Lessons from March and September GAMSATs 2018

Here’s the thing – try as hard as you might, you will never be able to game ACER. When you have the people that designed the game and its rules always changing up the design, you find yourself perpetually trying to keep up. All we can actually do, is use our powers of hindsight and insight, to try and ascertain a level of foresight. So, having said that, let’s take a look back at the past couple of GAMSATs and see if we can play a little game of divination. Let’s take a look into the cloudy depths of the crystal ball. “Oh come ye powers of ACER clairvoyance and illumine our path to GAMSAT victory!”    

Look back to see forward.

If we are to ever truly try and understand the way that ACER go about creating the GAMSAT (especially GAMSAT 2019), then we need to spent a little time looking over some of the past exams to see if we can recognise some sort of pattern. Once we find it, we can then safely extend the pattern to see how it plays out. For the sake of brevity and my not wanting to age to 45 by the time I’ve finished writing this, I think we can cap the pattern analysis at these past two papers. You might be skeptical that just the two exams in 2018 will be enough to find this fabled pattern of ACER foresight, but let me explain why I think this is enough. I have now sat 6 different GAMSATs and I feel that this has given me a solid grounding in both my $k1LLz and my understanding of what each different GAMSAT is testing for. Let’s dive into each one so that I can show you why they are actually perfect microcosms of ACER’s logic on both the battlefronts that they fight on.

March 2018.

This was a total doozy. Coming from far left field, this paper was crazy difficult. It was so difficult in fact, that the whole GAMSAT cohort did so much worse comparatively to previous years that instead of just scaling everything accordingly, ACER shifted the bell curve left! Obviously based on the nature of a bell curve, the particular score achieved determines how much the curve shifted, but below are a couple of examples to compare. As you can see in the graphs, a score of 70 netted you a 92nd percentile ranking in 2017 but a whopping 95th percentile in 2018. A 65 was a 78th percentile in 2017, but the 83rd percentile in 2018. In 2017, a pretty standard score of 60 placed a ‘GAMSitter’ at more or less the median score of 53rd percentile, but pushed all the way up to 61st percentile in 2018. As you can see from just these three different point equivalences, the difficulty of March 2018 was far greater than that of 2017. Higher up the bell curve the difference wasn’t as large but it was still a 3 percentile difference in ranking. Lower down the bell curve, we see the difference stretching out to a huge 8 percentile in ranking. Crazy right?  

But why was it so difficult?

There’s been lots of speculation since this March trying to work this out, but I would suggest that it actually all comes down to section 3. In fact, I would posit (based on my 6 ‘GAMSats’.. GAMSitted? GAMSeat?) that section 3 is the great separator across all GAMSAT papers – but we can come back to this later. By comparison to previous years, this year’s section 3 relied very heavily on really abstract logical reasoning rather than application of prior knowledge. It presented the sitter with intense amounts of information and then asked them to decipher what was important and extrapolate that across a variety of tricky questions. What made the questions tricky? It’s not that it was so hard to understand what they were asking you to do, rather many of them involved various steps to get the answer. Whilst the sitter may have understood exactly what the question was getting at, it still required a potential 3 or 4 steps of calculation to get the answer, and that’s after whatever time it may have taken to even understand the information presented in the first place! Some questions had multiple graphs all on differing variables that needed to be correlated before accessing a question. Some involved lots of little steps to get the answer. Some presented the information in such a way that it simply required lots of time to understand it. But for the most part, not many of them relied on a person having studied anything to do with biology, chemistry, or physics, not even at all. If you took the time, or had the analytical capacity to dissect the stem quickly and effectively, you could arrive at the correct answer without ever having studied for section 3 at all.  

September 2018

Without having the released results from this paper, all that I can say about this one is regarding its content rather than the difficulty level. To me, it seemed pretty hard (although when is it ever easy?), however maybe to others it was perfect. So what we need, is to see how the whole cohort did so that we can make the comparative conclusions required to see the progression of how difficult the papers are. Until that time though, let’s look a bit at the section 3. By contrast to the March paper, this sitting didn’t rely so heavily on abstract logical reasoning, in fact I would say that it was a solid 50:50 split between logic and prior knowledge. What do I mean when I say prior knowledge? Well, the way I see it, if you did a Bachelor in some non-science related field like Accounting or Art History, then 50% of the questions you would have really struggled with. Why? Sometimes it’s knowing what oxidation numbers mean. Sometimes it’s knowing when there are not net forces on a bungee jumper. Sometimes it’s a distinction like understanding the different chemical natures of polar vs. non-polar liquids and thus being able to determine if something is miscible or not. To the average science student, knowledge of these things is absolutely taken for granted. But imagine how difficult these questions would be if you had no idea even what polarity in a chemical even meant. For some of you, this would have made this section 3 considerably easier than March, however for others, it would have made it much more difficult.  

Why look only at section 3?

I need to clarify here that I am in no way dismissing the difficulty of sections 1 and 2 – I completely appreciate how they are the hardest for some students. The reason I think focusing our reflective gaze on section 3 is much more important, is that whilst the content of sections 1 and 2 change from exam to exam, their mode of testing stays relatively similar. Section 1 is always testing for interpretive analysis and emotional reasoning, section 2 is always testing for capacity to express one’s self and show insightful rationale, and neither of them ever require a prior knowledge that could completely preclude someone from accessing a question. Sure, the type of question breakdown in section 1 can change and the difficulty of the texts presented vary. Sure, the themes provided in section 2 can be more or less specific. Obviously people can get better at these sections through preparation and practice. But we have to look at all the sections as if a person who has had no practice nor preparation is attempting them, and how they would perceive the difficulty of them. It is for this reason that I choose to focus on section 3 as the primary distinguish variable between different GAMSAT papers.  

So what does it all mean?

To bring it back to the pattern recognition notion that we discussed earlier, it’s extrapolation time! Having sat 6 GAMSATs over the past 4 years, I can tell you with certainty that they are getting gradually harder over time. In March 2018, section 3 was very dependant on fast critical analysis of dense information. This contrasted the March 2017 paper (heretofore not mentioned), which was considerably easier and very dependant on prior knowledge. And so, just as the arc of a pendulum swinging eventually finds itself centred, September 2018 settled itself smack bang in the middle of the previous two Marches. Does this suggest that the pendulum will continue on its arc and swing back in one direction again? I think that’s unlikely. If anything, I would suggest that the pendulum has found its most reasonable position in the middle. If it were to swing again, it would most likely swing back to the logical reasoning side over the prior knowledge though. This is because the GAMSAT is there to test a person’s intellectual capacity, not their knowledge of science.  

What can we expect for March GAMSAT 2019?

Section 1
Based off the past couple of years, I would say that section 1 is likely going to be very similar. There will be a whole variety of both question types and lengths. It looks as if ACER are moving away from really dense and difficult to comprehend philosophical texts and closer toward empathetic understand of characters in more prosaic writing. There haven’t been more than two poems and only about two comics per paper, so it would seem that they are comfortable with that. I’d keep an eye out difficult, interpretive diagrams. On the past two papers some of the most troublesome questions have actually come from stems of diagrams rather than an obscure poem or narrative. Beyond that, make sure you brush up on your skim reading. Almost all of the text based stems had between 35 – 45 lines of writing for sometimes only two questions. Whatever you can do to make these questions more worthwhile, do it, especially if it is just a matter of being able to read through the information faster.
Section 2
Where once ACER would throw at us semi-specific, semi-random themes like ‘activism’ or ‘animal companionship’, it seems that they are moving away from that perspective on the section 2 front. This year the themes were ‘change’, ‘ambition’, ‘superstition’, and ‘freedom’. They are all very broad terms with an incredibly broad spectrum of possible things to address. Additionally, they have all been easy to interpret and there has been not much space for misunderstanding what the themes were. So it is likely that they continue on this trajectory of conceptual themes that provide ample space for open interpretation.
Section 3
Apart from the overarching section design that we spoke about earlier on, an astute way to ascertain what might appear on upcoming papers is to look at what topics have been tested for in recent papers. For instance, ever ACER’s favourite for a simple mathematics/physics question, there has been a standard ‘force of gravity formula’ question in 3 of the last 4 papers. It didn’t appear on the September paper, but given its prevalence in recent years, it is unlikely to appear again very soon. Alternatively, this past section 3 made absolutely no mention of acid/base nor cardiovascular system in any of the questions and conversely to the gravity formula, they haven’t appeared as frequently which might lead one to think that they are due to reappear soon. ACER also tend to love a ternary plot diagram, and given that it didn’t appear in September, it is a strong likelihood that it does this March GAMSAT 2019. Which brings me to my next point; one thing we can definitely account for in the March GAMSAT 2019 is lots of graphs and tables. In this past paper, there were only about 5 of an approximate 35 stems in section 3 that did not have a graph or table presenting some sort of information. In March 2018 some stems presented the GAMSitter with up to four graphs in the one go, but in September the maximum amount of graphs was only two – I’d say they learnt their lesson with that one. That being said, it would be well worth your while to invest some time in understanding and deciphering really difficult graphs or dense tables of information. I’m talking graphs with four axes and 6 different lines in one graph. I’m talking 3D modelled graphs. I’m talking tables with 10 rows and 10 columns needing to be cross-references with another table of 10 rows and columns and completely different variables. All I’m saying here, is be prepared for crazy graphs, tedious tables, and lots of them on most questions.  

“And now ladies and gentlemen, the conclusion!”

As I said in the beginning of the piece, there really is no way to game ACER and their GAMSAT system. Having said that, you’d be best off not taking this article as gospel rather an informed guesstimation as to how things might play out. You should though, always approach GAMSAT as if it will catch you off guard and expect the unexpected. But expecting the unexpected doesn’t preclude us for preparing for the potentially expected does it? Try to lean on what we have collated for you when you’re feeling a bit lost. Make sure you practice hard, but more importantly, practice smart. We’re always around and willing to help if you need. In fact, we actually love helping out. Seriously though, we do… it’s actually enjoyable for us to see you guys succeed. So if anything, get in touch with us for our sake as well as your own.