A Beginner’s Guide To GAMSAT Section 3
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There’s a lot of advice out there on how to prepare for GAMSAT Section 3. But there are also conflicting opinions (to use Des O’Neil or not to use Des O’Neil?)
ACER, the company that administrates the exam, doesn’t give much away. As a result, many are left speculating about how they will actually beat the GAMSAT.
I’m by no means claiming I magically have all the answers. Consider this blog post simply advice, not dogma. Keep your eyes and ears open for advice from others who have also succeeded at this exam as I’m sure they could have some great tips too.
I’ve prepared the below based on my own experiences doing the exam (two sittings, successful on the second), helping others and analysing the success stories of very high scorers.
Section 3 is the “Reasoning in Biological and Physical Sciences” section. It is the longest and arguably toughest part of the GAMSAT. All questions are multiple choice.
Breakdown of timings:
|Pen-and-paper exam||110 questions||2 hours 50 mins
plus 10 mins reading time
|1 min 30 secs per question average|
|Digital (pandemic) exam||75 questions||2 hours 22 mins
Plus 8 mins reading time
|1 min 53 secs per question average|
In reality the time you spend on each question will vary – some questions take more time to solve than others. So take the average time per question as a rough guide.
You’ll notice that people sitting the digital exam due to the COVID-19 pandemic will have more time on average per question than if they were sitting the traditional pen-and-paper exam.
To learn more about the unique 2020 exam arrangements, read this article >>> GAMSAT, UCAT & BMAT 2020 Updates
Official advice from ACER:
There is no official syllabus for Section 3. I REPEAT. No official syllabus! Why? I don’t know. It’s annoying isn’t it.
However, ACER do provide some useful advice. In summary:
- In the Information Booklet they explain that “success in GAMSAT is unlikely without knowledge and ability in the biological and physical sciences.”
- The same booklet also states that the split between the sciences will be: 40% Biology, 40% Chemistry, 20% Physics.
- They go on to list the reasoning and problem solving skills tested in the exam. Such as analysing and interpreting data, extrapolation, interpolation, estimation, making generalisations, evaluating lines of reasoning and selecting out relevant information.
- On their preparation strategy page they recommend obtaining textbooks for first year degree level Chemistry and Biology, and A level / leaving certificate / year 12 level Physics in order to obtain a certain level of “assumed knowledge”.
My personal experience:
I’m a science graduate and I sat GAMSAT twice. First time I was one mark below the Nottingham cut off. I was gutted. But the second time I got a good score (top 12%).
The first time I sat it I noticed there was a fair amount of Physics. Then again, maybe this only stood out to me because Physics is my weakest science.
The second time I sat it there was barely any Organic Chemistry. And in fact, the whole exam felt like 95% reasoning and 5% knowledge even though every questions’ preamble had some basis in science. It was just reasoning dressed up as science!
I’ve spoken to others since my last GAMSAT exam, both in real life and via forums, and it seems I’m not the only one who feels GAMSAT Section 3 is now super reasoning heavy.
- Knowledge will help you somewhat, but not nearly as much as you might hope it will. This is particularly important for science grads to hear! Don’t be overconfident.
- The official 40 / 40 / 20 split won’t necessarily apply to each individual sitting. So, don’t be surprised if you have way more of one science and/or way less of another when you sit your test.
- Working on problem solving and reasoning skills should not be overlooked in your preparation.
In the absence of an official syllabus you could use one of the following free ones:
How to study
You may already know that it’s far more important to be able to apply knowledge, problem solve and understand science concepts than it is to be able to regurgitate facts for this section. Making it unlike the majority of school and university exams.
If you weren’t already aware of this, the clue is in the name of the section: “Reasoning in Biological and Physical Sciences”. This is also explained in the official ACER GAMSAT Information Booklets released for each sitting.
Just to illustrate how unlike a normal science exam this test is, I had a few lessons with a Physics tutor in preparation for my first sitting. The tutor was doing a PhD in Physics at one of the top universities in the world. Despite this they were often stumped by the GAMSAT style questions I showed them!
Having said all that, a good level of basic science knowledge, familiarity with more advanced science concepts and a good understanding of them could improve how quickly you comprehend and answer questions. Given that Section 3 is extremely time pressured (many people don’t finish it – I didn’t) you’re likely to benefit from the speed boost, even if it’s only modest, because you’ll get round to answering more questions.
Great. But the question remains… How exactly should you study??
Make sure you UNDERSTAND what you cover in your prep.
I emphasise understanding because maybe in the past you’ve crammed for science exams and got away with it. I’ve regurgitated things I’ve half understood and got good scores even at degree level. But this approach won’t do you any favours in the GAMSAT.
So what do you need to do to truly improve your understanding?
Go over topics with a nit comb. Look up EVERYTHING you don’t fully understand. This will feel inefficient but it’s important.
Once you feel pretty comfortable with a topic, nonetheless challenge yourself with probing questions and end-of-chapter style quizzes (available on the Khan Academy website and most textbooks). You could also ask study buddies, a mentor or hire a tutor to challenge your understanding.
GAMSAT style practice questions are also great at exposing flaws in your understanding or basic science knowledge. Which is why I recommend doing lots of practice questions also. More on that later on…
Language, symbols & units
This goes with the above but make sure you really understand the SCIENCE LANGUAGE, SYMBOLS and UNITS you come across in your prep.
For example, what does “oxidation” actually mean in Chemistry? When a chemical is oxidised one of the following happens: gains oxygen, loses hydrogen and/or loses electrons. Yet many people only associate it with losing electrons due to the OIL RIG mnemonic.
By the way there’s a video I love by Crash Course on how to speak “chemistrian” (Chemistry terms!)
Fill in the gaps
Fill in gaps in your understanding and basic science knowledge with Khan Academy video tutorials, tutorials by others (see my Free GAMSAT Resources Master List) or by going through a science textbook. Gaps will be exposed by challenging yourself, getting someone else to challenge you or doing practice GAMSAT style questions.
If you’re a non-science graduate, you’ll probably want to start with GCSE level science before moving onto A level and first year degree level. Check out the BBC Bitesize website.
Utilise the Feynman Technique when you study. This is essentially when you prepare to teach a topic to a child or someone who knows far less than you (even if you don’t actually teach it to anyone).
To effectively teach a concept such as F=ma to a child, you will need to use simple language and to-the-point statements. Else they’ll wonder what you’re on about and get bored. Drawings and analogies may also help.
If you struggle to explain something with complete clarity, it’s a clue that you don’t fully understand it yet. Cue: you need to go over it again. Read more about the Feynman Technique here.
Maths without a calculator & numerical reasoning
Work on your mental maths. There is no calculator in GAMSAT but you are likely to encounter questions that you can only beat with numerical reasoning.
Practice rearranging and combining formulas. This is easier when you understand the scientific theory behind formulas and the associated units. I have a list of Physics equations I came across in my own GAMSAT prep on my Free GAMSAT Resources Master List page (I’ve included a table of units).
Should you memorise formulas? Mostly no. Some of the basic ones perhaps since there is an “assumed level of knowledge”. But in most cases you will either be given a formula or be expected to construct it on the fly based on info given in the question.
Working with graphs, diagrams & tables
Practice interpreting graphs, diagrams and tables. You could do this with study buddies, a mentor or a tutor. The important thing is to be challenged (and challenge your study buddies in turn) because this will force you to re-examine and justify the inferences you’ve made.
Also work on extrapolating and interpolating.
When doing GAMSAT-style practice questions you should come across plenty of graphs, diagrams and tables.
If you want additional practice, a good place to search for free science graphs and data tables is open (free access) scientific journals such as BMJ Open.
Other reasoning skills
I’ve already mentioned numerical reasoning, as well as working with graphs, diagrams and tables.
But you could also benefit from working on spatial reasoning (might be required for e.g. biological enzymes or stereochemistry questions).
Verbal reasoning is also of use. At times you’ll be presented with a block of text and you’ll need to distil out the important information.
Pattern recognition is another helpful skill, especially for Organic Chemistry e.g. spotting the chiral carbons in a complex molecule.
How to improve your reasoning skills
- Practice using the official ACER practice papers, especially Practice Test 3 (most reasoning heavy Section 3).
- Ask yourself “how and why” when completing and reviewing practice questions.
- Reflect on the answer explanations available for the ACER papers and other practice Qs you use. Compare the thinking process they use to explain the answers with your own.
- Discuss your reasoning with study buddies, a mentor or tutor. They can point out faulty logic.
The aim is to develop and refine thinking patterns that will allow you to solve complex problems efficiently.
Personalised study plan
There is no one size fits all study plan out there. Best to consider your strengths and weaknesses and construct a study plan around them.
Either way, some key things I think you should include in your Section 3 study plan:
- Official ACER practice questions.
- Reviewing your answers to the ACER practice questions.
- Filling in holes in your understanding and knowledge with Khan Academy, A level revision guides etc.
- Practicing numerical reasoning and other problem solving skills.
This is not an exhaustive list!
At some point you HAVE to get your head out of books/YouTube video tutorials and into practice papers.
Start off doing questions un-timed so you have time to figure out the best way to approach each question and develop the necessary problem solving skills. This is a good initial chance to learn how to think like ACER.
In the last month, switch to timed questions. Aim for 1 min 30 secs per question average if you’re doing the pen and paper version of GAMSAT. If you’re doing the digital one, have the practice Qs on your computer screen (to simulate the exam as closely as possible) and give yourself 1 min 53 secs per question.
The ACER practice questions are the closest to the real exam. Practice Test 3 (pink cover) is the closest out of all of them due its heavily reasoning-based section 3.
Des O’Neil and Ozimed are often recommended by successful candidates. Just a word of caution – Des O’Neil resources stopped being updated several years ago and I personally found that Des Section 3 questions required far more knowledge and too little reasoning compared to the real exam.
Review your answers to practice questions
When marking practice questions truly POUR OVER them to make sure you understand the answers.
Put as much effort into reviewing your answers as doing the questions. Make sure you fully understand each question you get wrong AS WELL AS each question you get right. It’s during reviewing that you can really learn to think like ACER.
You may think if you got a question correct you don’t need to review it, but what if it was a fluke? What if there is a golden nugget of understanding waiting for you if you double check your reasoning was correct?
Do 1-2 simulated exam days
What I mean is, reserve a whole day in a quiet area to do at least one entire ACER practice test from start to finish. Follow the structure and timing of an official exam day e.g. have a 1 hour lunch break between sections 2 and 3.
As I said earlier in this blog post, timing is one of your biggest enemies in GAMSAT. This is a fantastic way to further work on your time management e.g. aim to be at least 50% of the way through when you’re half way through the allocated time.
You’re unlikely to finish this section even with a decent timing strategy. But it’s definitely worth a shot to get a few extra points.
I didn’t finish my section 3. I guessed the remaining 20 or so questions. Yet I still got the score I needed to get an interview so don’t panic if you don’t finish in your practice exams, or the real exam.
- When studying focus on truly UNDERSTANDING science concepts rather than being able to regurgitate them.
- Avoid passively reading, watching or cramming. Instead, teach science concepts to others (even if its just your cat) and actively seek to understand the important ideas, key terms, symbols and units.
- Work on reasoning skills: numerical reasoning, working with graphs, verbal reasoning, pattern recognition, spatial reasoning.
- Do the official ACER practice papers, especially Practice Test 3 (pink cover).
- Work on your TIME MANAGEMENT, especially in the last month before the exam. Time is one of your biggest enemies in the GAMSAT.
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You might also be interested in my article 5 Excellent GAMSAT Prep Resources.