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QofQuimica

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Here it is, in living SDN blue: the final thread in our Topics and Explanations write-ups. This thread will cover various aspects of the MCAT VR section. Note that while some of the advice in this thread may be helpful for DAT, PCAT, and OAT students for their RC section, this particular thread is specifically geared toward MCAT students. The MCAT VR section is fairly different than the RC sections on these other tests once you go beyond the superficial fact that they all require reading, so some of the strategies given here will not apply to RC on these other tests.

As with all of our explanations threads, students are requested to please not post any questions here. If you want to ask questions about MCAT VR, you should ask them in the Verbal Reasoning/Writing Sample Questions Thread. Here is a list of all of the topics covered in this thread:

Table of Contents
  • Post 06: Annotating VR Passages
  • Post 07: Confusing Passages
  • Post 09: Dealing with Details: The Purpose of Details
  • Post 10: Dealing with Details: Repetition
  • Post 11: Examples of Reading for the Author's Viewpoint
  • Post 12: Fact Versus Opinion: Finding the Thesis of a Passage
  • Post 13: General Advice for Improving VR Scores
  • Post 18: Keywords
  • Post 16: Outside Knowledge on the VR Section
  • Post 05: Questions: Claims Unsupported by Evidence, Explanation, or Example
  • Post 15: Questions: Conclusions and Assumptions
  • Post 04: Questions: Inferences
  • Post 08: Questions: Roman Numerals
  • Post 14: Questions: Strengthening and Weakening Arguments
  • Post 02: Reading for the Author's Viewpoint
  • Post 19: Reading in Preparation for the MCAT
  • Post 03: VR Test-Taking Strategy
  • Post 17: VR Tips from emack
 
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lorelei

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lorelei: There is a big different in reading passages for the VR section of the MCAT versus the two science sections. In the sciences, you try to read a passage primarily for comprehension (what the author is saying). In verbal, not only do you have to understand what the author is saying, but also why s/he's saying it and how s/he forms the argument. So when you are reading your practice passages, try thinking about the following questions:

-what is the purpose of this passage? Why did the author take the time to sit down and write this? (In the sciences, the answer is often "to explain an experiment" or "to teach us about X reaction" but in verbal you're frequently looking for "to convince us of Y argument" or "to defend Z position." The author has some sort of interest, or he wouldn't bother to sit down and write an essay. If you can find the author's bias, you're there.)

-what is the purpose of this paragraph or sentence? Is it background information? Is it an explanation of an opinion? Is it supporting examples?

-if I were arguing with this person, where would I attack their argument? Where are there assumptions or personal opinions? I find this strategy useful because it makes you look at how the author is building the argument.​

Watch out for key words that show you opinions: these aren't just things like "I think" or "personally" but also clearly, obviously, on the contrary, simply, everyone, no one, pervasive, .... I'm sure people can think of more.
These are words that people usually don't use unless they have some sort of investment in the topic - and thus, a particular viewpoint. Noticing them can help you find out what the author thinks.

There are also key words that help you follow the structure of an argument. Some of these overlap with the above set, but here I'm looking for ways to follow how the author builds his case, more than what exactly the case is. Some of these might be then, however, also, but, primarily, further, in contrast, ....

The overall goal is to see the passage as not just a bunch of information, but an argument. I would suggest trying to read some passages in this way - you can use other pieces as well, like newspaper columns or opinion pieces in higher-level magazines like The Economist. Practice seeing the argument, but don't worry about your speed until reading for the argument becomes second nature to you.

QofQuimica: Adding to lorelei's great suggestions about always considering the author's purpose when reading MCAT passages, I'd like to also point out that most authors of MCAT passages are writing "scholarly articles," not polemics. In other words, it would be highly unusual to read an MCAT passage where the author is ranting and raving like a lunatic. Rather, most passages have a sober, considered, and deliberate tone. Even when an author is expressing disagreement with some other expert in the field, s/he will do so in a reserved manner. This subtlety is a part of what makes it difficult to pick out the author's viewpoint sometimes. But there will still be clues to tell you where the author stands with regard to the topic (positive, negative, or neutral). Look for the opinion keywords that lorelei mentioned above to help you pick up on this. Also, avoid picking extreme choices for the author's viewpoint, unless the tone of the passage is also extreme. Again, such a passage would be uncommon.
 

lorelei

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Here is my personal method for taking the VR section of the MCAT. I read the passage through, reading critically but not taking a huge amount of time to figure out details I didn't understand. I did make sure that I understood the overall argument and thrust of the passage though. Then I read the questions, answered the ones I knew, and referred back to the passage for the few that I didn't. I never skipped passages, because for me it was more trouble than it was worth to remember what I had to come back to.

Again, my strategy was what personally worked for me. I'm a fast reader (I did always finish ahead of time), I'm good at grasping arguments, and I had a double engineering/humanities major so I was somewhat used to reading humanities passages. (The art ones were the worst for me.) And I'm not used to marking up textbooks so it never really occurred to me to mark up the passages, though I did occasionally underline or star things that I knew I was coming back to.

In general, I think it's a good idea to read the passage first, because if you can get a handle on the argument (as I described upthread) you will be able to answer several of the questions very quickly, and know where things are when you need to refer back. Whether to underline or make notes is up to you - I essentially mapped the passage in my head, but I think most people do better with some actual marks on the page.

Skipping passages, again, is a personal thing, but I'd recommend only doing it if you come to a passage that's making you freak out for whatever reason. If you're going to be wasting time hyperventilating, go on to the next one, but as long as you can stay calm and tackle the passages one by one I think steaming ahead is probably the best way to go.

If you feel like you need to try out some different strategies, be sure to do it on practice full-lengths well before the MCAT. You may find that a certain technique really helps you, or you may be surprised to find that it doesn't work at all. And you don't want to be showing up on test day, still dithering about whether to read the passage or the questions first. You should have your style pretty much down by then.
 
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This a post made by lukewhite some months ago.

**********************

On the questions, get good at inferences. While I'm biased, I'd say that Kaplan is exceptional on this point, both in the amount of questions you have available to hone the skill and in the method. The main thing to remember for inference questions is that the right answer MUST be true based on the passage; if it may or may not be true, it's incorrect. This, in my opinion, is the single biggest factor keeping students who score in the 9-11 range from getting to the 12+ range: if you mistake something possibly true for something definitely true, or vice versa, on only a few questions you've automatically taken your score down a few points.

Make sure you understand what certain types of questions look like. Again, Kaplan's excellent on this, both in terms of volume and instruction. If you can glance at a question and know its category, you can spend less time trying to analyze what it's asking; you'll already have a good idea.

And finally, don't fall into the trap of trying to justify every wrong answer choice to yourself--when I take a practice test, I routinely skip answers I don't understand. Chances are that if they don't make sense, they're wrong and you'll find one much better a little below. Students often run out of time because they insist on fully understanding every choice, when you're only rewarded, of course, for picking the right answer.

Get in the habit of doing a couple "scans"...an easy question may only require one scan, while a hard question may first get you down to two answer choices and then allow you to compare them to each other. It's way easier to compare two choices than four!

We perhaps sometimes don't emphasize the inference enough. Not only is it a common problem area for students, but it's really the foundation for all other major question types...the higher-order questions all depend, to some extent, on the ability to make inferences and then do something else.

Remember that an inference will necessarily be very close to what the passage says. I'm constantly flipping back and forth while taking a practice test; missing a particular phrase is often enough to miss the justification for an inference. When you see an answer choice on an inference question, I'd go through these "filters":

1. Does it look wrong? If so, move on
2. Does it look obviously right? If so, you're probably done once you scan the others quickly to be sure.
3. If you're unsure, before evaluating the choice, figure out what it's referring to in the passage (this may be more than one place!) With a good idea of the passage's structure, you can go back, quickly look for relevant words/ideas and compare them to the choice. This is incredibly helpful for narrowing down and clarifying your thought processes.

Too many students try to power through an inference through sheer logic without reference back to the passage, which is deadly. Identify the question as inference, figure out what the likely choices are (usually you can narrow this down to two fairly easily) and then use the passage as your final filter to get down to 1. I'd say that this will get you the right answer 70-90% of the time, with the other 10% involving a little more reasoning and synthesis.
 

stoleyerscrubz

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Another post by lukewhite.

*******************

A more specific Verbal tip today since I've been posting fairly broad strategies. This one deals with possibly the worst species of question on MCAT Verbal:

"Which of the following is a claim made in the passage, but not supported by evidence, explanation, or example?"

On the surface, this would seem to be a detail question with some evaluation. Most test-takers approach this by painstakingly locating each choice in the passage and then reading in context to see if it has supporting details. That's the sort of approach that can lose you 1-2 minutes on a single question: not worth it!

As with most MCAT Verbal, the trick is to think about it structurally. Where is a claim made in the passage but not supported by e/e/e likely to be? Probably at the end of the passage or the end of a major point. Scan the choices to see if one of them fits that criteria, and then go back to double check.

This won't always work; there's another criterion to try. What sort of claim is unlikely to be supported by e/e/e/? One that is itself evidence, explanation, or example. Does one of the answer choices involve something the author mentioned, but only as an off-topic reference to support the main point? Chances are it's going to be your answer--authors rarely provide evidence for their evidence.

Remember: The Verbal's set up not only to reward people who can get the right answer, but people who can get the right answer quickly. Doing a question fast is as important to your score as doing it correctly!
 

QofQuimica

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There are two very important things to keep in mind when annotating paragraphs:

1. Your annotations should be SHORT. If you're writing entire sentences, it's too much. You should only be writing a few words or a phrase at most. Also, do not write out whole words if you can avoid it. Abbreviate as much as possible (eg., write "rxn" for "reaction" and "exp" for "experiment.") If you don't know formal shorthand, then make up your own. I use Spanish words sometimes if they're shorter than the English ones, such as "y" for "and," and "sino" for "but rather." Other people might not understand your shorthand, but the only thing that matters is that you do.

2. Your annotations should focus on the passage's ARGUMENT, not the DETAILS. This is difficult for many pre-med students, because it's the opposite of what you generally do in your science classes. Say you have a passage about two competing theories of what causes the greenhouse effect. In an environmental science class, you'd probably be expected to memorize the evidentiary DETAILS for each theory and list them on your test. But on the MCAT, most questions will not be about the details. Rather, they will largely be about the ARGUMENTS made for, against, and by each theory. The details are just there to bolster the author's case. You will be asked questions like what the author means when s/he makes some statement, how to strengthen or weaken an argument, and whether the author would agree with some statement based on his/her position in the passage. So, to do well on the MCAT VR, you need to focus your attention on the arguments themselves, rather than on the evidence given to support or refute them.

Lorelei's previous post about pretending to debate with the author is a good suggestion for teaching yourself to focus on the arguments rather than on the details. You might also try asking yourself whether the author takes a side in a debate, and if so, which one and why. In some passages, the author will present one side of a controversy, but then agree with the opponent. In others, s/he will simply present both sides and remain neutral.
 

QofQuimica

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Many students have trouble with the more abstract passages on the VR section, particularly with subjects such as philosophy, literary criticism, politics, and historical scholarship. Those of you who still have several months before you take the test should practice reading abstract passages as much as possible between now and MCAT day. You are almost guaranteed to get one or two of them on your test, so you should expect it, and be ready for them.

The first thing to do if you read a passage and you don't understand it is to follow the immortal words inscribed on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Don't Panic. The good news is that you don't have to understand everything in the passage in order to understand the main argument of the author and answer the questions. The details that the author gives to support his/her argument are not as important, and you probably won't even get asked about most of them. If the argument itself is what confuses you, this is a more serious problem. You should try to at least determine whether the author is positive, negative, or neutral toward his/her subject. That will help you answer questions that ask you things like if the author would agree or disagree with such-and-such a position. My final suggestion would be to work on the confusing passage last. Finish every other passage in the VR section, and THEN come back and do the one that is hard to comprehend at the end. This way, if you spend too much time agonizing over one hard passage, it won't affect your work on the other (easier) passages, which you will have already completed.
 

lorelei

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For the Roman numeral questions, the strategy I like to use is elimination. See if any of the choices (I, II, or III) jump out at you - if II is definitely wrong, eliminate all the choices that have it, and if II is definitely right, eliminate all the choices that DON'T have it. Then go through the choices, focusing on which ones will eliminate the most answer choices. You can often figure out the answer even if you don't know whether one of the numerals is right or wrong.
 

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The point of the details isn't that you retain each and every point made in each detail. You have to do two things very quickly--1) understand what is actually being described, and 2) figure out why the author wasted your time bringing it up. How does the point pertain to his argument? Look for combining phrases used to link a point to the rest--does the author say "additionally" (implying that it is further support of the previour point) or "however" (meaning that the point is a caveat that might be partially contrary to the previous point) or "nevertheless" (meaning that a conclusion holds in the face of the caveats presented)? You don't need to know the details, but you do need to understand them briefly enough to relate them to a central point. Once you understand a point, and you can meake sense of it in context, you can forget it and move on.

Look for these things also in the transitions between paragraphs. Ultimately, you should be looking for a thesis and for a structured support of that thesis. the author is not trying to make you remember a concatenation of facts--they want to convince you of the existence and dynamics of a process.
 

lorelei

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Nutmeg has good advice about understanding WHY details are there, not understanding every little bit.

As far as recognizing what is skippable, there are some typical structures that give you that hint. For example: "Sandra Day O'Connor was a paragon, an example to women everywhere, a perfect choice as the first female justice." (I just made that up.) In that sentence, and pretty much any sentence with that structure, the three things set off by commas are all similar to each other. If you don't know what "paragon" means, that's OK - you know, based on the structure, that it has to be something similar to the other two. And you don't need to read them all carefully, just remember that this is stuff about why O'Connor is awesome.

There's a similar structure, like this: "Condoleezza Rice is a classically trained pianist, a figure skater, and a football fan." The "and" in there means that the details are NOT all the same thing, but they are three details that are somewhat related. In this case, it's Rice's hobbies. Still, you don't need to memorize them or even necessarily understand them all (my examples are obvious, but there could be one with words you don't know), just note what they're about in general.

Also, anything with numbers is a detail. Don't worry about memorizing or understanding them, just note where they are and what they're about.

Another hint: repetition usually hints that there are several examples or statements about the same thing. For example, this quote from the VR example on aamc.org (http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/vrsampleitems.pdf):

"It is important to see that we don't just talk about
arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or
lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing
with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we
defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan
and use strategies."

All those sentences that start with "We" are examples of how arguments are not just TALKED ABOUT in terms of war, but really experienced and structured in terms of war (which is what the author says in words in the rest of the paragraph). This is typical. When you get a list like this, you don't need to necessarily understand every item, but understand what the list consists of, and why it's there.
 

lorelei

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Something I've done on occasion to figure out the author's point of view is to find the place where s/he is talking about the relevant point, and look for any non-necessary words: words that don't absolutely have to be there to convey the facts, as well as words that could have been chosen differently to give a different impression. See what would be lost by stripping the prose down to the bare minimum, and that usually gives you an idea of the author's viewpoint.

Unfortunately I haven't had enough time to find good public-domain examples, but here is one from a blog I'm currently reading that might give you the idea. (Copied from http://www.corante.com/loom/archives/2005/06/16/look_up_in_the_sky_flying_hobbits.php)

Skeptics find this possibility implausible, arguing that it’s more likely this individual was just a pygmy human with some genetic defect. As far as I can tell, this skepticism about shrinking hominid brains flows from two sources.

(first source snipped)

The other source of skepticism, which I mentioned in my last post, is a vague sense that when it comes to hominid brains, evolution cannot run in reverse. It’s certainly true that if you draw a graph of hominid brain size over time, it has climbed to spectacular heights...


In the first paragraph, take "skeptics" - that's a loaded word. Does he consider himself a skeptic? Probably not. Saying "as far as I can tell" implies that he doesn't really understand the skeptics' viewpoint, so presumably he doesn't share it. ("implausible" and "just" are two other words you might take notice of.)

Second paragraph, "vague" also implies that he doesn't share that sense - respectable scientific hypotheses shouldn't be vague. Then in the next sentence, the use of "certainly" in this case is implying that a "BUT" is coming up soon (it's the next paragraph, in fact) - like saying "well, I'll give you that, BUT that's the only part you have right."

This is obviously not an ideal passage for this use, because Zimmer isn't at all trying to hide his viewpoint, but it might give you an idea of the kind of thing to look for.
 

Nutmeg

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I think a lot of what this test looks for is the ability to separate fact and opinion. That's why you get questions like "does it strengthen or weaken this statement to say...?" and so forth. So when evaluating each assertion, you need to look past the facts, which contribute to the summary, but are not the point of the passage. It is the conclusions derived from those facts--which are opinions that the author seeks to support by the facts--that are the main idea.

View all authors as attempting not to inform you, but to pursuade you. What conclusion are they trying to make you draw from the data? Are there any conceivable ways in which the data might be construed to mean something else? Even if you know nothing about the subject, can you imagine a person disagreeing with the conclusions?

When they ask you "what's the main idea?" the answer is not likely to be the pure informational themes that they give, like "many painters in the 18th century worked with one another." That's just informational--it sounds like that's just a trend demonstrated by the anecdotal evidence that might be presented. More interesting as an idea is that, say, they were not appreciated in their time, or that European painters were more appreciated in the US than at home, or so forth. There's a subjective quality to these sorts of assertions, and to back this up, one would likely give a series of anecdotes. Don't just try to identify what the anecdotal information has in common; try to seek why it is relevant. Try to find the assertion which would be constroversial or unexpected if the anecdotes weren't there.

Apart from that, there are situations with those sorts of questions where every answer choice is an opinion. In these instances, you want to be sure that you find something that applies to every (or almost every) paragraph, rather than applying to only one paragraph. If the selection applies to only one example given, it is not the theme.

The final pitfall is the qualifiers seen at the beginning of the article. Sometimes you have a choice which refers to a statement made in the opening paragraph that is not the thesis itself. Generally, such a claim, made at the outset, is made to justify the course of reasoning that will proceed. It is common for people that are seeking to pursuade that they first try to justify why you should read the article, or to dispel a common conception that impedes their ability to teach you something new. These statements are not theses.

*In short, look for the theme/thesis/main idea as an *opinion* that acts as a recurrent theme throughout, and that the supporting evidence would act to support in all or most all instances.*
 
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QofQuimica

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I'm not very familiar with EK's method, so I'm not going to comment about it. But I can tell you that the biggest mistakes that Kaplan students make when trying to map passages is that they write too much, and they focus on the wrong things. Lorelei and Nutmeg have written some excellent posts about how important it is to focus on the author's purpose, argument, and thought process, and not on the details s/he uses to support that argument. Your map should be an outline of the purpose of each paragraph, not the details (in other words, not just a paraphrase). Also, it is absolutely essential that you write very little. Be as lazy as possible. Abbreviate as much as you can, leave out articles (a, an, the), and take other shortcuts to minimize the amount of writing you can do while still making your notes readable. If you are writing whole sentences, you are writing way too much. Save that for the essay section. Finally, you should be predicting your answers before you look at the answer choices. If you're not, start doing this, as it helps to force you to think about the important parts of the passage and avoid choosing answers that are outside the author's scope and purpose.

It is definitely harder to raise your VR score compared to the science sections, but it IS possible with enough practice and effort. Unfortunately, there isn't any suggestion I can give to you that will automatically make it easy. Try to keep a positive attitude, and keep practicing your critical reading and answer prediction skills for a few minutes every day between now and the test. A very large portion of success in this whole process of becoming a physician comes from simply refusing to give up. :luck:
 

lorelei

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Basically when you come to one of these questions, the first thing you have to know is - what is the author's argument? What assertions does s/he put forward, and what conclusions does s/he draw? Something that strengthens the argument will very often be something that supports the assertions - more data, or something that lets you know the author's assumptions are correct. On the contrary, something that weakens the argument will contradict the author's evidence or assumptions, or show that the conclusions don't necessarily follow. So you have to be really clear on what argument the author is making. Then, you can frequently predict the type of answer that would strengthen or weaken the argument (though obviously you can't predict the exact answer).

If you need help with how to identify the argument, see the post that QofQuimica and I have written about how to find the author's viewpoint. Nutmeg also wrote a good post about distinguishing facts and opinions. I think the overall best question to ask yourself is: WHY did the author take the time to write this passage? What is it that they're trying to convince the reader of? If you figure out why someone would bother to spend all that time writing something, you know what the overall point is, and the purpose of the argument.
 

lorelei

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To answer questions that ask you to choose a reasonable conclusion or assumption for an argument, it's important to understand what it means for a conclusion or assumption to be reasonable in the context of the MCAT.

An implied conclusion is necessarily supported by the evidence but is not explicitly stated. That is, given A, B, and C facts or assertions from the passage, conclusion X must be true. Look for something that HAS to be true given the evidence in the passage. (To check this, see what happens if you say your chosen answer is NOT true. Does it make the argument in the passage fall apart?)

An assumption is an implicit piece of evidence that has to be true in order to build an argument. It is part of the evidence but is not explicitly stated. As with the implied conclusions, you can figure out whether a statement is an assumption by attempting to falsify it. If you falsify an assumption, the entire argument that rests on it will fall apart.

Here's an (obvious) example of these concepts. I just moved, and while unpacking I couldn't find my box cutter. I told my mom "Only you and I packed boxes, and *I* didn't pack the box cutter into a box." The (unstated) conclusion there is that my mom was the one who packed it into a box (useful place for a box cutter, eh?). The assumption, as you might have noticed, is that the box cutter WAS packed into a box, as opposed to riding in the glove compartment or something.

While I'm analyzing arguments, let's talk about strengthening/weakening again. I could strengthen my argument by supporting either the facts or the assumption implicit in the argument. Examples of this: No one else who helped me move packed any boxes. It is discovered that the box cutter is not in the U-Haul truck. To weaken the argument, again, I can either contradict the facts or attack the assumption. For example: My dad packed two boxes. A grocery bag full of important stuff was packed and carried in the front seat of the car.

(I still haven't found the box cutter.)
 

QofQuimica

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Outside knowledge is definitely a big no-no on the Verbal Reasoning section, whether on natural science passages or any other type. There have been times when some of my students have known enough about a passage topic to be able to argue the point with the author; don't do this. For the purpose of the MCAT, go with what the author says, even if you believe that s/he is full of, ahem, excrement. You are being tested on your ability to understand the author's argument and apply it to new scenarios, NOT on the objective validity of the argument. So stay focused on the point the author is making, and don't ever think about your own beliefs on the topic.
 

QofQuimica

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These tips are from volunteer advisor emack.

********

Here's my VR strategy. Maybe it'll help someone out there. I got a 14 on VR.

1) Read quickly, but not too quickly.
I pause after each paragraph, make sure that I've understood the gist, and quickly decide on a couple of key words to circle. This ensures that I haven't read so quickly that nothing was absorbed. Circling key words gives me something concrete to do to nail down the content, rather than just thinking 'Okay, yeah, I got that. Moving on...'

2) Stop after the passage, too.
This is based on Kaplan's Topic/Scope/Purpose strategy, but simplified. I try to summarize the point (purpose) of the passage in one sentence/phrase in my head. This step is crucial to answering those 'What is the central theme' questions. Again, if you can't come up with something for this step, then you haven't done a good job of reading.

3) Whenever possible, try to predict answers before looking at the options. (Obviously doesn't work for necessarily process-of-elimination questions.)
Sample question: "In paragraph 2, the author strengthens the argument by...". Don't look at the options. Look at paragraph 2 (if you don't remember what it was about), especially at the key words that you identified. Formulate a quick answer in your head. Then look at the given options to choose the one that most closely matches. This is a combination of "going with your gut instinct" tempered with "not getting distracted by wrong answers."

4) Keep it simple!
Unless I can't avoid it, I ignore all subtleties/nuance in the original passage. Think structurally. Think in black & white. Identify contrasts, comparisons, support; I often paraphrase paragraphs as "this vs. that", or "x = y" or "support for previous paragraph" or "opposition to previous paragraph".

Remember-- in VR, the wrong answer options are especially tricky. They're designed to look like right answers. Wrong answers are often relevant to the passage, but not to the particular question.

So make sure, first of all, that you have a good handle on the overall point of the passage, as well as the purpose of each paragraph within that passage. Then make sure that you understand the specific question. Then make sure, when you're tempted by a specific answer, that you're not just picking it because it superficially "sounds good", but because it actually is the right answer to the right question.
 

lorelei

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Strategies are pretty individual, and they depend on your particular strengths and weaknesses. Personally I rarely marked up passages. I apparently process the keywords automatically - when I am working with students, I have to scan the passage and think about what the keywords are (it's like explaining to my mom how I know how the movie's going to end: if I stop and think about it, I can come up with the signals, but I didn't necessarily say to myself "hey, foreshadowing!" at the time).

However, I do recommend that people try noting keywords, because they're important in grasping the structure of the passage, and that is really key (so to speak). Knowing when the author is supporting his/her pet idea, when s/he's contrasting it with something else, when there's an argument that's being built up step by step - those are very important to understanding the passage. It's the difference between knowing that the passage is about historical boats, and understanding that it's explaining how the transition from wooden to steel boats caused a change in naval strategy. (Or whatever; I made that up.)

Keywords are also important when you're figuring out the author's bias. When I'm teaching, oftentimes students will know what the passage was about, but they have trouble figuring out the author's take on the subject. You're never going to read "Personally, I think X" on the MCAT; keywords are helpful here too. And again, I'll go through and point out words like "clearly": why would the author use that word? The sentence makes sense without it, so it must be some sort of emphasis. Why is the author emphasizing that? Etc.

Obviously, not everyone will find that circling keywords is going to be helpful, and that's fine - maybe you do it automatically like me, or maybe it's so much of a distraction that it keeps you from focusing; either way, if it doesn't work don't do it. The important thing is being able to read for structure and slant.
 

lorelei

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People often ask what they should be reading to get used to the style and topics they'll encounter on the Verbal Reasoning section.

In General

The standard advice, which is good, is to read magazines like The Economist, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. These magazines generally have good writing in essay format. There are, of course, other magazines that work as well. Don't use Time or Newsweek for this purpose, although you may enjoy them to keep up on current events; they're not written at a very high level.

The Atlantic has a recurring feature called "A Close Read," which examines good writing in detail. While it focuses on fiction, it's useful for the MCAT student because it does a lot of analysis of tricks authors use to convey the desired effect (which can be missed if you're not reading closely enough).

While you're reading, be practicing the strategies in this thread: look for the author's viewpoint; analyze his/her argument; understand why the article is put together the way it is.

Specific Subjects: Social Sciences

Malcolm Gladwell, who's an economist, writes for the New Yorker, and his stuff is very good. Actually, you can read many of his essays on his website, www.gladwell.com , and I would recommend doing so.

Specific Subjects: Philosophy

Philosophy is easily the topic my students have had the most trouble with. While particular knowledge of philosophy is certainly not required for the MCAT, it can be very difficult to understand the philosophy passages if you're not familiar with the way philosophers tend to argue.

I have been recommending primarily Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett, because I think their writings are generally interesting to pre-medical students. Pinker is actually a cognitive scientist, so a lot of his work is more life sciences than philosophy, but he's a pretty good introduction to the way philosophers write and argue, and he's very readable. (Also, on my MCAT there was a passage from one of his books.)

Dennett is a philosopher who writes a lot about the intersection between biology and philosophy. For example, one of his books is called Darwin's Dangerous Idea. So he is also pretty readable for people who are into biology, but he DEFINITELY writes like a philosopher. If you can get into the habit of following his arguments and anticipating what comes next, you will be well on your way for reading philosophy passages.

If you're interested in an introduction to philosophy in general, a very readable book is Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. It's the history of philosophy told in novel form, written by a former high school teacher. While it is not the best introduction to philosophy out there, it is almost certainly the easiest to follow and most pleasant to read.

I want to emphasize that I'm not suggesting that you need to read all of these books! Only pick them up if you feel you need more practice, and don't think you have to read the entire book unless you want to.
 
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