Even someone with perfect knowledge of all the science and math on the PCAT is unlikely to achieve a perfect score without adequate test strategies. Understanding the PCAT question formats and having a clear plan for how to tackle each question while finishing every section on time can be just as important as content knowledge. In fact, using Kaplan’s strategies allows you to use the test in your favor and determine correct answers even without knowledge of all the content.
Kaplan Question Strategy
Aside from the Writing section, the PCAT only has one question type: multiple choice. You won’t find any fill-in-the-blank, matching, short response, or true/false problems on the PCAT. Instead, every question will provide you with the option to select one of four answer choices. Every time. This means two important things. First, you won’t need to prepare your knowledge in such a way that you can recite vocabulary, facts, or statistics from rote memory. Instead, all you’ll need to do is recognize and apply those ideas using the choices provided. This means your focus when studying and answering questions should be on recognizing relationships and patterns more than on memorizing lists. Second, the fact that every question is multiple choice means you can identify patterns among the questions and answer choices to help you choose the correct answer even when you’re not completely confident regarding the content.
All the specific strategies for each section start with one key process: Stop-Think-Predict-Match. Although you will make slight modifications to this strategy depending on which question type you are tackling, the core task remain the same: Carefully analyze each question and determine what the correct answer will look like before reading the corresponding answer choices. This will allow you to use the question format to your advantage. You will quickly bypass wrong answer choices without needing to analyze them fully or falling for the test makers’ trap choices, and you also will be leaving yourself open to using alternative strategies such as the process of elimination when necessary. Each step of Stop-Think-Predict-Match is outlined in more detail below.
Your very first step when attempting any question is to Stop: Don’t fully read the question or answers choices but instead triage, analyzing the question’s subject matter, length, and difficulty to determine if you should tackle it immediately, later, or not at all. For most questions, you will also use this opportunity to characterize the answer choices (e.g., as vocabulary terms, sentences, equations, numbers with units, graphs, etc.).
The Stop step allows you to make the most of the limited amount of time you have available. Determining each question’s general characteristics before tackling it also allows you to get in the right mindset for that question. If you know you will need to calculate a specific value, you may list the variables you see on your noteboard as you read the question stem; if you know the answer will instead be a graph, you may sketch a quick plot of the variables instead of listing them.
Once you’ve characterized the question stem and answer choices and decided to tackle a problem, the next step is to actually read the question stem—but still don’t read the answer choices yet. Don’t just read passively; instead, paraphrase as you read so you can determine what the question is actually stating. Establish what the test makers are asking for as specifically as possible (e.g., velocity on the x-axis in meters per second) while being careful to note any negative words such as not, except, or false. You won’t be able to answer the question correctly if you misunderstand what the question is asking you to do.
As part of this process, pay close attention to any information from the question stem or passage (when present) that will be helpful for answering the question, taking notes as necessary. Also add any outside knowledge from your studies that can be used to formulate an answer. By calmly gathering all of the resources you need to answer each question in advance, you’ll prevent rushing through the question, potentially leading to additional work that is not needed, missing an important keyword, or otherwise accidentally not answering the question at hand.
Once you have a clear idea of what the question is asking and have all the information you need to answer it, your next step is to formulate a framework of what the correct answer will look like. At this point, you still should not have read the answer choices, so you are essentially treating the problem as a fill-in-the-blank question. A great prediction will answer the question as thoroughly as possible; however, if you’re not certain what to expect from wordy answer choices or don’t have strong content knowledge for the subject being tested, a simpler prediction could be nearly as useful and is always better than no prediction at all.
Although this strategy may sound like a radical change to the way you approach a multiple-choice test, chances are it’s not entirely different from what you normally do. The major difference is likely the order: Most test takers who are not Kaplan students read the answer choices first and then determine what the correct answer will be. However, the advantages of predicting before reviewing the answer choices are many. First, making a prediction saves you time. Instead of analyzing all four answer choices, you can quickly skip the wrong choices that don’t match your prediction without needing to disprove them specifically. Second, having a clear idea of what the correct answer will look like helps you avoid wrong answer choices that might otherwise be tempting. For example, although choice (A) of a hypothetical Critical Reading question might have sounded reasonable had you read it first, after making a prediction you instead realize it doesn’t answer the question and in fact wasn’t mentioned in the passage at all. In this way, you avoid the trap of “that sounds good” and home in on the correct answer right away. Finally, you will feel much more confident with your answer if you predict it and then find it among the choices. Confidence builds upon itself, so this aspect of the Predict step is great for Test Day.
After preparing a prediction, your last step is to select the answer choice that truly meets the requirements of your prediction. When matching, your goal is not to judge each answer choice based on its own merits but rather to identify if a choice corresponds with the framework you predicted. To that end, answer choices will fall into one of three categories:
- The choice matches your prediction: In this case, read the entire choice thoroughly to ensure all components of the choice are correct, paraphrasing as needed. If the choice looks completely correct, select it and only quickly scan the remaining answer choices before moving on to the next question.
- The choice is clearly the opposite of your prediction or otherwise incorrect: If at any point you realize a choice is definitely incorrect, stop reading that choice and mark it as eliminated on your noteboard. If one component of a choice is incorrect, the entire choice must be incorrect, so there’s no need to read the entire option.
- The choice does not match your prediction: When an answer choice is not obviously wrong but also doesn’t align with what you were anticipating, skip that choice. Don’t spend time at this point attempting to definitively prove the choice is incorrect; one of the other answer choices is likely to match your prediction instead, meaning you won’t ever need to determine why this option is incorrect.
Note that just because a choice doesn’t match your prediction doesn’t mean you should eliminate it right away. In some cases, you may find that no answer choice matches your original prediction. When this happens, you will need to return to the Think and Predict steps, incorporating more information to modify your prediction by making it more general or more specific as needed. Using this modified prediction, you can then complete the Match step again on the choices you did not already eliminate.
As you first start using the Stop-Think-Predict-Match strategy, you may find yourself moving through questions more slowly, especially when you need to modify your predictions, but don’t give up! With practice, you will begin to perform these steps automatically and find both your speed and accuracy increased. Because mastery of all the PCAT strategies does require practice, use them consistently throughout your practice tests and questions so you can use them effectively by Test Day.