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With the COVID19 pandemic continuing to muddy the medical admissions process, we are now left wanting for answers. Those that managed to dodge the trauma of the March 2020 GAMSAT (cancelled, postponed, made online, postponed again, split into two days, proctored by suspicious owls) want to know if the GAMSAT September 2020 will be similarly complicated. On the other hand, those that sat the March/May/June 2020 GAMSAT and plan to sit September want to know if they should prepare for drawn out agony yet again.
Every season we turn to the previous two GAMSATs to predict what will happen in the next. That being said, no one could have predicted what 2020 had in store for us, and we are now left between a rock and a hard place, between normalcy and a world still enduring the worst pandemic in around 100 years. This has complicated things to say the least.
As such, this article will aim to show the woods through the trees. It’s easy to get so caught up in the bigger picture of COVID and its varied impacts that we neglect the information we have at hand. For example, we know what we saw in September of 2019, and we know what we saw back in March. Ignoring the way these tests were administered, there is still a lot to learn from the content of the exams themselves. So, if we want to predict what may happen with the GAMSAT September 2020, a good place to start is by looking backwards.
The order of this article will be:
What happened in the September 2019 GAMSAT
What happened in the March/May/June 2020 GAMSAT
What this tells us about the September 2020 GAMSAT
It is also worth noting that if you are wanting to understand how the GAMSAT scoring system works, and what the implications are of the recent GAMSAT scores (not to mention the apparent change in distributions that pose questions for university admission criteria), then please peruse our in depth report here.
What we discovered in the September 2019 GAMSAT
GAMSAT 2019 September Section I: Reasoning in Humanities
While the March 2019 GAMSAT had a strong emphasis on medical ethics, we saw a step back from this come September 2019. In September, it was actually poetry that seemed to dominate Section 1. A large majority of students found it very difficult to navigate and interpret these stems due to their lengths and subtle shades of meaning. Despite the length of individual stems being an issue for many in this section, 64% of our students reported missing only 0-5 questions. This is a stark contrast to March 2019 where 46% of students reported missing anywhere between 10 – 30 questions in Section 1. It was clear that a greater proportion of applicants were not largely impacted by Section 1’s length as a whole.
Another important finding reported by students was a great reliance on emotional intelligence. Fortunately, this indicates that ACER has continued to shift away from the use of archaic language and language analysis, which is great as it means we are no longer being rewarded simply for memorising dictionaries. Rather, the emphasis has been placed squarely on interpretive and critical reading skills, which in turn has necessitated the aforementioned increase in stem length.
GAMSAT 2019 September Section II: Written Communication
Section 2 was made more difficult by presenting prompts with greater levels of nuance. Prompts became layered, with sub-thematic ideas and implications. The lack of immediately obvious difference between prompts meant that the themes in each task were more targeted, with greater specificity. Unless applicants were able to creatively pull apart the superficial prompts and draw deeper meanings, it made writing a piece with substance quite difficult.
Furthermore, September was an excellent example of the unpredictability of themes in Section 2. Tax, and Tolerance were the themes presented. Where tax is a very specific theme, tolerance is quite broad and abstract. It is very possible that ACER are now trying to find a balance where they can test a student’s ability to write to both specific and broad themes, which, in a sense, would ensure that the student is able to construct ideas with a wider scope. For this sitting, students consistently reported Section 2 as the easiest section in the GAMSAT, but not the easiest Section 2 they have ever sat.
GAMSAT 2019 September Section III: Reasoning in Biological and Physical Sciences
The shift towards logic-based questions continued in biology and chemistry, where there was a strong focus on complex graphs and data analysis. Laid out in a style akin to a scientific journal, many students found themselves tricked into reading more meticulously than may otherwise have been needed. The journal-esque style (think of heavy PhD-looking stems) punished people for trying to read further into information than what was presented in the graphs and tables (and there were a lot), as such, these questions became an undeniable time sink.
There was also an increase in stems that tied this logical reasoning together with foundational knowledge in chemistry and biochemistry (from a first year level). Theoretical knowledge in the fundamental sciences was not enough to answer the questions, but certainly did help access the logic inherent in the question.
Another notable thing about the September 2019 Section 3 was the way physics questions were constructed. There was an increase in stems that utilised more complex concepts, such as particle physics. However, these were only used as vehicles for delivering more of the same logic-based questions already discussed. Consequently, the topics did not require sound understanding in heavy physics concepts, but they did require a basic level of physics competency in order to follow along with the material and tap into the problem-solving aspect. Following in this vein, questions pertaining to physiology and biology continue to step away from standard human physiology and towards veterinary physiology and biophysics, as a way to abstractify what is commonly thought to be the ‘easier’ part of Section 3. September 2019 definitely demonstrated that being sound in Biology is not always going to be enough to be competent in this aspect.
In a strange twist of events:
83% of our students reported encountering questions in Section 3 that they would describe as ‘incredibly easy.’
76% of those students reported the overall difficulty of the section, as a whole, to be very high. This indicates that while some questions were very easy, they were not the majority.
56% of students reported that they missed more than 15 questions in Section 3, confirming what we already know: it is still very difficult to finish Section 3.
What happened with the March 2020 GAMSAT?
(AKA “The May GAMSAT, “The June GAMSAT”, “The Online GAMSAT”, or the “What the Heck is COVID Doing-GAMSAT”)
Where on earth do we begin?
The events that transpired were as follows:
The March 2020 GAMSAT was “cancelled” by ACER a week before it was scheduled.
It was then rescheduled for May and announced to be online (and to be proctored by the seemingly suspicious ProctorU).
It was shortened in length (Section 1 and 3 were roughly halved in question number, while Section 2 remained the same).
ProctorU apparently 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.
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 (and yes, there was more than just one paper…as expected).
GAMSAT 2020 March Section I: Reasoning in Humanities
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, yet left 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 became unstuck 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.
GAMSAT 2020 March Section II: Written Communication
The first major change in this 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:
Wealth Vs Happiness
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.
GAMSAT 2020 March Section III: Reasoning in Biological and Physical Sciences
This section 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 are greater, March 2020 ensured that there was more stimulus to read for less 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, embedded deeply within 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.
What will the GAMSAT September 2020 look like?
First and foremost, let’s get the macroscopic information down.
Unlike the previous two GAMSATs, this GAMSAT will be conducted digitally, but at test centres. The break down of the sections are 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)
GAMSAT September 2020 Section I: Reasoning in Humanities
For Section 1, we expect a blend between September 2019 and March 2020. While the former was poetry heavy and the latter was inundated with logical reasoning through literary prose, it is expected that September 2020 will be calling upon the perfect blend between traditional English language skills and more novel logical reasoning in the English language.
In this, we will likely find many poems and literature transcripts that not only call for sound understanding of the English language, but also the ability to infer meaning of tone, character perspectives and to read ‘between the lines’ in pursuit of obscure meaning.
This may transpire into having more diagramatic stems that shift away from language and toward instructional illustrations that ask for skills embedded with spatial reasoning and logical inference.
In summary, Section 1 in the 2020 GAMSAT will likely be a jack of all trades, necessitating the same of you.
More information on how to study Section 1 can be found here.
GAMSAT September 2020 Section II: Written Communication
Not much can be said about Section 2 from the recent exams, however from this we can learn a lot.
It is clear that ACER does not have many tricks up their sleeve when it comes to their prompts. The cycling of existing stimuli for the many sittings in March 2020 indicate that they do not like to branch out too far beyond what can be found on the Fraser’s Free Quote Generator.
Consequently, we are provided with two major indications:
Firstly, it opens the opportunity for September 2020 to finally incorporate what many have feared for a number of years: Section 2 stimuli that are not just quotes, but also visual stimuli. This may be in the form of cartoons, photographs or paintings. The essence of the task will remain the same, and that is to generate a creative and informative response to the stimulus provided.
Secondly, and more inadvertent, it is anticipated that Section 2 of September 2020 will represent a greater challenge to scoring highly than in previous exams. The reason for this is that if the prompts remain as they are and can be predicted through our own quote generator, then it indicates that those that happen to have considered the themes beforehand will be plentiful and won’t be at an advantage. Consequently, Section 2 will receive many responses from applicants that are superficial and too alike to stand out from the crowd. In such a scenario, those that score high will be those that have the analytical ability to truly take the stimulus before them and analyse it in a way that’s different from the majority, and present a piece that is highly creative and interesting to read.
In conclusion, as Section 2 seems to not change much between the recent sits, there may be greater emphasis placed on quality of thought and creativity more than any other sitting.
More information on how to study for Section 2 can be found here.
GAMSAT September 2020 Section III: Reasoning in Biological and Physical Sciences
As alluded to, outside of section 2, the GAMSAT is all about doing a full 180 from what was presented last time. It is for this reason we anticipate Section 3 in GAMSAT September 2020 to involve the following:
Lots of spatial reasoning
More of a blend between science topics
More questions per stem
It was indeed surprising there weren’t many spatial reasoning questions in the March 2020 sitting, considering images of molecules and more complex physical diagrams depicting complex movements and shapes would have been equally easy to upload onto the online GAMSAT. The intense requirement for graphical analysis is anticipated to be decreased from the last sitting, and tend more toward the well rounded graph usage in September 2019, whereby it was used mainly within the ‘journal-esque’ questions. A greater demand for spatial reasoning will call for a greater skill set in the cognitive styles that make logical reasoning uncomfortable for many.
When we saw very traditional concepts pop up in March 2020, like Michaelis Menton and classical genetics, it was quite a shock and confirmed the belief that these questions were thrown in to populate the many different Section 3 papers created last minute for the innumerable sittings. Consequently, we imagine the exam to revert to how the majority of the sciences were presented in September 2019 (and even March 2019), i.e. each stem actually involved a mixture of the sciences, even if on face value it looked like a ‘physics stem’, for example. This will be immensely uncomfortable for many, as it means that if we are challenged by a given science and strong in another, it will be more difficult to tap into our strength, considering the question will be enmeshed with what we are weaker in. This exam will therefore favour those that are sound in understanding all areas of the sciences and the reasoning styles associated with such topics.
All of these changes will likely be topped off with stems that have many more questions attached than the mere 3 on average with March 2020, ensuring that applicants will be heavily disadvantaged if they aren’t able to grapple with a given stem, purely because there will be so many questions associated with each stimulus. Being able to maintain focus and connection with each and every stem will be paramount to not lose a large number of marks.
More information on how to study for Section 3 can be found here.
COVID19 is not finished toying with the GAMSAT. Changes will be made and adaptations will be forced. Take the time to reflect on this article and ensure you adapt your studies accordingly. The worst thing any applicant can do is assume a lack of turbulence. As mentioned earlier, you can’t teach an old ACER new tricks, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to try from time to time.
Want more practice? Free questions with solution videos can be found here.
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