The Critical Reading portion of the exam contains six short passages consisting of four to seven paragraphs and 500–600 words. Each passage pertains to natural science, social science, humanities, health, nutrition, medicine, or technology and an ethical, social, cultural, or political issue that affects it, either theoretically or in practice. The intent of the author may be to inform, persuade, or speculate, but usually the author’s tone remains roughly neutral due to the nature of the content. Subtle clues may indicate an author is for or against certain ideas, but these opinions will rarely be extreme.
Outside knowledge of each field is not required to answer questions correctly in this section, and the passages are meant to cover material you do not already know. Nevertheless, rough familiarity with the general vocabulary and writing style used in each field can build your confidence and speed you up on Test Day. Reading through recent editions of journals, such as the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association and Science, and magazines, such as National Geographic and Scientific American, will increase your familiarity with this type of material.
Each of the six passages will be accompanied by eight questions for a total of 48 questions per section. Because you will have 50 minutes total to complete this section, allot approximately eight minutes per passage: three minutes for reading the passage and five minutes for answering the eight questions. This will give you approximately 35 seconds per question. Neither every passage nor every question should take the same amount of time due to varying difficulty and length, so use these numbers as guidelines rather than hard rules.
Critical Reading questions are always about the corresponding passage. You are not necessarily looking for the answer choices that are the most factual but rather those that correspond best with the author and the passage. If you do have prior knowledge in a field, you must be careful not to apply that to the questions and instead only answer based on the information in the passage. Therefore, before you can tackle a Critical Reading question, you must read at least some of the corresponding passage. There are four things you really need to know about PCAT reading:
First, you’re not reading to learn anything. This is not information you need to carry with you for years, months, weeks, or even hours. You just need to use it in the next few minutes, and you will even be able to refer back to the passage when you need it.
Second, you’re not reading to remember anything. If you try to remember what you read, you’ll rely on memory—which is notoriously faulty—and your mind will be taken up with what you’re trying to remember. That’s not helpful. Your mind needs to be open and focused on the really important parts of the PCAT: the questions. Anything you think is important enough to remember will go on your map, which is discussed later in this chapter.
Third, you don’t need any outside knowledge or your own leaps of logic to read the passage well. All the correct answers are supported in the passage. As stated previously, if you use what you already know, you’ll be tempted to answer questions based on your own knowledge and not on the passage. That’s a classic way to choose wrong answers.
And fourth, you’re not reading to understand everything. After all, if there’s no question on the part you didn’t understand, it doesn’t matter anyway. So you’re not going to read and reread; you’re just going to keep moving ahead and let the questions determine what you need to reread.
Considering all these points together shows that reading on the PCAT is quite different from reading almost anything else. Therefore, how you approach PCAT passages should be different from how you read anything else. Don’t fall into the easy trap of approaching the passages as you would a novel or even a textbook; instead, read critically to set yourself up for success when you get to the questions. After all, answering those questions correctly is your primary goal on Test Day, so everything you do should directly serve that goal, including how you read.
The Passage Map
To make the most of your limited reading time, take quick notes on your noteboard as you finish reading each paragraph. These notes will make up your roadmap, a literal map of the passage that shows you where to look when you need to go back and find a specific detail. Forming a roadmap also helps guide your thought processes during your first pass. You can feel confident reading quickly and focusing on the big picture ideas while ignoring most of the details because you will know exactly where to look should the need for one of those details arise. Every passage map has four major components:
Topic: the author’s basic, broad subject matter, such as antibiotics, volcanoes, or the PCAT. The passages on the PCAT will be titled according to their Topics, so you should be able to ascertain this within the first five seconds of reading.
Scope: the specific aspect of the topic that is the focus of an individual paragraph. The scope shifts throughout the passage but always relates back to the topic. For example, if the topic of a passage is antibiotics, the paragraphs might have scopes of penicillins and cephalosporins, mechanisms , and side effects.
Tone: the author’s attitude toward the material at hand. Since PCAT passages are related to science topics, most authors attempt to maintain relatively neutral stances, but subtle clues can indicate if an author is positive, negative , or truly neutral toward the subject matter.
Purpose: the reason why the author wrote the passage or how he is trying to change your mind. The purpose is always a verb, such as to explain, evaluate, argue, or compare