Let's get practical about studying for the MCAT verbal section!
The MCAT verbal section is often seen as the trickiest section of the exam, especially for those of us who haven’t necessarily taken a ton of verbal-type classes in college. The content in the science parts is hard, but at least there seems to be some method of approaching the passage and the questions, and an easy way to study. With some practice and some strategy, it’s possible to make the verbal section slightly more intuitive and less scary on the actual exam.
It’s no surprise that the best way to become more comfortable with verbal questions is by doing more of them. The ExamKrackers Verbal Reasoning practice test book is widely recognized as being one of the best practice materials out there. It provides a long list of practice passages, set up in ‘test-size’ sections, so you can (and should) get your hands on a copy and try to work through one test a week leading up to your exam.
Action step: Get your hands on practice verbal sections, and do them!
2) Analyze your mistakes.
People are often tripped up by the same types of questions, so identifying your mistakes early will allow you to be extra careful on those types of questions. Use those analytical scientific skills to pick out exactly the kinds of questions that you repeatedly miss.
Action step: For example, if you know that you have a tendency to pick the ‘obvious’ definition on questions that ask “What does the author mean by the word “blank” in Line 29?”, you can make a mental note to check yourself and ask ‘am I thinking outside the box enough for this question?’ whenever you get one of those.
3) Develop your own strategy.
Often, we like to start our students off with the strategy of reading the first paragraph (to give yourself context) of a passage, then going through and reading all of the questions to have the question stems in your brain, and then going back and finishing the rest of the passage, looking specifically for the pieces of information you saw in the questions. For some people, this works great! Others, however, may feel like it takes them too much time, or allows them to lose their chain of thought between the questions and passages.
Your strategy on this section will probably be different than it is on the science section, but try out different things on your earlier practice tests, and then pick one. It’s important to stick with a strategy eventually -- you don’t want to keep switching tactics until you’re a couple of weeks before your exam and not truly comfortable with your approach. If you need help picking or evaluating a strategy, reach out to a tutor!
Action step: Do enough practice to learn what works for you! Pick an order to read the passages and answer the questions, and monitor your time and accuracy; ultimately, you want to pick the strategy that optimizes both.
4) All of the information will be in the passage!
This is probably the biggest difference between the science sections of the MCAT and the verbal section. ALL of the information you need will be right there on the page. Don’t try to overthink it and bring in outside knowledge, or even your own personal feelings on the subject - look for the most obvious answers that are presented directly in the passage. It’s often said that the MCAT Verbal section is about picking answers that are ‘most right’ or ‘least wrong.’ You might be able to justify another answer from outside reasons, but based on the passage, there will only be one right answer!
The verbal section is daunting for almost everyone, but with the right practice and approach, it is just as doable as the rest of the exam! Make sure to pick and stick with a strategy, and to not stray from the information and viewpoints that are presented in the passage.
For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our MCAT tutors: How is the MCAT Changing in 2015, Getting over Test Day Nerves for the MCAT, Q&A with the Director of Harvard’s MD/MBA Program. Looking to work with Emily Leven? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.