A stack of opened books with hand with red pen on top

3 Ways to Build Critical MCAT Skills in Everyday Life

Practice drawing conclusions from unfamiliar data in classes to nab a high score on the MCAT.

A stack of opened books with hand with red pen on top

Outline and identify main themes and arguments in college reading material to prepare for analyzing persuasive writing passages on the MCAT. 

By + More

The content and format of the MCAT, the medical school admissions exam, make it unique among admissions exams. It requires a specific skill set for success. These skills may or may not overlap with what you typically develop through college course work, so it’s important to identify them early on and take steps to build them in your college life as you prepare for the MCAT.

There are three key skills you should cultivate in order to score well on the MCAT, along with ways you can work on them in your everyday life.

[Learn how to create a manageable MCAT prep calendar.]

1. Turn to science courses to understand data analysis: The physical and biological sciences sections of the exam will have a majority of passage-based questions. Often, these passages will present an experiment with supporting data with questions asking what that data ultimately means.  

Build your ability to draw conclusions from data by taking general chemistry, organic chemistry and biology lab courses at your university before taking the MCAT. These courses should expose you to scientific methodology, data collection and critical appraisal of data. Be sure to solidify these fundamental skills during the courses so that when it comes time to take the MCAT, you are well versed in them.

One former client I worked with saw his score for the biological sciences section plateau on practice exams after weeks of preparation. He was able to move his score an average of three points higher by spending a few weeks reading a paper from The New England Journal of Medicine each day to gain a better understanding of how conclusions are drawn from data.

He also brushed up on basic statistical principles, like the t-test and chi-squared analysis to better understand what those conclusions actually mean. 

[Avoid making these common MCAT test-day mistakes.]

2. Practice efficient reading in college courses:  All three sections of the MCAT are timed, and will put pressure on you to quickly read, comprehend and apply information in the presented passages. The question stems on the exam can be several sentences long, and reading them can take up valuable time.

It is paramount for you to be able to not only read quickly, but also efficiently. This means being able to identify key parts of the passages or question stems accurately without getting bogged down by irrelevant details.

For example, a biological sciences passage describing an experiment that examined the effects of different hormones on kidney function may include several introductory paragraphs describing normal kidney function. Prepared students will likely know this information already and can save time by skimming through the background material and moving on to the paragraphs detailing the different experiments.

[Get advice on how to prepare for the MCAT as a premed student.]

3. Parse persuasive writing: Many MCAT questions can be answered simply by understanding the overall theme and tone of the corresponding passage.

For example, a passage in the verbal reasoning section may discuss the merits of developing the nation’s science museums, with an overall positive tone toward museums. Several of the questions might only have one answer choice that exhibits a positive tone about museums. Thus, the correct answer would be the choice that correlates with the overall tone of the passage.

Many questions will ask you about conclusions based on the main theme of a passage, so identifying the theme is key. This skill requires you to be able to identify the overarching main idea of a passage.

Practice doing this by reading essays, news stories, editorials, opinion pieces or blog posts where the author is trying to put across a certain point and persuade the reader. Try to read one piece per day while you’re preparing for the MCAT to continuously improve this skill.

For college course work, try creating succinct outlines of study material. Write out the main argument of your assigned reading, and then catalog the concrete details or facts that support this argument.

Incorporating outlines into daily study helped one of my former clients boost her verbal reasoning score two points on practice exams. Her ability to identify the tone of a passage was bolstered, and this proved extremely useful when she encountered passages on test day about unfamiliar subjects.