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Best Methods to Improve your MCAT Verbal Reasoning (VR) Score

Created September 12, 2012 by Karen van Hoek, PhD

For many aspiring medical students, the Verbal Reasoning section of the MCAT represents a real challenge. It’s different in style and tone from the other sections of the MCAT, and in fact different from any other verbal test. Strategies that work well on other tests can be worse than useless on the MCAT Verbal Reasoning (VR). Getting a stellar score will require taking a different approach than you are used to taking on other ‘reading comprehension tests’– it may even require rethinking some of your basic assumptions about how to take a test.

It is not an exaggeration to say that performing your best on this section is likely the most important part of the MCAT experience. Schools weigh it more, possibly because it mirrors many aspects of the experience of hearing patients’ stories, evaluating the evidence for and against a diagnosis, and assessing the logic behind a particular plan for treatment. You need to develop skills to put together clues, follow a complex argument, and tell the difference between a reasonable inference and an illogical jump to conclusions. If VR passages strike you as annoyingly convoluted and the authors difficult to follow, remember that in real life, the patient stories you’re likely to encounter will be equally convoluted. The patient may well be too distracted by illness to worry about presenting things in precisely the way that you would prefer, and you may have to contend with language barriers, time pressures, and the difficulties of assessing other doctors’ opinions and recommendations as well.

To perform well on this section, it helps a great deal if you understand what the MCAT VR is and isn’t testing. Primarily, it’s testing your ability to understand, analyze and evaluate an argument whose key points are not always easy to identify. The passages have been selected and/or edited so that you have to read carefully to understand how the points hang together. More than that, you have to listen to the writer’s “voice” — attend to often-subtle clues signaling attitude, priorities, and objectives. This is a very different task than taking in and analyzing facts laid out in an obvious, logical way, as they are in other standardized tests, such as the SAT, GRE, GMAT and LSAT. Many students preparing for the MCAT initially feel confused and even disoriented by the strangeness of the VR — and this is no doubt another one of its purposes, as this section of the test measures your ability to bring all your skills of concentration and reasoning to bear even when you’re feeling uncertain.

The special qualities of the VR mean that some common test-taking strategies are useless and can even lower your score significantly. Taking notes, for example, or sketching out an outline or map of the passage – for most test takers, these are time-wasting activities that primarily serve only to distract from the crucial task of fully engaging with the passage and listening for clues to the author’s agenda. Busywork strategies may give students the comforting feeling that they’re “doing something”, but our experience has shown that when students stop taking notes, doodling diagrams, or reaching for the highlighting button every few seconds, their scores almost invariably go up. The bottom line is that the VR relies on different skills than those that serve students well in other contexts, and the only road to success is to approach the VR on its own terms.

Though in a sense we’re advising you to “just read it,” we realize that it isn’t quite that simple. We understand that there are many common, heavily reinforced reading habits that impede one’s ability to perform one’s best on this section. We’re often asked to identify the habits that most need to be changed in order to get a good score on the VR. The worst habit we see regularly is, perhaps surprisingly, reading as if one were reading for a test: looking for facts, paying careful attention to details, trying to “get a handle on the material” as if one expects to be quizzed. “Well, it is a test,” you may object. “How else are we supposed to read it?” Ideally? Read it the same way you would read a challenging but fascinating magazine article. You wouldn’t be trying to memorize facts or thinking in terms of preparing for a quiz; you’d be deeply absorbed in following the author’s points, doing your best to understand the development of the ideas. If the author made a sudden leap in logic, you wouldn’t be thinking about whether you’ll be able to answer the questions; you’d be thinking, “Wait a minute, how did he get to that idea?” or “That’s pretty interesting, but does she have any evidence or is this just her opinion?”

This strategy means engaging with the text on multiple levels at once: attentive to details, but with a seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees strategy, engaging with the text in the same way that you’d participate as an active, attentive listener in a conversation with a friend. When listening to a friend in person, or when reading emails or texts, we pick up on clues to “voice”, and intuitively search for clues to attitude, underlying concerns and overall agenda. This is the same kind of dynamic-yet-comprehensive reading that is required for best-performance methods on this test. VR passages go better when you read them as if you were sincerely interested: when you engage with the author, listen to what he has to say, evaluate the argument in terms of whether you’re persuaded or whether the evidence is scanty — not because you’re thinking about your need to pass a test but because you want to connect, however briefly, with the ideas put forth by another human being. Our experience has shown us that the ability to slip into this mindset is a learnable skill, and that students perform far better on the test when they approach it in this way.

Because the VR is about following and evaluating arguments, identifying the author’s attitude and understanding why he or she telling you something is generally more important than grasping any particular fact. In fact, even if you’re quite confused on the details, if you understand enough to pick up on the author’s attitude and purpose, you’re off to a great start. Suppose you confront an MCAT passage that begins like this:

The recent spate of research papers on the geosyncline hypothesis, originally developed by paleontologists in connection with the “contracting earth” model of geological formation, may give the casual observer the erroneous impression that the hypothesis has enjoyed a resurgence. Some commentators, ever alert for a hot controversy to fill the pages of popular science journals, speculate that the hypothesis may present a renewed challenge the more recent and widely-accepted theory of subduction zones and continental collisions. A closer look at the literature should suffice to temper one’s sense of excitement. The empirical studies reported in these rather scantily-researched studies cluster around a relatively narrow set of minor questions and thus re-open only a very limited portion of the original controversy.

How do you read a paragraph like that? You might think the most important thing is to get a grip on the technical terms that seem to describe what it’s all about – words like “geosyncline” and “subduction.” But do you know what those words mean? Probably not. Does that matter? Possibly not at all. If you found yourself stumped by the technical terminology and felt that you didn’t understand the paragraph, go back and read it again. This time, focus only on any clues you can find pertaining to the author’s attitude and agenda. If you look at the passage from that point of view, you will find that you actually understand quite a bit. You can see that the author is saying that there have been a few publications (“a recent spate…”) about the geosyncline hypothesis. You know that some people seem to think that it is going to challenge another, widely accepted theory. You know that this author thinks that the “controversy” is a lot of hype (“the erroneous impression that the hypothesis has enjoyed a resurgence,” “…a hot controversy to fill the pages of popular science journals”) and that the papers supporting the geosyncline hypothesis don’t have a lot of research backing them up (“scantily-researched studies”) and aren’t addressing any major questions (“a relatively narrow set of minor questions”). What can you expect that the rest of the passage will be about? Most likely, the author intends to point out the limited relevance of the geosyncline hypothesis and how little support there is for it; it’s reasonable to suspect that the author will also talk about how all of the facts reported in the new studies can be explained using the more widely-accepted theory. Understanding these clues to the author’s attitude and agenda is far more important than actually knowing technical details, like what “geosyncline” or “subduction” means.

So if common test-taking strategies don’t seem to be working for you on the MCAT VR, don’t bang your head against the wall. Instead, try some of the many ways to engage more deeply with each text, adopting the perspective that you’re actually interested in what each author has to say. If you’re able to tap into your desire and enthusiasm for becoming a doctor and bring it to bear on this process, your rewards will be manifold: on the test, in medical school…and in your career as a doctor.

© 2012 Test Prep New York

Karen van Hoek, PhD, is head Verbal Specialist for Test Prep New York. She holds a PhD in Cognitive Linguistics, is a former professor at the University of Michigan (and elsewhere), co-creator of TPNY’s MCAT Verbal Reasoning Intensive course and co-author of MCAT VR book scheduled for publication in 2013.

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