MCAT Verbal Reasoning Tips: What to Focus On in Passages

October 25, 2012
Alex Macnow

I recently received an email from one of my Kaplan MCAT students:

Hey Alex, I have been doing practice exams and I am still a little confused on the most effective way on how to go about handling the Verbal Reasoning section. I have found out that it is near impossible for me to fully read the passage and answer the questions for each passage and have time for all the passages. Is there a more effective way to read each passage and understand them so that I have time to read each passage and answer all the questions?

So I figured I’d recap some of my advice and hopefully help you boost those Verbal scores.  Let me drive home one super-important point:

Verbal requires diligent preparation, advanced critical thinking skills, and an attention to both the “forest” and the “trees” (pardon the cliché).  And studying requires time, practice, and very active review of your practices exams for patterns.

Recognize that you’ll never be able to read every word and understand the whole passage and answer the questions in the time required.  After having done … well … definitely over 1000 Verbal Reasoning passages in my life, I still definitely can’t read, comprehend, and answer everything in the time.  That’s why, strategically, there are certain things you are looking for.  Be comfortable with this!  (I know that’s easier said than done).

Remember that the majority of questions will boil down to one of a few concepts:

  • How does this author structure their passage?  You have to know why any individual paragraph is there, and know that the purpose of the other information in that paragraph is likely to support the main idea of the paragraph!  It is important, as a skill, to think about structure because when passages deviate from the expected structure there are likely points to be gained in your score (they’re going on and on about advantages of something, and … never mention disadvantages?  That’s odd!  They must be biased.).
  • What is the author’s opinion?  And — for that matter — if they mention other sources, what are their opinions?  Opinion is always rich with opportunities for questions, of all different types
  • What are the author’s biases?  Similar to the opinion, but you have to judge how neutral (or fair) they are.  A whole passage defending a painter’s decline in status, for example, is filled with biases, opinions, etc. and you have to keep them straight!
  • What is the significance of such a passage?  The MCAT likes people who challenge the status quo.  That’s why “traditional” views are often refuted and “new” views are touted.

This is a lot to focus on, outside of what the words are actually saying.  But the point here is that focusing on the structure of the passage and understanding the author’s opinion will help you detect what is important.  Remember — rhetorical questions (filled with opinion, and an interesting structural technique) are goldmines for MCAT questions.  And they tend to be easy to understand.  If something doesn’t seem key to the structure, or doesn’t seem full of opinion (maybe quoting statistics, or what just appears to be convoluted filler text) is unlikely to be important.

What else have you found helpful for preparing for Verbal Reasoning on your MCAT?

Alex Macnow

Alex Macnow I graduated from Boston University with a BA in Musicology and am currently a fourth year in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. I took Kaplan to prep for my MCAT. After such a great experience with my course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to teach and tutor hundreds of pre-health students for the MCAT, DAT, OAT and PCAT in both our Boston – Haymarket and Philadelphia Kaplan Centers. I am one of the Content Managers for Kaplan's new MCAT 2015 course. When I’m not preparing for residency or teaching MCAT, I enjoy playing classical piano, exploring new cuisines and traveling on road trips.

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