Effective Studying: Relating MCAT Science to Everyday Things
Time and time again I get asked “Patrick, I feel like I am drowning! There are so many science concepts to remember on the MCAT. Do you have any tips to keep it all straight?!” And my answer is simple; all one needs to do is to relate it to an example in everyday life. Rote memorization has its time and place in studying, but the MCAT rewards the student who is able to go above and beyond to UNDERSTAND the concept in all its intricacies. With this in mind I often push my students to think of common examples, so that in the worst case scenario – if you forget what you memorized – you still understand WHY relationships are the way they are.
Let’s take for example the ideal gas law. Every pre-med is required to take General Chemistry and you can bet that in that time you memorized PV=nRT. Charles’ Law, Boyle’s Law, direct relationships, and indirect relationships… so many things to remember and with just memorization it is very easy to forget or mixed up. Boyle’s Law (which I myself even mixed up once on an exam, believe it or not!) is defined when temperature is held constant under a closed system. Think about the diaphragm of the body as an example: the temperature of the human body is relatively constant at 37 degrees Celsius, and when a person is breathing they contract their diaphragm so as to expand the volume of the lungs. Using the ideal gas law, we know that when the volume increases the pressure is going to decrease. This causes a negative pressure breathing mechanism that allows the oxygen rich air to flood into the lungs. By simply relating Boyle’s Law to a familiar system like the diaphragm, we’ve created a key example that will help us remember the ideal gas law in a conceptual manner, similar to the way the MCAT is going to test it!
Struggling with Charles’ Law instead? Looking back at the ideal gas law we see that pressure and temperature are going to have a direct relationship. Now how do we apply Charles’ Law to a common example? How about a soda bottle? When it is cold out there is very little pressure released when the bottle is opened. However, when it is warm outside the pressure inside the bottle builds up and causes soda to squirt out. Sometimes if it gets hot enough the warm soda can explode out of the bottle on its own! (If you’re wondering why a soda would explode in the freezer given what we’ve just covered, remember that the solid phase of water is less dense than it’s liquid phase and you’re halfway to answering your own question!)
In the end, the MCAT is a critical thinking test. After taking all of your pre-med courses you might be inclined to think of the test as a 10 semester final examination, and in some ways it is. However, the format of the MCAT is very different than any other test administered during your undergraduate career – it’s doesn’t ask you to simply regurgitate your science knowledge, but instead to apply it. Memorizing key science concepts will only get you so far; by relating scientific concepts to everyday situations you are more likely to remember the material in a conceptual way, and are already one step closer to applying it to similar situations you could see on the MCAT! Happy Studies!