Verbal Reasoning on the MCAT        

The Limitations of Magic Systems for Verbal Reasoning

With the mountain of studying you have ahead of you in the sciences, it's easy to neglect preparing for the Verbal Reasoning section in MCAT preparation. Many students can become intimidated by this portion of the exam and put off working in this area until it is too late to get much improvement. Verbal reasoning questions can seem like a kind of code generated by a puzzle master, and the test-prep companies perpetuate this idea, frankly, because if there is a secret code, there must be a secret key. We will be doing our share of categorizing questions and sharing tips and tricks in this course. To study the test is good advice, but I hope you will place your greatest faith in strengthening your reading ability, by which I mean the ability to concentrate and to engage attentively and critically with another person's ideas as they are presented to you in writing.

Here is one 'secret' that is easily worth two points on the exam if you can fully internalize its meaning. Try to imagine I am a friend telling you something important, and listen carefully. Here is the big secret. Every verbal reasoning passage was written by an actual person for an audience. They weren't creating a puzzle but trying to communicate ideas. If you can actually suppose for a moment that you were the one it was written for, that the passage was written to communicate to you, it will be a natural response for you to give your full attention and apply the kind of sophisticated mechanisms to interpretation that you naturally, give, say a friend's words who is telling you something important, and you will understand much more of what you read without struggling so much. Try to hear the voice in the writing. Too many students read the passages as if they were a code to decipher, like they were watching strangers interact through a periscope, and they miss the voice. Try to picture the writer. Is it an auburn haired lady with glasses? Maybe a tweedy, avuncular fellow with patches on his sleeves. Read with interest. When you hear the voice, listen carefully. Try to picture the author as a real person, not just because the questions will be at the end of the passage, but because that is communication, and communication is the essence. You are precisely the person the passage was written for. Your opinions are being directly addressed. Listen to the human voice in the writing and you will comprehend the main idea of the passage and its subtleties much more intuitively than if you try to decode it like a puzzle.

The Two-Fold Approach to Verbal Reasoning

This is not to say that it's wise to ignore test-taking strategies and tricks for Verbal Reasoning. Actually, such things can be very beneficial. It is useful to study the Verbal Reasoning section as a form in its own right with its own rules, because, if you think about it, there is another writer that matters in addition to the author of the passage. This is the author of the questions, the MCAT writer.

In everyday life, when you read a novel or an editorial in the newspaper, your mind works on many levels to interpret the intentions of the author. There is the expressive dimension of the writing. Then there is the face-value within the field of reference, as well as the aesthetic dimension. Likewise there are dimensions to the verbal reasoning, multiple-choice question, and it is to your benefit to explore the MCAT question as a form in its own right. Unlike the author of passage, who is trying to communicate, the author of the questions has a different agenda, to find out how strong a reader you are, and we can decode their methods by not only being a strong reader of MCAT passages but a strong reader of the questions too. We will approach the art of question writing as if we ourselves were apprentices of the test-writing guild. What are the different types of questions and how is the selection of answer choices created. How is the 'best' answer created? How about the 'second best' answer? Let us discuss the types of questions on the Verbal Reasoning section of the MCAT.

The Five Kinds of Verbal Reasoning Questions

Although there are exceptions, almost all Verbal Reasoning questions fall into one of five categories:

Main Idea
These are general questions dealing with the cardinal issues of the passage. Main idea questions are designed to see if you grasped the central theme of the passage as a whole. Typical question prompts of main idea questions are the following:

The passage as a whole suggests that the author believes that . . .

Which of the following would be the best title for the passage?

The author's main purpose of the passage is to . . .

Author's Tone
This type of general question asks whether you understood the author's point of view on the subject of the passage. These questions are often the most subtle. Is the author being critical or supportive. Is their tone objectively neutral or biased and partisan? The differences among the answer choices in tone questions can sometimes be hard to tease out. Prompts for tone questions will be similar to the following:

The author's attitude toward his subject is one of . . .

Which of the following characterizes the author's likely intended audience?

The tone of the passage might best be described as . . .

Thematic Extension
These questions are in the same family with the Main Idea or Tone questions, which deal with the passage as a whole, but Thematic Extension questions ask you to take the author's argument or point of view and draw a conclusion about another subject or derive a broader proposition. These questions have prompts that look like the following:

How would the author of the passage respond to . . .

Which of following would the author probably recommend in a situation where . . .

It can be inferred from the passage that . . .

Specific Inference
These questions will identify a specific section of the passage and ask for an interpretation that goes a little deeper than the explicit reference, asking you to read 'between the lines'. These questions are often about judging the shade of meaning the author puts on a word within a specific context. Typical question prompts often including phrasing such as:

The author uses the term ____ in line ## to mean . . .

Lines ## - ## imply that the author . . .

The author brings up the example of ____ in order to . . .

Facts & Information
On one level these questions are a test for your retention of specific facts or concepts stated in the passage. However, on another level, they are a test of how well you synthesized and retained the organization and flow of the passage. This is because often the process of answering this kind of question involves returning to the passage to find the information. Typical prompts include phrasing such as:

The author states that . . .

According to the passage, who was the first person to ever . . .

Which of the following does the author claim . . .

The understanding of these five types will be a touchstone for our approach to the test. We will return to them again and again. Each type of question has its own 'tricks' and tendencies, and as the modules progress you will come to recognize them by second nature. By systematically approaching the analysis of your performance in terms of these five types, you will be able to analyze your strengths and weaknesses more easily. This gives us the basis to improve your Verbal Reasoning test-taking skill in a methodical way.

Become a Stronger Reader

Students who have always done extremely well in college can be surprised when they find out how difficult it is to earn a high score on the Verbal Reasoning section of the MCAT. This is especially true for students who have devoted the majority of their undergraduate career to studying science. Climbing to the superior ranges in MCAT Verbal Reasoning is difficult. You are competing against humanities majors and they start out as stronger readers because they have been practicing. Spending four years tackling Joyce or Proust has a way of making the reading comprehension challenges of the MCAT seem a bit easier. Reading difficult works will make you a stronger reader. You will be surprised at how this is possible in just a matter of months. Just as your muscles become stronger if you regularly work out with weights, your brain increases its power for reading if you take on a serious reading life. To help you become a better reader, an important part of this Learning Program will be to spend every week in the course reading difficult and interesting works. Don't neglect your reading each week! It will be hard to stick with this part of the program. There is always the endocrine system to learn or organic mechanisms to study, but if you can be disciplined about this, it will pay off for you, not only in a higher score in Verbal Reasoning but in the development of an important source of enjoyment that will enrich your life. Becoming a stronger reader will enrich your life!

I am presenting three alternatives in this course for your reading program, and you can pick and choose to your preference, as long as you read from a variety of genres. Firstly, you will find links to public domain works in PDF format within the syllabus, which you can download and read. A second option would be to choose from the websites below and regularly visit them. Thirdly, you might choose to keep a small library of nonfiction works as your companions in MCAT preparation, actual physical books, which you can retreat to a few hours each week for interest and enjoyment with permission from your MCAT course. What is important is that you read serious, difficult non-fiction from a variety of genres, devoting at least three hours each week. Doing this over the course of this learning program will improve your performance on Verbal Reasoning. Here are a few websites which would be useful in this way. This list does not include everything qualified for this role:

The New York Review of Books

The Atlantic

The New Yorker

The Economist

Foreign Affairs

Crooked Timber

Marjorie Perloff - Selected Essays

Inside Higher Education



Renaissance Forum


100 Best Nonfiction - Modern Library

You might consider choosing out a half dozen books to spend your weekly reading with during MCAT preparation. Even though the MCAT verbal reasoning is on the computer, a physical book is a kind of pleasure. Whether you do your weekly reading on websites, from the PDF downloads in the syllabus, or from serious nonfiction works you select yourself, what is most important is that you do it. Read materials varied in genre and difficulty. Finishing a book every few weeks, over a period of months, your sense of tone, theme, and point-of-view will become stronger and stronger. You will become a much more powerful reader.

Below are the 100 Best Nonfiction books written in the last century, according to the Modern Library. Although not every work here is ideal, overall this represents a very good selection from which to choose if you would like some physical books for your weekly reading. Taking time away from studying science to read interesting and engaging works each week will not only help your score, it will help you keep your balance while you are doing everything else preparing for the MCAT entails.

Although you can order these works from Amazon through the links below, remember that most of the following works can also be found in your local library!

Module 1

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