Today, we share test-taking strategies for the MCAT, focusing on how to approach questions that initially seem confusing or difficult. Learn tips on highlighting, striking through text, simplifying questions, and deciding whether to skip questions or make an educated guess.
Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
Managing Stress and Understanding It’s Okay to Make Mistakes
When a student understands a passage but then gets confused by the questions, the most important thing for them to do is to not freak out. Meera advises taking a second to calm down and refocus, as getting overwhelmed will only make the situation harder to navigate.
“Take a breath, and then answer the question. That can help so much, just recentering and refocusing yourself.”
Simplifying Difficult Questions
The MCAT was written so that you would be able to answer the questions. But sometimes interpreting what the questions mean, might take extra long, and that can be a little bit scary.
Meera’s best tip for questions that don’t seem to make a lot of sense is to highlight both the passage and the question stem. If the question stem is very long, such as being six lines when the actual question is only three lines, Meera recommends highlighting it to identify the key words and phrases that need to be paid attention to. Highlighting can help condense a convoluted long question stem down to the most essential information being asked.
If students find something in the question stem that they find irrelevant or not important, Meera suggests striking it out. Striking out unnecessary information can help simplify the question stem. This, along with using different colors to highlight important parts, makes it easier to see what information actually needs attention in order to understand what the question is asking.
Translating the Question into an Ask
Once a student has highlighted and struck through parts of the question stem, the next step is to translate the question into a simple “ask.” This means rephrasing the question in a clear, direct way so it is easier to understand what is actually being asked.
Sometimes, questions are written in a convoluted manner. Simplifying it into a one-sentence “ask” can help clarify what information or part of the passage the question is focusing on.
“Rephrasing questions in a way that makes sense to you can be the key to understanding what they’re actually looking for.”
Making Sense of Confusing Answer Choices
If the answer choices are also confusing, the transcript provides similar tips for simplifying them:
*Strike through or highlight parts of the answer choices to understand what they are saying.
*Rephrase the answer choices into direct statements.
*Check that the rephrased answer choice actually answers the simplified question and makes scientific sense in context of the passage.
Validating Answer Choices for CARS Passages
When evaluating answer choices for CARS passages, there are typically two factors that make an answer choice correct.
First, the choice must directly and accurately answer the question being asked. Rephrasing the question and answer choices can help determine this. Second, the choice must make sense within the context of the original CARS passage and its content.
Both the question and the context of the passage need to be considered when validating CARS answer choices. Evaluating choices against these two criteria can help narrow down and eliminate incorrect options.
Strategies for Tough Questions: When to Move On, Flag, or Guess
When to Flag Questions
Flagging allows test-takers to come back to questions that they initially don’t understand if there is time remaining at the end of the section. This strategy is useful for questions where the test-taker thinks they may be able to answer it correctly given more time to think through it, but they are pressed for time in the moment.
By flagging rather than guessing, the test-taker preserves the option to revisit the question later when they have more mental bandwidth and a clearer mind. Coming back to flagged questions later could help solve them versus an initial rushed guess made under time pressure.
“In terms of how long every question should take you for the MCAT sections, oftentimes, it’ll lead you to somewhere around 1-1.5 minutes per question.”
However, flagging too many questions runs the risk of not having enough time left to thoroughly review them all at the end. So it is best to reserve flagging for questions that just need more thought rather than outright guesses.
When to Move On to the Next Question
If after spending 1-1.5 minutes on a question the test-taker still has no idea how to approach it or what is actually being asked, it is recommended that they move ahead. Spending too much time stuck on a single question risks running short on time that could be better spent on other questions. Moving on also prevents falling into an unproductive cycle of rereading the question without any understanding.
Adhering to a time limit per question allows test-takers to optimize the total number of questions they can attempt, even if some need to be revisited later. The MCAT is designed such that moving ahead and returning is generally a better approach than perseverating on one difficult item.
Making an Educated Guess
If the test-taker determines there is no possibility they could answer it correctly even with additional time spent, Meera recommends making an educated guess rather than randomly selecting an answer choice.
In this situation, guessing prevents wasting too much valuable time that could be better spent on other questions. Pick a favorite letter out of the answer choices (A, B, C, or D) as the guess, rather than randomly selecting. This provides as good a chance of getting the question right as a random pick without expending excess time deliberating options.
The Benefits of Developing a Preset Plan
Meera recommends students can reduce stress by deciding their strategy in advance rather than making decisions question-by-question during the high-pressure setting of the exam. Having a set plan defined beforehand means students will know exactly what they will do if faced with an unclear question. This clarity and confidence can help lower anxiety on test day.
Meera’s personal strategy that worked well was to flag any questions she did not understand after 1.5 minutes of effort. Deciding this approach in advance helped her manage her time effectively.
Overall, developing a preset strategy can take the decision making out of the moment. And instead, you can rely on a predetermined methodical plan.
The Value of Taking a Break
Meera emphasizes the value that taking small breaks during the MCAT can have on managing stress levels. It states that seeing a difficult question and feeling overwhelmed is common, but taking even just a few seconds to close one’s eyes and reset can help restart the exam with a clearer mindset.
Meera advises that micro-breaks like this are totally okay to take and won’t significantly impact the time spent on questions. She believes breaks can help “reset your brain” and reduce the frustration of getting stuck on a single problem for too long. By refocusing with a small pause, students may find questions feel more approachable once they return focused and calm.
“It is totally okay to take micro breaks… it can help a ton to just reset your brain.”