MCAT verbal

It's simple, really.

Is it possible to “get really good” at taking MCAT verbal tests?

No matter how many passages and full-length tests you’ve taken, let me assure you, you’ll probably never really feel confident about how you did.

Not only is it likely that you’ll encounter one or two seemingly indecipherable passages on each full-length MCAT verbal test, at the same time, many of the questions  are worded in a way that is meant to confuse even the most prescient pre-med. And of course, on almost every question there’s more than one answer that could be considered “right.”

Which is why there are so many companies and forum junkies out there pitching their own verbal MCAT strategies, as if they’re the golden ticket to a double digit verbal score. I’m not going to do that.

As you’ve probably found on this site, I’m usually pretty hesitant to ever say one brand or path is better than another—it’s really just a matter of finding what fits you the best. So, in this post, I’m going to review several verbal strategies I know about—many of which I’ve tried myself—and discuss which are most likely be most helpful, and for which type of pre-med student.

The first three are strategies put forth by three leading MCAT Prep book publishers. Each has its own verbal prep book, and its own suggested methods for “mastering” the MCAT Verbal Section.

Examkrackers for MCAT Verbal Prep

Examkrackers lays out a very minimalist approach to MCAT verbal prep. They spend quite a bit of ink arguing, in fact, that verbal strategies which introduce a unique method or system to help students crack the MCAT verbal section are just gimmicks and scare tactics. Instead, Examkrackers recommends a reading strategy that, more or less, follows the structure and directions provided by AAMC on the MCAT and helps test takers get good at breaking down questions in order to understand them more quickly and clearly. In fact, the majority of the program is built around the idea that most questions on the MCAT verbal section give away the answer in the question itself, or at least help you eliminate two options right off the bat.

If you feel pretty comfortable with your reading and analysis skills, or you just tend to favor Occum’s razor—”the simplest solution is usually the right one”—you’ll probably benefit from studying and applying what is written in the eK verbal strategy book. This book comes with the eK full set, which I have reviewed in-depth, but Examkrackers also sells a book called “Examkrackers 101 Passages in MCAT Verbal Reasoning,” which has 15 full-length verbal tests, and are in my opinion the best MCAT verbal prep practice material on the market. The passages are similar in reading level and subject matter to what you’ll encounter on AAMC tests, and they do an impressive job of capturing the tricky and ambiguous style of questions used in the MCAT verbal section. Also, in case you don’t plan on buying the eK full set, the 101 Passages practice book gives a basic outline of the Examkrackers verbal philosophy, which I have introduced in this section.

Kaplan for MCAT Verbal Prep

Kaplan’s verbal strategy is focused on “mapping,” which is essentially a system of marking and notating the passage to make it easy to refer back to when you’re answering the associated MCAT questions. To be a little more specific, Kaplan outlines a system which helps you to paraphrase each paragraph you read, and to make notes about the topic, scope, and purpose about everything you read.

Truth be told, understanding and being able to recall the topic, scope and purpose of various segments within each passage on the MCAT’s verbal section is absolutely crucial to doing well on the test. Also, since questions often ask you to talk about the purpose or scope of a phrase, in context of the rest of the article, Kaplan’s system of ordering and notating the ideas into small chunks you can refer back to could be very helpful. On the other hand, if you’ve taken a full-length MCAT verbal test before and timed yourself, you know how hard it is to stay within the allotted time. So, for most students, Kaplan’s strategy eats up too much time on the test, and thus is impractical to use.

However, for pre-med students who struggle with reading comprehension, or with remembering concepts and details they’ve read quickly, Kaplan’s strategy could really be helpful in the beginning stages of MCAT prep. Also, for students who don’t really struggle with time limits on standardized tests like the MCAT (believe it or not, there are a few of you), you might find Kaplan’s method a useful tool that you have plenty of time within the test to incorporate and use to your advantage. Your best guide is probably Kaplan’s MCAT Verbal Reasoning and Writing Review, although you might be able to find a basic descriptions of their strategy on the Student Doctor Network.

The Princeton Review for MCAT Verbal Prep

Depending on who you ask, you could get wildly different answers on this one. Some people love TPR for MCAT verbal prep and others consider it completely useless. Allow me to reconcile the two views for you by pointing out that they are talking about different elements of TPR’s verbal review materials.

The haters are, by and large, hating on TPR’s verbal strategy, which in short, emphasizes how afraid you should be of hard passages and the time limit, and thus should skip to the easy passages to be sure you give them plenty of time. Then your only option is to be prepared to guess on the harder ones. Apparently, it’ll help you finish faster and make sure you get to the easy MCAT questions you’re going to get no matter what. In my opinion, it’s a pretty goofy idea and sounds like something that someone who never took the MCAT came up with. It assumes it’s easy to tell which passages will be easy and which ones will be hard just by scanning them, even though many times a hard-to-read passage has the easiest questions, and vice-versa.

On the other hand, those who love TPR for verbal prep are probably talking about TPR’s Hyperlearning workbook, which is actually pretty hard to find on Amazon these days (apparently they’re illegal to re-sell, but you can check Amazon here if you’re feeling lucky). In short, the book is full of practice problems—more than you’ll find in any other book—and they tend to be strikingly similar to AAMC-style MCAT questions.

mcat verbal passage

waitaminnute.... i just read about that on the mcat!

Reading the Economist, the New York Times, the classics (etc.) to boost your verbal score

I’ve written pretty extensively on this strategy, but I’d say the gist of it is that it works for some people and doesn’t work for others. There’s definitely nothing lost by reading high-level news and analysis, but it’s also not necessarily a silver bullet for verbal prep.

The Princeton Review LiveOnline Verbal Accelerator Course

This is definitely a pricier option, but if you’re really struggling to clear the 6-7 range on the MCAT verbal tests you’ve taken, you might want to look into it on TPR’s site. Although I am mostly of the opinion that MCAT prep can easily be a do-it-yourself sort of thing, some pre-meds may really need some one-on-one help with verbal prep. TPR’s Verbal Accelerator is well-respected and well-organized, on all accounts; it’s mostly a matter of whether or not you think it’s worth spending the money for the extra help.

For $499, you get 16 hours of online classroom time (there’s actually a teacher teaching live, but you sit and watch from your computer screen at home.) Also, since TPR typically assigns their best teachers to their MCAT LiveOnline courses, you’re likely to have a pretty good “classroom” experience. Given that the whole MCAT is built around your ability to quickly read and interpret difficult passages, if you’re struggling with the verbal section because that’s what it emphasizes, TPR’s verbal bootcamp might be a good idea.

“Just winging” the MCAT Verbal Section

Of all the brilliant ideas in this world, this is not one of them. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that because the verbal section doesn’t require MCAT test-takers to actually memorize anything, you can probably get away with slacking on studying for it. Au contraire, mon freire. If you’re not extremely familiar with the MCAT’s verbal style, you don’t stand a chance. The questions are meant to make you feel like you know more than you do, and to make rash judgments about which answer(s) to choose. If you’re overly confident, you’ll fall for that junk every time.

What was my strategy?

Although I said earlier that I’m careful never to come down on one side or another on posts like these, I know it can be helpful to hear what someone else has tried and find out whether or not it worked. When I took the MCAT, I assumed that because I majored in English, the verbal section would be a breeze.

But after a few practice tests, I realized I was dead wrong, and that I was going to need to spend just as much time preparing for verbal as I was for physical and biological sciences.  Not, of course, because there were concepts or rules or processes to memorize, but because the MCAT Verbal Section was unlike any critical thinking test I’d ever taken. In the end, I picked up the Ek full set (here’s a link to it on Amazon), studied their method, and did every single passage in the 101 passages workbook. By then, I had raised my average score on the verbal from consistent 7’s to consistent 10’s.

In the remaining weeks leading up the actual MCAT, I took mostly full-length (all subjects) CBTs to practice for the verbal, but on days when I had extra time or energy (it’s pretty draining, isn’t it?), I would dink around in the Hyperlearning book, taking a few timed passages at a time. Although I also had access to the Berkeley Review’s material (and although I have lots of positive things to say about the Berkeley Review’s prep material), I didn’t find it particularly useful for improving my verbal score. Or at least, I didn’t find it nearly as useful as the 101 Passages set or the Hyperlearning workbooks.

On the real MCAT test, I pulled off a 12 on verbal, but I didn’t feel any more sure of my answers than I did on my first practice tests. Which, in my mind, exemplifies why you can’t “wing it” on verbal: you’ll never really know that you’re doing well, or getting answers right, as much as you’ve gotten comfortable with the style of questions you’re being asked and how to answer them quickly and decisively.That sort of skillset doesn’t come by cramming; consistent practice is the trick.

A final word on MCAT verbal prep:

Of all the MCAT strategies I’ve listed above, I genuinely think there are people who would benefit from each. If you’re struggling to achieve the scores you want for verbal, it probably wouldn’t hurt to draw a little on all of them if you can. In the end, remember that the MCAT Verbal Section is hard…for everyone. If you try your hardest, do plenty of practice problems, and focus on improving in your weak areas, you’ll see your score go up, and up. Onward, pre-meds!.

Bryce Johnson co-founded in 2011 and is the author of Must Reads for the Well-Rounded Pre-Med on Amazon. If you'd like to write for the site or contribute in another way, feel free to reach out to him on LinkedIn or via email.