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Tips for Success on the PCAT Writing Section

If we had a magic bullet for writing a compelling PCAT essay, trust me, we’d give it to you. However, you have only two principal jobs when writing your essay:

  1. persuade your audience
  2. write clearly

You don’t need to be a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens to crack the PCAT essay, so long as your audience understands what you’re saying and understands why it’s important. Here are several time-honored techniques you can use for PCAT Writing success. Make your writing the best it can be and score a 6 on the Writing section with these tips:

Read the good stuff

Do you have a favorite author? Have you ever been struck by a piece of literature or an article that was so good, it sent shivers up your spine? When was the last time you read something in the newspaper? There’s no time like the present to make reading part of your regular PCAT prep.

Carve out time once or twice a week to sit down with an article or short essay, and analyze what makes it a compelling piece so you can emulate those factors in your own writing. What do you like about it? What about the author’s writing style makes it persuasive? Try to identify effective transitions and determine the types of sentence structure the author employs. Does the author present two or more sides to an argument in an objective way? Is the support for their arguments evidence-based and logical? When does the author make it clear what her position is? Are there any calls-to-action?

Note that more often than not, “big words” don’t make or break an essay. On one hand, using very precise terms can convey the author’s message in a concise manner. But on the other hand, accidentally using the wrong word can be devastating or at least reduce the author’s credibility. Remember, you will not have spell check or a dictionary on Test Day, so stick to what you know!

Scratch your brain

You won’t have a ton of time on Test Day to think deeply about a problem, something necessary for PCAT Writing success. So, take advantage of the time you have now to practice “thinking deeply” about a pressing contemporary issue, such as:

  • Whether standardized testing is a fair metric in elementary education
  • Improving quality of care and reducing wait time in the veteran healthcare system
  • Ethical dilemmas concerning the safe use of artificial intelligence
  • Addiction risk associated with opioid use in pain management for chronic pain

Even if you don’t know much about one of these issues, first see if you can identify the problem and what implications it might have for society. For example, you might surmise that standardized tests reward rote memorization rather than creative thinking and unfairly disadvantage certain students. Furthermore, standardized tests are limited in the skills that they can evaluate and discourage teachers from offering a more diverse, adaptive curriculum.

Your first goal when writing your essay should be to convince your readers that there is an unmet need, so the more you elaborate on the problem, the more compelled your reader will feel to keep reading until they figure out a solution!

Next, ask yourself: if you were on the other side of this argument, what would you need to be convinced to jump ship and change your mind? Well, you would want to know that your own position was heard, and then you’d need to have each of your arguments dismantled. So your essay should present some of the common arguments in favor of standardized testing. For example, standardized tests are the best way to compare students’ performance on a national scale. One could also argue that they level the playing field for students, allowing some to demonstrate their capacity for learning even despite lower grades.

Then, defuse these arguments swiftly. Your goal is to find flaws or counterarguments to your potential readers’ support for standardized testing, making them question the validity of their own arguments. Are standardized tests the ONLY way to compare students’ performance? Do they REALLY level the playing field? What clever alternatives can you come up with that will satisfy both parties?

Make sure that you end with a strong conclusion. There’s no length requirement for your conclusion, but it is important not to simply summarize your main arguments; every sentence of your essay should add some new insight. What is your final recommendation? What can you say that will leave your audience at least continuing to ponder this issue, and at best, questioning their own position?

Now go ahead and do some online research. What are the popular arguments in favor of or against standardized testing? How many could you think of, and were there any that you wish you had come up with?

Who cares?

Who is going to care about what you are writing? In other words, who is your intended audience? Well, technically the test-graders are your actual audience, but if you could disseminate your essay, who would you want to read it? Then consider what you intend to accomplish. Is your goal to completely change your audience’s opinion about the issue? Maybe they agree with your position on the issue but need convincing that your proposed solutions are realistic and will make a difference. Do you want to leave your audience with any — explicit or implicit — action steps?

At the end of the day, thinking about writing a great essay won’t help you very much until you put pen on paper. The best advice for PCAT Writing success, or scoring a 6 on the Writing section is to practice, practice, practice. Analyze your writing and then re-write. Ask someone else to review your writing, and then re-write again. As your writing improves over time, not only will you be more prepared on Test Day, but you will also be better able to develop logical arguments and present them clearly to your audience in the future.

Check out our free PCAT Diagnostic or take all 5 PCAT Full Length Exams for practice on the Writing section. Now what are you waiting for? Get started today writing the PCAT Essay that knock the socks off of your test-grader!

Good luck!

Sophia Stone is one of Next Step’s PCAT course instructors and has played an integral role in the creation of our PCAT materials. She has over 7 years of experience teaching and tutoring and is a full-time PCAT and MCAT instructor with Next Step.

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