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Lessons from March GAMSAT 2019

We’re back for round 2 of “GAMSAT – What Will It Look Like?”! This is the platform where we compile our years of research, resources and student input into providing you with a snapshot of what we expect the next GAMSAT to look like. Our last article in this space was a massive success. Having highlighted the crucial changes in the GAMSATs over 2018 and the shift we’re seeing in GAMSAT scores, it is definitely a must-read for all.

In this article, we’re going to jump into the specifics of what we observed in the March GAMSAT 2019, what we can do to accommodate these changes and most importantly what we can expect from the September GAMSAT 2019. Alright, let’s jump straight into it.

Once you’re up to speed with all the new changes for September GAMSAT 2019, read our comprehensive Guide to Medical School Applications to learn all about GAMSAT section weightings and the application process as a whole.

What we discovered in the March GAMSAT 2019?

Section 1

Our students and tutors reported a significant decrease in the number of abstract philosophical texts and a spike in the number of medical ethics text. There was less use of jargon and subtle undertones in the texts, but the decrease in complexity brought along with it an increase in text length. Compared to September 2018, the March 2019 GAMSAT Section 1 was extremely dense. Lots of texts and lesser questions per stem. Although the language used in these passages may be simplified and easier to grasp, ACER has shifted the difficulty to the area that we as students, dread the most. The grey area where an answer isn’t exactly correct but isn’t exactly wrong either. In our post-exam survey, 70% of students reported that being exposed to medical ethics would’ve helped them in Section 1. As we can see, this was accompanied by an overall increase in the difficulty of the section with 50% of our students rating it at 4 out of 5.

When it comes to Section 1, we hear all kinds of varying advice through the years. Well, I can assure you with certainty that Section 1 is something we can prepare for. Breaking down and listing the concerns that students consistently have with this section and understanding trends is key to that preparation. These trends are centred around the complexity and density of the texts themselves, the difficulty of the section as a whole and completing the section within the time limit. Let’s dive into each aspect of this and have a better understanding of how ACER structures the exam.

Complexity has always been a massive challenge in Section 1. Keeping up with the trend from previous GAMSATs, the majority of the stems are likely to feature technical texts and literary prose. Being faced with philosophical texts and psychological theories that I have never encountered before was pretty much a given for Section 1. Accepting that fact and not panicking was advice that has been drilled into me and is something that I’ve passed on to every student I’ve taught. However, we’ve seen a decrease in complexity of the technical texts over the September 2018 and March 2019 GAMSATs. Now don’t get me wrong! A decrease in complexity doesn’t mean an easier Section 1. If anything, I’d argue that the difficulty of this section has increased. As the texts get longer and the questions get harder, time management is going to be a massive problem. Out of the 200  students and tutors who took our survey after completing the March 2019 GAMSAT, only 19% reported completing the section while a staggering 46% reported having missed 10 – 30 questions.

If you need a little bit of help in adapting to this new questioning style, be sure to read our article on How to Improve in GAMSAT Section 1 to get some helpful guiding tips.

What does this mean for September GAMSAT 2019?

Some students may absolutely love this change, and some may not, but trying to understand why ACER has opted for this change will give us a better chance of being prepared. As I’m sure you’ve heard before, Section 1 is testing our interpretive analysis and emotional reasoning. After all, it is ACER’s job to carefully select for the most suitable medical students in the country. On the other hand, it’s up to us to arm ourselves for what we’re up against. If the same trends were to follow on to the September GAMSAT 2019, here is my two-fold plan that we could develop and refine.

Firstly, we have to face the fact that the only way to finish a long exam is move faster. Speed reading is our answer. Not skim reading, speed reading. I would recommend investing time and effort in learning how to effectively speed read, without missing any important details or most importantly the tone of the author. The curve of learning how to speed read is a steep one, I will admit, but just picture the advantage you’d be giving yourself being equipped with this essential skill.

Secondly, let’s address the grey area questioning style. Would reading hundreds of medical ethics journal articles help your cause? Probably not. My advice would be to study for these how we study for poems. Reading a handful of medical ethics texts and being able to identify possible question areas is key. Perform your own analysis of the text, identify all the grey areas and then look for expert analyses online to see how they compare.

This new questioning style will probably use words that you aren’t that familiar with, or will use them in a context that isn’t all that common. To help prepare you for this, we have a GAMSAT Vocabulary Tool to help you understand the nuance in understanding that is becoming ever more crucial.

Section 2

While in 2018 ACER moved away from obtuse themes towards themes such as ‘change’, ‘ambition’, ‘superstition’ and ‘freedom’, it seems they’ve found a middle ground in the March GAMSAT 2019. The themes for the most recent exam were ‘Population control/Family size’ and ‘Role Model’. While still keeping in style with Task B being a more reflective and personal theme, ACER has moved back towards the increase in specificity of themes. Could this be because of how broad the themes were last year? It could be argued that the themes from 2018 were so broad that it allowed for students to interpret it however they wished without much space for misunderstanding. 90% of our students who sat the March GAMSAT 2019 unanimously identified the same themes. Removing that sense of ambiguity and flexibility was a bold move. Forcing students down a narrow trajectory with a very niche and specific theme gives ACER back its upper hand in a multitude of ways. Although, we have noticed that students who incorrectly identified the theme compared to the majority have reported significantly lower Section 2 scores.

First, let’s quickly recap what ACER aims to achieve out of Section 2. After all, knowing your enemy is the best way to guarantee success. As we’ve described in previous articles, Section 2 is an open platform for ACER to test our capacity to express ourselves and show insightful rationale regardless of our background in literature and the social sciences. So that being said, we can see why giving students broad themes in 2018 could have been disadvantageous for ACER. In our recent post-exam survey, 80% of our students agreed that writing practice essays with specific themes helped them in the actual exam and almost 100% of our students agreed that the Fraser’s approach to Section 2 helped them display their full potential. In all our years of tutoring in this space, we’ve seen students approach Section 2 preparation in various manners. There will definitely be groups of students who’d just “wing it”, groups that write out ‘model essays’ which they regurgitate on the exam day and groups that religiously research current affairs and gather examples. With ACER’s pigeon-holed approach to topics that we’re starting to see again, all three groups would not stand a good chance. Making pre-written essay structures harder to use allows ACER to accurately sample our true ability to express ourselves.

What does this mean for September GAMSAT 2019?

Along with the changes we’ve seen in Section 1, we could also argue that the topics being raised in Section 2 are moving towards a more medical or public health genre. As with all kinds of speculation, I guess we’d have to wait and see. Does this mean having a sound strategy is now useless? Definitely not! Is there still a way to prepare for Section 2? 100%. My advice going forward would be to think of all topics and themes that you come across in a very critical manner. Not only do you have to think how you can write an insightful essay from a theme but go a step further to think how else ACER can present this theme to you. Remember the value is never in developing example essays but rather in developing the thought process. It’s a lot like how Microsoft PowerPoint offers you templates and all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Think of your thought process as a template and invest time and effort into it. You have my word; it will pay off!

Section 3

Section 3; The make it or break it section. Before we do a deep dive into what the trends are and what we can expect in the upcoming exam, let’s consider what ACER learns about us through Section 3. Imagine being the first responder to an emergency trauma situation. The patient has four life-threatening injuries and you have half an hour to stabilise them before transporting them to hospital. What you do in that limited amount of time, how well you do it, how quickly you do it, and in what order you do it is absolutely essential. Now think of that Section 3 booklet as your patient and you have 180 minutes to do the best that you can. My biggest piece of advice would be to always consider Section 3 to be an equally weighted time-management, critical thinking and theory exam. Close to 70% of our students reported time management and the length of stems to be the most difficult aspect of Section 3. If we refuse to strategise and decide to tackle it like any other university exam, we’re inevitably setting ourselves up for failure.

What we discovered in the March GAMSAT 2019

As predicted, we did observe a shift towards ‘journal article’ styled biology and chemistry stems with complex graphs and data analysis. There has been an increased appearance of ‘logic’ type chemistry/biochemistry questions that still require a profound prior understanding of first year university chemistry. With physics, there has been a decrease of projectile motion and typical force type stems and an increase in gravity, atomic physics and radiation type stems. Looking at Section 3 as a whole, there has been an increase in density, with more text and fewer questions per stem. Although 83% of our students reported the presence of some very easy questions in Section 3, 76% reported the overall difficulty to be very high.

Alright, let’s deep dive! As discussed in our previous articles, we’ve been noticing a shift towards the testing of interpretive skills, critical analysis and visual pattern recognition. This is consistent with our students reporting that approximately 60% of their Section 3 stems had graphs or tables. For example, we’ve been observing a shift away from normal human biology and a move towards obscure non-human physiology, forcing students to rely on their cognitive skills rather than their prior knowledge. Although we’re noticing a shift towards random topics that most students would have never encountered before, I would like to raise what I consider to be the biggest misconception when it comes to Section 3; The importance of background knowledge.

As expected from a huge group of students with diverse educational backgrounds, our post-GAMSAT survey showed a mixed response to the importance of background knowledge. However, it is crucial to understand that due to our diverse backgrounds what we consider to be general knowledge can very easily be required prior knowledge for the majority of people. Our responses showed some of these topics to include stereochemistry, periodic trends, cellular biology, radiation and gravitational fields. That being said, there was a general consensus amongst students that having worked with journal article styled graphs would have benefited their Section 3 experience.

Can you do well in Section 3 with just prior knowledge and no cognitive skills? Absolutely not. Can you excel in Section 3 with just cognitive skills and no prior knowledge? Maybe. Would the appropriate prior knowledge boost your ability to apply your cognitive skills to the questions and thus ace the exam? 100%.

For example, being hit with a complex physics question is a nightmare for the majority of us. However, having a prior understanding of torque and its formulae would allow you to critically analyse the stem, break down and convert the text into a diagram, apply your quick mathematical calculations and ultimately, arrive at the right answer. Mathematics is undoubtedly the most important and yet unrecognised cognitive skill recommended for the GAMSAT. 80% of our students have reported that studying maths was helpful. In our analysis of the past four GAMSATs, we’ve found that approximately 30% of the section required complex calculations.

In a race against the clock, having reliable and fast mathematical skills can save valuable minutes per stem, making the difference between finishing the exam or missing 20 questions at the end.

What does this mean for September GAMSAT 2019?

From the data we’ve gathered, we can expect a significant increase in the number of questions that rely heavily on ‘mathematical’ logic. Refining our mathematical skills and improving our mental math is a must. Also, in keeping with the trend of ‘journal article’ style stems, I would highly recommend reading journal articles and understanding how they present their data. Being able to break down and make sense of how they present their findings will definitely prove to be useful. That being said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the need for revising/learning the appropriate prior knowledge required for the GAMSAT. A great place to start would be the Topic Book and GAMSAT Study Planner on the Fraser’s GAMSAT Tuition website. We’ve worked through years of data and compiled a list of the topics that you need to know, giving you the limits of ‘breadth and depth’ of GAMSAT prior knowledge.

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