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Common pitfalls students make in the GAMSAT exam

Common pitfalls that students make in the GAMSAT

by , 05 September, 2021
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The GAMSAT exam is no simple feat. It requires stamina, and tests very different skills from your standard undergraduate exams. Many people sit the GAMSAT several times before passing the strict Australian graduate medical schools admission requirements. It can be an expensive and frustrating process for all involved.
It’s safe to say that there are many common pitfalls that any of us can make that may ultimately lead to disappointing performance in the GAMSAT. I’m not trying to sound bleak; in fact, I’m here to help you avoid those common mistakes. Because, after all, if you put the effort in to prepare yourself for the mammoth that is the GAMSAT exam day, you want it to pay off. And an efficient and well-constructed approach to the GAMSAT exam can make success a much more attainable goal that doesn’t get destroyed by poor technique or burn-out.

Part I: Before Exam Day


Pitfall #1 – Not knowing what you’re in for

The first tip I give to anyone sitting the GAMSAT is to know the GAMSAT. It may seem time-consuming to read through the ACER information booklet, but given that the GAMSAT is a full-day exam, it is important to know what you’re in for. From a logistics perspective, it’s important to know how long the sections will be, when you will get to have lunch, and how long you’re expected to be at the venue. Of course, from a study perspective, it’s also important to know what each section is about and what skills each session is actually assessing, so that you can target your study appropriately. The GAMSAT has slight changes from year to year - more so in recent years due to the change to a digital format - so it’s important to look through the booklet for the most up-to-date information. The booklet should also be your first point of call for any questions you may have, such as, “Will I get scratch paper on the day?” and “Can I go back and change my answers?”

Pitfall #2 – Trying to master everything

Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. For me, I knew that I was definitely better at Section III than I was at GAMSAT Section I or GAMSAT Section II. As a result, while I tried to work on Sections I and II skills, I tried not to get too hung up on doing these sections perfectly. Studying for and sitting the GAMSAT is a long process, and you need to have realistic expectations of your abilities. It is quite common for candidates to have one or two sections that are stronger than the others. Remember that while there are still minimum thresholds required by most medical schools (usually 50 in each section), a relatively weak performance in one section may be compensated by a stronger performance in another section.

Pitfall #3 – Cramming

The GAMSAT unfortunately isn’t one of those exams that you can cram for at the last minute. The GAMSAT is largely an assessment of your reasoning and problem-solving skills, which can only improve with regular practice and cannot be crammed in a short space of time. This brings me to my next point…

Pitfall #4 – Excessively focusing on learning content

Many people studying for GAMSAT become focused on trying to learn a lot of content, especially for GAMSAT Section III. However, it is important to note that the GAMSAT is becoming less of a test of knowledge, and more of a test of problem-solving and reasoning skills. In fact, most of the question stems (the information given before the MCQs) will tell you pretty much everything you need to know to answer the questions, with little to no prior knowledge required - the real test is of how you understand and apply the knowledge in the stem. That’s not to say that studying content is completely useless, as prior study can be a great way to gain a framework for understanding new concepts and to familiarise yourself with terminology. It does, however, mean that studying content should not come at the expense of practice questions.

Part II: On Exam Day


Pitfall #5 – Not giving yourself a break

There is a lunch break between Sections II and III. Use the break as a break! Some students find it very tempting to try to get in some last-minute Section III study. I question how effective this is, given that, as I’ve said before, GAMSAT is not a test of how well you can cram. When I did the GAMSAT, I made sure to spend my lunch break eating a souvlaki under a tree and enjoying the weather, so that my brain was fully refreshed and ready to go when Section III came around. It's important to employ some GAMSAT stress management strategies when you can. 

Pitfall #6 – Getting hung up on answering every question

GAMSAT questions are tricky, and it’s almost guaranteed that you will come across a question that you have no idea how to approach. It can be very tempting to sit there and spend some time trying to puzzle things out but remember that the clock is ticking! Time wasted on something that you may not even answer correctly could be better spent interpreting and answering other questions, so if you’re in this position, consider just skipping to a different question and make a note to yourself to go back to the difficult one later. Rest assured that many people do not finish the GAMSAT. GAMSAT is a numbers game; it’s about trying to optimise your time to get as many points as possible within the given time limit, not necessarily answering every single question.

Pitfall #7 – Trying too hard to impress the markers with your writing

When constructing an essay that is going to be graded, some students succumb to the temptation of using flowery language and abusing their thesaurus in a vain attempt to impress their marker. (If you are a PhD student or lecturer who has had to mark first-year undergraduate essays, I’m sure you’ve probably encountered more than a few examples of this!) However, Section II is not a test of your vocabulary, but a test of your communication. I would encourage learning to communicate your ideas effectively (and efficiently) within this short period before exam day so that you have a realistic idea of what and how much you can write. One way to do this is to practise writing essays under timed conditions, which is a great way to practise putting your thoughts together in a short time frame.

Part III: Post-Exam Period


Pitfall #8 – Beating yourself up afterwards

This last one is difficult (trust me, I’ve been there myself), however, please remember that whatever happens on GAMSAT exam day happens. You cannot change what you did. Furthermore, remember that just because you think you did poorly doesn’t mean that you actually did. Ruminating for weeks after the exam on aspects you think you messed up can be really detrimental to your well-being.
Of course, reflection is important for future improvement; however, there is a difference between reflecting on mistakes so that you can improve and beating yourself up. Please remember that even in the event that you receive a sub-optimal result that it’s not the end of the world; many people do improve on subsequent sittings of the GAMSAT.

Wow, that’s a lot of pitfalls…

I have listed quite a few things here that either myself or those around me have made the mistake of doing when it came to the GAMSAT exam. It’s not to say that every single person sitting the GAMSAT will make all of these common pitfalls. Some may even make only one or none.
I am writing this to remind you to consider and avoid these pitfalls as you prepare for the exam. Being aware of the common pitfalls will make it easier to recognise if you are doing them yourself. Once you are aware that you are falling into one of these pitfalls, it is then simply a matter of correcting them. And just in case you’ve forgotten already, here they are again:

  1. Not knowing what you’re in for
  2. Trying to master everything
  3. Cramming
  4. Excessively focusing on learning content
  5. Not giving yourself a break
  6. Getting hung up on answering every question
  7. Trying too hard to express the markers with your writing
  8. Beating yourself up afterwards
Now, after reading about all these pitfalls, you may feel a bit nervous. The GAMSAT exam is not that far away; do you have enough time to implement the appropriate countermeasures so as to not make one of these common mistakes? Our next blog article - Two Weeks Left: What Can I Do? - will help you learn more about some last-minute prep you can make to dispel the nervousness and increase your confidence.