A Mote of Dust Suspended in a Sunbeam GAMSAT 2014 Tips

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GAMSAT 2014 Tips

By Andrew Simpson

There's less than two months to go before GAMSAT 2014 and more than a few nerves are doubtless jangling. GAMSAT is a tough experience but, with the right preparation, you can make it a successful one. If you're only just starting studying now or if you're just looking for fresh ideas, here are my tips for preparing over the next couple of months.

Know Thy Enemy

Before you get stuck into GAMSAT study, you should really know what you're up against. Your first port of call should be my GAMSAT Info page - have a read and get familiar with the exam.

  • Reasoning, not knowledge: GAMSAT is not a knowledge test like most university exams (although it requires knowledge); it is a test of taking information, integrating it and coming up with a reasoned response. For this reason (as discussed below) it's not enough simply to know things; you have to understand concepts.
  • Play the probabilities: GAMSAT is a bit of a game. The game is to recognise as many wrong answers as possible so that you maximise your changes of choosing the right answer (even if you don't know what it is). Every wrong answer your eliminate increases the probability that the answer you select will be the right one.
  • Do the practice tests: the ACER practice tests are the closest thing that you will find to the actual exam so make sure you do them (under proper timed conditions) to get a feel for the question style and how fast you have to move under exam conditions.
  • Triage questions: one of the hardest things about GAMSAT is the speed with which you need to go through the questions. You don't have time to stare at a question for minutes trying to figure it out; if there's an area you know you're weak in, choose a random letter (I went with 'B') and mark the question so that you can come back at the end if you have time.

Section I: Humanities and Social Sciences

This section is probably the hardest to prepare for in a short space of time because the required knowledge and skills are so nebulous and broad.

  • Build your vocabulary: in Section I you will often find yourself being directly or indirectly on the breadth of your vocabulary; building your vocabulary in a structured manner using something like this book from Merriam-Webster can be a great way to get ahead in a short space of time. There are also plenty of helpful websites out there like vocabulary.com.
  • Read widely: not just in terms of author or genre but in terms of form too. GAMSAT requires skills in interpreting all forms of written communication, from prose to poetry to news articles to comic strips. Read what you enjoy (otherwise you'll probably go insane) but try and mix it up. One of the most important books I read whilst preparing for GAMSAT was A Moral History of the 20th Century; not only is it an interesting read that broadens your horizons, it also forces you to form opinions about the kinds of issues that crop up in Section II. The Meaning of Things by A. C. Grayling also gets a good rap from many GAMSAT-sitters. If the idea of poetry scares you (and you have my utmost sympathy) a good place to start is poets.org - here you can search through a massive library of poetry to find authors that you like and enjoy reading.
  • Check out The New Yorker: GAMSAT has a long history of including cartoons from The New Yorker in Section I. They're generally pointed and witty but sometimes difficult to interpret. For all of these reasons, therefore, they're great practice material for S1. This collection published a few years ago would be a great starting point (otherwise you can go for smaller sets like cats or dogs). You can also see some of the most recent ones on their website. Furthermore, reading some of The New Yorker articles is great for S1 and S2 as well.
  • Look at how the practice questions are structured: generally you'll find that common sense and logic can get you down to two answers which seem reasonably plausible and which you have to decide between (incidentally, this is generally how MCQs in medical school are structured too). Deciding between the two can be difficult because the differences will be subtle but remember that you're playing a probability game here: if you eliminate two answers then you have a 50% chance of getting this question right. Practising with the ACER sample questions is very useful in this regard. I also recommend working your way through the MCAT Examkrackers verbal reasoning book, which I found very helpful.

Section II: Written Communication

People often write off Section II but, in fact, it is the section that you can improve the most in the shortest space of time (unless you're coming from a strong essay-writing background).

  • Consider your best writing style: most people opt to write essays in Section II because it provides a structure around which you can work in a limited amount of time. Writing an essay is not required, however - if you think you write short stories or even poetry better, you can go down that path.
  • Ask yourself questions: a lot of the reading that you do for Section I is helpful for the written communication tasks too, because it gives you more perspective on the ideas that you will be asked to write about - but take it a step further. Actively question how you feel about a particular issue that is being discussed. Am I for it? Am I against it? Why? What evidence do I have to back up my opinion? Even if you don't have strong feelings one way or the other, think about how you could argue your position over the space of a few paragraphs.
  • Practise consistently: you can improve your writing dramatically over the course of a couple of months but only if you consistently practise and have your writing critiqued. From the Random Quote Generator you can easily get a GAMSAT-style selection of five quotes based around a particular theme so there's no excuses! One place you can easily get feedback is the PagingDr 2014 Essay Practice and Critique thread but for rigorous criticism I would recommend you go and talk to some faculty members or postgraduate students in the Arts faculty of your university. Offer to pay them for their time and I'm sure you will find a taker.
  • Keep up to date with current affairs: to put it simply, read the newspaper and watch the news. Take notice of what's going on in the world, because the writing tasks given to you in GAMSAT are often topical. Take out a subscription to The New York Times or The Guardian and read it every day.
  • Write, don't type: we type so much these days that we often forget how long it takes to write things out by hand and how much practice it takes to be able to write a lot in a short space of time. Practise by hand now so that you can get a feel for the timing during the exam.

Section III: Biological and Physical Sciences

For all universities other than The University of Melbourne, Section III is worth 50% of your overall GAMSAT score and for that reason a lot of emphasis tends to be placed on it. Section III is undoubtedly important but a killer S3 score won't be much good if you get < 50 in the other two so don't neglect them.

  • Understand concepts: I think this is the most important thing to understand about S3. Just having bits and pieces of knowledge is not, in general, all that helpful. You need to go beyond knowing factoids to understanding concepts and how they fit together. Here is a comment I made a few years ago right after sitting GAMSAT and I think it's worth reiterating:

Firstly, don't look at the GAMSAT as a knowledge test. It requires knowledge, but ultimately it's about using your understanding of concepts in situations where you may not have come across them before. To that end, in my opinion, studying for section 3 is about having a very good understanding of basic first-year science concepts and how they are linked to each other, rather than say memorising the details of a particular reaction type in organic chemistry. For example, take the concept of osmosis. Knowing that "water flows from solutions of lower concentrations to solutions of higher concentrations" is all well and good, but to simply state that is not to understand the concept. Understanding involves visualising the dynamic equilibrium going on, realising that water is flowing both ways but the net flow is greater in one particular direction. It also involves understanding why this net flow occurs: because in solutions of higher concentration, more water molecules are taken up solvating the solute, which leaves fewer unbound molecules to flow across the membrane. Once you've done this, think also about how such a concept might tie in to a biological question. For example, if you put a drip into someone which has a different ionic concentration to their blood then some of the regular ion gradients in the body are going to break down - to take but one example, red blood cells are going to swell because the ion concentration in the blood becomes much lower than that inside the cell.

  • Find textbooks that work for you: I think the best way to learn is still by going through textbook topics systematically. Other resources may well be required to understand bits and pieces along the way but textbooks provide a great foundation for learning. The two major textbooks I used for my study were Chemistry: The Central Science and Campbell Biology which I found suited my style. Coming from a physics background meant I didn't use a particular physics textbook myself but Conceptual Physics gets quite a good rap for being an engaging introduction to physics and fits in with the philosophy of understanding concepts rather than accumulating knowledge. Spend a bit of time looking at textbooks and figuring out whether they suit your learning style; it will be time well spent in the long run.
  • The internet is awesome: there are heaps of resources out there to help you understand science. One of the absolute best is Khan Academy and don't discount Wikipedia for explaining science concepts too!

In some later posts I might go into more depth about each of the GAMSAT sections but, for now, good luck and happy studying!

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