Prepare for the Biological Sciences Section of the MCAT

Focus on understanding biology principles, not memorizing facts, when studying for the MCAT.

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Reading biomedical journals can help students get exposure to experimental data ahead of taking the MCAT.
Reading biomedical journals can help students get exposure to experimental data ahead of taking the MCAT.

The biological sciences section of the MCAT will test your ability to answer questions using basic biology and organic chemistry knowledge. Like the physical sciences portion, this section mainly gauges how well you apply the knowledge you've learned in your introductory courses rather than assessing how well you can regurgitate memorized facts.

Keeping that in mind, here are four keys to success on this area of the medical school admissions exam. 

1. Develop an understanding of physiology: Many questions on this section will be rooted in basic physiological principles. If possible, try to complete a human physiology course at your college before taking the MCAT. 

Review key concepts of the major organ systems, as endocrine, cardiovascular, pulmonary and gastrointestinal physiology are high-yield exam topics. During your study, focus on understanding the basic principles inside and out. 

A solid foundation in physiology will help you tackle problems on subject matter to which you may have no prior exposure, which is likely to occur on the MCAT regardless of how much preparation you've undertaken. 

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2. Learn how to interpret experimental data: Several passages in this section will present you with experiments and accompanying data sets. The questions will usually ask you to draw conclusions from that data, as well as identify limitations of study methodology. 

These portions of the exam aren't testing your biology or organic chemistry knowledge so much as your ability to understand experimental design and quantitative results. Your college course work should help you prepare for these types of tasks, so be sure to take biology and organic chemistry lab courses before sitting for the MCAT. 

Consider periodically reading current biomedical literature, such as The New England Journal of Medicine or JAMA, in order to get additional practice and exposure to these concepts. You don't need to spend significant amounts of time trying to comprehend all of the nuances of studies during your preparation. Instead, try to take away big picture points and focus on fully understanding how conclusions are drawn from data. 

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3. Consult your peers: Schools can vary in the material covered in introductory biology and organic chemistry courses. Some of your courses may cover what you need to know for the MCAT plus more, while others may not go into further detail on certain topics covered on the exam. 

Get in touch with students at your school who have already taken the MCAT and ask them what topics they had to spend extra time on. Also, get an idea of which courses cover material in alignment with the MCAT. 

Make it a point to solidify the information from these courses rather than memorizing for the short term. This way, when it comes time to review, you'll already have a head start. 

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4. Make time for plenty of practice: MCAT practice resources really are the best way to prepare for the test. When prepping for this section, you should use practice questions to tailor your review process. 

Identify your weaker areas within both biology and organic chemistry and spend extra time on that content. Also, practice questions will get you acclimated to the way questions will be presented on the exam – as well as the types of questions being asked. Start working through practice sets early and often so you can further adjust your study plan to cover the material that is most relevant. 

Anubodh "Sunny" Varshney is a professional MCAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from Washington University in St. Louis and is a medical student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.