How to Ace the MCAT Psych/Soc Section & Improve Your Memory

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Session 336

Phil is a Master Level Tutor at Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep). He shares with us some tips in mastering the Psych/Soc section of the MCAT. Today’s episode is very helpful as you prepare for your MCAT as well as even in your premed courses, and eventually when you get to medical school. The reason Phil wants to come on the podcast is to talk about Psych/Soc because about 25% of his private MCAT students are getting perfect scores. Find out how you, too, can ace this section on the MCAT!

[02:40] Phil’s Background

Phil went to the University of Nebraska as an MD/PhD student where he did his PhD in Neuroscience. He has been through the process itself and attributes his MCAT score to a big part of that. Phil actually left during his second year of medical school. He did some research over the summer. The reason he went to med school is that he wanted to become an instructor. He finds performing research less exciting as compared with sharing knowledge. Due to an illness in their family, Phil took a leave of absence from medical school to be around family. Upon which, he got contacted by Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep), where he now helps write and edit content, as well as teach and run the office hours.

'Med schools want to know that when students come to the med school, they're doing it because they want to be a practicing physician and not just because they watch Scrubs.'Click To Tweet

[06:55] How Can Students Learn Better?

The brain is very good at learning certain things. There are things inherent to us like recognizing faces and understanding social interactions. The idea is to hack and hijack the way your brain naturally wants to learn. Just like a screwdriver, your brain is very good at certain things. A screwdriver is used to drive a screw. You can use it as a hammer but it’s not going to be as efficient. This could work and you could build a shelf that way. But when you try to do a bigger task like instead of building a shelf, you’re now building a house. Obviously, a screwdriver as a hammering tool is not going to work.

Many times, students are using their brain like a hammer. They’re using it in an inefficient way. They’re smashing their head into a pile of equations. This will work if it’s a small enough task. But then it’s already a different story if you start to deal with bigger things like the MCAT or medical school. Pysch, specifically, involves vocab recognition. And Phil has taken different approaches.

[12:13] The Psych/Soc Section

This section contains a lot of neuro-related content such as disorders, cause, syndromes, etc. These are things a student needs to know at some point. It’s also important to understand terms like influences, groupthink, and things like that. They want to test and make sure students are aware of.

In terms of doing prereqs to prepare for this section on the MCAT, Phil thinks this actually depends. If you want to do well in your Psych/Soc, Phil recommends taking a Neuro course.

It can be disconcerting to spend a lot of time on your bio and chem courses but so little on psych. But it’s Psych is the second highest yield content area on the test. The first highest is Bio and Biochem. 1 out of every 3 questions is a bio question on the MCAT, including the CARS section. After psych, the next highest yield would be Chemistry and Physics. In fact, there are more psych questions than chemistry and physics combined.

'Psych is the second highest yield content area on the test. The first highest is Bio and Biochem.'Click To Tweet

There are tons of students that will spend 3 weeks studying organic chemistry and 2 weeks studying physics since those were the scary undergrad courses for them. And we spend a little time on pysch. But organic chemistry is less than 5% of the test. It’s also the one area that’s easier on the MCAT that it is in undergrad. That being said, you should spend minimal time on Organic Chemistry compared to the time you spend on Pysch and Bio.

[18:03] Where to Start

Go straight to the AAMC for all the sections. But Phil doesn’t find the stuff on Chemistry and Physics as useful. When you get to the psych/soc section, it’s very granular as they break it down. Surprisingly, they find specific things but they’re on the AAMC outline for Psych. And so this is something they will hold students accountable for it.

A word of caution: Many students are just compiling different psych/soc documents out there and flip through them. However, this is very passive learning. You are just reading something that someone else has put together.

Rather than reading definitions and books, Phil would make students go through tasks so they can describe whatever experience for themselves. Once the students can describe it in their own language, that encodes differently in the brain.

'Using different regions of the brain sticks a whole lot better than if you just something in the book.'Click To Tweet

Moreover, the idea of being able to hold on to some information for 4-5 months to even a year is very difficult. And if you’re just reading something that somebody wrote and put together, that doesn’t work either.

[20:40] Knowing the Terms

If for example, if schizoid personality disorder is the correct answer, what would you expect to be the incorrect answers? A schizoid personality disorder is a disorder where people just don’t have any interest in interacting with others. It’s not that they hate other people. They just don’t have the drive to interact with other people. They don’t see the point.

Now, there are a lot of other personality disorders that students might be confused about. For somebody not interested in socializing, one might pick the antisocial personality disorder. 90% of students will pick that if they’re not aware of the difference of these things. Or they will pick avoidant personality disorder.

These are terms MCAT is holding students accountable on the AAMC list. So make sure you’re able to dive in and pull those apart. The AAMC expects you to already have that kind of information so just stick to that outline.

[24:20] Learning Styles: Writing, Typing, and Flash Cards

Your learning style can change in medical school because the volume has changed. Instead of just trying to memorize something, it’s about complex stories. In your mind, you imagine this person has a disease and you treated them. You screwed up and now you’re going to remember this forever. Nothing actually happened to anybody. But in your mind, there’s this traumatic thing that you really need to know the difference between this and that. This is one of the best ways to hold on to information forever rather than just read a definition.

Both writing it down and saying it out loud are better than just reading. They’re more active. There’s also been research showing that handwriting stuff can increase encoding better than typing.

One region of the test that Phil encourages students to use flashcards is when you’re trying to memorize little vocab things. There are a lot of this in psych/soc. Flash cards are also useful for studying amino acids. But Phil doesn’t think they’re useful for equations. This is probably one of the number one errors that students make.

'Instead of just memorizing a pile of equations, it's really important to do questions.'Click To Tweet

Phil recommends doing questions when trying to memorize equations. If you can do 4-5 questions using one specific equation, your brain will hold on to that. Because once you finish a question, there’s that dopamine rush where there’s a reward pathway in your brain. And your brain thinks that whatever that was, it holds onto that so that you can have the dopamine rush again in the future. Do 4-5 questions and your brain will remember that equation without trying to because it was a useful tool to it.

Downloading flashcard apps is nowhere near as useful as making flashcards yourself. It does take time, but overall, it’s going to take less time. The act of making the flashcard is the most important part of the memorization process.

[31:10] Using the Power of Stories

For terms that are similar sounding, first off, notice how things can be confusing. The best way is to use stories. For example, paranoid schizophrenia is going to have delusions. Paranoid personality disorders is based on real life in a non delusional state but still being paranoid. For paranoid schizophrenia, I could probably see their neighbor walking down the street. Then the neighbor looks towards the house. And I know they’re working for the Russians. This is delusional. While with the paranoid personality disorder, someone is just paranoid about non delusional things. For example, you don’t let anybody hold your first child afraid they’re going to catch diseases. Diseases do exist, but they’re just being unrealistic. So stories like this would stick with you long-term versus just reading the definition in the book.

[34:37] Application vs Memorization

There are stories running that the psych/soc is a lot of application and not as much straight vocab and memorization. And this is how the MCAT is across the board. But you still need to have the concept underlying it memorized.

For example in Physics, instead of asking you about which of these capacitors are strongest, they’re going to have a setup. Say, the membrane of the neuron acts as a capacitor where charges can build up on either side. Switching from oleic acid to linoleic acid will do what capacitance of that membrane? This is something no one would probably study about. But when you understand that when the two plates of a capacitor get closer together, the capacitance goes up. So if you switch out large fatty acids for smaller fatty acids in the membrane, this brings the charges close to each other. So this increases the capacitance.

In order to understand that question then, you therefore need to understand how distance affects the distance between plates. You need to memorize the equation for that. Phil says there are two sides to it.

'Memorization is crucial but it is not all of it though because there is the application side.'Click To Tweet

A lot of the MCAT deals with data interpretation, how to pull the passage apart, how to figure out what they’re actually asking you. The MCAT likes to twist things around across borders. Hence, you have to see the bigger picture and application is a huge part of that. Again, it’s not just content, but it is underlying everything.

[38:25] Content is Still Crucial

Taking a lot of practice tests is great if your problem is timing, endurance, stamina, data interpretation, and trying to figure out what the question is asking and making those connections. But if you don’t know what schizoid personality disorder is, no amount of practice test is going to help that. So the content side is really important.

[39:35] Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep) Course

Next Step has hundreds of hours of videos. Some of the core lesson videos contain a lot of strategies, high-yield content that everyone needs to see. There are also other content review videos that Phil has made. Some of the content review stuff are designed to help you focus more on your weaker areas. That said, their course is designed around the idea that every student is different. They also have quizzes built in all of their content review videos and lesson videos. They’re pushing active learning so students are reinforced and space repetition is included as well.

Next Step also have office hours, a big part of what Phil does. He does at least 10 hours of office hours. Students can just come in and talk about whatever questions they have. Additionally, they do public webinars, giving specific advice and strategies in tackling different topics as well as studying methodologies. They have free resources students have access to and some forums to make sure questions from students are being answered.

'Whether or not you go to med school shouldn't be based on how much money you have.'Click To Tweet


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