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Integrated Sciences on the MCAT 2015 Exam

By: Petros Minasi


The new MCAT will present many changes, including the additions of biochemistry, psychology, and sociology, a longer test day, and a fourth section. There is one change that is subtler, but nonetheless substantial: the integration of the sciences on the exam.

Integrated sciences on the MCAT 2015

In taking prerequisite courses in your undergraduate pre-med program, you probably encountered science as separate, compartmentalized subjects. For instance, when you took physics, you weren’t worried about the biological application of the Doppler effect. All you were concerned with was learning the formula and knowing how to apply it—a perfectly normal pre-med experience.

On the new MCAT 2015 exam, however, the sciences will be integrated. This is most apparent with biology and biochemistry. One would think that biochemistry would only show up in the “Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems” section, but in fact, you’ll also encounter it in the “Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems” section.

This means you’ll need to start thinking about the interplay of scientific disciplines—how your knowledge of biochemistry informs your understanding of biology, for example. Integrated sciences are at the heart of what you’ll be doing on a daily basis in working as a physician. After all, the human body is not just a collection of individual organs and isolated systems functioning independently, it’s a network of interdependent physical, chemical, and biological processes, and the MCAT assesses how you think about these integrated sciences and their practical application.


Good news for pre-meds

While studying formulas and chemical reactions in your pre-med courses, you may have found yourself thinking on more than one occasion, “how is this relevant to medicine?” The nature of the new MCAT is going to force you to actually learn how and why these scientific disciplines are necessary for your career. The incorporation of that mentality is going to be key to your success on test day!

Application questions are a significant part of the MCAT 2015 exam. They require you to take content that you knew before coming into the exam and then apply it to novel situations presented in the passages. You need to start training yourself now for applying that knowledge.

The new MCAT isn’t a recall and recognition exam—it tests your critical thinking and demands more than merely retaining facts and information. One key strategy to improve your critical thinking is to identify the real question behind the question’s phrasing. For example, let’s say you’re faced with the following question:

Which of the following might be absent in a chromosome with an unstable rearrangement?

  1. Centromere
  2. Nucleus
  3. Chiasmata
  4. TATA box.

Perhaps you never learned what specific effect the absence of each of these structures has on a chromosome, but you do know the general function that each of these structures performs. So, approach this question by first rephrasing it: “Which of these would be necessary for stable division?” Now the question has become more concrete and relatable to your knowledge, and the correct answer (A. Centromere) becomes apparent.


How will the MCAT 2015 test your pre-med knowledge?

It’s a matter of fact—and almost a rite of passage—that taking chemistry or physics in college means memorized equations. Often, succeeding on a midterm or final exam rests upon your ability to recall formulas quickly and apply them. On the new MCAT 2015, that creature comfort of memorization disappears and you have to start thinking outside the box, in terms of integrated sciences.

Let’s use one of the most common formulas in physics: good old F = ma. We all know that m is mass, a is acceleration (and it’s a vector) and F is the force generated from their product. We also know the units. So, our strategy is to find the m and the a to get the F. However, on the MCAT 2015 exam, that simple equation is going to be applied to a biological system.


Physics, biology, and chemistry

A: Let’s take a look at an example. On the new MCAT, this formula might appear in the form of a question that asks you to figure out how much energy will be exerted by a muscle that can generate so much force over an object of some given mass a certain amount of acceleration.

B: Let’s take a look at an example. On the new MCAT, this formula might appear in the following way:

A muscle’s strength is proportional to its cross-sectional area.  If a bundle of muscles with a cross-sectional area of 12 cm^2 can accelerate a 39-kg object to 10 m/s^2, how much force does the bundle exert per square centimeter of cross-sectional area?

Although the designers of the exam will give you physiological facts and numbers, that’s not what you are expected to know before taking the test. Your MCAT practice will require being able to see the same concepts that you learned in your undergraduate pre-med classes in a very defined and isolated environment—applied in a foreign scope to integrated sciences.

The interplay of scientific disciplines (i.e., how your knowledge of physics or chemistry informs your understanding of how an organ works) is paramount to your success both on the new MCAT and as a future physician. The human body is a network of interdependent physical, chemical, and biological processes, and the MCAT measures your ability to make those connections.


Tips for mastering integrated sciences


Knowing formulas and reactions is necessary for success on the MCAT 2015, but will in no way be sufficient. Success will only come with practice, so here are a couple of tips:


Tip 1: When studying a “physical” science, think through all of its biological applications.


For example, let’s use reduction and oxidation. We know that LEO the Lion says GER (the Loss of an Electron is Oxidation and the Gain of an Election is Reduction). Therefore, when a metal is losing or gaining electrons, it’s either getting oxidized or reduced, respectively.


Don’t stop there. The ReDox that occurs in the Electron transport chain, with NADH losing an electron to the ETC and getting—you guessed it—oxidized, is the exact same concept. NAD+ is the product of the oxidation of NADH, just as Ag+ is the oxidized product of Ag. It’s the exact same science. So, don’t get thrown off by the fact that you learned it in two different places.


Tip 2: There are a finite number of scientific facts.


There is some truth in the claim that most of biology is rooted in chemistry and physics. Take proteins for example. We think of them as biological molecules because they serve such a prominent role in the body. In reality, they are nothing more than a very specific structural arrangement of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and sometimes sulfur.


The way in which they are bonded to each other is through a bonding orbital—just like the ones you learned about in general chemistry. They fold into specific shapes because of attractions and repulsions of the amino acids in their sequence. Those are the same attractions and repulsions seen in chemistry. The proteins themselves are coded from RNA, which is coded from DNA. RNA and DNA are just chemical molecules with the same properties you learned about in chemistry.

Critical thinking on the new MCAT

The point is that even the most complex biological structures are really just collections of simple interactions with which we are already familiar.

As you study for the new MCAT 2015 exam, always take a step back and bring these complex scientific concepts back to the basics. Not only will it make the concepts less challenging, but it will also serve as a good exercise to practice your critical thinking skills, which are a huge part of success on the MCAT 2015.

Succeeding on test day

Getting a firm grasp on the integrated sciences tested on the MCAT 2015 exam is necessary for success, but that alone is not sufficient. You need to relearn how to think about each of these sciences. The new MCAT isn’t going to ask you questions in the same manner that you were tested in your pre-med courses. Yes, you still need to memorize all those reactions in organic chemistry and know all the steps of glycolysis, but you should also be prepared to encounter curveballs and novel scenarios that force you to think beyond what you’ve memorized.

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