MCAT Tutor: Why Writing is the Most Important MCAT Skill of All

Posted by John Denning on 10/13/14 9:30 AM


The AAMC content outline for the MCAT comprises an exhaustive list of topics. After all, it probably took you two years of physics and chemistry and biology classes to cover the material the first time around, and it’s natural to want to prioritize to get the most out of your MCAT prep. So what is the single most important college course for acing the MCAT? Your freshman year writing and rhetoric requirement.

Surprised? The truth is, more than any other single skill, the MCAT seeks to test your critical thinking. It presents new information in a short passage, then asks you to analyze the text. Whether a particular question requires you to bring in outside knowledge or not, strengthening your reading comprehension will improve your overall score for every passage-based question throughout all three sections.

Now if you haven’t read anything that wasn’t a textbook since you fulfilled your core requirements, don’t panic. While your physical and biological science prep work has you reviewing the content, your practice with verbal passages will be refreshing the humanities lessons you might have forgotten to make room in your brain for 101 organic chemistry reactions. All you need to get started are a few basic pointers for academic writing:

1) Remember—a human being actually wrote this thing

The passages for the verbal section of every AAMC test are edited versions of real publications. This is the most important realization going in. It means that many of the verbal passages you see can be broken down at least partially using the standard format for academic papers. There are always exceptions, but this is a great place to start.

2) Thesis statements come first

Often your author’s thesis will appear in the first paragraph. Find it, note it, highlight it, paraphrase it, offer to buy it dinner. Questions related to the author’s thesis are among the most common in the verbal section, so keep a close eye on that first paragraph when you get started reading.

3) Everybody loves a segue

Many verbal passages contain an argument the author is interested in exploring. Without organizing his or her thoughts, there can be no logical progression. You’ll see new ideas show up at the start of many paragraphs and transition sentences or summaries show up at the end. When doing practice passages, try a few where you highlight just the first and last sentence of each paragraph, and see how often nearly all the answers to the questions can be found in only those locations.

4) One idea at a time

Related to the previous point, the passage will often be arranged with each major point presented in its own paragraph. Another common question on the MCAT will direct you to a specific portion of the argument, and recognizing how the passage breaks down into these points can help you concentrate on the right area to find a timely answer.

5) The answer is written for you

You are all smarter than the MCAT. You know way more information than what is relevant to the test, and that is probably going to be the source of your most common mistakes. If any part of your justification for a verbal answer comes from personal knowledge, you’ve gone too far. When considering an answer choice, the proof must always come from the passage. This is a good thing! It means that unlike all that stuff we memorized for other sections, the sum total of knowledge we need to concern ourselves with for verbal is on the page in front of us.

They say the best way to improve your verbal score is practice, practice, practice. This is true, but don’t just fill out your review book cover to cover without regular assessment of your strategy. Any test of your critical thinking includes analyzing how you study for it. As a longtime MCAT tutor in New York, this is what I've found to be the crucial rule: keep asking yourself why you got the right answers as well as the wrong ones and you’ll be ready for anything on test day.

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Tags: MCAT