I wrote this article originally for MCAT Question of the Day. -DonO
In 20 years of coaching students to take the MCAT, the two biggest lessons I share with students are:
- Above everything else, the MCAT relies on behavioral conditioning to provide a reliable result to medical schools
- Self-awareness of your test taking tendencies becomes paramount to significant score improvement.
Let’s look at each of these lessons.
The MCAT As a Test of Conditioned Behavior
For your entire academic life, you have been trained to look for and provide the right answers. As a child, you got significant emotional and social rewards for providing the right answers to any question. You got a “good grade,” you were called a “smart boy or girl” and you received significant emotional and non verbal cues as rewards — your Mother’s smile, your Father’s hug, your teacher’s recognition.
To say that you have been brainwashed is not an understatement. In my report called, “Don’s Tactical Nuclear MCAT Testing Taking Techniques,” I write extensively about how the MCAT operates within this context. Suffice it to say — before you can begin to improve on the MCAT, you have to know within what paradigm the MCAT operates.
I call MCAT test writers “psychometricians.” These are psychologists who live and breathe the answer to the question, “How do I get thousands of college students to respond to a series of test questions such that the answers from these students always results in a normal distribution?”
The MCAT test writers need something to help them make sure that a certain percentage of students get a particular problem right, and a certain percentage get that same problem wrong, every time. They need tools to help them do this, and the tools really cannot be content-based, because students can always study themselves out of content-based problems.
So test writers look for some other technique. Let’s call this technique “testing linguistics,” a specific way of writing test questions and answer choices that causes a predictable, repeatable result.
OK, now you know how MCAT test writers are thinking, and how they go about structuring the MCAT. Sure, there are knowledge-based questions, but cognitive reasoning is what’s really being tested, and your ability to see past the knowledge and into the logic of a particular problem is what they’re after.
So by structuring test questions in a way that subtly misleads your thinking, they are able to get the guaranteed distribution of scores they need in order to call the MCAT a “standardized” test.
Your Test-Taking Tendencies Are Paramount
How well you recognize the patterns of language that the MCAT relies upon to mislead you will determine your ability to significantly improve your score. And because the MCAT is a timed test, the additional time pressure makes it difficult to take a significant amount of time to look for and recognize these patterns. You need a shortcut.
Here’s where things get really interesting. Your test-taking habits and tendencies are different from mine. You will have a preference for specific language patterns in your answer choices. When you get that pattern, the answer just seems “right” to you, and you “feel” that you have discovered the correct answer. The trouble is, the MCAT test writers know, better than you, what those language patterns are. So how do you go about discovering this for yourself?
Create a “Wrong Answer” Journal
Consider this: What if you had a list of 200 answers that were all wrong, but that you were attracted to? Do you think you could go through all of them and discover
underlying patterns that make the answers attractive? If then do you think you could better identify and AVOID these trappy patterns? I think the answer is “yes,” and I strongly encourage you to create your own “wrong answer journal” to guide you.
Taking the time to create this journal may seem like a large time investment, and it is. But you’ll soon discover how to rapidly identify language patterns that you know are trappy, and avoid them. That in itself is sufficient to raise your score significantly.
I walk through step-by-step how to create this journal in my report called, “Don’s Tactical Nuclear MCAT Testing Taking Techniques.” The report is free to all MCAT Question of the Day readers.