The MCAT’s Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section is a challenge for many pre-med students. You may have spent your undergrad studying the sciences without much time for casual or academic reading.
Also, unlike the sciences you are used to, you can’t study cold hard facts to improve your verbal (CARS) score.
As an MCAT tutor, I find my students struggle with the following in verbal:
- Not reading the passages fast enough
- Not understanding what they are reading
- Not understanding passage questions
But like any challenge, these problems can be mastered.
Enter the Newspaper Strategy
I recommend for my MCAT students what I call the “Newspaper Strategy.” The goal of the Newspaper Strategy is to get you in the habit of reading different types of articles, particularly on topics you find tedious and boring. (Doesn’t that sound exciting?)
Visit your local newsstand and pick up a fat and reputable newspaper such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
You specifically want the printed version rather than the online version.
The goal is to get you reading more fluently without mental distraction, and most online newspapers contain a lot of moving or colorful ads. Those won’t help you concentrate the way you need to; The MCAT doesn’t have flashing sidebars.
Give the newspaper a new home on your nightstand, then set your alarm to go off 45 minutes earlier than usual. As soon as your alarm goes off, turn on the lights and open that paper. Read article after article on various topics, especially if they don’t interest you.
Run to the bathroom if you need to, but then go right back to bed as if you just woke up. Don’t leave this for later in the day because you may succumb to procrastination and not do this as often as required.
If you’re anything like me, your brain will absolutely hate you the first few times you do this. While your mind is trying to rest, you’re forcing it to concentrate on something it really doesn’t want to.
It WILL be hard at first.
You may read the first paragraph 2-3 times without truly processing it. Your mind will wander and you’ll find yourself thinking about the beautiful shimmer of your morning coffee.
You’re training your mind to pay attention and focus on the reading task at hand.
Each time you start a new article, take a few seconds to clear your mind. Remind yourself that you’re working on speed and concentration for the MCAT
Have 45 minutes to spare? Try it right now on this New York Times Article
Think of yourself in that white lab coat!
Read just a tiny bit faster than you normally would, but be sure you’re still paying attention.
Once you finish the article, take a few seconds to think about what you just read.
Ask yourself a series of quick questions:
- What was this article about? (Just a general idea)
- Why did the author bother to write this article?
- What was his point of view and goal?
That’s it- just a few seconds, then move on to the next one.
I recommend doing this exercise at least 4 days a week. Do it more if you’re looking for a drastic verbal score improvement (you may need to start taking naps), and less if your verbal score is nearing your target range.
Based purely on my MCAT tutoring experience, it takes approximately 3 weeks of diligent newspaper reading to see an improvement in your verbal score.
As you continue reading 3-4 times a week, you’ll notice not only your reading speed increase, but also your comprehension! Not only will you find yourself getting through more verbal passages, you’ll also have an easier time understanding the material and applying what you’ve read to the passage-based questions.
But the Newspaper Strategy is only a tool to increase your ability in this section.
The real practice and improvement will come from doing actual MCAT practice questions.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Your practice should come from two sources only. The first will be your actual full length practice AAMC exams. Every time you take a practice test, you will encounter a complete verbal (CARS) section.
Once you receive your score, take the time to review your verbal section as I explained in my article How To Review Your Full Length MCAT Practice Test.
Your second source of practice will come from practice passages.This is where you want to be careful. There are many test-prep books out there, and trying to work through too many will only lead to confusion. I recommend choosing one set of practice books and sticking to it.
This has been confirmed by many of my other tutoring clients. The Examkrackers verbal book has over a dozen verbal practice tests.
Don’t try to cover too much in one day; instead, spread them out so that you’re taking just 1-2 tests per week in the final 7 weeks leading up to your exam.
The verbal (CARS) section can be a challenge to premed students. The Newspaper Strategy will help you improve your reading speed, concentration and comprehension. Coupled with regular review of AAMC full length practice tests and VR practice material, your verbal scores will improve slowly but surely.