Scoring a 10 or better on the MCAT Verbal Section requires a different set of skills than most premed students have developed in their college years. But all of these skills can be mastered if approached in a rigorous and methodical way. Premed students can master these skills and score a 10 or better once they master the fundamentals of English grammar and composition.
You may feel like you’re going back to freshman high school English, but mastering the parts of speech and parts of a sentence are essential. You’ll never be able to determine what the key ideas are in the most important sentences of an essay unless you can dissect a sentence and tell what is important and what is not. Otherwise an essay just looks like a wall of words. Go to the library and get a copy of Warriner’s Grammar: A Complete Course, and master chapters 19-22. It’s only four chapters, but knowing them like you know the chart of periodic elements will provide a vital key to mastering any text.
The same rules apply to reading an essay as writing an essay. Focus on key sentences, like the topic sentence at the beginning that tells you what the main idea of a paragraph is. Similarly, the conclusion sentence of a paragraph will tell you why the ideas in the paragraph are important and why they are relevant. With everything in between, look for emphasis words and cues. For example, contrast words like ‘yet’ and ‘but’ signal an important idea. Any sentence with a colon or semicolon is important because the author is emphasizing an idea by giving a further example or explanation. Conclusion words, like ‘therefore’ and ‘accordingly’ signal important ideas, as do any sentences with italics or quotes. By focusing on the key sentences you’ll be able to follow the argument. By mastering grammar, you’ll know exactly what the important ideas are in those sentences no matter how long and involved they are.
Just a word or two note on each key sentence provides what’s called a ‘cognitive anchor’. Studies show that these embed the ideas in your mind so you remember them and give you a place marker when you are looking for details to answer a question.
Thinking about how each paragraph relates to the next helps you to follow the argument and understand what the author’s line of thinking is. If time allows, also ask yourself, ‘Why is this paragraph here? What function is it serving?’ Cognition or understanding an essay comes from seeing how the main ideas relate to each other.
There will always be inference questions or questions based on the main idea of the passage. Think about what the words actually mean themselves, and in addition, think about what they are saying. When asked a question about a particular passage in the text or the essay as a whole, ask yourself, ‘What is the language suggesting here? Where is it leading me? What can I conclude from this?’
There is no such thing as a perfect set of test taking skills that can act as a substitute for the real thing. It’s all about the fundamentals of reading and writing. Master the basics of grammar and composition and you’ll master the test.
Focus on the important ideas. When you do, it’s easier to recall the supporting facts. Cognition or understanding of an essay comes from seeing relationships of key ideas. When you do, the facts tend to stick to the ideas. Trying too hard to absorb the facts without seeing the framework of ideas will turn the essay into an incomprehensible jumble.
If you’re a hard working student, and you probably are, you’ve been playing tennis with a golf club. You’ve just been using the wrong tools and you shouldn’t be deterred by this. Just like in your medical career, diagnosis is 90% of effecting a cure. The diagnosis is that you’re using the wrong set of skills. The cure is learning the new skills. You can do this. You’re smart and you can master these skills just as you mastered your science subjects. You just have to realize that you are in a different domain with different rules.
There are no short cuts, just as there are no shortcuts in learning organic chemistry or physics. It’s going to take hard work and learning, or relearning, a different set of skills that you haven’t been using. It isn’t brain surgery. But you’ve got to be committed to starting at the beginning and building each step of knowledge cumulatively. You can’t do well in physics unless you know some math. Likewise, you can’t do well on the Verbal Section of the MCAT unless you master the fundamentals of grammar and composition.
Of course you could have taught yourself math and physics but it’s so much more efficient and effective if you have a good teacher to take you through this. There are a number of people out there that can help you. Just make sure they have a verifiable track record and you feel comfortable working with them. In 8 to 12 weeks of hard work, you can really learn everything you need to know to get a 10 or better, and that is your ticket to medical school, the goal that you’ve worked so hard to attain.
Focusing on the fundamentals of reading and writing, any student can get a 10 or better on the Verbal Section of the MCAT. It will take learning or relearning an area that has been ignored for years. But with hard work and good instruction, any student who has done well in the science area can master this area as well.
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