The 2021 GAMSAT has been confirmed to be online, and it will remain online for all future sittings. Like the September 2020 GAMSAT, the future papers will all be delivered in a digital format but held at test centres. This announcement from ACER has not come as a surprise, considering the effect of COVID on the 2020 GAMSATs forced the exam to be online through dire desperation to ensure candidates could still be assessed despite unequal state and country lockdowns.
This will allow universities to still admit healthcare students and confirm there will be an army of interns waiting to hit the front line in a few years to come.
Consequently, as we look toward the March and September 2021 GAMSATs, it is worthwhile analysing what happened to both GAMSATs in 2020, as this will provide a good springboard to understanding the shifting landscape of digital exams. Once we have completed this analysis, this article will conclude with an in-depth discussion regarding March 2020.
The March 2020 GAMSAT was the dramatically disastrous one. Known affectionately as the “May GAMSAT”, “June GAMSAT”, and, considering it was the first of its kind, it was also branded the “Online GAMSAT”.
So what happened during this exam?
The events that transpired were as follows:
The March 2020 GAMSAT was “cancelled” by ACER a week before it was scheduled to be held, in person, at the end of March.
It was then rescheduled for May (one day and time for everyone in a given country) and announced to be online (proctored by the seemingly suspicious ProctorU).
Then, it became apparent that ProctorU could not handle having everyone conducting the exam on one day and time, so the exam was split into two: the first part was for Section 1 & 2, the second part for Section 3.
This still was not enough, so ACER announced that Section 1 & 2 would be conducted over a week, with Section 3 the week after. Applicants had a window to schedule their exam time with ACER and also ProctorU over this ~2 week period, splitting up the parts.
The final day for the exam was concluded in early June. Definitely not in March. Incredible.
Throw into the mix the constant confusion that surrounded vague and cryptic notices by ACER (like webcam requirements, extra sheets of paper allowed in the exam, whether a mouse plugged in with a USB cable would have you disqualified for ‘cheating’ etc. etc. etc. etc. (etc.)) and things just became even murkier, forcing us to hold weekly, impromptu webinars to deliver the most up to date information to our unfairly confused students.
For the purposes of this article, we will ignore the many different names the March 2020 GAMSAT became to be known, and refer to it solely as the March 2020 GAMSAT.
Now that we have the macroscopic issues of the way, let’s take a look at the actual content of this exam.
To begin, Section 1 contained 39 questions, as opposed to the traditional 75. This was reflected by the shortened time available (60 minutes for combined reading and writing time, as opposed to the usual 10-minute reading, plus 100 minute writing time in the traditional 75 question exams). This gave applicants a slightly longer time per question to accommodate for the online setting.
The question styles for Section 1 were, on average:
24 Qs for Technical Texts
7 Qs for Poems
5 Qs on Literary Prose
3 Qs on Diagrams
The question styles differed markedly from September 2019. In September 2019, poetry was the dominant style, whereas, in March 2020, Technical Texts and Diagrams joined forces to ensure logical reasoning was the focus, without a heavy reliance on the intricacies of the English language.
The above transpired into questions that were focussed primarily on tangible evidence, such as that found within 2-3 sentences or paragraphs as a whole, as opposed to heavy English language analyses skills, like tones and themes. This was indeed a shock to many, as it was unusual for the exam to revert to this very old GAMSAT tactic with a ‘comprehension’ flavour.
It became apparent that the March 2020 GAMSAT heavily punished those that did not read the stem slowly and with a fine-tooth comb. There were many traps laid out for students that rushed the stimulus leaving them feeling confident with their incorrect choice.
Consequently, the exam favoured those that took time analysing the stem, leaving such students easily able to mark off two very clear incorrect options, allowing for a 50/50 discernment for most of the section.
However, as stated above, logical reasoning was still a major component of the section. While the ‘comprehension’ flavour allowed students to determine easily where the answer lies (if, of course, they had the time and focus to read it in detail), reasoning skills such as inference and interpolation were still required to come to the correct answer. This is where so many applicants lost marks if they had not developed the cognitive styles required to tap into this level of reasoning.
In conclusion, the March 2020 Section 1 exam seemed easy on the surface. It ensured applicants felt confident with answers that were certainly misleading, instilling a false sense of security in many test-takers. By incorrectly presenting itself as a ‘comprehension’ task, Section 1 expertly diverted attention away from logical reasoning, which was required and embedded throughout. From this, we can surmise that you can’t teach an old ACER new tricks and that even when it seems like the exam is changing, it’s always best practice to be on guard.
The first major change in the Section 2 exam was the format. While it was still one hour for two essays, being conducted online represented a huge shift from the traditional handwritten task. Applicants wrote their essays in a textbox that had no autocorrect or spellcheck and weren’t able to use a cut and paste function for their text.
In contrast to the traditional GAMSAT whereby there is one Task A and one Task B for all applicants, the March 2020 GAMSAT had many different prompts, considering this exam was conducted over the course of a week, with many different times to sit the exam during a given day.
What astounded students more than anything was that each and every Section 2 task had indeed appeared on our Free Quote Generator in some capacity. So, while it was no shock that there were different prompts for this exam, the themes were similarly no shock to those that used the generator.
As for the prompts used, the themes were as follows:
The first two days of examination had the same prompts for all sittings throughout the day. By day three, prompts were being mixed and matched between sittings over the course of the day. Day one and two prompts began popping up towards the end of the examination period.
Section 3 was consistently described as an absolute blur. Though the traditional 110 questions over 170 minutes (plus 10 minutes reading) was cut down to 60 questions over 120 minutes (including both reading and writing time) for this exam, the extra time did not make this section any easier.
The largest stems were only 4 questions long. The average stem was only 3 questions long. In contrast to a traditional exam where the number of questions per stem is greater, March 2020 ensured that there was more stimulus to read for fewer questions. This made the section incredibly tiring and taxing, as the return on investment in a given stem was minimal.
The questions themselves were also inundated with graphs. It became apparent that there were negligible visual organic chemistry questions (a big sigh for all the chemistry lovers), allowing the section to assess skills in analysing diagrams purely from graphs. One stem had a total of eight different graphs, each with different units and different relationships to the questions.
For the vast majority of questions, if they didn’t involve a graph, then the stem itself was horribly short. While this may seem like a good thing (after all, less to read is great) it often meant that the questions were more difficult than they appeared, as the answer was not easily obvious from such a small amount of information. These styles of questions called for a heavy reliance on inference skills predicated on sound logical reasoning.
As for the content itself, topics ranged from abstract concepts like dental amalgams, monkey signalling, physics in sports, and lung disease, to more traditional concepts like pKa, leptin signalling, worded organic chemistry and oxidation.
It certainly seems as though ACER intended to run the March 2020 GAMSAT purely off the abstract concepts, however were forced to dilute the questions with older, more traditional concepts once it went online with different papers.
In conclusion, this exam felt rather sloppy. It was graph heavy, question dense (considering the average stem length and time available) and seemed to have traditional concepts thrown in at the last minute despite the very clear trend away from this in recent years.
Unlike the previous GAMSAT, the September 2020 GAMSAT was a lot more streamlined (well, for most, anyway). The biggest shift for this exam was that it too was held in a digital format, but this time it was actually held at test centres. This was also predicted, considering ProctorU was too much of a disaster for March 2020 (oh! and expensive). A nice little sweetener was that at this time COVID cases had started to really get under control by the vast majority of Australian states, allowing ACER to book out small test centres across the country and still invigilate students while respecting social distancing and local government rules.
The hardest hit by this exam in Australia were definitely our South Australian applicants that had booked in for the test centres in Melbourne. Due to the smaller number of applicants in the September GAMSAT as a whole, ACER decided to scale down on the available test venues, forcing South Australian applicants to book into an interstate venue much prior to the actual sitting. Such students were permitted to book in at any state they wished.
But then the Melbourne COVID second wave extended longer than expected, forcing a border closure between SA and VIC. South Australian applicants that booked in to sit the exam in Victoria were told by ACER that as borders had closed, there would be no way they could sit the exam in their home state, nor were they permitted to reschedule their test venue to that within another state. Not being allowed to receive a refund, forced students for SA sitting in VIC to withdraw or postpone their sitting….and pay the fee to do so. Needless to say, we weren’t happy with this at all and offered our students a free extension on their preparation packages for the March 2021 exam. We couldn’t help them sit September, but we sure as hell did all we could to soften the blow and support them all the way through.
Okay, enough about the debacles, now onto the logistics. The break down of the sections in the September 2020 GAMSAT was as follows:
Section 1: 47 Questions in 64 minutes (plus 6 minutes reading time)
Section 2: Two Essays in 60 minutes (plus 5 minutes reading time)
Section 3: 75 Questions in 142 minutes (plus 8 minutes reading time)
The exam was held over the period of September 28 – October 11, also being in 2 parts.
Now that we have the macroscopic structure of September 2020, let’s analyse it further. As we will see later in this article, knowing how the September 2020 GAMSAT panned out is pivotal to future sits, as it seems ACER has finally settled on a new ‘COVID ready’ format for future sittings.
So with Section 1 in Sept 2020, it was markedly different from how it was presented in March 2020. Unlike March, September 2020 did not have a standout text style across the board. This is the reason why you may have been reading forums back in October and realised there were so many different views on section 1. Some hated it, others hated it more. Seldom were their positive views.
Why exactly this was the case is very simple, and there are two reasons.
Reason number one is because every student’s exam was usually heavy in one specific style of text, and as there were countless different papers, there were great variations in the presentation. Some students received loads of technical texts, others received loads of prose, and indeed others received loads of visual stems (filled with either cartoon, or graphs, or both). Regardless of the type of text, it was clear that each paper was disproportionately represented by one specific text type.
Wondering how to approach the GAMSAT Section 1 Cartoon questions? Click here!
Reason number two is that there were indeed only 47 questions in this paper, compared to the more traditional 75 questions. At just over 60% of the total of what many students were used to, it made recovery in performance very difficult, as there was little wriggle room.
Both reasons above amounted to a ‘make or break’ flavour of Section 1. If your paper’s text style was what suited you, then it was fantastic. Make note that this didn’t guarantee a successful performance for said students, considering at the end of the day having a preferred text style won’t tow you over the line. You’re still heavily tested on lateral thinking skills that aren’t guaranteed just because, for example, you love poetry and the exam you sat was loaded with poetry.
However, what it did mean was that if your paper was loaded with a style you definitely did not like, then you were in a terrible position because you got a lot of it. Now, coupled with a very short exam, it was very hard for students to ‘make up in other areas of the paper, considering the narrow range of text styles, and the small number of questions available. This is akin to the type cry in a university exam: ‘had I only perfected this I would have been set for the entire paper’. The trouble was in Sept 2020, ‘had I only studied this’ was too broad to base study solely off one style, and the risk associated with not being well balanced was disastrous.
The final remark about Sept 2020 is that beyond the text type, the question styles themselves were loads of evaluation type questions. These types of questions don’t really care for comprehension skills. It is all about the deeper understanding and the ability to read between the murky lines.
As with March 2020, Sept 2020 was also a typed Section 2 piece, with different prompts on different days. Don’t even think about asking a friend what they got on an earlier sitting, as this was most likely not applicable to another day.
The demands of the section itself were still the same: Task A and B in one hour. Not much else can be said there.
What about the prompts? Well, yet again Fraser’s Quote Generator covered each and every theme. Those that used the generator extensively and received training on their essays from Fraser’s tutors were very happy with the outcomes on the big day.
The themes were as follows:
Unlike Section 1, Section 3 appeared to be a lot more streamlined in question styles and text styles. As a whole, this section had questions usually revolving around medically relevant bits of information. Those that sat September 2020 will attest to the challenging ECG and NMR stems.
As for the science-specific analysis, let’s start off with Section 3: Biology. Biology was a little weird in this paper in the sense that it was very maths, graphs and tables heavy. There was no way to answer successfully purely off the background biology knowledge alone, further exemplifying why the ACER practice papers and Des books are seemingly no longer applicable to the changing face of the exam. When it came to biology in September 2020, the vast majority of questions revolved around our ability to interpret data in a biology setting. Concepts such as genetics and fields of knowledge in the cardiovascular system were required to understand what was going on, but the money lay within the problem-solving abilities thereafter.
In regards to Chemistry, it was very clear this was the science that was in higher proportion and the topic that caught many off guard. Basic concepts were not really part of this exam, but instead, knowledge was required in topics such as very complex organic chemistry and a holistic understanding of matter. This shifted drastically from March 2020, wherein this exam there was a high degree of very basic concepts such as acids and bases and pKa. Those that struggled in September consistently wished they had gone further in their background knowledge for Chemistry. As for the question styles themselves, it was consistent with March 2020. Lot’s of logical reasoning, pattern recognition and inference skills were called for. Again, this exemplifies why it is paramount to develop our higher-order thinking capabilities.
Finally, let’s target Physics in September 2020. For those that struggled with Physics, they seemed happy as on the surface it looked like it was far less than 20% of the exam. These students did however complain that Biology and Chemistry were more of a struggle than expected. Why is this the case? Well, those that were very strong in Physics were able to realise that although the raw physics concepts were only present in about 10% of the exam, the rest of the promised 20% of Physics was actually embedded in other stems of Biology and Chemistry, and tested not through raw physics knowledge, but through holistic problem-solving skills that are associated with Physics. Physics is more than the formulas and simple concepts that most view it as. Physics is also about the ability to understand the world in a way that other sciences don’t usually care about.
Unlike March 2020, Section 3 in September was not at all sloppy. It was targeted and it was effective in indirectly benefiting those that knew their science, while directly benefiting those that can problem solve outside the box.
*Identities are concealed.
John Doe: “I wasn’t a fan of March, but I loved September. I am a little biased though because I am a poetry major and managed to have a section 1 paper in September devoted to poetry. I still actually struggled quite a bit…there’s something about section 1 that I found it hard to show off my complex thinking. But at the end of the day, many of my peers had texts that they didn’t enjoy. It’s bad enough trying to understand the question style, so I’m glad the text style was what I liked.
Jane Smith: “It was fine I guess. It annoys me a little because I thought that March would be a good indicator of September. The exam went online and all that so I thought March was the best thing to go off. I studied more background knowledge than I should have and didn’t do enough IQ-styled development. Definitely shot me in the foot here. But at least I have March next year. It’s not how I wanted to spend my summer, but yea.”
March’s 2021 GAMSAT has more clarity than any of the GAMSATs in 2020. This is because in October 2020 ACER officially announced that all GAMSAT from now on will forever remain online, and tested at testing centres. GAMSAT 2021 key dates. This is great news as it now allows the 2020 GAMSATs to be the springboard for the changing face of the digital GAMSAT.
So let’s start off by getting the macroscopic details down.
The structure will be as follows:
Unlike previous sittings, the GAMSAT in 2021 and onwards will go back to how sections were originally conducted: all sections will be completed on the same day. Sign-in will be roughly 8:15 am, and the day will take roughly 6 hours in its entirety.
There is no break between section 1 and 2, however, there will be a 30 minutes break between section 2 and 3. You will be permitted 2 sheets of scrap paper in total for Section 1 and 2, and 2 sheets of paper specifically for Section 3. Paper will be supplied by ACER.
Hopefully, you can see the similarity between 2021 GAMSATs and the online GAMSAT in September 2020. If you’d like to get a deeper understanding of how the GAMSATs will look in 2021, it would be worthwhile reading over these sections in this article above before reading on.
The message from September 2020 was plain and simple: you cannot have any weak points. There are not enough questions in this section to be able to ‘make up some marks’ in questions elsewhere in the exam. September 2020 had a lot of bias toward one specific question style, however, this varied considerably between papers.
So when we look at March 2021, we imagine it will be very similar. That being said, it is expected that the spread of question styles won’t be loaded with such a heavy bias. We expect there to be two major text styles that are disproportionately represented, as opposed to the previous one text type.
Either way, this will be a heavy disadvantage if those text styles are not your forte, and consequently, the major take home for Section 1 in 2021 is to be a master of every single text style. There is no room to have weak points, nor a style of text you are not comfortable with. The exam is short, and the text styles are large. There most likely will still be biased toward text styles.
Turning to the question styles, we believe the evaluation style of questions will still be heavily represented. This is because this style of question demands a sound problem-solving capability, and one which is volatile in how it can be tested. It is a higher-order thinking style that will ensure even if you receive a lot of the text styles of your preference, you still will not score well if you haven’t developed these problems solving skills.
Leave no stones unturned if you are preparing for 2021. It will be hard and fast and it will weed out those that are ill-prepared.
Fortunately, Section 2 has not evolved to any great degree, and we do not imagine it to shift drastically in March 2021. The demands are quite obvious, however, the skills are still difficult to represent. Section 2 is notorious for being able to assess sound idea generation, even if you know the topic in advance! This is due to the fact that we are assessed on how well we can construct thought-provoking ideas, and not solely how well we can write.
Students that are failing to improve on Section 2 often are becoming complacent with their essays. Often said students believe that because the face of Section 2 hasn’t changed, their ability to perform well is guaranteed.
As the numbers of applicants rise, there is a wider degree of writers. This makes it paramount to ensure we have a style of thinking that can separate us from the superficial majority.
Also, keep in mind that March 2021 has more test centres than September 2021, and it is traditionally more popular regardless of the test centres. In 2020, many applicants deferred their sitting amidst the uncertainty of COVID. As we move into the ‘new normal, we imagine the number of applicants for March 2021 will be unprecedentedly high. If we write pieces that are superficial or fall into the category of thinking that the majority possess, we will not stand out. We must spend months perfecting our thought processes and ability to challenge the world, but also present these ideas in a coherent and impactful manner.
Many students become complacent for September 2020. Do not let the stagnant presentation of Section 2 take you off guard. The demands of this section are as high as any of the other two sections. Ensure you have months of study up your sleeve.
March 2021 Section 3 GAMSAT will be a strong exam. Thank goodness that GAMSAT September 2020 was a success. While March 2020 felt super sloppy, September 2020 seems to have reached the nice equilibrium we need as we turn to March 2021.
For March 2021, we know with certainty we need the major two elements: sound background knowledge, and excellent problem-solving skills.
Only then will we be able to engage with the sporadic question styles that come before us. We need to fight against the major pitfalls seen in GAMSAT 2020:
If you sat September 2020, you will know Section 3 was impactful and targeted to higher-order thinking skills. Now is the time to develop.
In the sentiments of JD Rockefeller, make sure to turn every disaster into an opportunity. The GAMSAT applicant world is currently on the defence. Applicants all over the globe withdrew and deferred from the 2020 sittings. The GAMSAT March 2020 was different, odd, and a downright fecal festival. In contrast, the GAMSAT September 2020 had a lot more order and consistency.
As we turn to 2021, these two GAMSATs are clearly demonstrating a great deal of organisation on ACER’s behalf. ACER has received a bit of a bad wrap lately, however the tail end of September 2020 and the early communication about 2021 and onwards is a testament they are getting their act together nice and early. They have adapted to COVID, they have created a space where the GAMSAT will forever thrive in an online setting. Most importantly, they have set themselves up to no longer be viewed as the reactionary organisation of 2020 and matured to be the fear instilling, high stakes controller of the postgraduate medical profession once again.
Let this be your opportunity to take what others have experienced and use it to your advantage. Do not leave any stone unturned.