We have now entered into a new era of the GAMSAT where there have been three online GAMSATs, two of which will be in the same format as of September 2021. May 2020 was the teething problem exam, while the next two demonstrated some important changes (not just in terms of format) that are here to stay.
As we have recently seen from the changes in scores, these changes are having important impacts on the exam, and there are a number of shifts that have entered a new form of equilibrium. Consequently, as we turn our focus to the September 2021 GAMSAT, we will gain valuable insights from reflecting on the last two GAMSATs. Each one demonstrates important findings that can help us better understand what September may include, and thus frame how we prepare for it.
Unlike the previous May GAMSAT, the September 2020 GAMSAT was a lot more streamlined. The biggest shift for this exam was that it was held in a digital format but at test centres. 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. This will also be how September 2021 will be held, provided there are no major outbreaks.
While the testing day split in this exam was different to what we will see in September 2021, the duration and number of questions will be the same, and were as follows:
The exam was held over the period of September 28 – October 11, in 2 parts over different days (section 3 on a separate day). We will now analyse the individual sections in more detail.
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 2020 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:
Both reasons above amounted to a ‘make or break’ flavour for Section 1 in September 2020. 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.
The final remark about Sept 2020 S1 is that beyond the text type, the question styles themselves were loaded with 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. 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.
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, even as we turn to September 2021. 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.
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. This exam served as a good springboard for March 2021, considering the format of each section is now what we will see from here on out. Let us now investigate the March 2021 GAMSAT before reflecting on what this means for September 2021.
Unlike previous sittings, the GAMSAT in March 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.
As such, while September 2020 reflected the same section format as 2021, March 2021 is the first exam of its kind that will completely reflect how the day will be in September 2021. Thus, this is an extremely important exam to reflect upon.
March’s 2021 GAMSAT had more clarity than any of the GAMSATs in 2020. The structure was as follows:
As of September 2021, there was no break between section 1 and 2, however, there is 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.
The consensus for Section 1 was: short and targeted. This section was notorious for having mainly short stems (around the 4 question mark), as well as being highly variable in terms of text style. This is directly in contrast to September 2020 which had each paper filled with mainly just one text style. In March 2021, Section 1 had a mix of everything in very short numbered stems. Additionally, the stems themselves were actually shorter in text length (only one was a long and dense passage).
The skills required to score well in this section were primarily the ability to switch problem-solving skills very quickly. Usually, when we complete section 1, question styles are grouped together in a stem. When there are 5-6 questions for the one stem, they usually have the same ‘feel’ of problem-solving that it calls upon. This is great, as switching between types of thinking is very cognitively fatiguing.
It is for this reason Section 1 in March 2021 was a whirlwind. The shorter stems with a shorter number of questions per stem meant that the section was constantly calling upon the applicant’s ability to change up how they think and problem solve. Even for stems that applicants were comfortable with, the fast-paced nature of this section meant that they did not have adequate time to rest and reflect from what stem they had just attempted, and thus brought in baggage into the new stem that made it difficult to engage properly. It left many applicants with a feeling like an exam was controlling them and calling the shots, as opposed to having the ability to properly tackle the section.
In March 2021, yet again there was no change to the section itself, though what was most notable was the recycled nature of the tasks. Many tasks were recycled from the September 2020 GAMSAT, and so those that spent their time preparing for the March GAMSAT by also looking at the September stems had actually received something they had seen before. Additionally, tasks were recycled over the testing period itself. It was noted that there were tasks on the first testing day that reappeared on the fourth testing day, and this pattern continued.
However, we need to consider what this actually means for preparation. Those that recognised a prompt based on previous preparation tended to write a response that they had done previously, as it was often completed in the past with success. Many of these applicants actually received worse results for section 2, mainly because they were re-using old concepts and ideas that they did not present in a novel way. Without the creative ability to present novel ideas, having seen the tasks in the past was not a virtue.
March 2021 had a Section 3 that was on the whole quite similar to September 2020, but different in a few key ways that were largely science-based. That being said, there was a very large emphasis on mathematics. Those that were experts on how to use their scrap paper efficiently were able to estimate responses with a great deal of accuracy that saved time. However as this switch to a lot of maths caught many off guard, it often led to time running out due to wasted vital minutes on the specific arithmetics. The maths itself was not specific to physics and instead embedded within each core science.
March 2021 Biology surprised applicants in two main ways:
In contrast to the variety of concepts tested in the biology questions, many found that when it came to chemistry, stems in March were exceptionally targeted toward spatial reasoning. The pattern recognition associated with chemistry in this exam called upon three-dimensional manipulations and spatial awareness that was embedded throughout almost all concepts. So while nothing was novel in terms of the array of topics, they almost always came back down to spatial reasoning and pattern recognition.
Physics, yet again, was hardly tested in its own right. It was indeed highly geared toward the mathematics load of the section, though its concepts were almost entirely embedded within the rest of the sciences, with very few topics tested solely within their own right of a given stem. This placed a strain on those that were not strong in skills associated with physics, as they were rife throughout the entire section.
At face value, many applicants solely complained that it was the maths that let them down this sitting. Though when digging deeper, it was clear that though the maths posed a big burden, there were many other burdens in the section that applicants were not fully able to appreciate. The mathematics component threw many applicants to the point that they were not able to take charge of the section and properly see how ACER was testing all avenues of their thinking, making scoring well quite difficult.
Firstly, to repeat, September 2021 will have the same number of questions and the same duration as the previous two sittings. However, like March 2021, September will be sat all in one day. This will need to be factored in when preparing for September 2021, as it will be a lot more cognitively fatiguing than in 2020, and may explain a key reason why many struggled with Section 3 in March 2021.
In terms of the exam itself, we predict this exam will throw a number of curveballs. The reason for this is due to ACER notoriously finding ways to exploit the expectations of applicants. Currently, the consensus by applicants for September is that due to it piggybacking the same structure as March 2021, it won’t be much different. However, it is because of this very belief by applicants that we expect there to be major changes. ACER fights to catch its applicants off guard, and we expect September to be a great exemplar.
In terms of the array of stems itself, this probably will not change compared to March 2021. This exam had a wide array of stem styles, unlike September 2020, and allowed for a very wide array of literacy skills to be tested through many different forms of English language; from prose to plays, to cartoons. March 2021, therefore, allowed ACER to generate a great spread of applicants and stratify those that had one strong point, from those that were strong in all avenues. It is therefore highly recommended to ensure there is no weak point when it comes to the language styles.
However, where we anticipate a major change to lie is within the duration of stem length. While March 2021 was predominantly shorter and rapid stems, we expect September 2021 to be filled with long stems that allow ACER to test a wider array of problem-solving skills. Instead of a short stem that can only exploit a few problem solving and logical reasoning skills, a longer stem will allow for many biases to be exploited.
The above point plays into the next prediction: the number of questions per stem will remain short, roughly 4 questions per stem. With a longer stem duration but small number of questions associated with each stem, Section 1 in September 2021 is anticipated to be an expert at exploiting every weak area. Applying pressure will likely be seen through fatigue associated with lots of reading, and many skills required to come to an answer (considering many avenues of reasoning will be required), yet not a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ considering not many questions will be associated with a given stem.
The three main points discussed will ensure that Section 1 will place a lot of applicants off guard if they are not experts in all fields of logical reasoning, and in all fields of the English language. It is therefore recommended for preparation to be as holistic as possible, but still targeted enough to exploit and develop all weak areas.
The advice in this section needs to be read carefully and understood for what it is: a careful warning. Traditionally, the September GAMSATs are a time where ACER introduces key changes for Section 2. This does not mean that there is a guarantee September will be different, it simply means that we historically notice key changes.
As a result, we expect September 2021 to not include tasks that are recycled from the past. This is something we surprisingly saw in March 2021, though not something we expect to occur for September 2021. Many applicants now believe that ACER has saturated their bank of tasks for Section 2, and will therefore do what was done in previous sittings. This is only partly true.
To explain further, when ACER introduces changes to the tasks, they usually do not alter the themes drastically. This is why Fraser’s Quote Generator is a great resource to identify key styles of themes that are often presented. However, it does indicate that the prompts themselves will likely be different and be presented in different ways, allowing for more interpretation and a wide variety of creativity.
By opening the doors to create opportunity, even more, it calls for an exceptional ability to stand out from the rest of the crowd. This, therefore, indicates that pre-prepared stems is not the best way to go about it, and instead of spending months trying to perfect the one essay, time is better spent trying to further one’s ability to challenge prompts and construct a narrative that puts forward novel ideas in an impactful manner. In essence, an applicant will do themselves a service by challenging their views and the way they present arguments in a coherent way.
Check out the Essay Style Guide to help you write the perfect Section 2 Essay!
While GAMSAT maths was a major focus in September 2021’s predecessor, we expect this will not be the major flavour of September. Instead, it will likely have 2-3 stems that are exceptionally maths heavy, with the remainder only targeting maths to a smaller degree. So where exactly will the rest of the changes lie?
The Anatomy and Physiology components of March 2021 seemed to be a warning for September. While ACER hasn't explicitly stated that they will make background knowledge in Biology more of a focus for September, they may well be calling on stems that indirectly benefit those that are familiar with concepts beyond the normal ‘year 1 biology’. This does not mean that knowing advanced concepts will give you the answer (as this is not whether the logical reasoning marks lie), it simply means that those that have extended their biology knowledge may be in a better position to engage with the stems and actually reach the point where they can be tested on their problem-solving skills, as opposed to their understanding of the biology concepts. It may be worthwhile extending biology knowledge for this sitting in order to better engage with the Biology questions.
While Chemistry in March was focused predominantly on organic chemistry pattern recognition, it seems that pattern recognition will be here to stay, though will extend into greater elements of chemistry knowledge. What this means is we expect a greater diversity of Chemistry concepts to be tested in September (like for biology), but in ways not seen before. Instead of targeting things like acid-bases through mathematics, we predict these more ‘raw’ concepts to be infiltrated with higher order thinking skills like spatial awareness. What this does is still allow ACER to test applicants on higher-order thinking skills, but not limit it solely to the organic chemistry concepts we have seen in recent times.
This informs us that preparation needs to be two-fold: focus on perfecting background chemistry knowledge, but doing so in a way that actually fosters higher-order problem-solving. This is a mixture of learning we do not traditionally see in textbooks (i.e. learning about gases is usually quite mundane and straightforward), and so now preparation needs to foster chemistry problem-solving skills in the lens of the background knowledge. The ‘whys’, ‘hows’ and ‘what ifs’ become exceptionally important here.
Physics is the one component of September we anticipate not to have too much change, as it seems applicants still have not mastered the skill of overcoming ACER’s tactics and thus is a good approach to separating individuals. This means we will likely still see physics highly integrated throughout the rest of the sciences in both background knowledge but also lateral thinking skills, putting a strain on how well applicants can engage with Chemistry and Biology if Physics is a weak point.