I learned that the new MCAT would incorporate sociology back in 2011. I was thrilled! At the time, I had been teaching social sciences to health majors for 6 years, and the news stoked fantasies of the future: maybe this was the beginning of a movement to revamp medical school curricula across the country (or world?) and foster fleets of culturally aware health care providers.
At the same time, there were other teachers and students perplexed by the AAMC’s unveiled plans. What kind of sociology would be on the MCAT, and how should students study? Did they need to take courses in sociology, read certain books, and study primary research, or could they get by with a solid set of flashcards?
Overview of Social Science Section on the MCAT
The new MCAT has a verbal section and 3 science sections. The last science section — counting for 25% of the total score — is called Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior. In it, the test makers have incorporated questions from psychology, sociology, biology, and a bit of social epidemiology. Sociology represents anywhere from 25%-40% of this section. The proportion is debatable because so many topics (stigma, self-concept, child development) overlap with psychology and others (demographic transition, social determinants of health) are shared with epidemiology.
The Good News About Sociology on the MCAT
Most sociology MCAT concepts on the new MCAT are easy to memorize and don’t require much explanation. You could probably learn 60% of the content by reading a test prep book and reviewing flashcards. Eventually, the MCAT might test students on subtle and obscure areas of sociology, but so far, it doesn’t.
Another encouraging factor is sociologists study contemporary social issues that you already know a bit (or great deal) about, such as mass media and technology, cultural conflicts, urbanization, and globalization. Many students are able to make educated guesses about social phenomena based on their observations of day-to-day life, especially if they follow the news and current events.
So, What’s Hard About Sociology on the MCAT?
The hardest concepts are definitely the big-picture theories because they aren’t specific to situations. They’re “world views” and not easy to define. If you look at responses from students who’ve taken the new MCAT, they say it’s easy to study vocabulary, but it’s hard to find good sources on how to recognize sociology theories within context. For instance, the MCAT might show you results from a study on childhood obesity and then ask which of four sociological theories is best suited to frame a particular finding in the study. That’s a hard question to answer if you rely on brief definitions.
Another challenging thing is that some MCAT sociology content is…um, how do I phrase this? NOT SOCIOLOGY! A portion of what gets lumped with introductory sociology on the MCAT is actually derived from epidemiology, medical sociology, and public health. As a result, there are students who took sociology courses, read entire textbooks on the subject, and even — I kid you not — majored in sociology (!!) but never encountered a small but significant portion of the MCAT sociology material. Sadly, people invest a lot of time but wind up with gaps in their knowledge.
A 5-Part MCAT Sociology Study Strategy
Only Read What is Necessary
You have limited time to study, and you don’t need to read paragraphs or pages if bullet points will do. However, you should read certain topics in detail: research methods, macro/micro distinctions, and the main theories and theorists. Much of this is found in the first few chapters of introduction to sociology books.
Skim Public Health Journals
To understand sociology in relation to health, I recommend skimming primary research studies on health disparities. Even if you only spend 2 hours (total!) looking through these journals, you’ll have gained familiarity with social perspectives on health. You’ll also start recognizing patterns in the health topics. It’s probable that the MCAT will give you passages on health conditions related to aging, poverty, gender differences, or environmental exposures.
Memorize 40 Sociology Terms Each Day
If you learn 40 MCAT sociology terms each day, you’ll make speedy progress. If you’re using flashcards, it’s fine to use a pack that groups psychology and sociology together; just make sure that they aren’t skimping you on the sociology terms. At least a third of the pack should cover sociology.
Study Concepts that Others Ignore
Remember, your MCAT score is determined by how many correct answers you get in relation to other test takers. The areas below are sparsely covered in most MCAT test prep books. Pay attention in order to get the edge!
- Strive to know all the terms listed under “health and medicine” here. Some general sociology texts reference these terms, but many do not.
- Pay attention to everything related to demographic changes and fertility and mortality listed here, which are not major concepts in general sociology.
- Take a look at health and healthcare disparities mentioned here. They don’t provide much information on the specifics, do they? Unfortunately, neither do most of the MCAT test prep books. Fill in the gaps by researching the terms online or using the Magoosh MCAT course.
Practice Psy/Soc/Bio Foundations Passages
As with all sections on the MCAT, you’ll want to practice answering questions from passages. I am so excited to announce that here at Magoosh, we are currently producing practice passages to accompany our current set of 250+ MCAT video lessons. Our team is comprised of a group of physicians and higher education teachers from a range of scientific and humanities backgrounds. As you wait for our questions to become available, definitely review as many passages from the official authors of the MCAT as you can!