Undervaluing content review can hurt your score

by Gabe

I hear some variant of this opinion expressed pretty often: "Don’t spend too much time working on content review. The MCAT isn’t about knowing tons of content. It’s more about critical thinking and being good at interpreting the passages. So you should spend more time just doing practice tests and passages."

There’s some truth to this opinion, but it’s overstated. It’s true that most questions on the MCAT are not just simple memorization questions testing you on individual facts. Most of them are testing you on your ability to apply your scientific knowledge to complex passages.

So the MCAT does require a lot of critical thinking, and the ability to interpret the passages effectively is obviously crucial. But it’s a mistake to think that these skills are somehow separate from learning more content.

Let me give you a thought experiment to show you what I mean. Let’s say you took two people, one who had just completed their first undergrad biochem course and one who had a PhD in biochem. And let’s say you gave each of them the same MCAT biochem passage which dealt with a subject that neither of them had seen before. That last part is critical: we have to assume that even though they may be familiar with biochem in general they’ve never seen the specific subject this passage is about. So, in this hypothetical experiment who would you expect to do better on the passage? I would say the biochem PhD.

But why would you expect them to do better? It can’t be because they’re already familiar with the content of the passage – we assumed that it was new to both of them. It must be because their wider background knowledge in biochem makes it much easier for them to think critically about the information presented in the passage. The person with the biochem PhD is able to take the new information they’re presented with and connect that back to a wealth of scientific knowledge that will help them to form more accurate conclusions.

So how does this apply to you as a student preparing for the MCAT? What it means is that if you’re trying to get your MCAT score up you shouldn’t discount content review. Learning more content is going to help you get better at critical thinking and interpreting passages. Don’t feel like you need to just spend a month on content review and then move on exclusively to practice tests.

I see a lot of students’ scores get stuck once they start working on practice tests. They do test after test but their scores don’t go up that much. A lot of the time they don’t feel like their problem is due to not knowing enough content. It feels more like they’re just struggling with interpreting the passages. But very often the solution to their problem is in fact to deepen their content knowledge. A little more familiarity with the content will help them to get better at interpreting the passages as well.

So, in summary: don’t undervalue content review. Critical thinking and interpretation of the passages are crucial skills, but they’re not separate from learning more content.

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