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Memorizing MCAT Psychology and MCAT Sociology Terminology

For many pre-med students, especially those who have majored in biology or a hard science, the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior Section can be challenging to prepare for because it may not correspond as closely to the core pre-med curriculum as the other science sections.

There’s no way around the fact that success on the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior Section (or the Psych/Soc section for short) requires memorizing hundreds of terms from psychology and sociology. This can be easier said than done, and given the many competing demands that MCAT students have to juggle, it’s important to get the most benefit out of the time you spend studying psychology and sociology terminology.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss some tips to help you tackle this challenge:

The biggest pitfall students encounter when studying psychology and sociology terminology is to fall into the trap of passively reading textbooks, outlines, or flashcards. It can be very easy to read through a list of definitions, say to yourself “OK, that makes sense,” and move on.

The issue here is that the MCAT will not test you on whether you’ve ever heard of a given term, or whether you have a general sense of what it means; instead, the MCAT will require you to carefully assess which of a set of terms—several of which may sound quite similar—is best applicable to a scenario presented in a passage or a question.

In other words, your task is not to recognize terms, but to tell them apart in context. Preparing yourself for this requires a somewhat different approach from how you may be used to approaching memorization tasks.

Using Flashcards

If you like using flashcards, that’s OK—many students have done well on this section by reviewing with flashcards. However, you should take care to ensure that your use of flashcards is effective by incorporating the principle of spaced repetition, in which you go back to review content at regular, but increasing intervals (such as 2 days, 2 weeks, and 2 months).

You can do this on your own, or you may want to consider using an app like Anki that incorporates spaced repetition into its algorithm. However, you should think of flashcards (or any other recognition-based study method) as one tool in your toolkit, not the only tool.

Using Fill-In-The-Blank Sheets

Going beyond flashcards means getting active with the material to consolidate your understanding. One possibility is to make your own fill-in-the-blank study sheets. For terms that sound similar, another useful technique is to plan out how you can differentiate between them based on clues in the passage or question.

In fact, we’ve discussed this before in a previous blog post on prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination. This approach can also be implemented by making flowcharts, as we’ve presented in a blog post on the major theories of emotion. The simple act of developing guidelines or flowcharts like this will help you engage more actively with the content, and then they can serve as efficient tools to use later on in your review process.

Using Memorable Real-Life Examples

Another strategy is to come up with your own memorable examples illustrating related but distinct terms. For instance, it can often be challenging to sort through the differences among positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment, especially under stressful high-stakes testing conditions.

Coming up with your own memorable examples will help you solidify the content (and potentially identify any lingering misunderstandings), and you can refer to them on Test Day. Much like mnemonics, it can be helpful to create scenarios that incorporate people you know or experiences that you have had, and are slightly (or not so slightly) inappropriate. Remember that you don’t have to share your examples or mnemonics with anyone! The only thing that counts is that they work for you.

Going Beyond The Scope Of The MCAT

Depending on how much time you have, it can also be helpful to go slightly beyond the basics of what the MCAT expects you to know by exploring the historical background of the theories. This doesn’t have to be an especially intense process; Wikipedia usually does a good job of providing some additional context. The idea here is simply that you may be able to remember the various components of a given theory better if you have some sense of who the researcher behind a theory was and where he or she was coming from.

This technique can be helpful for theories like Piaget’s stages of development, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Erikson’s life stages—that is, theories that are detailed, sometimes seem arbitrary, and are strongly associated with specific names. However, you should consider this to be a bonus technique. It can be helpful if you have extra time and energy, but it’s by no means a must.

MCAT Prep Is A Time Investment

There’s no way to avoid the fact that you have to invest a significant amount of time and energy into studying psychology and sociology for the MCAT, but these tips will help you get the most benefit from your study time. If you’re just getting started with your prep, Next Step offers a free MCAT practice bundle that includes a half-length diagnostic, access to our first full-length practice test, and a demo of our online course. You can sign up for the free practice bundle here.

If you’re looking for more comprehensive prep, we also offer one-on-one tutoring programs as well as an online MCAT course. Not sure where to start? Set up a free consultation with one of our veteran Academic Managers. They will go over your prep needs and help you decide what prep options are right for you.

Written by Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep) MCAT experts.

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