MCAT Verbal Reasoning Tips

by Speed Reading Expert, Richard L. Feldman, Ph.D. (Columbia University)

Note: This page is no longer current. Please see: MCAT2015 Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Tips .

First Phase of Practice: Use Passages in Print

The MCAT is a computer-based exam but I suggest you start your practice by printing out a verbal reasoning section of an MCAT from one of the full-length practice tests available from AAMC, the publisher of the MCAT. There are currently eight full-length practice tests available including one free practice test (test 3) and seven additional practice tests for which you must pay a fee. Avoid using practice MCATs from other publishers since their tests have not been field tested.

In the early stages of practice, work on one reading passage at a time together with its set of 5-7 questions. Do this for several days adhering to the timing guidelines discussed below. Gradually increase the number of passages and questions you practice in one sitting, always working under timed conditions (8½ minutes per passage and set of questions). Eventually, complete the entire 7-passage verbal reasoning section in one hour, the time allowed for the actual computer-based MCAT verbal reasoning section.

I. Reading the Passage

  • Allow about 3 ½ minutes to read an entire verbal reasoning passage. Since each reading passage is about 600 words in length, that means your reading speed should be about 170 words per minute. Use a timer to ensure you are within the time limit. You’ll get a sense of the main idea and important details during this 3 ½ minutes of reading.
  • Use a pencil as a pacer while reading the passage to improve your reading speed and concentration. Naturally, you won’t be able to use a pencil as a pacer once you switch your practice to computer-based passages later in the training, but for the early phase of practice, the pacer will gradually improve your reading speed as well as your concentration
  • Don’t do these: highlighting, circling words, writing notes, or any other time wasters
  • Don’t try to skim the passage first; it doesn’t work well on the MCAT verbal reasoning section.

II. Answering the Questions for the Passage

  • Allow about 5 minutes to answer each set of questions. There are 5 – 7 questions per passage.
  • Use a pencil as a pacer for the questions and answer choices to improve your work rate. Again, you won’t be able to use a pencil as a pacer once you switch your practice to computer-based passages later in the training, but for the early phase of practice, the pacer will gradually improve your reading speed and concentration.
  • First answer the questions in the set that you are able to without referring back to the passage.
  • Save questions in the set for last that require you to return to the passage in order to answer them.
  • Answer all questions since there is no guessing penalty.
  • Don’t plan to return to a set of questions; complete the entire set and move on to the next reading passage.
  • Codes: Cross out incorrect answer choices to save time later. You’ll be able to do the same on the computer-based answer choices as well.

III. General Strategies for the MCAT Verbal Reasoning Section

  • Spend 8 ½ minutes per reading passage which includes reading the passage and answering the questions. Do not allow additional time
  • Pace yourself: If you run out of time while you are still answering questions, fill in the remaining answers by guessing.
  • Answer all questions because there is no guessing penalty on the MCAT.
  • Don’t try to be perfect: Students admitted to U.S. medical schools have a mean scaled score of 10 in the verbal reasoning section, or 29-31 correct answers in this 40-question section. In other words, you can get a high scaled score of 10 in the verbal reasoning section even when you have about ten wrong answers.

Second Phase of Practice: Use Computer-based Passages

After practicing the print version of the MCAT verbal reasoning passages and answering the questions, you will improve your timing, accuracy and confidence over weeks. Eventually, you will want to practice using computer-based passages and questions so that you get comfortable with the unique aspects of taking the MCAT using computer-based verbal reasoning sections. There is a special “look and feel” of the exam that you can only get by doing some practice on the computer-based test. For example, you will want to practice electronically striking through incorrect choices.

I don’t recommend the highlighting and note-taking functions available on the computer-based verbal reasoning section; they take time away from thinking about the points in the passage as well as from the ability to carefully consider answer choices.

Keep in mind that on the day of the exam, you will also have an electronic timer available on your computer screen so that you won’t need to bring a timer.

I’ve been teaching speed reading courses in New York City for twenty-five years. I can increase your reading speed and comprehension for the MCAT.

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