Preparing Quickly for the PCAT or GRE Verbal


The PCAT and GRE have verbal testing components, which may not coincide with a student's science heavy preparation, so here are some tips on improving your word game fast.

The American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) recently had their virtual fairs for PharmDs (October 4-5, 2016) and masters and PhD hopefuls (October 13, 2016). One aspect of a student’s application that schools will look at closely is the verbal score. Although professional and graduate study fields are traditionally separate, their entrance verbal requirements have some commonalities.

Whether preparing for the Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT), a PharmD program, or the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) for a pharmaceutically oriented PhD program, those interested in doing well on these tests should build a stronger vocabulary. But this doesn’t mean simply memorizing more words; in fact, that’s not an effective way to build up your language skills. Here are 3 considerations as you prepare to beef up your vocabulary.

1. An approach to speeding up your testing

2. Resources to use and not use

3. An algorithm for improving your vocabulary practice

1. An approach to speeding up your testing

Speeding up your testing and reading requires that you first slow down your practice. Some students practice taking sample exams and getting through the exam as quickly as possible. There’s an expression in learning music that to get better one should practice slowly to play quickly. Every word you don’t know becomes a speed bump in reading paragraphs or a blank when trying to answer a question with vocabulary responses. Many students try to run over those speed bumps and just get to the answers, which is understandable during the actual exam. However, in practice, the first step is to keep a notebook where you write those words you don’t know and act on them immediately. At first, this will seem laborious and time-consuming, but the more you track the number of words you don’t know, the better you can measure your improvement. Plus, it takes time to become a good communicator, and honing communication and language skills part of your training to become an effective pharmacist.

2. Resources to use and not use

Many practice materials have a section where they match a key or bolded word on the left with synonyms on the right. After reading through the bold word and its synonyms to the next word, a reader quickly forgets what was in the previous word. Why? To retain or learn something, one must engage with the word, and by guessing if it matches or not, there can be active learning. Passively reading these lists doesn’t engage the brain, so the words are quickly forgotten.

So how can we learn? From narratives and mistakes. It can be hard for some to retain information from word lists unless they’ve created those lists on their own. I memorized a top 300 list of GRE words and found that only 1 was on the exam, and it was part of a wrong answer. Something that many forget is that test makers also have copies of those preparation books and can easily avoid those highlighted or present in many of the books.

Instead, if you study the etymologies of words, you’ll find that, for example, in advocate and equivocate there’s the similar root voc from vocal. Someone who’s an advocate talks for you, and someone who equivocates goes back and forth (sometimes in talking). You may know the word advocate and not know exactly what equivocate means, but you see the voc in there and can make an educated guess. So learning the basic meaning of prefixes and suffixes can help you figure out meaning when you’re on the spot.

3. An algorithm for improving your vocabulary practice

How then do you improve vocabulary every day? Many online chat rooms and message boards place the Kaplan Test Prep GRE book as a primary resource for both the GRE and PCAT. I used that book to prepare for the GRE with many online tests and resources for a little less than $30. While preparing, however, I worked very slowly, and for every word I didn’t recognize, I completed this 3-step algorithm:

1. Guess the meaning of the word and write it down.

2. Look up the etymology of the word on Google by typing “etymology” in the search bar and the word immediately after.

3. Compare your guess to the etymology.

The mistakes you make with your active study of etymology will first slow your practice, but as you continue to add words, you’ll see similar roots and start getting a feel for what each word means. It’s much easier for native speakers because they already have a sense of the nuances of the language. That is, a native speaker more easily knows the difference between 2 words that look similar. For example, a library has books and a librarian works at a place with books; they both include the libr root meaning book. However, another word, equilibrium, has libr in it as well, but that refers to libra meaning “scale.” With practice, you’ll start to build your own library of words and stems that keep repeating. That way, when you run over the speed bump during the exam, you might have a stronger idea of what an unknown word means because you’ve at least seen and recognized the root. I’ve created a YouTube video that goes into more depth on vocabulary improvement techniques.

Although most students do complete this preparation for the entrance exam, there’s now an extra reason to continue this practice before and throughout professional school. On July 12, 2015, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) announced it would be “moving forward with a communication skills assessment. The 2014 NABP Pharmacy Practice Analysis Survey provided strong evidence that pharmacist communication skills are of paramount importance for safe and effective practice and that entry-level pharmacists deficient in communication skills could place the public health at risk. In response, NABP will develop an integrated pharmacist communication skills assessment that could be used by its member boards as an additional component for licensure beginning in 2018.”1

Those PharmD students who are being accepted in the most recent application cycles and going forward will need to meet the challenge of this communication assessment, and one way that pharmacy schools evaluate communication skills is through their entry requirements. I’d anticipate schools of pharmacy looking more closely at a student’s communication skills before acceptance. So improving your language and vocabulary skills isn’t just important for passing the tests, but also for succeeding as you progress through school and into your career.


1. NABP and member boards of pharmacy continue legacy of innovations in test development. NABP website.

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