Avoid a “completionist” mindset
As premeds, many of us are heavily achievement-oriented and we LOVE to see tangible results of our work. So, it can be tempting to approach our content review with a completionist mindset, where we consider our work “done” when we’ve read X chapter or gone through Y anki deck. It’s important to resist that urge to rush through content to check it off of your to do list! Instead, focus on mastery – do you truly understand the material, and can you reason with it the way you’ll need to on test day?
Put things in your own words… carefully!
It’s a common trap to think that you’ve mastered a piece of content once you can regurgitate the back of your flashcard word-for-word. But the job’s not done until whatever you’ve memorized means something to you. A great way to ensure that you’ve truly internalized a piece of content is to explain it in your own words – whether on your own flashcards, in separate notes, or mentally as you study!
This is also why flashcards are so important, because you cannot test your ability to reword topics if you’re studying off of written notes. Want to learn more about this? Read about the most effective note taking strategy.
Prioritize reasoning over memorization
The MCAT is an exercise in reading and reasoning, NOT regurgitation. You can memorize all the definitions and formulas in the world, but they won’t be of much use on test day if you can’t use them. Many students find this advice abstract and impractical, so here are a few concrete suggestions to help implement in your content review:
1. Prioritize material that lends itself to reasoning questions, e.g. functions, relationships, and rules. For example, it’s unlikely that the AAMC will ask you the exact pKa of an amino acid; it’s much more likely that they’ll ask a question that requires you to know whether a particular amino acid is acidic or basic. If you’re not sure how important a particular piece of information is, ask yourself, “How could the AAMC ask me to reason with this information”?
2. Memorize “building block” pieces of information, and deduce the rest when you need it. Galvanic vs. electrolytic cells are a great example of where to use this strategy. Instead of memorizing every detail of each, instead remember:
- Reduction always happens at the cathode and oxidation always happens at the anode in both types of cells.
- Electrons always flow from anode -> cathode in both types of cells.
- Galvanic cells produce a current, while electrolytic cells require application of a current.
From this information, we can deduce a few additional points that we would otherwise need to memorize:
- The redox reaction occurring in a galvanic is spontaneous, because it’s able to generate a current (i.e. it has energy output). The redox reaction in an electrolytic cell is not spontaneous, because it requires a current (i.e. it requires energy input).
- Electrons flow spontaneously from areas of negative charge to areas of positive charge. So, in galvanic cells, the anode must be negatively charged and the cathode must be positively charged. Conversely, in electrolytic cells, the cathode must be negative and the anode must be positive (otherwise, the reaction would be spontaneous!).
Voilà! You know everything you need to know about both types of cells, and you’re thinking about them conceptually.
Create a structured schema
The ultimate goal of your content review is to have a cohesive, structured schema of the information you may need on test day, not just a giant cloud of isolated content fragments. One of the best ways to do so is to look for categories, relationships, and distinctions as you go through your content review. For example, think about the various types of attribution error that are in-scope for the MCAT. What do they have in common? They’re all trying to explain why we attribute certain behaviors to either a person’s character or the situation. What distinguishes, say, optimism bias from the just-world phenomenon? Well, the former is about assuming bad things won’t happen to us while the latter is more about people getting what they deserve. These categorizations and “heart thread” distinctions can be extremely useful on test day, because they’re exactly what the AAMC will often aim at by putting multiple similar terms together as answer choices.
I often make two concrete suggestions to my students who want to impose more structure to their content knowledge:
- After every flashcard you go over, ask yourself, “How does this piece of information fit into the big picture?” If you don’t know, it’s a great idea to find out!
- You may want to put together outline-style notes to accompany your flashcards and whatever else you use to study. The outline structure inherently requires to you group together related pieces of information, and forces you to make deliberate connections and distinctions.
Want to read more about this? Learn how to remember MCAT material!
If you’re feeling really overwhelmed…
It may be worth considering a one-on-one private tutoring session to help evaluate your study plan and progress. There is a lot of content to know for the MCAT, so having a focused study plan that starts with a comprehensive content review is key.
Of course, it’s important to remember that every student learns differently, so it’s ultimately up to you to figure out what works best for you. Good luck studying, and if you think a tutor could help, request a free 10 minute consultation today!
Alex scored a 528 after self-prepping for his exam as a non-traditional student working at Google. After spending years helping students overcome challenges on many standardized exams, he’s ready to help you with any MCAT challenges you face! You can learn more and sign up to work with him one-on-one here.
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