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PCAT Critical Reading Strategies

When it comes to the PCAT, the critical reading section is unique.  Every other section of the test requires outside knowledge to do well.  The critical reading section on the other hand, is quite the opposite. This section requires no outside knowledge and, as a matter of fact, bringing in outside knowledge can often hurt can you in this section!  I always advocate to students that they should think of the critical reading section as an open note test where all the information is provided for you.

So, if you can’t prepare yourself by studying content, how do you improve your critical reading scores?  It comes down to choosing the correct strategy for you, and there are plenty of successful ones to choose from:

The “Careful Reader” Strategy:

With the careful reader strategy, students will carefully read the passage then attempt to answer the questions one at a time, in order.  This strategy is the most obvious choice, and one that is used by the most students.  While this works well for some students, it doesn’t work for all.

This strategy works best for students who are used to reading complex passages, like the ones that are used in the PCAT.  The downside is that reading carefully can take time, something that is in short supply on the exam.  Another problem with this strategy is that students working off their memory are more likely to misremember the passage (or even worse, bring in their own outside knowledge!).  In order to use this strategy successfully, you need to make sure that you don’t fall into that trap.

The “Skimmer” Strategy:

The skimmer strategy is one of my personal favorites.  A skimmer will quickly work through the passage as fast as they can, just trying to get an understanding of how the passage is organized.  They do NOT read to understand the passage, just to understand where certain topics are located within the passage.  The extra time they save on the passage, they will use when answering questions.

This strategy works very well for students who find timing to be an issue. This strategy is also ideal for students who find that they are misremembering and bringing in outside information when answering questions.  Since students using this strategy do not read the passage thoroughly, they have to go back to the passage to answer the questions (which they have extra time for because they worked through the passage so quickly).  This means that every answer is coming straight from the passage, not from memory.  The downside to this strategy is that it takes weeks of practice to master and will feel uncomfortable to students at first.

The “Questions First” Strategy:

The questions first strategy is the least used of all the strategies, but occasionally I will meet a student who swears by it.  In this strategy, you click through all the questions for the passage, reading each of them.  Then you go back and read the passage, taking time to answer each of those questions as they as come up in the passage.

This strategy, like the skimmer strategy, guarantees that every question is coming straight from the passage and not outside knowledge.  On the other hand, I find that this strategy is not terribly time efficient.  Clicking through each question once, clicking back, and then clicking through them to find the correct question takes a lot of time.  Students often aren’t capable of remembering 8 different complex questions on top of reading through the passage.

So, Which Strategy Will You Choose?

Regardless of how you go about it, it is important that you have a strategy for the PCAT.  And more importantly, make sure that you practice that strategy!  After all, that is the only one way to improve your score in the critical reading section.  Feel like you need additional help? Our PCAT tutors work with students one-on-one, allowing them to focus on their student’s individual weaknesses and areas of concern. If you feel like you’re struggling with the Critical Reading section, we can help. Learn more about our private PCAT tutoring here.

Next Step also provides full-length practice PCAT exams. You can try one free or purchase a bundle of 5  full-length exams.

Phil Hawkins, Senior PCAT Instructor

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