How to Study Biology for the MCAT (Memorizing Collections)

Kat Thomson
Lesson by Kat Thomson
Magoosh Expert
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Due to its length, this lesson had to be split into 2 parts. 

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Resource for Learning Hormones 

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Learn More About Magoosh MCAT
How to Study Biology for the MCAT. And this is a lesson that you students have been asking for for a few months now. And specifically more than one of you said you wanted something similar to the lessons we've had for a while on how to study psych and soc, and I'm happy to finally be putting this out here. As you know, I hop around between different subjects here.

But when you ask for lessons, and more than a couple of you ask for the same thing, it really does go on a list I make, and I get to it as soon as I can. In this lesson, I'm gonna cover what I think are the most important things to cover in a short lesson like this, but we do have a lot of blog posts that talk about study techniques and convey different students experiences with the MCAT written by different bloggers.

Most of whom have taken the MCAT very recently. And so, I encourage you to check those out as well. How did I come up with these tips and strategies? First, I have a pretty in-depth understanding of the AAMC. I was at UCSF as a doctoral student, there's a pretty heavy connection between different medical schools and the people who are on the AAMC, they're mostly academics, and I know what the makers of the test are trying to get you to demonstrate.

And I've sat in on some of their meetings, so when I think about what I'm giving you to study, I first think about it actually from the perspective of the people who are creating the test. And then from there I work my way backwards and think about what steps you would need to take to achieve the target outcomes that they've already set and that they have in motion.

Some of these tips come from interviewing former undergrads I've had, current medical students. I've taught a lot of pre-med, pre-vet, pre-pharamcy students and actually a lot of pre-vet and pre-pharmacy students use MCAT study materials for their own tests or, like, a lot of pre-vet students take the MCAT, but mostly pre-med students are the ones I've taught.

For this particular lesson, I actually interviewed a bunch of people with this lesson in mind knowing I was gonna create it. I interviewed about half a dozen undergrads, some current medical students, two current doctors and ask them what's work for them. Three of the people I interviewed have taken the new MCAT, and one of them got a perfect 132 on the bio section, another got 130.

And everybody I interviewed scored in the top 25% in the year that they took the MCAT. More than half, a quite a bit more than half, actually, of the tips that I'm gonna give you are coming directly from the advice of the people I interviewed. From taking dozens of practice tests myself and observing what raised my scores, you might or might not know that the MCAT doesn't allow teachers to sit in and take the MCAT.

And so I rely really heavily on practice tests. And that's both to create my own questions and also to get a sense of what it's like to learn this material. And then last, well, my advanced training very much is in the Behavioral Sciences. I know a lot about learning, memory, motivation. And frankly, that's about 50% of the game here.

You have to stay in motion. It's a matter of putting in the time and doing it in an organized way. And I'm hoping that you'll save some time through watching this video that you will be able to direct your attention more smartly and effectively. Let's look quickly at the foundational concepts you'll be tested on on the biology section.

Biology section, I'm using that as shorthand for biological and biochemical foundations of living systems. These foundational concepts, 1 through 3, A, B, C, they're not broken down like this on the actual exam which you know if you've taken any practice test. These categories are meant to be study tools and are also a way that AAMC stays accountable to itself.

It publishes exactly what it's gonna test you on, exactly what the proportion is going to be and then when they make the tests, they hold themselves to their promises. Now, of course, people argue after the fact and grumble about what's been tested and so forth. But, they really are trying to hold themselves to what they say they're going to test you on.

What you'll find on the actual test is that they tend to combine multiple concepts within a single question. And, get this, they've determined that 55% of the questions on this section are going to be derived from 1A, B, C, D. If you want to check that out, you can go look at the actual book, their official book.

If you don't own that book yet, I highly recommend it at this point used copies are pretty available. 45% of course then is coming from 2 and 3 combined. Only 20% of the biology section looks at assemblages of cells and molecules, and the word that got cut off here, if you're looking in around here is viruses. And so viruses is, they say it's not a heavily tested concept.

But when they're saying that, they really mean they're not gonna test you on the intricacies of the structure of the virus. They still want you to know quite a bit about how they function within animals. And then a quarter of the task will be on the nervous system and Physiology in general. Of the remaining 25% actually sounds kind of low.

A lot of students I have talked to, say that they fell like they under studied physiology. And I don't wanna confuse that with anatomy, you don't want to be spending time on anatomy because you'll waste your time memorizing the names of all the bones and things like that that you're not gonna be tested on. But the physiology, how things are connected.

Another thing that could be misleading here is that 3A might only be, let's say, 10% of the Biology section. But it's extremely important for the social science section. I would say it's actually more heavily tested in the social science section than it is in the biology section. And so don't shrug it off just because it's not a huge portion of the biology.

These are the courses they're drawing from and the relative distribution. Lots of biology 1 and 2, a little bit of chemistry, most of the chemistry is gonna be in the other section, physical sciences. And a little bit of organic, and then a fair amount of biochemistry. As you know from the intro video that I recorded a while ago, and probably from other places that you've learned about the MCAT, biochemistry is built directly off of organic.

Or you might have already taken biochemistry, in which case you know that very well. And so, you don't want to underestimate the importance of organic chemistry on the biology section. That said, it's comforting to know that most of what they cover does come from Introduction to Biology courses.

The rest of this lesson is divided into two basic types of studying. That's how to memorize collections of concepts in biology, that's gonna be one section. And then how to study biological processes. So a big chunk of the MCAT memorization, the main skills you wanna develop in memorization are, and these are psych terms, recognition and recall.

Recognition is the ability to identify things you've seen before when you see them again. And then recall is the ability to dredge up relevant information usually without any kind of hint. By using flashcards, you can link your recognition of names and terms to relevant information.

And that builds your ability to recall information that's related to the term. And so that's what we mean when we say linking recall to recognition. You wanna put the name of the term, or concept, on one side and the relevant information on the other. There are several high yield topics on the bio, biochem section that lend themselves to memorization through flash cards.

And we can divide them, broadly speaking, into collection-based and process-based topics. Collection-based topics are ones where you need to memorize the names and characteristics of a bunch of members of a group. Like enzymes, cell types, biomolecules, process based are ones where you need to know the variety of steps, usually in a sequence, and that might be something like an action potential.

Could be a bio-chemical pathway. For collection-based topics, flash cards can be a handy method. It sounds overdone, it sounds generic, but it's helpful for the majority of people. The information might be function, location of action or production, it could be structure and any other associated terms. Then you can quiz yourself by showing yourself either side of the card.

You wanna be able to know it both ways. One thing that can be helpful is to continuously make flash cards throughout your practice sessions. When you find a term you don't know, flashcard it. This works not just for bio, and bio cam, but for psych and soc, and to some degree, for physics and chemistry.

Organization can be key. It can be pivotal to making the most out of your flash card collection. Some people use color coding to label their flashcards by topic. In that way, if you wanna focus on a particular topic like cell bio, you can easily go back and pull up relevant information and relevant flashcards out of your collection.

Of the people I interviewed when I created this lesson, one of them was adamantly opposed to flashcards. He said he started his studying the flashcards and found it to be a waste of time, but when I asked him a little bit more about well, how did he study, what were his processes, it turns out he made heavy use of post-it notes, which is a very similar technique.

He would write down terms and information on a largish post-it, and then stick them on the wall. And move them around from time to time and see if he could make connections between concepts. Now, it's a little bit of a different type of learning, it's a deeper learning. It's actually one of the main ways that I studied as an undergrad, not directly using post-its, but I would take any two topics I could find and I'd just grab two randomly and try and make an association between them.

And I wouldn't let myself not make an association,. So sometimes I was really stretching to find connections, but it's a way of forcing you to think more deeply. And it's creative, it's generative, it's useful for priming you for your passages. Now, one thing I'll say is that the student who didn't use flashcards, he was not one of the students who got a 130 or 132, he still did very well.

I don't know if he would have done better with the flashcards. The point is, is that I'm giving you the tips that work for most people, but there are people for whom these don't work. So, take what you think will work for you. Experiment even with tips you don't think will work for you. And if it doesn't work, just get rid of it.

A classic example of a high yield collection-based topic is the amino acids. And actually a lot of people say that this might be with new MCAT the single highest deal topic on the MCAT. Period. You are guaranteed to see at least two or three questions, if not more, that require you to distinguish between various amino acids.

Ideally, want to be able to draw each amino acid. Name it, and that includes the abbreviation, giving the 3 and 1 letter abbreviations from memory. And then if you can do this, this will probably earn you at least a point or two on the bio and chem sections just knowing this. If you can draw the structure from memory, then you can know which amino acids are polar, acidic, basic, just by thinking about the structure.

And the 3 and 1 letter abbreviations are commonly seen in experimental results. For example, the letter, number letter notation is a common way to report substitutions. An example of this K33D means the lysine at position 33 was replaced as an aspartate. You can practice these by making different flash cards so you might have one with the structure on one side and name on the other and then another set, with abbreviations one side, so on, so forth.

And there are a number of online sites, online games that do this work for you. These are some of the sites that students suggested to me as good places to study, and I'll also include these links at the bottom of this lesson. Please though, for copyright sake, and for giving credit where it's due, if you use these, recommend these sites to other people, make it clear that these sites aren't produced or monitored by .

Whenever I find helpful resources and I come across them, I wanna pass them on to you. But it would be a real shame if the original authors lost the credit they rightfully deserve for coming up with these and making them widely available, which is extremely generous. Another high yield collection based topic is types of cells,cell tissues.

We can get very specific with this, for instance subtypes of a t cell. Or we can stay really broad. That might be epithelial versus neural versus muscle cells. And this is another topic that lends itself to flashcards. You can place names on one side, information on the other. If you get the name function and important characteristics, you'll be in a pretty good place with this.

At a minimum, it's good to know the names and difference between immune cells, different types of immune cells, tissue cell differences. Another would be types of muscle cells, so smooth versus skeletal versus cardiac. And in general, just the differences between those that make up the epithelial versus the muscles versus blood versus neural tissue, etc. Another high-yield collection to memorize is the various hormones and signaling molecules.

So that would be like neurotransmitters, etc., and ideally, you want to know where a hormone is made, as well as what it's made of, and what it does. This link below is a great resource because it contains every hormone you might need to know on the MCAT, as well as a couple of extras. And last slide on collection based topics, there are many more collection based topics that are helpful to learn.

Organelles, genetic terms such as prevalence, co-dominance. Brain regions, for sure you need to know. And you'll certainly run into others beyond this as well.

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