MCAT Verbal Reasoning: What Is It and Why Is It So Confusing

by Vault Education Editors | November 10, 2010

  • My Vault

For many would-be med students, the one part of the MCAT that is the most perplexing is Verbal Reasoning. At first glance, you may wonder what it could possibly have to do with studying medicine. You’re given confusing, chopped-up passages on topics about as far from medicine as you can imagine--the history of the French Revolution, say, or South American pottery–-and asked not only to make sense of something that seems rambling and bizarre, but to answer strange, speculative questions, along the lines of “If the events described in the passage were made into a musical, what style of music would the author most likely prefer?”

What does all of this have to do with becoming a doctor?

Understanding the answer to that question will help you make sense of the MCAT VR – and when you feel it makes sense, it’s easier to improve.

Think about what a doctor has to do: talk with patients, listen to their stories, identify clues to what’s wrong, and find the patterns and connections between the clues. The patient won’t know how to present the case history in the same way your medical textbooks might; you may have to sort through something that seems rambling, disorganized, confusing--a lot like one of the VR passages. This is where the MCAT will determine whether you can cope with being thrown into an unfamiliar situation and asked to quickly get your bearings and figure out what’s important. In real life, the “main point”--the diagnosis and/or the most important symptom--won’t be spelled out for you in big block letters, because the patient may not know what the main point is. It’s your job to read between the lines, to find the pattern rather than wait for the patient to hand it to you on a platter.

The VR also tests your ability to understand how strong an argument is – what evidence supports one interpretation and what evidence supports another. Very often, MCAT VR passages involve a contrast between two points of view or two ‘camps’--one that analyzes a problem one way and another that takes a very different perspective. Questions may require you to keep track of which bits of evidence support each side, and how changing one fact could shift the balance of power between the two perspectives. In real life, doctors continually have to weigh evidence for and against competing explanations all the time. If one or two facts changed, would that make it more or less likely that the patient’s primary problem is the heart rather than the lungs? If one piece of evidence supporting the “virus” diagnosis were taken away, would the remaining evidence still point strongly to a virus?

All about balance

Finally, the VR tests your ability to balance reasoning and instinct--to know when you have gotten as far as the facts can take you and it’s time to “go with your gut.” The difference between the credited answer and the not-quite-good-enough answer is often very slight--not nearly as cut-and-dried as on other tests such as the GMAT or the LSAT. At a certain point, you have to trust your instincts, weigh the evidence you’ve got and make the best decision you can, even if you don’t have absolute proof that you’re right. As a doctor, you’ll be called on to deal with confusing, unclear situations frequently.

The bottom line as you’re preparing for the VR is this: There’s method to the madness. Remember that it really is testing skills that you’ll need as a doctor. Knowing that will make it easier to dig in, deal with the difficulties, and clear this hurdle on your way to med school.


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