The Anatomy of an MCAT Question and How to Break it Down

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Session 56

This week, we discuss the anatomy of the MCAT question and how to systematically go through a question to maximize your chance of getting it right. We talked about dealing with passages in the past but we haven’t really talked about dissecting the question itself.

Bryan says that at Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep), they’re a fan of not having a whole lot of jargon or the seventeen-step method for analyzing the question. The notion is all of your attention and all your focus in mental energy should be on the actual content of the question itself. So, they don’t have a method for answering the questions. But what they have is a mental rhythm that you go through whenever answering basically any MCAT question.

[02:22]  Read and Rephrase

Of course, the first thing to do is read the question. This is a logical thing to discuss considering a lot of students are taught that they should read the answers first. Then go to the question so you know what you’re looking for. These are tips for the exams we take in junior high and high school. But they’re so different from the MCAT. You want to get rid of all those bad habits.

After reading the question, take a breath. Pause for just a moment. Ask yourself the question of what are they really asking here. Or what are you doing with this question? The rhythm most people have thoughtlessly is they read the question. They start plowing through the answer choices and go right back to the passage. But they don’t just ask themselves what’s asked of them to do. What was the question itself?

After working with hundreds of tutoring students, Bryan can’t tell you how many tens of thousands of times over his career to watch the student flail around the question. The got themselves so twisted up in the answer choices. They’re so twisted up in the passage that they completely lost sight of what they’re doing. So you need to read and rephrase. In your own words, what are you doing here?

[04:39] Research, Then Predict or Eliminate

Once you’ve taken that mental breath, do whatever research that you need to do. It could be outside your knowledge. It could be math on the scratch paper. Basically, you crank through the solution of the problem. Then go and check the answer choices. See which one fits the idea in your head.

Bryan cites a dichotomy here where you can do a predicting approach. You read the question and rephrase in your own terms. Then you come up in advance with, “I’m looking for xyz.” Then you go look for it among the answer choices. Or you can directly go through the process of elimination. Dive right into the answer choices and start crossing them off. Neither one of these is inherently better. They both have strengths and weaknesses in predicting or doing the process of elimination. So you just have to try it and figure out what works best for you.

[06:25] Spotting Out Extreme Answers

This is a very common thing especially in the CARS section. What students are looking for in terms of extreme answers (which are less likely to be right) is those big categorical words. Examples of these words are always, never, only, and must. Another example is when they phrase things as if it was a certain fact. For example, x will be found to have increased y. Rather than saying would or might or maybe, if you categorically say is or will, that often ends up being too extreme for the right answer.

[07:33] “I’m Down to Two Choices”

Bryan recommends that if you ever run into trouble while you’re answering the question, like you get it down to the classic “down to two” syndrome, follow this. First, reread the question. If you got it down to two and you really can’t figure out the right answer, it doesn’t mean both are good choices. There’s only one good choice. So rather than going back and rereading all four answer choices or reading the whole passage, just reread the question. Rephrase it. Make sure you understood what the goal was. Then reconsider those two answer choices.

Listen to our other podcasts at MedEd Media. Check out The Premed Years Podcast, The OldPreMeds Podcast, and Specialty Stories Podcast.


MedEd Media

Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep)

The Premed Years Podcast

The OldPreMeds Podcast

Specialty Stories Podcast