If you’ve started prepping for the MCAT, you not only know the MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section is mind-numbingly hard, but you realize that it accounts for a hefty part of your overall score. Verbal reasoning is a skill, and getting good at it takes practice. There are lots of tips and techniques you’ll get in your MCAT classes and/or MCAT prep books, but there’s plenty you can do on your own time—even if you’ve not formally begun your MCAT prep—to make sure you come out ahead.
MCAT Verbal Reasoning Practice is Important…But The Economist ?
In theory, yeah, I’d say reading The Economist or The New Yorker on a regular basis isn’t a bad idea. The New York Times or any reputable news and analysis outlet would work fine too. That’s because their articles offer political arguments, policy decisions, and in-depth discussions of these and other qualitative topics. Reading these journals allows you to analyze essays and editorials and formulate counter arguments in your head while you do. Reading this way will help you get “in the zone” more easily for the MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section.
Bear in mind, verbal reasoning skills for the MCAT are not the same as reading comprehension. The reason this MCAT section is considered so difficult is that it isn’t based on knowledge or previously learned concepts, but on your ability to think critically. On the MCAT CARS, you are asked to read a passage, discern the writer’s intent, come up with counter examples, and/or apply it to a situation designed for you. You’ll also be asked about the main idea of a passage, or the inference from an author’s argument, or the basis of an author’s evidence, or the implications of an author’s argument. Sounds simple, right? In most cases, there’s no “right” answer. And usually, going back and reading a passage over won’t bring much more clarity. Gaining some confidence in your ability to comprehend themed, opinionated, argumentative, nuanced material and then apply it will help you get prepared.
The underlying concept is that as a physician, you’ll be placed in situations daily where you are asked to rapidly comprehend, assess and then apply knowledge and information presented to you, and as such, this skill is absolutely critical to your being effective in your medical practice.
On the old MCAT, I have a friend who scored a 44. Yes, it’s true. The dude ended up at Harvard Med! But guess which section kept him from a perfect score? Yep, you guessed it. the MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section. If getting a perfect score on it was as simple as reading the news a lot, we all would know someone who scored a 132 on the new MCAT on it. But I’d be willing to bet you haven’t. I haven’t.
In other words, getting a subscription to one of these magazines (they’re actually not too expensive if you look around) may not be that important for you. There are more reasons people struggle with the MCAT Reasoning Section than not reading enough news. When I was getting ready for the MCAT, I was almost finished with an English major where I was reading at least 2 books/week, and was the editor of a political journal at my school, so I read news and political commentary pretty much every day. But surprise, surprise…my first score on a practice MCAT CARS test was a 6. I was appalled. I figured I’d be a natural at it, given my major and interests. But in no time I learned that doing well on the MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning section has everything to do with being familiar with the sort of questions you’ll be asked on the MCAT and how to understand what you’re really being asked, rather than just knowing how to read and think critically.
How do I develop a full-scale critical analysis and reasoning strategy?
Any set of MCAT prep books you buy will have a “critical analysis and reasoning strategy.” Some recommend reading news and magazines like the Economist assiduously—like your score depends on it—while others say it’s hogwash and won’t do a darn thing. In my humble opinion, reality falls somewhere in between those two viewpoints. While on the one hand, it won’t necessarily work for everyone, if you struggle in classes that require you to read and interpret difficult material, it really wouldn’t hurt to get a 6-month or 1-year subscription to one of these magazines (actually paying for the subscription might motivate you to pick it up a little more often than if you were just reading online). But then, you may also want to read some Shakespeare and some medical journals. Caution: knowing so much about what’s going on in the world, and how to think about it will not only impress (annoy) your friends, it can often come in handy when you’re writing a paper for a class or having a conversation with someone who’s into politics, the humanities, even mechanical engineering.
How do I know what publication to read? There are so many.
—Scan the websites of The Economist, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Review and Newsweek. I’d say that’s a pretty good range, and they’re all high-quality publications. Read a few articles from each, decide which one you like the most based on their writing style, level of reading difficulty, and political leanings (yes, that matters…you won’t keep reading something you never agree with). If you don’t want to subscribe to a paper one, at least subscribe to one online, so you have ongoing reminders to read.
-If you want to subscribe to something, don’t buy it from the companies themselves. They overcharge you and try to lock you into long-term contracts that you probably aren’t looking for at this point. Instead find a discount magazine distributor like Magazineline or Magazine.com and compare prices and contract lengths. Two years ago I had a month-to-month deal on “The Economist” that ended up being pretty affordable, and a lot less than what I knew some of my politico contacts were paying for the same thing. Print is dying, and a lot of these outlets have dropped their prices substantially over the last year or two.
Simple tips to improve your MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills score
A few other everyday suggestions: take one or two undergrad courses in philosophy, in the humanities or social sciences. Take composition or rhetoric classes to learn the purpose and structure of argument. Read widely, to give you a better understanding and vocabulary in diverse areas of learning. Learn about and practice “mapping,” which helps you lay out and analyze arguments by showing the logical relationships between expressed thoughts.
Start your prep for this section by taking the MCAT Question Pack Volume 1 for Critical Reasoning or MCAT Question Pack Volume 2 for Critical Reasoning offered by AAMC. For other “realistic” practice, Examkrackers MCAT Reasoning Skills:Verbal, Research & Math is the best on the market.
If you don’t consider yourself a proficient reader and/or you’re not especially good at comprehension or constructing arguments, you’ll have to apply yourself fully for this part of the MCAT. What applies in other disciplines is true here: the key to success is practice, practice, practice. Use every resource at your disposal in the classes and books you use to prepare, and if need be, work doubly hard to master this area.