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Question of the Day: MCAT Verbal

Adapted from Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (1918)

The history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian—ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art. Concerning the age which has just passed, our fathers and our grandfathers have poured forth and accumulated so vast a quantity of information that the industry of a Ranke would be submerged by it, and the perspicacity of a Gibbon would quail before it. It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity. Guided by these considerations, I have written the ensuing studies. I have attempted, through the medium of biography, to present some Victorian visions to the modern eye. They are, in one sense, haphazard visions—that is to say, my choice of subjects has been determined by no desire to construct a system or to prove a theory, but by simple motives of convenience and of art. It has been my purpose to illustrate rather than to explain. It would have been futile to hope to tell even a précis of the truth about the Victorian age, for the shortest précis must fill innumerable volumes. But, in the lives of an ecclesiastic, an educational authority, a woman of action, and a man of adventure, I have sought to examine and elucidate certain fragments of the truth which took my fancy and lay to my hand.

I hope, however, that the following pages may prove to be of interest from the strictly biographical, no less than from the historical point of view. Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value that is independent of any temporal processes—which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake. The art of biography seems to have fallen on evil times in England. We have had, it is true, a few masterpieces, but we have never had, like the French, a great biographical tradition; we have had no Fontenelles and Condorcets, with their incomparable éloges, compressing into a few shining pages the manifold existences of men. With us, the most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing has been relegated to the journeymen of letters; we do not reflect that it is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as to live one. Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead—who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortege of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism. One is tempted to suppose, of some of them, that they were composed by that functionary as the final item of his job. The studies in this book are indebted, in more ways than one, to such works—works which certainly deserve the name of Standard Biographies. For they have provided me not only with much indispensable information, but with something even more precious—an example. How many lessons are to be learned from them! But it is hardly necessary to particularize. To preserve, for instance, a becoming brevity—a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant—that, surely, is the first duty of the biographer. The second, no less surely, is to maintain his own freedom of spirit. It is not his business to be complimentary; it is his business to lay bare the facts of the case, as he understands them. That is what I have aimed at in this book—to lay bare the facts of some cases, as I understand them, dispassionately, impartially, and without ulterior intentions.

Which of these questions is least relevant to this passage?

What can be learned from the failings of other biographers?

Why might it be challenging to write a history of a recent epoch?

What constitutes acceptable biographical work?

All of these questions are relevant to this passage.

What approach does this author take to historical inquiry?

Similar to the Verbal Reasoning section of the previous rendition of the MCAT, the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Section of the 2015 MCAT will ask students to read and consider passages from varying topics in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Following each passage, a set of around five questions will assess how well students comprehended and analyzed the material presented. While the passages may not appear long at between five hundred and six hundred words each, their vocabulary and grammatical structure are complex and the works themselves thought-provoking. In the fifty-three questions tested in the ninety-minute section, students may be asked about medical ethics, medical humanities, history, philosophy, and psychology. In comparison to the old test, test-takers will find more passages related to medicine, at times with an emphasis on the healthcare climate of the United States. Whether you need MCAT tutoring in AtlantaMCAT tutoring in Houston, or MCAT tutoring in San Francisco, working one-on-one with an expert may be just the boost your studies need.

A couple characteristics make this section unique—all of the questions in this section are passage-based; none are free-standing like those seen in the other three sections of the 2015 MCAT. Furthermore, all of the information required to answer each question is contained within the passage itself; no outside knowledge is required. In fact, use of outside knowledge instead of considering the information in the passage can often lead to incorrect answers. As far as questions are concerned, thirty percent of the questions come directly from the text as reading comprehension, thirty percent will require reasoning from the text (e.g. determining an author’s opinion or the theme of the passage), and forty percent require reasoning beyond the text (e.g. understanding the implicit assumptions required to write such a passage or determining what type of career the author may hold). Within the fifty percent of content that can be in the humanities, the American Association of Medical Colleges has informed test takers that topics can include architecture, art, dance, ethics, literature, music, philosophy, popular culture, religion, theater, and studies of diverse cultures (understanding certain traditions or exploring the heritage of a certain group of people). In the remaining fifty percent of content that can be classified as social sciences, passages may be written about anthropology, archaeology, economics, education, geography, history, linguistics, political science, population health, psychology, or sociology. Varsity Tutors offers resources like free MCAT Verbal Reasoning Practice Tests to help with your self-paced study, or you may want to consider an MCAT Verbal Reasoning tutor.

In order to score well on this section, students will need the ability both to read passages in a timely manner and to understand content, theme, and tone in order to answer the presented questions. The language used and topics presented to students may seem unfamiliar to some, as most students outside of English, Literature, or Linguistics majors are likely not used to reading such high-level writing on a regular basis. Early practice with passage-reading and utilizing vocabulary-building tools such as flashcards can allow students to read the passages more quickly and with higher fidelity. Additionally, test-takers will likely want to design a passage-mapping strategy that allows them to take notes as they read through the works. Subtle detail will likely be the key to answering questions that ask about the author’s tone, point-of-view, and purpose of writing the passage. Additionally, these notes will allow students to reason beyond the text to understand implicit assumptions needed to understand the passage. In addition to the MCAT Verbal Reasoning Question of the Day and MCAT Verbal Reasoning tutoring, you may also want to consider using some of our MCAT Verbal Reasoning flashcards.

If you want to start reviewing for the MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning section, Varsity Tutors’ free MCAT Verbal Learning Tools can help. We feature one MCAT Verbal question every day; picking an answer choice not only reveals the correct answer, but a full explanation of how you can arrive at it. No matter how you do on the question, it helps you: if you answer it correctly, it reinforces knowledge you have already gained, and if you miss the question, you are presented with a valuable opportunity to learn from your error and correct misconceptions before test day. Try your hand at answering our MCAT Verbal question of the day and check back every day for a new featured question and a new chance to improve your MCAT knowledge!

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