3 Study Strategies for the Behavioral Sciences on the MCAT

By Cassie Kosarek

As essential as it is to know the pathophysiology of various diseases and the pharmacological and surgical interventions used to treat them, it is also necessary to understand the social and psychological aspects of illness in order to effectively treat patients. Physicians must situate their treatments within psychosocial parameters that best serve the individual patient, asking questions like, “What will motivate this patient to take his medication as prescribed?” and “How do the social supports of this single parent influence his or her ability to get his/her child to well-visits with the pediatrician?”

To evaluate the preparedness of prospective medical students to care for the whole patient, the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior portion of the MCAT was added in 2015. Much like the other sections of the MCAT evaluate students’ competency in the hard science topics upon which medical school curriculums will build, the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section gauges students’ understanding of basic psychological and social principles that ultimately contribute to patient care. Tested topics include factors that influence people’s behavior, identity formation, reasoning within social contexts, interpretation of statistics and data, and theories concerning learning, memory, and development.

While this new section of the MCAT may seem “fluffier” than the hard science sections, approaching this section without the intention of adequately preparing isn’t likely to reflect positively on you as a future medical student. Remember that all topics on the MCAT are included because they are indicative of how ready you are to tackle medical school and to begin caring for real patients. With this in mind, here are three ways you can prepare for the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior portion of the MCAT:

1. Complete the appropriate introductory classes in psychology and sociology

Although they are not technically prerequisites for medical school admission at all programs, completing both introductory psychology and sociology can make preparing for the MCAT much easier. The Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section is 25% of your final score. In the same way that you wouldn’t sit for the MCAT without first taking introductory biology and general chemistry, it isn’t wise to make your first exposure to psychology and sociology your MCAT prep materials. Studying for the MCAT should be a review of your undergraduate coursework—not a first pass at any subject.

2. Know your terms inside and out

Both psychology and sociology utilize specific terminology, and to succeed on the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section you must become fluent in their most important terms. Many questions in this portion test your ability to apply key psychology or sociology concepts to new scenarios, and success on such questions hinges on knowing exactly what each possible answer means. One of the best ways to learn these terms is through active recall. Instead of repeatedly reading definitions in a review book, make flashcards, write the definitions out, or ask a friend to quiz you. You’ll be happy you did as much on test day.

3. Practice with review questions, and ensure you brush up on topics you’ve forgotten

As with other sections of the MCAT, practice is imperative. Answering several practice questions every day and scheduling time for mock exams is perhaps the best way to prepare for the MCAT as a whole. Make sure to carefully go over the questions you got wrong, and return to topics you find confusing or difficult to recall. Concentrating on your errors via additional practice questions can help you focus your studying as your test date approaches.

About the Author

Cassie Kosarek is a professional tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Bryn Mawr College and is a member of the Class of 2020 at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.

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