After spending years in science classes and in the lab, it can be downright satisfying when the MCAT comes along and asks you questions that you learned in those settings. “What does aldosterone do? Why I’m glad you asked!” But then the MCAT writers had to ruin everything by including the verbal reasoning (VR) section. All that hard work means little when facing a passage about Impressionist Painters or the Deontological Theories of Immanuel Kant.

The huge variety of potential topics that can show up in VR can create the impression that it’s “impossible” to study for this section of the MCAT. And you know what? That’s right! You don’t study for the verbal section. You practice for it. Making that mental shift from study to practice brings with it a whole host of new ideas about how to prepare for success. So let’s start with a quick rundown of the basics.

Verbal Every Day.

First, you can’t cram practice. Getting ready for the verbal section is closer to preparing for a piano recital or a baseball game. That is, it depends on skills rather than knowledge. The only way to build up skills is through repeated daily practice.

Set a weekly schedule for yourself. Ideally you should complete at least two full 60 minute timed sections each week, and do one or two passages untimed the other days. It’s important to use a judicious mix of both timed and untimed work so that you can practice particular skills with a focus on accuracy, and then practice those same skills under the pressure of the clock.

Read, Read, and Read Some More.

Next, you’ll need to develop a habit of reading non-science material every day. One of the most popular suggestions is The Economist magazine. As exceptionally well-written as the magazine is, however, it can still fall short of the really challenging level of MCAT verbal content.

Instead, I recommend that students push themselves to read one of the most difficult things they’ll see on the MCAT: philosophy. There are lots of options here, but one of the simplest choices is to purchase an old used edition of the philosophy textbook Reason & Responsibility. You can find copies for just a couple of dollars on Amazon. This textbook includes selections of philosophical writing spanning several thousand years, and will really give your brain a strong verbal workout.

Set aside 45 minutes every day to read a chunk of text from that philosophy textbook, and as you read focus on one central task: identify the author’s main idea. Try to avoid getting bogged down in minute details and ask yourself, “Okay what is this person trying to convince me of?”

Find Your Best Method.

One of the hardest parts of good verbal prep is finding your best method. Most MCAT prep materials and prep companies will try to convince you that there’s one “right” way to approach the verbal section. This is, of course, nonsense. There are as many different ways to approach verbal as there are test takers. Since everyone’s brain works in its own unique way, you’ll need to invest time in finding a method that works best for you.

We could fill a textbook just analyzing this one part of verbal prep, but for the sake of brevity, let’s outline two factors for you to consider:

Factor #1: What Tools to Use?

  • Scratch Paper
    Some prep companies insist that the only right way to do verbal is to stop at the end of every paragraph and take notes. While this method has a lot of advantages, many students find they don’t necessarily like it. The only way to find out if you should adopt a note-taking approach is to try it out.As you practice, avoid taking a mechanistic approach. Don’t just stop at the end of every paragraph, regardless of the content of the paragraph. That’s wasteful of time and energy.

    Instead focus on writing down key ideas (logical connections) in a flowchart form. If you read a paragraph that’s just a bunch of supporting details, then don’t write anything down. That’s a waste. Keep reading until the author uses lots of keywords (thus, because, therefore, since) indicating ideas that are logically connected, sketch out some quick notes outlining those relationships. After all, they call it Verbal reasoning precisely because the questions will hinge on those logical connections.

  • The Highlighting FunctionThis can be tough, since the highlighter often has to do double-duty. You need to highlight names and dates so that you can find them quickly, but you also want to highlight a few key words to help summarize important ideas.

    In general, I advocate starting your VR practice by ignoring the scratch paper and focusing solely on learning how to effectively use the highlighter.

    In that regard, you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for three broad categories of ideas – the ideas that show up in the questions: Opinion, Contrast, and Cause-and-Effect.

    The key here is to avoid the typical mistake of “Oh I just highlight anything that seems important”. Instead, be selective and highlight as few words as possible. Be sure you can articulate to yourself why you’re choosing to highlight a word.

Factor #2: Where to Spend Your Time?

Broadly speaking there are three possible approaches. The only way to find “the best” is to do a ton of practice on each and see what works for you:

  • The Skimming Approach

    Some students find that when they do the questions, they feel absolutely compelled to go back to the passage over and over. They don’t feel comfortable answering a question unless they’ve looked up something in the passage.

    Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to break that habit. So instead of fighting a losing battle, we can accommodate that style of question-answering. We do that by learning how to skim the passage effectively. Aim to spend 60-90 seconds skimming the passage, thus leaving yourself 7 minutes or more to answer the questions very slowly and carefully.

  • The Slow, Careful Read Approach

    If you have an excellent working memory and really like to get a very thorough understanding of the passage, this may be the better approach for you (and I’ll admit it’s the one I use).

    Under this approach, you read the passage very carefully, often reading sentences two or three times. You develop a very strong understanding of the passage, allocating as much as 6-6.5 minutes of your time really “learning” the passage.

    Then, you fly through the questions. Never look anything up. Answer everything based on memory and your solid understanding of the passage.

  • The Balanced Approach

    This is where most students should start. You spend about 3.5-4 minutes on the passage and 4.5-5 minutes on the questions. I’d venture to say something like 75-85% of MCAT students are best served by this sort of approach.

    Ultimately, to find your best method, take an empirical approach. Don’t dismiss something out of hand just because it sounds silly. Start a spreadsheet where you track your performance and see what percentage of the questions you get right when you take different approaches.

Finally, and Most Importantly: Get Support!

It’s nearly impossible to succeed if you go it alone. In over a decade of working with MCAT students, the single biggest factor I’ve seen that distinguishes successful MCAT students from unsuccessful ones is simple: social support, usually in the form of a study group. Connect with people through your college campus, facebook, Student Doctor Network, or some other means to create the support that you’ll need to succeed.

Bryan Schnedeker is the National Director, in charge of MCAT tutors and curriculum development at Next Step Test Preparation. to learn more go to nextsteptestprep.com.
This article was published in the May/June 2014 issue of PreMedLife Magazine.