If you’ve taken a practice MCAT exam or even just worked through a few passages, you’ve probably experienced the uncomfortable feeling of being “stuck” between two or more choices. Sometimes, these options are very different in content, but seem equally correct. Just as often, however, multiple answer choices may actually seem to be saying the exact same thing. How, then, can you possibly choose which one is best? As a Next Step instructor, I see students with this problem all the time. I’ve compiled a list of tips to help you out of this sticky situation; read them, internalize them, and use them on your next practice exam!
Make sure every word of each choice is factually accurate.
It’s often said that on the MCAT, you’re not looking for the “best” answer, but rather the “least wrong” one. Along those lines, it’s very common to see an answer choice that looks perfect but is factually false. Often, this inaccuracy stems from just a word or two, making it hard to spot. For example, imagine a case in which two answer choices both seem to accurately describe the activity of a compound, but one uses the term “charged” when the passage implied the compound is hydrophobic. Noticing this word choice allows us to eliminate that option, perhaps leaving us with a similar answer that did not contradict the passage.
Make sure the options actually answer the question.
Frequently, when a student says that “two answers look the same,” what they actually mean is “both of these answers seem true.” Some of the hardest questions on the MCAT rely on this principle: multiple answer choices – or even all of them – can be perfectly accurate scientifically. Only one, however, can be accurate and answer the question. If you are torn between two answer choices, glance back up to the question stem and mentally rephrase what it is asking for. If the question asks how a particular functional group might impact the catalytic efficacy of an enzyme, don’t fall for an option that describes that enzyme perfectly, but fails to relate to that functional group!
If all else fails, choose the less extreme or less specific option.
This tip relates to CARS more than to the science sections of the exam, but it is good advice regardless. The key here is that a moderate/general/simple answer choice is just more likely to be correct than a strongly-worded/highly specific/convoluted option. Imagine that you are stuck between the following two choices for a question that asks, “With which of the following would the author most likely agree?”
- All employees regulate their behavior to align with modern workplace norms.
- Few employees dare to contradict unspoken workplace standards through their actions.
These answers are saying very similar things: in summary, that a large number of employees tend to behave according to workplace norms. But option A uses the word “all,” meaning that if even one employee fails to regulate his behavior to fit these norms, choice A is incorrect. Choice B, in contrast, uses the modifier “few,” leaving the possibility open that some employees may not fit this description. Even if the passage author is extreme, he is still more likely to agree with choice B than choice A, if only because agreeing with A means that he must also agree with B. To sum things up, try to choose moderate or general answers when stuck between choices, simply because these “good” answers are “harder to disagree with” or “harder to prove wrong.” (As a disclaimer, always be sure to carefully check what the question stem is asking. If the question asks for a statement that the author would likely disagree with, an extreme or specific statement could be a good choice.)
Keep these tips in mind, and you should be better equipped to handle highly similar answer choices. And even if you run into some very tricky questions, don’t fret! Just review your answers carefully to learn what separated any similar answers and what made the correct one better. With practice, we’re sure you will be able to excel on your MCAT on Test Day!