Prepping For the MCAT as an ESL Student

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MP 332: Prepping For the MCAT as an ESL Student

Session 332

Many ESL students face challenges while taking the MCAT, as the test is designed in English and can be disadvantageous for this population. These students often struggle with the structure, length, and idiomatic expressions used in passages, leading to self-doubt. Today, we discuss effective strategies that ESL students can incorporate into their MCAT preparation to improve their performance on test day.

We’re joined by George from Blueprint MCAT. If you would like to follow along on YouTube, go to

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

Strategies for Learning MCAT Vocabulary: Insights for ESL Students

Understanding the Role of Vocabulary in the MCAT

Whether you’re an ESL student or not, mastering the vocabulary related to the MCAT requires a solid understanding of the test’s nuances.

While encountering unfamiliar words is common for many students, it’s important to discern when a word is essential for comprehension and when it’s merely designed to confuse test-takers. 

However, for ESL students, the challenge intensifies as they may struggle with colloquial terms that are expected to be known by native English speakers but may be unfamiliar to them due to limited exposure to the language.

“The MCAT isn’t meant to be a vocabulary test. So in a lot of cases, these fancy words are really just put there to throw you off your rocker a little bit. “

Focusing on Actionable Strategies

To tackle these vocabulary hurdles, it’s crucial to prioritize certain patterns that yield higher returns rather than attempting to memorize every single word.

One effective approach is to focus on learning prefixes and suffixes commonly used in scientific terminology. Familiarize yourself with terms such as hypo (less), hyper (more), and iso (same) as they frequently appear in various contexts. For instance, words like isotonic, isothermic, and hyperthermic consistently employ these prefixes.

Similarly, complex terms like gluconeogenesis can be broken down into manageable parts, where “gluco” refers to glucose, “neo” means new, and “genesis” signifies the process of creation. By breaking down words into their elemental components, you can decipher their meaning more easily.

Overcoming Challenges as an ESL Student

While these strategies prove beneficial for all students, ESL learners may encounter additional obstacles due to their linguistic background. It’s essential to approach vocabulary acquisition as a meticulous process.

“Don’t try to learn all the vocabulary, but definitely focus on some of the higher yield things.”

Focus on the most important, high-yield terms, particularly in scientific subjects. And recognize that some words may have logical interpretations to help demystify complex vocabulary. However, it’s important to acknowledge that ESL students face unique difficulties and may require additional support to navigate the intricacies of the MCAT vocabulary.

Strategies for Success in the CARS Section of the MCAT: Insights for Vocabulary Challenges

The CARS section of the MCAT is notorious for its challenges, especially when it comes to encountering unfamiliar words. Regardless of how advanced your vocabulary may be, you are bound to come across words that you’ve never seen before. This can be frustrating and confusing, leading to stress and feelings of being overwhelmed. However, understanding how to approach these vocabulary hurdles is crucial for success.

“The CARS section is challenging to begin with… no matter how advanced your vocabulary is, you’re going to see words that you’ve never seen before.”

Reviewing and Analyzing Passages

One helpful strategy is to review the passages immediately after reading them. Take note of any unfamiliar words that caused confusion. Ask yourself if you really need to know those words to understand the passage or answer the questions. Often, the test may use complex language, but the meaning can still be deciphered by reading sentences as a whole and grasping the overall message.

Look for contextual clues and determine if there are subsequent sentences that explain the meaning behind those unfamiliar words. In many cases, the author may be using elaborate language to express a simple idea. By focusing on what is truly important for comprehension, you can navigate the passages more effectively.

Mastering Basic Vocabulary

While understanding context is crucial, there are certain fundamental vocabulary terms that the MCAT expects you to know, particularly in the CARS section. These terms often come from disciplines within the humanities and social sciences, such as psychology and anthropology. The AAMC official guide provides a list of topics from which the test pulls questions. To build familiarity with these topics, consider engaging in basic reading exercises.

There are websites that offer passages focused on these topics, allowing you to observe the style of language and identify recurring words. For example, in politics, words like democracy may appear frequently, while economics may involve concepts like supply and demand. By immersing yourself in these topics, you can improve your understanding of the common vocabulary used in the MCAT.

Overcoming Language Barriers

If English is not your first language, it’s important to acknowledge any language barriers you may face. Building familiarity with the topics and vocabulary associated with the CARS section can be particularly helpful.

“There’s never a language barrier if you know that the language is something that you want to improve. Building familiarity in these topics will really help.”

By seeking out passages and resources that align with these disciplines, you can enhance your comprehension of the specific words and concepts that are commonly used. Whether you choose to listen to recordings or read along with the text, the goal is to improve your familiarity with the style of language and the recurring vocabulary.

Strategies for Overcoming MCAT CARS Test Anxiety: Insights and Tips

Recognizing and Managing Test Anxiety

Test anxiety can be a significant hurdle when taking the MCAT, especially in the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section. Acknowledging and addressing this anxiety is an essential first step toward improving performance. By sharing personal experiences, we can explore strategies to overcome test anxiety and approach the CARS section with confidence.

“When you freak out, all your processing power goes out the window, and the same thing happens when you read a passage, you see that one word, and you just freak out.”

Staying Composed and Focused

During the exam, it’s crucial to stay composed and maintain focus, even when encountering unfamiliar words or feeling overwhelmed by the length of the passages. Panicking can hinder your ability to process information effectively. Instead, develop the skill of taking a step back and accepting that there will be words you don’t know.

Through practice, you can learn to assess later whether those words were necessary for understanding. By approaching the section with composure, you can shift your attention towards seeking out the aspects of the passage that you do understand, which often make up the majority of the content.

Language Barrier Considerations

While most students may not face language barriers, ESL (English as a Second Language) students might encounter additional challenges. However, if you are comfortable with everyday English conversation, chances are you can read most of the texts that appear in the CARS section.

The level of difficulty is generally manageable, even without advanced language skills. It’s crucial to remember that the MCAT is not primarily a vocabulary test, and the focus should be on grasping the author’s message, understanding the paragraph’s purpose, and how ideas connect.

Utilizing Context Clues and Understanding the Author’s Intent

To excel in the CARS section, develop the ability to rely on context clues within the passages. Instead of fixating on unfamiliar words or trying to memorize every vocabulary term, focus on understanding the author’s overall message. Pay attention to the purpose of each sentence and how ideas flow together. 

“Look for context clues. What is the author really trying to say? What is the point of the sentence? What is the point of this paragraph?”

By adopting this approach, you can enhance comprehension and effectively answer questions based on the passage’s content, rather than solely relying on vocabulary knowledge.

Prioritizing Comprehension over Vocabulary Mastery

While building a strong vocabulary is valuable, it should not overshadow the importance of comprehension in the CARS section. The MCAT generally does not test specific word definitions unless they are crucial for understanding the passage as a whole. It’s essential to grasp the main ideas, themes, and arguments within the text, as these aspects will be central to answering questions effectively.

Embracing Imperfection and Simplifying Ideas: Insights for MCAT Success

Shifting from Perfectionism to Progress

The journey towards MCAT success often involves overcoming the perfectionist mindset. One impactful quote that changed my perspective during my undergraduate years was “Done is better than perfect.” This idea revolutionized how I approached preparation and reminded me to focus on progress rather than obsessing over achieving perfection.

It’s essential to recognize that continuous improvement and review are more valuable than fixating on unattainable ideals.

Discovering Necessary Vocabulary Through Review

While there may be certain words you need to learn to excel in the MCAT, it’s crucial to approach them strategically. During the review process, you’ll identify which words are essential for understanding the passage and answering questions accurately.

Additionally, you’ll realize that many words are not crucial to comprehension. Developing the ability to discern between necessary and non-essential vocabulary is a valuable skill that can save you time and effort.

Simplifying Ideas and Grasping the Main Takeaways

Approaching MCAT passages, particularly in the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section, requires a similar mindset to engaging in conversation. Instead of memorizing every detail, focus on simplifying ideas and extracting the main message.

“Being okay with not knowing some things is a really useful skill, and also, learning when do I actually need to know those things – that’s an important skill as well.”

Just as you don’t stress about understanding every word during a conversation, aim to comprehend the author’s intended meaning, overall tone, arguments, and opinions. Prioritizing these aspects will allow you to navigate passages more effectively.

Building Confidence through Experience

Being comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing every detail is a valuable skill to cultivate. Confidence grows as you gain experience and exposure to different passages and question types.

Over time, you’ll develop a sense of when specific knowledge is necessary and when it can be inferred or deduced from contextual information. Trust the process and embrace the learning journey, knowing that each step in the right direction contributes to your overall progress.

Navigating Scientific Vocabulary and Concepts in the MCAT: Insights for Success

In the sciences, a certain level of familiarity with scientific vocabulary is expected, particularly in the MCAT. Non-ESL students who have taken relevant undergraduate courses in pre-med programs may have encountered scientific terms, such as plasmids and restriction enzymes, in their labs and coursework.

While some of these terms may seem self-explanatory, it is essential to revisit these concepts and translate them into English. That’s because they are considered foundational knowledge for the exam.

Utilizing Flashcards and Reviewing Content

To reinforce understanding of scientific concepts, flashcards can be a helpful tool. By creating flashcards that include key terms and their definitions, you can actively engage in learning and memorization. Additionally, revisiting content and translating previous notes into English can aid in familiarizing yourself with testable scientific concepts.

Remember, the goal is not to know every single detail but to have a solid understanding of important scientific conventions and structures.

Balancing General Knowledge with Specific Requirements

While it is crucial to have familiarity with scientific knowledge, it’s important to strike a balance. You don’t need to memorize all disease names or intricate gene details. Instead, focus on gaining a broad understanding of scientific conventions and structures.

“It is important to have a familiarity with some scientific knowledge… being familiar with that structure, that’s really important.”

For example, familiarize yourself with the structure of a lab report, including the introduction, background, methods, results, and conclusion. This general knowledge will provide a foundation for approaching scientific passages effectively.

Recognizing Specific Learning Needs

It’s challenging to provide general advice about what specific knowledge is necessary, as the MCAT covers a wide range of topics. However, by actively engaging in practice and review, you will identify areas where further learning is required.

Pay attention to the specific content areas that pose challenges and dedicate time to reinforce your understanding in those areas. This individualized approach will help you determine what you need to know and what can be prioritized.

Building Content Familiarity for the MCAT: Efficient and Layered Learning Approach

Utilizing Visual Resources for Efficient Learning

When it comes to gaining familiarity with content, efficiency can be key. Consider incorporating animations and videos into your study routine. Platforms like YouTube offer concise and informative videos that explain complex concepts, such as gel electrophoresis.

By watching these videos during short breaks or meal times, you can process information and start building connections. This method allows you to familiarize yourself with MCAT-specific language and context while not formally studying. Over time, repeated exposure and practice solidify your understanding.

Embracing the Circular Nature of Learning

Learning is not a one-time event where you watch a video and memorize everything instantly. It is a circular process that involves revisiting topics and constantly reinforcing knowledge. Allow yourself to embrace this approach, understanding that learning is an ongoing journey.

“Learning is circular. It’s not meant to be learned everything at once.”

Starting early and watching videos to familiarize yourself with English terminology and concepts can be beneficial. Trust that each time you revisit a topic, your familiarity and understanding will improve. Even if you don’t remember every detail, you’ll recognize and recall key information as you progress.

Layered and Incremental Learning

A layered approach to content learning can be highly effective. Instead of trying to absorb everything at once, break it down into manageable steps.

Focus on building a solid foundation by consistently exposing yourself to different concepts and techniques. By watching short videos or dedicating small pockets of time to review specific topics, you steadily accumulate knowledge and familiarity.

Remember, progress doesn’t have to be grand leaps every time. As long as you consistently take small steps in the right direction, you will reach your goal.

Believing in Your Potential for Success

Regardless of your background, whether ESL or non-traditional student, it is possible to achieve your desired MCAT score and build a strong foundation of knowledge.

“As long as you take little steps in the right direction and you keep moving in that direction, you keep moving forward. You will get to where you need to go.”

Trust in your ability to progress and grow. Stay committed to the learning process, knowing that every step forward, no matter how small, brings you closer to your goal. With dedication and perseverance, you can reach the level of mastery you aspire to.


Meded Media

Blueprint MCAT