Reading is critical to any student’s academic success. It’s a healthy habit to get into no matter your field, but if you are a medical student or hope to become one, you must have strong reading comprehension skills. In this article, we’ll share actionable strategies for how to improve reading comprehension that you can put into practice straight away.
The sooner you start reading and improving your skills, the better equipped you will be for the MCAT, med school applications, medical school, and life in general.
What is Reading Comprehension and Why is it Important?
Reading comprehension refers to our ability to understand and interpret what we read. To fully comprehend what we read, we must be able to decipher the language and text, think deeply about it, and make connections between what we read and our own personal experience and knowledge.
The ability to understand what you read is essential to academic success, as well as personal and professional success in general. After all, reading text and interpreting it is a pretty major part of school and life.
If that’s not enough, the CARS section of the MCAT specifically tests your reading comprehension and analytical skills. To score well in CARS, you must be able to quickly comprehend, analyze, interpret, and evaluate what you read. If your reading comprehension skills are lacking, CARS is going to be a significant challenge, and it could severely impact your success on the MCAT.
How to Improve Reading Comprehension
1 | Practice Active Reading
Active reading is when we thoroughly engage with the text. It requires us to ask questions, challenge the author’s assertions, reread what we don’t understand, make personal connections, and focus on the author’s use of language to dig deep and figure out what the author is implying.
It’s the opposite of passive reading, which is when we skim articles to get the gist or space out for paragraphs at a time reading textbooks or novels. When we read passively, we don’t connect to the text personally, and we don’t challenge the opinions presented.
Active reading trains us to evaluate everything we read and connect it to our own personal experiences and knowledge. When you read, try to make connections. Ask questions to deduce the deeper implications of the text and the author’s true intentions. Get out of the habit of skimming passively by trying to understand every key idea, concept, and crucial detail.
2 | Don’t Be Afraid of Reading Regressions
Reading regressions are when our eyes jump back to prior text to gain a better understanding of what we just read. These eye movements (regressions) help us reprocess words or sentences we didn’t fully understand after the first pass, and they’re essential to our reading comprehension. Unfortunately, a number of college students and college-level readers ignore regressions and try to push past them even when it would improve their comprehension.
When we read as fast as possible, we tend to skip over sentences we didn’t fully understand and adopt a “good enough” or “I got the gist” mentality. Obviously, this does not improve our reading comprehension. In fact, it kind of ignores it. What’s the value in reading something as fast as possible if we’re not understanding it?
Don’t choose speed over understanding. Speed reading advice may tell you to avoid regressions, but they are valuable when you want to fully comprehend the text.
3 | Summarize What You Read
Summarize each paragraph with a simple, four or five word sentence. What’s the gist or key idea being described? When you reach the end of the page, you will have a list of short sentences that summarize everything you read.
Performing this action improves our comprehension because it trains us to consider the point or purpose of each paragraph. This helps us to critically engage with what we read so that we’re never reading mindlessly. The more you practice summarizing each paragraph, the better and faster you’ll be able to comprehend everything you read.
4 | Visualize What You Read
Try to visualize everything you read. If you’re reading fiction, what do the characters look like? What do the author’s descriptions help us infer about their appearance? What details do they select to describe the different settings their characters live in or travel to? Every word and every description is there for a purpose.
Visualization is more than seeing pictures in your head. Put yourself right in the middle of what you read and take a look around. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you taste?
Take the time to check in with each of your senses when you read to gain a better understanding of the text.
5 | Ask Questions About What You Are Reading
When trying to hone your reading comprehension skills, question everything. Don’t take any passage for granted. Take your time and formulate questions as you read.
You can even write down the questions as they come up. See if you gain the answers you are looking for as you continue to read. Ask questions like:
- What would happen if…?
- What do you think will happen next?
- What do you want to happen?
- What is the author trying to convey?
- Does the author have any apparent biases?
Ask questions about the author’s perspective, main character motivations, and anything else that comes to mind. Keep track of anything you don’t understand or words that stump you. Looking these up can clarify the actual meaning of the text and may help you answer your own questions.
6 | Predict What Will Happen Next
Predict and draw conclusions about what you’re reading. Use what you already know about the characters and their motivations to predict what they will do next. If you’re familiar with the author, use your knowledge of their previous work to determine where the plot or central themes are headed. Many authors follow a formula to some degree.
Predicting what will happen next is an excellent way to actively engage with a text, and accurate predictions clearly demonstrate solid deductive reasoning as well as your ability to deeply connect with and understand what you read. If you have a good idea of what will happen next, it shows you have been paying close attention.
7 | Make Connections
Practice making connections. This can be between concepts in the text, between paragraphs, and between different articles or books. Does one text remind you of something else you read? Did you read something similar in the past? Does an author employ a similar style to another you’ve read? Can you make any connections to your own personal life or experiences?
8 | Highlight Important Passages
This is often mentioned as a CARS strategy, but it can be applied to any form of reading to help you zero in on the most important points. Don’t be afraid to take a pencil, pen, or highlighter to your novels or whatever it is you read for pleasure. Highlight key phrases, words, ideas, and recurring themes. It will train your eyes to probe the text for the most crucial information. Kindle also has a highlight feature if you prefer to read books electronically or don’t want to harm your physical copies.
9 | Force Yourself to Read Complicated Texts
Reading complicated texts forces us to slow down and focus on what the author is trying to express. After all, if we don’t slow down, we won’t understand what’s going on. Slowing down and focusing on the words is essential to our reading comprehension, so reading complicated texts is a great way to flex and train that muscle.
Ensure you understand each word, phrase, and the meaning behind it. If you don’t understand something, look it up. Do not simply move on to the next sentence. Make every effort to understand what the author is trying to convey.
Classic literature, dense magazine publications, or literary journals are all excellent places to start. Follow along carefully, look up any tricky language, and, most importantly, practice every day. The more you read complicated texts, the better you will get at understanding them.
10 | Practice Every Day
Regardless of your professional ambitions, personal interests, or whether or not you want to apply to medical school, reading regularly is healthy. Reading every day improves memory function, increases your vocabulary, enhances your understanding of other human beings, reduces stress, aids sleep, and boosts brain connectivity. Since this is a Med School Insiders article, it’s also important to mention that reading regularly can significantly improve your CARS performance on the MCAT.
While it’s true that some people enjoy reading more than others, everyone can learn to enjoy reading and improve their reading comprehension with practice. To quote Tyrion Lannister, “a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” In other words, reading regularly keeps your mind sharp.
Start reading regularly as soon as you can. Try a mix of genres to discover what truly excites you, whether they be biographies, historical fiction, fantasy, horror, or nonfiction. It’s the act of reading regularly that’s most important. Find something you like so that you’re actually excited to pick up the book again.
Be intentional with your reading by building it into your daily schedule, which will help you to turn reading into a habit. Habits aren’t easy to develop, but they’re a serious challenge to break. Once you make reading a habit, you won’t want to stop, and the more you read, the better you will be at comprehending every word and sentence and deducing the deeper meaning within a text.
For prospective med students, reading regularly and for pleasure is essential to your success applying to and graduating from medical school—and it’s pretty key to your future success as a doctor. Learning how to quickly infer the deeper meaning within texts is vital to your success with CARS, and learning how to craft a compelling narrative is critical to writing a stellar personal statement.
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