GAMSAT Knowledge Vs Reasoning - Is It Changing?

After the latest sitting of the Gamsat once again student forums are filled with comments from students that the test was nothing like the ACER practice papers and that the test is changing.

As usual a large number of people are claiming that the test is now all about reasoning and any prior knowledge or studying didn't help them at all when they sat the test.

Some people find comfort in this.

After all it suits our naturally lazy nature to think that hours of studying science isn't really necessary after all.

But what's the truth on the Gamsat knowledge vs reasoning debate?

And has the test really changed that much?

Let's have a look...

I first wrote Griffiths Gamsat Review in 2005, the year I sat Gamsat myself, which means that I've been following the test and helping people pass it for 15 years now.

And one thing I can say with certainty is that EVERY SINGLE YEAR for the last 15 years people have been complaining that the test was nothing like the official ACER practice papers and that it is changing.

They were probably saying the same thing before I even got involved in the Gamsat universe.

Now if we took that at face value it would mean that in the last 15 years the test would have changed beyond all recognition and gone back to the original format two or three times in a row by now.

It doesn't really make sense.

So why do people keep saying that it's changing?

I believe that a psychological effect is at least partly in play here.

Sitting the test for real under intense pressure is nothing like completing practice papers at home, no matter how hard you try to recreate test conditions.

And when you see all those brand new questions it's easy to think that it's way harder or completely different to anything you've seen before...

Now I'm NOT saying that the Gamsat hasn't changed AT ALL in its 25 year history.

Over that time individual question writers employed by ACER will have come and gone.

New question writers may have a different style to the previous question writers.

Also let's not forget that a BIG CHANGE took place in 2011 when ACER took the step of disallowing the use of calculators in the test.

This inevitably led to a change in style of the new questions and no doubt the re-writing of many of the old questions.

But even if ACER did at some point make a conscious decision to make the questions more oriented towards reasoning rather than prior knowledge how much could the test realistically change?

Let's consider a few inescapable facts:

ACER Uses A Question Bank

When you sit Gamsat you aren't looking at a completely new set of questions every time.

Nearly all of those questions have been used before.

There are only a small number of new questions each year and they aren't scored, they are just being tested. And if they are assessed as being satisfactory they'll be added to the question bank for use in future sittings.

If not, they'll be discarded.

So you can immediately see that even if the nature of Gamsat was changing the process would by necessity be extremely slow. In fact it would most likely be imperceptible.

It certainly couldn't be dramatic enough for people to claim that the test has changed dramatically in any year nor even noticeable in a short timescale of a few years.

Maybe someone who sat the test 10 years ago might be able to notice the difference if they sat it again today.

But someone who sat it last year or in the previous two or three years wouldn't be able to notice anything.

Yes, maybe they got dramatically different types of questions this year.

But those questions will all have been used before in multiple previous sittings, probably going back years.

So while their subjective experience may be that the test is not consistent, from an objective stand point the test has not changed significantly.

Is GAMSAT Changing?

Knowledge Does Not Equal Memorisation

Back when I sat the test 15 years ago even then it was clear that the Gamsat was all about reasoning NOT memorized facts.

I had hardly any memorized information in my head (except for a huge number of equations... I explain why this is important in my course even though they give you the formulas you need in the question)

I made all my study (and to this day I advise my students to do the same) strictly question based.

That is I only studied what was necessary to perform calculations, solve problems etc and then practiced those skills over and over again.

Firstly with basic style chemistry or physics problems and then moving on to actual Gamsat practice questions.


I still needed to study the science to the level recommended by ACER to do be able to do that.

And this is important to remember...

The official ACER advice is and always has been to study chemistry and biology to first year degree level and physics to A level (or year 12 level).

And it would be a dangerous strategy indeed to attempt Gamsat without following the test creators' official advice.

However as stated above, when I say study I don't mean the way you studied at school which required memorising information, I mean studying to understand the topic and being able to solve problems, but this still requires study.

Understanding The Language Of The Problems

So yes Gamsat is a reasoning test.

This has always been the case. Gamsat uses the sciences as a medium through which it poses reasoning problems.

Imagine a chemistry question based on acids and bases...

Now maybe all the information required to solve the problem IS contained in the question stem.

But if you've never studied that topic before it'll be like reading a foreign language.

On the other hand if you've studied acids and bases inside out you'll whiz through that question stem and have extracted the information you need while the non-studier is still reading the first paragraph.

So your prior knowledge will definitely give you an edge.

It's important to understand this point because ACER has never said it is impossible to answer the questions without prior knowledge, nor have they said it is IMPOSSIBLE to do well in Gamsat without studying to the recommended level.

What they say is that without knowledge in the sciences "...success in Gamsat is UNLIKELY"

Which is logical because you're competing against everyone else to be in the top 20% and someone who has studied comprehensively has a better chance than someone who hasn't studied at all.

This is just common sense.

What About The New Practice Tests?

Back when I sat Gamsat there was only one official full length ACER Practice Test - the Green Book (although it was actually purple back then)

And some people complained it wasn't like the real test.

Then a few years later they released the second practice test, the Purple Book which presumably had some of the newer style questions in it.

And some people said neither of them were representative of the real test.

Then they released the even newer third practice test, the Pink Book...

And still some people said none of them are like the real test.

Now either ACER is committing a gigantic and monstrous fraud on thousands of students by deliberately selling for monetary gain question books which they know are not representative of the real test, or...

Gamsat is just an unpredictable test with a large question bank with widely varying questions, any of which could come up in any particular year.

How Many People Really Say Gamsat Has Changed?

Finally, let's acknowledge the fact that someone who has something to complain about will most likely have the loudest voice.

Someone who wants to moan about how hard Gamsat was is more likely to jump on a student or Reddit forum and start blabbing their mouth off.

The person who did well is more likely to just go and have a beer and move on with their life...

But if we pay attention we can see that not everyone agrees that Gamsat "is all just reasoning now"

Have a look at some of these comments I've found online about the latest sitting:

"..a lot of chemistry questions required knowledge that I did not have."
Gamsat isn't all reasoning
Gamsat isn't all reasoning
"..I found that just knowing some scientific concepts let me skip all the jargon and answer the question directly."
Gamsat Reasoning vs Knowledge
Gamsat Reasoning vs Knowledge
"..I've seen posts all over the web saying Gamsat is more of a logical reasoning test than what extent is this true?"
"Not so. Just sat the test last Monday. You need to be prepared for any and everything that S3 can throw at you.."
Gamsat Reasoning Section 3

In Summary

Gamsat has always been a reasoning test which also requires knowledge to do well.

People have been complaining about the official practice papers not being representative of the real test since the test began 25 years ago. It's likely that psychological phenomena plus the sheer size of the Gamsat question bank plays a role in this.

Objective data about how new questions are added to the test makes it unlikely that students could notice any significant change over the course of just a few years or in any specific year.

Even if all the information is supplied in a question to answer it with zero prior knowledge, a person with mastery of the topic will still have an advantage, even if it's just to answer it faster.

Play it safe and study to the level that ACER recommends - however this means gaining fluency in calculation type questions at that level, not memorising large blocks of information.

Many students who sat the latest sitting still recommend studying the science and say prior knowledge was required for many questions.

Gamsat is designed to be challenging and unpredictable. Don't be surprised if it surprises you!

Dr Peter Griffiths

Further Resources

For more help with GAMSAT check out Griffiths Gamsat Review Home Study System which takes you step by step through all three sections with advanced strategies for each.

Griffiths GAMSAT Review Home Study System
Griffiths GAMSAT Review Home Study System