WHY? This Question is your Best Friend

I always tell my students that content review is only one part of preparing for the exam (a huge part of it, yes, but only one part of it). The other parts that will boost your score towards the end of your studying are optimizing your test-taking strategy and reviewing strategy. You may have read about how to actively learn the content, but now we will talk about how to actively think while test-taking and reviewing practice questions or tests. In both instances, asking yourself “WHY” is essential for not only learning  from your mistakes, but also for internalizing your correct answers. This was key to improving my score when studying on my own. Follow the guidelines below to learn some of the questions I asked myself while studying using our FREE eCourse.

1. Asking Why While Test-Taking

WHY is the Test Asking This Question?

This can help you figure out what type of skills the test-makers are asking you to use. In thinking this way, you can figure out the steps you need to take to answer a question. Let me demonstrate.

Ex. 1) CARS: Which of the following statements would the author LEAST agree with?

Think to yourself, “Since the test makers are asking what the author would not agree with, they want to see which students can figure out what the author does agree with – essentially, who can get the main idea. Now, what was the main idea of this passage?”

Ex. 2) Bio/biochem: Which mutant peptide would most likely have the same function as the wildtype peptide? 

Think to yourself, “Since the test makers are asking which mutant peptide will have the same function, they are seeing which students know that similar structure leads to similar function. This means that the replacement amino acid should be the most similar to the original amino acid. Now, which amino acid has the most similar characteristics to the original?”

WHY Did the Question Include This Specific Information?

All information that is included in a question is essential to getting the BEST answer. Make sure that you take note of all the specific circumstances and descriptors in the question stem. For example, if the question is specifically asking about the ATP content in the mitochondria, make sure that you only consider ATP created by processes in that organelle and not in the cytosol. Similarly, while many passages will include extraneous information you don’t need, if a question specifically refers to a part of a passage or a term mentioned in the passage, make sure you make note of ALL the information relevant to the topic. A small detail can make a big difference. I find that sometimes students feel lost because they missed what they originally felt was a minor detail. I urge you to reread the question/relevant part of the passage if this is the case. Part of understanding which aspects of the passage will be tested can come from a deepened fluency in the scientific method.

WHY is This Answer Better Than the Others?

This is the most important one! Make sure that you can prove to yourself why this answer choice is better than all the others before moving on. Remember that you don’t necessarily have to perfectly know why one answer choice is correct as long as you can tell that it is more correct than the others. I suggest asking yourself this question and arguing for/against each answer option. For most questions, you should be able to eliminate 1-2 options quickly. When you are stuck between two questions, try to play the devil’s advocate for each option and you may find that it is easier to argue for one than the other. Remember that points can be scored by finding the LEAST WRONG answer in place of finding the MOST CORRECT answer.

2. Asking Why While Reviewing

WHY Did I Get This Question Wrong?

This step is essential to understanding your MCAT weaknesses. For each question that you answer incorrectly, determine why you got it wrong. Did you just not know the content (if so, what topic was it)? Did you not understand the passage? Did you not interpret the graph correctly? Was the information in the passage and you just couldn’t find it? Was it a silly mistake from reading the question wrong? Did you have the right answer at first and then change it? Did you run out of time? If you have access to the Science Passage Reading Strategy Course, you will have access to a pre-made Science Passage Mistake Analyzer spreadsheet that will help you track patterns in why you are getting things wrong. If not, you can simply do this on your own by creating your spreadsheet or just using a piece of paper (though I would suggest using a spreadsheet since it can easily create tables/figures at the end to visually show you patterns in mistakes). At the end of reviewing each section, you can get a good idea of what to work on, such as if you need to refresh on content for a certain topic or work on passage reading skills. You can also watch to see if your mistake patterns change over time!

WHY Did I Get This Question Correct?

Many students make the mistake of not reviewing the questions they got correct. I really emphasize not skipping this step. There are two reasons to ask this question. First, you want to make sure that you got the answer correct because of the right reason. Maybe you just happened to guess correctly or you got to the right answer with a flawed thinking process. In both instances, it is important to make sure you understand the correct thinking so that you can apply the same thing to future questions. Second, if you did get the answer correct for the right reason, try to pay attention to why you were able to get it. If you did so by using a specific passage reading strategy that helped you understand that passage better, try to apply the same strategy to all passages.

WHY Are All The Other Answers Wrong?

Going through the reasons why EVERY other answer option is wrong helps get into the AAMC mindset and eliminate answer choices in future tests. You can learn why the AAMC test-makers like certain answers better than others. This will help you when you try to argue for/against two answer options that you are stuck between. Say you are stuck between two similar options in a CARS passage. You could remember that when reviewing a previous test, you found the pattern that strong, absolute statements in CARS answer options are normally a red flag and not the correct answer. Therefore, since you confirmed that the tone of this particular passage is not very strong, the absolute statement would not be the correct answer.

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mcat self prep free ecourse

3. Most Importantly, WHY Are You Studying?

I know that studying can be very stressful and you might often find yourself wondering why you are putting yourself through this. When you get lost, don’t forget to take a step back and focus on your ultimate goals. What type of impact do you want to make in the healthcare field and society as a whole after medical school? What are your dreams? What motivates you? Never let your worries of the MCAT make you forget your WHY 🙂I hope this helps you make the most of your self-studying. If you want more individualized help with test-taking strategies and figuring out your weaknesses, check out our tutoring packages to work with me or one of our other great tutors!

Warm Regards,


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Ming scored in the 99th percentile on the MCAT and is currently a second year medical student at UCLA. You can learn more and sign up to work with her one-on-one here.

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