use this when you’re breaking down passages.
Anki for creating content-specific cards: When you extract particular discrete pieces of obscure content knowledge or discover a set of facts that tends to slip your mind, making a set of Anki cards to refresh your memory in the future can be extremely helpful. If you haven’t started a regular flashcard routine, sign up to get a free deck of MCAT flashcards.
Reviewing in Stages
Our desire to review in-depth the amount of time we have available and the amount of mental energy we may have to spare at any point in time varies wildly. As such, it wouldn’t make sense to have every approach at reviewing be the most exhaustive possible. Instead, we should prepare to apply different review strategies at different times, and approach a complete FL review as a series of stages.
1. Light Review – Wrong Answers
Reviewing your wrong answers is the most obvious first step. There is nothing wrong with doing this, and we strongly recommend doing so as shortly after your FL as you can stomach. At this stage, simply use the wrong and flagged answer spreadsheet and write down what type of error you made (knowledge, reasoning, reading comprehension, attention to detail, etc). Try to put special emphasis on writing an explanation in your own words before moving on from any single problem.
For each question, we recommend entering in your review sheet both the proximal cause (what exactly went wrong? Knowledge, reading comprehension, attention to detail?) and the root cause (what caused the proximal cause – were you short on time, uncertain, overconfident?). As above with regards to the pitfalls of applying statistical analysis to your FL review, bear in mind that the purpose of entering these things is to build awareness, not to ultimately create just a single prescription to adjust your strategy.
2. Light Review – Flagged Answers
Reviewing flagged answers works fundamentally the same as reviewing wrong answers, and should be treated the same way: While you may have ended up with the right answer, you weren’t certain. Next time you might not be so lucky. If the phrasing of the question would have been trickier, or the possible choices a bit less distinct, maybe you would have trouble. Flagging indicates that you could still benefit from reviewing. Either enter these on your spreadsheet for wrong answers or start a second sheet.
3. Moderate Review – Problem Passages
Students are often tempted to stop at the ‘light review’ phase, as questions that weren’t missed or information that doesn’t pertain directly to any question may seem less relevant. Be warned, however: All information within an AAMC FL is relevant for the real MCAT, whether it ever occurs in a question or not. As such, reviewing passages in their entirety is a good habit to have.
Since this consumes a fairly large amount of time, we do recommend reviewing first those passages that you either got one or more answers wrong on or passages that you simply didn’t feel comfortable reading.
4. In-Depth Reviews
To do an in-depth review, we want to categorize what we are looking at first. In general, an MCAT passage will have one of three possible formats:
- – Informational: This passage type most resembles a textbook, a review article, or generally a summary of many years of research on a particular subject.
- – Primary Research: These are passages of adapted research, with some identifying information (such as the names of proteins) removed, laboratory procedures simplified, and only a small subsection of the original research forming the focus of the passage.
- – Lab Manual: This type of passage reiterates key steps in an experimental procedure while omitting a large number of minutiae, and usually asks the student to understand concepts underlying the procedure, underlying assumptions, and possible limitations of the experimental method being used.
To maximize the yield of your review, try to write down what type of passage you are looking at as you review it, and in addition narrow down the topic under discussion (Say rather than just “Biochemistry” the passage may be dealing with “Michaelis-Menten Kinetics”).
Once you’ve established categories, summarize the entire passage. Pay special attention to elaborating on any and all figures and graphs found within the passage (or provided in question stems), and include those in your passage breakdown template. Feel free to use incomplete sentences, or whichever writing format you’re most comfortable with. The purpose of a passage breakdown is to force you to pay close attention to every single sentence and every single diagram – a practice that is normally overlooked because we want to naturally find what is important at the time.
Working through this more thorough process will greatly improve your intuition in the future for what is or may be relevant and what is most likely not, as well as boost your ability to retain detailed information presented in a complex passage.
5. In-Depth Review – Breaking Down All Passages
As a final step, consider repeating the passage review process (used previously for problem passages) for all passages. You may notice that during an extensive passage review, there is a strong tendency to uncover new information or gain clarification on previously murky concepts. This tendency may continue through passages you wouldn’t initially have considered troublesome.
Keep in mind that all AAMC FL passages are chosen with some degree of deliberation and reflect the design goals of the people who will create the FL you take on test day too. A lot of valuable information can be uncovered by paying close attention to AAMC passages!
6. In Depth Review – CARS Review
CARS review may function slightly differently, if only in there being an even greater emphasis placed on understanding the passage holistically.
We recommend using an approach similar to the in-depth passage review process, with the exception that the number of arguments presented, the degree to which background information is provided and the exact format of the piece may be somewhat more fluid than in the sciences. In general, CARS pieces do tend to be argumentative though, and as such it is helpful to make a list of key points:
- – What are the main arguments presented within?
- – Is the author’s point of view explicit or implicit? (Is tone used to establish a perspective, or are explicit statements used)
- – Are arguments by other people mentioned and contrasted? If so, what are they and by whom? Make a list of all names and their viewpoints.
- – What evidence is presented within the text? (Evidence in this context need not be good evidence, simply presented directly within the text)
- – How would you personally respond to this passage? (Do you agree, disagree or think this isn’t a subject worth spending words on at all?)
- – And finally: If you had to write 2 CARS questions of your own about this passage, what would they be?
Reviewing your MCAT full-length exams is critical to understanding concepts and truly mastering the MCAT. That’s why we implemented powerful analytics in our MCAT full-length practice exams, online MCAT course, and Live Online Course. Here’s to prepping smarter, not harder!
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