by Clara Gillan
Imagine that you’ve finally done it – you’ve learned every piece of MCAT content information in your full set of prep books. You understand every concept from Bernoulli’s equation to aromatic amino acids, and you never miss a discrete question. Great job! Going into your next full-length practice exam, you initially feel confident. Unfortunately, you still score well below your goal. What happened?
To many MCAT students, the answer to this question is obvious: content mastery isn’t the only ingredient required for MCAT success. Reading – both passages and questions – and interpreting information is also a vital skill. But sometimes, you may read a question and have no idea what it is even asking. What should you do?
1. Read the question again
First, read the question again, and this time, try to “dumb it down.” Often, questions are confusing because they are long and wordy, or because they contain double negatives or other easy-to-misinterpret wording. If you are able to reword the “essence” of the question in 8-10 simple words, what it is asking may become very clear.
2. Look to the passage
If that doesn’t work, look to the passage. We all know that the MCAT is largely passage-based. Even so, upon encountering a question about an unfamiliar science topic, the gut reaction of many students is “Oh my gosh, I didn’t study this!” A healthier reaction is “I haven’t seen this before, and I’ve prepared thoroughly, so it’s probably in the passage.” In cases like this, if you have re-read the question and are still uncertain what it is asking, try to isolate the most notable word or phrase in the question stem and look back to the first time that word/phrase was introduced in the passage. Often, this is where you can find fundamental background information or even the exact answer to the question.
3. Look at the answer choices
Still no clue? Look at the content of the answer choices. Perhaps the question is passage-based, but nothing in the question stem gives away the location of the relevant information. In that case, the answer choices are our best bet. If all four answer choices refer to the same protein, for example, go back to the passage’s initial description of that protein. Even in CARS, it can be very helpful to look for concepts mentioned in multiple answer choices, then return to that part of the passage; quite commonly, this is where the answer can be found.
4. Look at how they relate
Finally, if none of these approaches work, look at how the answer choices relate to each other. For example, imagine that a question asks about parathyroid hormone. Unfortunately, due to some unusual wording, you cannot tell whether it is asking for a condition that causes increased PTH release or that serves as a result of increased [PTH]. Luckily, these two alternatives are opposites. For this reason, if three of the answer choices are causes of increased [PTH] and only one is a result, you can safely choose the “odd man out.” (This is an extension of a more typical strategy – when two or more answers are functionally identical, eliminate them.)
With these techniques, you’ll have a much better chance of getting questions correct even when they initially seem unreadable. Good luck with your prep!