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Prepare for the MCAT Verbal Reasoning Section

The MCAT's verbal reasoning section is about understanding and analyzing passages, not remembering specific facts. 

A young student studying and reading

The verbal reasoning section covers a variety of topics including quantum physics and art history, so practice for MCAT passages by reading and comprehending unfamiliar material. 

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Many premedical students consider the verbal reasoning section of the MCAT to be the most difficult section of the exam because they have often had little college course work directly applicable to this section. Furthermore, preparation for this section often seems nebulous.

Though verbal reasoning isn’t fundamentally rooted in science, it does require rapid comprehension, assessment and application of new material, which is something physicians must do daily. This makes it just as important as other MCAT sections to medical school admissions committees around the country.

Verbal reasoning consists of 40 questions associated with passages and it must be completed in one hour. Passage content involves the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. There are three elements to preparing well for the verbal reasoning section of the MCAT.

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1. Be well-read: Reading is one of the best ways to prepare for the verbal section. This may seem intuitive, but premed students are often stuck reading only material for science-based courses.

To be truly well-read and prepare for the verbal section, make an effort to branch out and read different types of literature. Reading the news is especially helpful as it significantly expands your vocabulary. Reading magazines, novels, editorials, plays and other forms of writing also help build your comfort level with different topics.

Additionally, try reading some articles from well-established medical journals, such as The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, to get familiar with the style used in research manuscripts. This will help you on all sections of the exam.

Use these sources to expand your vocabulary and understanding of the world. The MCAT can present passages covering topics ranging from quantum physics to civil rights to art history, so gaining comfort with reading unfamiliar material is crucial. Also realize that most questions on the verbal section require you to fully understand the overall message and theme of the passage, rather than just the individual details.

When reading different pieces, it’s not important to memorize small details and nuances. Rather, use reading as an opportunity to delve into a new topic and come away with a big picture understanding. Remember that the goal shouldn't be to know everything, but to be able to understand anything you read.

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 2. Consult several sources for verbal section strategies. As you work through your preparation material, you will undoubtedly encounter a handful of testing strategies that are claimed to be the best. In reality, these strategies have varying outcomes for different people.

Some resources advocate reading all the question stems before reading the passage so you can focus your reading. Several students have issues with this strategy because it can be difficult to understand the questions out of context and students will often waste time trying to understand the stems. For others, this strategy works great because they’re comfortable skimming question stems quickly and then thoroughly reading the relevant portions of the passage.

Experiment with several different strategies from different sources, such as books, tutors, friends or mentors. See which strategies give you the results you want. Again, keep in mind the overall goal with these different strategies is to fully understand the take-home message of the passage.

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3. Complete timed practice sections: The verbal section is usually considered the fastest section of the MCAT. Students often get a lower score because they end up running out of time before attempting many of the questions at the end.

The best way to build your speed and accuracy is to do as many practice questions as you can in a timed setting. Be sure to strictly simulate the timing you’ll have during the exam.

Initially, you may not get to many questions at the end of the section – but with practice using the strategies that work best for you, you should get faster at reading, comprehending and applying the information in the passage. Take note of which strategies give you better results than others and then practice using those strategies over and over to master them in different contexts.

The key element to finishing on time is finding a balance between skimming and thorough reading that works for you, which can only be determined through repeated practice.