Rock the DAT Part 2: Basic Science Preparation

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Chemistry Flasks

In the previous article of this series I offered a breakdown of the DAT itself along with some recommended study materials. In this article I cover common methods to prepare for the basic sciences. I also provide a few simple tips and tricks I picked up along the way.

Where do we begin?

I found it hardest just to figure out where I should begin studying for the DAT. Do I start with quantitative reasoning or biology? How long will it take me to get my head around the PAT? Will I have forgotten too much organic chemistry and general chemistry by the time I get around to reviewing them? Thoughts like these are liable to swirl around your mind and put you into a frenzy. But don’t panic, everyone else is feeling the same way and thinking the same things that you are!

I personally recommend that just about everybody starts with biology–yes, even you biology majors. Because it is such a broad subject you must be prepared for just about anything. Questions range from the number of chambers in a frog’s heart to which phylum Scyphozoa belongs to. Although biology is not a complex subject and the concepts are pretty straight forward, there is a lot to remember. Being prepared for biology really just requires being sufficiently familiar with the material. All of the material!


I scored a 28 on this section, which means I probably missed just one or two questions. The key to my success was repeated exposure to the materials discussed in the previous article. I read the Cliff’s AP Biology guide four times, and Barron’s AP Biology guide twice. Something else that helped me was going over the biology section of the DAT Destroyer a total of 4 times. Finally, I worked through DAT Bootcamp’s biology practice exams a couple of times each.

My biology studies started with Cliff’s AP Biology and a stack of empty index cards. Every time I stumbled across something I didn’t know, I created a flashcard. I had flashcards for just about everything and used almost 1,000 index cards in total. I generally carried about 100 or 200 flashcards with me when I was out and would pull them out to study when I was waiting at the doctor’s office, riding public transit, or just bored.

Each time I got a flashcard correct I put a check-mark at the bottom, each time I was wrong it got an “X” or I removed ALL of the check-marks I had accrued from the card. Once a card had three check-marks I would remove it from the pile. This is based on the penny game I learned while auditioning for symphony orchestras.

Volume matters

My opinion is that volume matters for exposure to the material. The more times you manage to read the same information, the more you will retain and the better off you will be. That said however, your goal with problem sets should be understanding both why you are wrong and why you are right. It is not enough to simply understand the problems you missed.

There is also a good chance that you don’t know why you got a lot of answers correct. Maybe you guessed, or perhaps you got it right by accident. Check your correct answers too! I learned a ton just from reading Dr. Romero’s explanations in the DAT Destroyer answer key.

Be aware that you will probably do poorly on your first pass through the DAT Destroyer. This is normal and happens to just about everyone. What is important is that you continue to work through it, go back to your reference materials, and track your progress to see how much improvement you make.

On my first pass I was scoring somewhere around 40% on biology which was very disappointing to me. By the end I was scoring nearly 100% and actually knew for sure when I was right thanks to reading all of the explanations at the back of the book.

Biology Tips

Start and end your studies with biology. I read Cliff’s AP biology a fourth time over the course of two nights just before I took the DAT. I had deliberately left those two final days open so that I could simply read the material. You should already be familiar with key concepts and practiced tedious problem sets. I found that one final read through brought a sense of completion and peace of mind right before the exam.

My biology practice scores: I averaged around 22 on the DAT Bootcamp biology practice exams. I scored 28 on the actual DAT.

General Chemistry

I was aiming for at least a 23 on general chemistry and that’s what I got, so I was pretty happy with my score. I could have spent a lot more time studying for general chemistry than I did. With so much information I had some trouble deciding what to study toward the end. Obviously you need to understand acid–base chemistry, but how much time should you spend on enthalpies of formation or Hess’s Law when you still have so much organic chemistry to study?

I found at some point that I was struggling to keep everything up in my head and that new information was quickly being confused with old knowledge. I found it difficult to integrate new information and make it fit with what I already understood. This is where I would advocate allowing yourself a longer study schedule than I did.

My initial plan had been to study for six solid months. But that would have been overkill. As it turned out, I ended up studying intensely for only a little more than two months. In my opinion three months would have been enough to ensure that I had really gone over my weaknesses and practiced things like thermodynamics.

Chad’s videos are DAT gold

I simply can not say enough good things about Chad’s Videos. His explanations are succinct and he does not confuse you with superfluous information. His lectures are organized in a way that makes them easy to follow and he builds upon concepts with a thoughtful and rigorous approach. I watched his general chemistry videos three times through–once at normal speed and two more times at increased speed.

Be aware that it takes over 14 hours to get through just the general chemistry course, and another 14 hours to get through organic chemistry. Of course, that’s saying nothing of doing the quizzes that follow each video and can add up to a significant amount of time. Students often overlook this fact and are left scrambling to get through Chad’s Videos even just one time at increased speed. I’ve warned you!

One resource I have never seen recommended for DAT study before but I found helpful was my college chemistry text. I really enjoyed reading Zumdahl’s General Chemistry: An Atoms First Approach and thought that it did a great job of explaining just about everything you need to know for the DAT. If you like your college text then it may be a great way to brush up since you are likely familiar with it already. Otherwise, give the Zumdahl text a try and see if you find it as helpful as I did.

General Chemistry Tips

Have your acid–base chemistry down, and really understand how chemistry concepts are applied in the laboratory. Memorize every formula and equation that you can. I made flashcards with important numbers and did my best to ensure that I had as many equations and formulas memorized as possible. You will not have any reference materials with you. Things you take for granted like unit conversions will need to be firmly etched into your memory palace.

My general chemistry practice scores: I averaged around 24 on the DAT Bootcamp general chemistry practice exams. I scored 23 on the actual DAT.

Organic Chemistry

I scored a 21 on this section which is not a bad score. But as a former o-chem TA I should probably have done better. In hindsight I believe that I may have been overly confident with many of my answers. I could have probably benefited from being a bit more careful. So let me be your example that cockiness leads to ruin. Sort of…

Because I expected to do the best on this section, I used it to sacrifice some time for biology and general chemistry. This would be a good time to mention that you have 90 minutes to divide as you see fit over the three basic science subjects. If you have practiced and studied, 90 minutes should be plenty.

Organic chemistry is a difficult subject that few ever master. Moreover, the first and second semesters are so different from each other that they seem like almost entirely separate subjects. If I could go back in time, I would probably tell myself to spend more time on Chad’s Videos than I did.

Few people mention the Organic Chemistry as a Second Language handbooks, but I found them to be quite helpful when studying for the DAT. They can be overly simplistic at times, and they do not span the full array of possible reactions that you are bound to encounter. Don’t rely upon them exclusively, but use them as a great supplemental resource.

Don’t forget the lab!

It is very important that you understand common organic chemistry laboratory procedures because they just might crop up on the DAT! I had not yet taken the lab component, and I failed to study the lab procedures thoroughly as I assumed that they would not probably turn up on the exam. Boy was I wrong.

If you have to sacrifice some time to complete your studies, don’t let it be organic chemistry. Although it is not as broad a subject as biology, there is a lot to master and memorize. I spent three or four days memorizing Dr. Romano’s reaction charts in the DAT Destroyer using flashcards and writing them out from memory on my dry erase board. That is not enough time.

I went over the DAT Destroyer three times, and watched most of Chad’s Videos twice. I recommend watching Chad’s videos once at normal speed, and two additional times at increased speed for a total of three times. You should definitely watch all of the organic chemistry videos more than once.

Organic Chemistry Tips

I kept a whiteboard handy and wrote out all of my reactions in their entirety. When solving problems in the DAT Destroyer be sure to write down every step of a reaction and then compare it to what you find in the answer key at the back of the book. If your intermediates differ from the solution, or you skipped a step, make note of it and really try to learn from your mistakes.

Circle problems you get wrong and see if you get them wrong on subsequent passes. I should have done more of this myself. My score would almost certainly have been higher.

Don’t be afraid to write on the laminated scratch paper you are provided. You can use a bit of saliva (I know, gross) to erase anything you have written. In my case, I was nervous enough that my clammy hands were sufficient to clean my scratch paper!

My organic chemistry practice scores: I averaged around 26 on the DAT Bootcamp organic chemistry practice exams. I scored a 21 on the actual DAT.

In the next article of this series I cover the perceptual ability test.

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