MCAT psychology and sociology (also known as psych/soc) is an oddly paradoxical beast. A lot of students think psych/soc will be a breeze and yet discover it to be the hardest science section to study for.
Why is studying for MCAT psychology and sociology so intimidating?
A surface-level answer might be “because there are just so many psych terms.” This is true, but the same could be said about biology, or biochemistry, or any other science subject. A better answer is that far more ambiguity exists regarding which psych terms are MCAT-relevant.
I could go on about potential reasons for this all day, but the end result is that we often don’t feel confident that some random psychologist’s name or some diagnostic criterion for a psych disorder definitely won’t be tested.
Contrast this with biochemistry, where even though there are around 1,300 enzymes in the human body, we know that hexokinase is likely to appear on the MCAT, whereas we never in a million years would need to know details about, say, leukotriene C4 synthase.
To untangle this web, the team here at Brainscape enlisted the firepower of Clara Gillan, an MCAT super nerd who scored a staggering 526 on the exam, placing her in the 100th percentile of test-takers. Clara is also the Director of Product at MedSchoolCoach, which provides pre-med and medical school admissions consulting services, and MCAT and USMLE/COMLEX tutoring.
In other words: she is the very best expert to have in our corner on all things MCAT, including how to hack the psychology and sociology section!
Who is Brainscape? Well, we’re the brains, minds, and hearts behind the world’s smartest study app. And we’ve brought together some of the smartest people in the realm of MCAT prep like Clara to compile a comprehensive collection of study guides—such as how to study for the MCAT more efficiently and advice for students taking the MCAT twice—and digital flashcards, including MCAT psychology and sociology flashcards!
Check out Brainscape’s MCAT Psychology flashcards
Check out Brainscape’s MCAT Sociology flashcards
With that said, let’s address some MCAT tips on psych/soc to help you take on this notoriously tricksy section ...
MCAT tips on tackling the psych/soc section
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) outline is a resource published by the test-makers themselves that provides a tremendous and often under-utilized amount of helpful MCAT info. Now, the outline was never meant to serve as a comprehensive guide to every fact or individual term you need to know for the exam. But while that’s true across all of the science sections, the outline for MCAT psychology and sociology has a much less decisive feel than the other parts.
Take the use of “e.g.,” which basically means “for example.” On the chemistry/physics part of the outline, you might see something like “Strong acids and bases (e.g., nitric, sulfuric),” and this means there are likely other, unspecified strong acids you need to know. (This is true, by the way: there are actually seven strong acids that you should be familiar with for the exam.)
In the chemistry/physics and biology/biochemistry sections combined, the AAMC uses “e.g.” a total of 11 times. In the MCAT psychology/sociology outline, however, it’s used 39 times. And in contrast to the strong acid example, where most MCAT students quickly learn what the other strong acids are, we might have no clue how far to look for those unlisted examples in psych/soc.
Take this line: “Heuristics and biases (e.g., overconfidence, belief perseverance).” There are so many more biases that exist and dozens of named heuristics, but we’re left on our own to discern which ones are important and which are not.
I say all of this to emphasize the following immutable fact: ambiguity in psych/soc is part of MCAT life! If you buy a psych/soc book from every MCAT company, you’re going to see some terms in one book that aren’t in the rest. When you take full-length MCAT practice tests, you’re going to see a few MCAT psychology and sociology terms that you’ve never encountered. It’s just going to happen.
For the sake of your mental health, I recommend ridding yourself of the notion that some complete list of all MCAT-relevant psych terms exists: it doesn’t! But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless; not by a long shot. Let’s talk about how to cope with this uncertainty, which I’ve broken into three stages:
- While you’re studying,
- While you’re reviewing practice materials and full-length practice exams, and
- While you’re taking the actual MCAT.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
Read: Discover the key to doing well on the MCAT … the first time!
MCAT Tip 1: Coping with MCAT psych/soc uncertainty while you’re studying
While studying, the best way to become comfortable with uncertainty is to gain a sense of what kinds of things the AAMC likes to test. Most good MCAT prep books have been designed and (especially) revised in accordance with AAMC trends over time, so avoiding sources that haven’t been subjected to this process is generally helpful.
(This is actually the main reason why I don’t recommend using college introductory MCAT psychology textbooks to prep. Read: MCAT courses vs. premed classes: what you need to know!)
As examples of “what the AAMC likes to test,” theories are generally tested far more than the names of psychologists. You might be asked about Mead’s theory of the “I” and the “me,” but you likely won’t be asked which psychologist pioneered symbolic interactionism (which is actually also Mead).
Similarly, the AAMC loves experimental design in psych/soc, so I highly recommend trying to understand everything you encounter about types of study design, variables, survey methods, and so on.
MCAT Tip 2: Coping with uncertainty while you’re reviewing MCAT practice test questions
The next part of handling uncertainty in MCAT psychology and sociology happens when reviewing practice passages or full-length MCAT practice exams. In the answer choices, you are going to see terms you don’t know, and those terms might not be in the MCAT prep book you’re using or in any MCAT content video.
Broadly, I recommend keeping a notebook where you write down each unfamiliar psych/soc concept as it arises. (To reiterate, I’m referring to concepts in the answer choices—not ones that are introduced and described in the passage itself.)
Below each entry, keep some space free, so if you see that concept again, you can add to your growing knowledge of it, and don’t just add facts and definitions, but information about the context that term was tested in, too.
By the time your exam date rolls around, you’ll see some entries that are full of notes, and others where you never saw that term again after the first time, as evidenced by a bunch of blank space. This can serve as an extremely helpful guide of what you should spend more versus less time reviewing.
(Also: Brainscape’s MCAT psychology and sociology flashcards will help guide you on what the most important terms to learn for the exam are, so make sure you lean on those as an essential study aid!)
One caveat, though!
The process of documenting unfamiliar terms can’t be done mindlessly, because not all unfamiliar terms are created equal. For instance, say choice D for a particular question is a term that you’ve never seen in your life, but enough context was given in the passage to discern that it was wrong. This is evidence of a passage reasoning issue, not a content one, so don’t go out and try to learn all about what D is.
Similarly, unfamiliar terms that you see within correct answers tend to be more important than those in wrong answers, because perhaps the correct answer was so obviously right that you were never expected to know the meaning of the wrong choice anyway. Maybe the wrong answer wasn’t even a real term, although this is unlikely.
All of this is true for both AAMC and third-party materials, although to be safe, I do recommend at least documenting every wrong-answer term you see in your AAMC practice, even if the right answer was clear.
Along similar lines, if your test date is approaching and you have available materials left, like say a couple of full-length MCAT practice tests you’ll never have time to take, go through at least the psych/soc sections of those tests and see if any unfamiliar terms or concepts come up.
This is particularly true of AAMC materials; if for some reason you won’t get to a part of the psych/soc Section Bank, still make sure you review it, carefully and with this same critical discernment, to make sure you understand all concepts that came up that weren’t explained in context.
MCAT Tip 3: Coping with MCAT psychology and sociology uncertainty during the test!
Finally, when you reach your exam date, note that no matter how much preparation you’ve done, you’re still quite likely to see a term or two that you’ve never heard of in your life. My best advice here is: don’t panic.
Check the passage and question first—is there any information there that can answer the question for you? If not, try to break down the names of the terms; see if they relate to any concepts you are familiar with.
And finally, even if you have to take a wild guess, remember that some questions in every MCAT section are unscored field test questions, used to evaluate student responses for potential future MCAT use. And maybe no one else knew that weird term either, so the question failed its field test but it didn’t impact your score at all.
Read: All you wanted to know about MCAT scores, explained!
Why Brainscape’s MCAT psychology and sociology flashcards are the best study tool
Before we sign off, we want to add an incredibly powerful study tool to your arsenal of intellectual weaponry against the MCAT, and not just its psych/soc section, but all FOUR MCAT sections.
Meet Brainscape’s psychology and sociology flashcards:
Brainscape’s MCAT psychology and sociology flashcards have distilled the entire AAMC curriculum down into a constellation of easy-to-digest facts, which you can study via web or mobile, anytime, anywhere.
What makes these flashcards such a powerful learning resource is that the design of our app and the delivery of the flashcards leverage decades of cognitive science research on how the brain learns most efficiently and remembers the longest.
The product of this is an adaptive flashcard algorithm that uses learning principles like active recall, metacognition, and spaced repetition to make every minute of studying count. It also tailors your studying according to what concepts you find easy and difficult, saving you time on the easy stuff and compelling you to focus on your weaknesses.
There’s a whole science behind Brainscape but the bottom line is: it works to help you study TWICE as fast as traditional study methods.
A final note on MCAT psychology and sociology
In the absence of a complete list of all MCAT-relevant psych terms and the ambiguity of the AAMC’s outline for MCAT psych/soc, many students approach this section of the exam with great uncertainty. And with the MCAT being the gatekeeper to medical school, this uncertainty can metastasize into terrible anxiety.
However, armed with the MCAT tips provided by expert Clara Gillan in this guide and Brainscape’s MCAT psychology and sociology flashcards, you should have everything you need to approach this section with the confidence and content knowledge to do well and rise to your challenge!
Want more great advice like this? Check out Brainscape’s guides on: