The biology knowledge you need for the PCAT encompasses a wide variety of topics in the categories of general biology, microbiology, and human anatomy and physiology. Mastering biology on the PCAT means not only memorizing vocabulary and facts but also learning to integrate your knowledge, make connections, and otherwise strategically approach the multiple- choice questions in the Biological Processes section.
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The Biological Processes Section
The Biological Processes section of the PCAT has a total of 48 questions that must be completed in 45 minutes. Approximately 50% of the questions are associated with passages (4 questions per passage), while the other 50% are discrete, standalone questions. Plan to spend only two minutes reading each passage so you can spend 35 seconds on each question. Each passage is 150–300 words, and two minutes can pass very quickly, so you will need to make judicious use of the reading and question strategies outlined below to ensure you finish the entire section within the allotted time.
Biological Processes Strategies
Each question within a section is worth the same number of points, so answering the easiest and fastest questions first ensures you’ll have earned as many points as possible before attempting the most difficult and time-consuming problems. For the Biological Processes section, that often translates to skipping the passages and their associated questions initially so you can move directly to the discrete questions scattered throughout the section. Passage-based questions almost always take longer than discrete questions since they require first reading and then later referencing the passage so you can integrate information from the passage, the question stem, and your outside knowledge to successfully answer each. In contrast, the discrete biology questions often are much more straightforward asking about facts you already know, and can be answered well under the 35 second-per-question average. By completing the discrete questions first, you have the opportunity to earn at least half of your total points first while getting ahead of time and building your confidence.
Kaplan’s Stop-Think-Predict-Match question strategy is useful for all sections of the PCAT and is especially helpful in the sciences due to the limited time given per question. Before spending a significant amount of time on any one question, whether passage-based or discrete, Stop to consider what content area is being tested and whether you want to attempt that question right away or mark it for later. Once you’ve committed to a question, Think about what is being asked by carefully reading and paraphrasing the question stem. Next, recall any pertinent outside information and apply that to the question to Predict the answer. Only when you have a strong prediction in mind should you read the answer choices, and even then your goal should be to find a Match to your prediction rather than to analyze each answer choice on its own merits. Not reading the answer choices in advance is especially important for the Biological Processes section because it contains many questions with lengthy trap answer choices that initially seem correct.
When it’s time to start working through passages, remember that your goal when initially skimming a passage is to quickly find the main idea or scope of each paragraph and make a passage map that you can use to find important details later. You won’t see as many keywords in the sciences, but those you do find will be just as important as those from Critical Reading. What you shouldn’t do is focus on all the details first; with only two minutes, you simply don’t have enough time to ingest everything the author is saying. And, since each passage only has four questions, most of the details from the passage won’t be worth points so therefore aren’t worth the time and effort.
Studying Biology Content
In the past, most biology questions on the PCAT were based heavily on assessing test takers’ memories of discrete biological facts with a particular focus on the molecular basis of life. However, through the addition of passage-based questions, the test makers are now moving away from that reductionist viewpoint and toward an integrative approach that focuses on biological systems as wholes, including the complex interactions within them. This means that the test rewards both breadth of knowledge and the ability to make connections. Learn both approaches; you’ll still need to memorize a wide range of biology facts, but you’ll also need to understand how those pieces work together.
To help you learn this wide range of material, it’s important to use a wide range of methods while studying. You may still see questions on your official test about content that doesn’t look familiar at first. That won’t be a problem, though, because you’ll be able to figure out the answers to those types of questions using critical thinking: bringing different ideas together to determine the correct answers and eliminate impossible choices. You may see a question about a particular enzyme you didn’t study, but you can use information in the question about where it is produced and your knowledge of other molecules with similar names to find the correct answer. For example, if a question asks you about carboxypeptidase formed in the pancreas but you can’t remember its function, you can take what you do know to infer that coming from the pancreas means it acts in the small intestine. And since peptid refers to peptide bonds, carboxypeptidase must help digest proteins.
To ensure the facts you need come readily to mind, supplement your reading by memorizing flashcards. Once you have the basics down, use practice questions to evaluate your knowledge in a test-like setting, remembering to spend plenty of time reviewing the explanations for every question. Although it’s unlikely you’ll see the exact same questions on Test Day, carefully evaluating exactly why you answered correctly or incorrectly will allow you to apply the concepts to any similar questions you see in the future.
Finally, no matter how you’re studying, don’t neglect to keep a broad focus on the interactions within and among biological systems. It’s important to know that aldosterone is produced by the adrenal cortex and increases salt reabsorption in the nephrons, but it’s even more valuable to realize that damage to the adrenal glands (in the endocrine system) can cause low blood pressure (in the circulatory system). By making these connections, not only will you be prepared to answer challenging integrative questions on Test Day, but you’ll also ensure you have a solid knowledge of the basics as well. Even if you come from a strong biology background, many of the other test takers do as well, and you might not be very familiar with every topic tested, so it’s important to have very thorough knowledge to earn a higher score than your competition.
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