The MCAT Writing Assignment (no longer on the exam as of 2013)
The MCAT requires you to think and write critically. Let's take a moment to look at a typical example of MCAT essay instructions. Every MCAT writing assignment follows the same basic format. The instructions consist of a prompt followed by three tasks:
States are not moral agents, people are, and people can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.
Write a unified essay in which you perform the following tasks. Explain what you think the above statement means. Describe a specific situation in which institutions shape the moral standards of people. Discuss what you think determines the relationship between the individual conscience and the institutions of society.
A good MCAT essay is NOT a five paragraph theme
Almost every American high school student learns how to write five paragraph themes. In secondary school we learn that the basic short essay should be organized in the following five paragraph structure: 1. Introduction 2. Body Paragraph 3. Body Paragraph 4. Body Paragraph 5. Conclusion. The five paragraph theme is supposed to be a tool for beginning writers to master and then move on. But it's often very difficult for college students to break out of the five-paragraph mode. Over the years teaching my MCAT course, I have often noticed that the five paragraph theme is deeply ingrained with many premedical students, especially students who have spent the majority of their undergraduate careers tackling the hard sciences, and who have not done much writing at the college level. There seems to be a tendency to fall back on the five paragraph theme, to try to succeed on the MCAT essay with the form.
The problem is the MCAT is asking you to deliver critical writing, not the 'say what you're gonna say; say it; say what you said' of five paragraph themes. In critical writing, the ideas develop organically, but the five paragraph theme discourages strong connections between the ideas in the essay. Almost invariably, what students learn to write is some version of "We can see [thesis] through Example A, Example B, Example C," with the paragraphs about A, B, and C connected to each other with a string of "Also"s or "Moreover"s. In theory, you could use the five-paragraph template to come up with a critical essay whose body paragraphs go like this: "Let's take Point A as a premise (and here's why A is a reasonable starting point). Now, if we examine the assumptions behind A, we can see that B follows from it. However, we may not realize that we should also consider C (but here's why we should)." That would be critical writing because the ideas are developing.
Another problem with the five paragraph theme is that it encourages students to write the dullest, most formulaic introductions and conclusions ever. Students recognize how dreary it is to write a conclusion that restates everything that's been said in the introduction, but they've been taught over and over again to begin their last paragraphs with "In conclusion, this essay has shown that [insert slightly reshuffled sentences from introduction]." Why go through the process of writing if you're going to end up at the same place you began?
Writing a Critical MCAT Essay
Here's another MCAT writing assignment:
The distribution of wealth in society should only reflect the free transactions of individuals not government policy.
Write a unified essay in which you perform the following tasks. Explain what you think the above statement means. Describe a specific situation in which other factors besides individual economic activity should possibly influence the distribution of wealth in society. Discuss what you think should determine the distribution of economic benefits in society.
Every MCAT Essay has the same three basic assignments.
1. Describe the point of view of the statement.
2. Investigate a point of view critical of the statement.
3. Find a deeper insight or overall reconciliation.
The three basic tasks of the MCAT essay represent a classic rhetorical figure of critical philosophy, the dialectical progression from thesis, to antithesis, to synthesis. In the history of ideas, the dielectic has been the basis of grandly totalizing philosophical systems. For the purposes of writing MCAT essays, the dialectic describes the progression of ideas in a critical thought process that is the force driving your argument. A good dialectical progression propels your arguments in a way that is satisfying to the reader.
- The thesis is an intellectual proposition.
- The antithesis is a critical perspective on the thesis.
- The synthesis solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths, and forming a new proposition.
Thesis, anthithesis, and synthesis represents a compact way of expressing the process of critical thinking. Let us step back and think of writing the MCAT essay on these terms. This will help you learn to create a unified essay powered by ideas.
For the First Five Minutes, Imagine a Debate to Help you Brainstorm
So you're sitting in the MCAT, and you just opened your first essay. Now is not the best time for writer's cramp. Take a deep breath. One thing veteran writers learn is the value of a 'generative device'. A generative device is a trick you play on yourself to get the ideas flowing. With my students over the years, we developed a generative device that helps you get started with the MCAT essay. For the first five minutes, imagine that you are witnessing 'debate night' at the local auditorium with the topic your essay prompt. Imagine the debate and write down a few notes about what you hear. Try to write one or two good sentences for each of the three tasks. Take about two minutes for each.
So in my small group course over the years, I would teach my students this game for the first five minutes to get their ideas going. I hate to say this, but learning this game practically guarantees that even a minimally literate person will earn at least an above average score on the MCAT essay. Is that justice? Mom and dad had the big bucks to pay me and their kids are now doctors! So work hard so you can do the same for your kids!! Anyway, here it is:
Imagine that your essay were the evening's topic at a debating club. The first speaker argues for the thesis. The second speaker argues for the antithesis. The third speaker is the wisest of all, representing the synthesis. The third speaker's point of view is like the point of view of the chorus of a Greek tragedy, who arrives at the end to explain the deeper truth.
So, take a couple of minutes for each task, no more than one or two, and imagine that you were watching the debate and take some notes on a piece of scratch paper. Write down one or two good, clear sentences that might be used in each stage of the debate.
The distribution of wealth in society should reflect only the free transactions of individuals.
The proper role of government is to protect rights, not to ensure outcomes.
Throughout history, societies that have attempted to manage their economies through government intervention have achieved neither freedom nor prosperity.
The libertarian view of transactions ignores the tremendous investment of society as a whole in the infrastructure of the modern economy that makes private wealth possible.
Property begins with real estate. When one person stakes a claim to land, they are depriving another of the use of it. The minimum requirement of justice would be for the landless to have some guarantee of minimal subsistence.
Both the free transactions of individuals and the democratic decision-making process of a free society should have a role in determining the distribution of economic goods. Balancing individual rights and social welfare seems to be the consensus approach among the liberal democracies of the world. This great compromise seems to have some hope of producing the most good for the most people.
Please don't think you need to write in a high style to score a superior MCAT essay score. Mostly you want clear sentences and correct grammar. Write in the way that is natural for you, in your own voice. Many people would be much better writers if they wrote nearly as well as they speak. I wrote the notes above in the way that is natural for me, but I can't help that. It has been a struggle for me to write comprehensibly ever since my formal humanities education. Despite my limitations, however, I was able to score an 'S' on my own MCAT essay years ago, and that ain't bad!
Constructing a Unified Essay
Let's see how this patented system works with a different MCAT essay. Let's do our five minute process with a different prompt, and then discuss how to unify the essay. Okay, here we go . . .
It is a miracle if curiosity can survive a formal education.
Write a unified essay in which you perform the following tasks. Explain what you think the above statement means. Describe a specific situation in which formal education might promote intellectual curiosity. Discuss what educational institutions can do to promote the natural love of learning without sacrificing educational standards.
Take a deep breath and write down a few sentences for each task.
Education isn't filling a bucket but lighting a fire.
By too great a reliance on competition, testing, and rote learning educational institutions can thwart the natural love of learning.
Very few people ever learned long division because they enjoyed it, and few children would volunteer to practice spelling. Sometimes education means suffering years of work after which one can realize the understanding of the world and the capabilities education has given you.
Although elementary and secondary education in the United States do seem to be evolving in a direction which may hurt the natural desire to learn in children, with too much emphasis on testing and rote learning, there is no denying at the university level, our system combines the best of freedom of inquiry with the need for professional training.
For better or worse, that's what I could come up with in five minutes. I think I have something to work with.
Decide on which way you lean to unify the essay
Now that you have a few notes, look them over, and think about how you feel about the argument. It will nearly always be better for the overall unity of your essay if you consciously tilt the voice of the writing a little bit towards either the Thesis or Antithesis. With an MCAT prompt, there are always worthwhile arguments on both sides, so you must not lean so far that you set up the other as a 'Straw Man'. Creating a position that is artificially easy to refute, setting up a Straw Man is a logical fallacy that is one of the hallmarks of weak argument.
Leaning the essay a little bit one way or the other is how you generate dynamic critical energy, and give the essay a unified voice. Think about it. You are asked to describe a point of view. Next you are asked to take a critical perspective. Leaning a bit one way or the other signals to the reader that there is an author behind the essay with a point of view. Giving the essay a authorial voice is how you create a unified critical progression.
- If you decide to lean towards the thesis, you voice the thesis with strong, declarative sentences, and then your discussion of the antithesis is modulated just a bit to give the reader a sense that you are taking an interlude to voice and address some worthy criticisms. Use a few rhetorical devices such as 'It could be argued with some validity that . . . ' or 'Many people strongly believe that . . .' to show that you are taking some time to address some criticisms which may be raised against the thesis. You make strong arguments, but just put a little bit of distance.
- If you decide to lean towards the antithesis, you start out with a voice describing the thesis which is modulated to convey a sense of provisional understanding. You are questioning this interesting idea. Trying it out. Investigating it. Then, when you reach the second task, the voice of antithesis is stronger and more declarative.
- But always, with the synthesis you give consideration to both sides. Keep your overall point of view, but show how reflection allows you to develop a new understanding and reconciliation of thesis and antithesis.
Writing the Essay
After the first five or six minutes, you now have a nice set of notes with a sentence or two for each of the three tasks. You have a sense of your overall point of view, your lean, and so you begin. The art of composition is balancing between the sense of overall form, which transcends the moment of writing and guides it, and the creativity of the moment itself. Too much structure, and the essay is stultified and dull, formulaic. Too much freedom, and the essay is a formless stream-of-consciousness. If you practice balance, you will become a good writer. A big part of balance is trusting yourself. Now that you have taken the time to structure the essay beforehand, trust yourself to be creative as you write.
Usually, at some stage in the composition, within a task, some break-point or transition will occur to you. If this happens, welcome it, because it will allow you to make at least one of the tasks two paragraphs. Think about the point of view of the graders. Three tasks. Three paragraphs. Over and Over. If you can use the paragraph unit to introduce a bit of depth and complexity within a task, it will be pleasing to the reader. I guarantee it. I suspect that the four paragraph essays score a point higher just by default.
Now you need to practice writing at least one of these every other module. If you do this, you will have a good mastery of this form going into the test.
Benefits beyond the MCAT
Learning to write a three to five paragraph critical argument built on thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, actually gives you something valuable for the rest of your life. Having mastered this simple form, you will always have this classic rhetorical figure in your medicine bag, the skill to write a short, persuasive critical argument. You will be able to conduct correspondence in business that respects other people's points of view while arguing persuasively for your own, and you will be able to participate more effectively in the politics of your community.