Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT)

Quick Facts

Get the “need to know” information at a quick glance.

Overview

The PCAT is an exam for students seeking admission to pharmacy colleges. The items on the exam were designed to test the skills that indicate future success in courses taught by pharmacy schools.

Format

Source: http://pcatweb.info/downloads/about/TestDevelopmentStructure.pdf

The PCAT is a computer-based test that includes 192 multiple-choice items and one writing prompt. On each subtest, there are 8 experimental questions that will not be scored. You will not know which questions are experimental.

The PCAT has five subtests: Writing, Biological Processes, Chemical Processes, Critical Reading, and Quantitative Reasoning.

The Writing subtest contains one prompt. Each of the other four sections contains 48 multiple-choice questions. You will be given 30 minutes to complete the Writing subtest, 45 minutes to complete the Biological Processes subtest, 45 minutes to complete the Chemical Processes subtest, 50 minutes to complete the Critical Reading subtest, and 50 minutes to complete the Quantitative reasoning subtest. You will also be offered an optional break of 15 minutes.

This means that you will have a total of 235 minutes, including the break, to answer the 192 questions and one Writing task on the exam.

Cost

The standard registration fee for the PCAT is $210. Late registration costs an extra $49, so be sure to register on time.

To register for the PCAT, visit http://pcatweb.info/Register-and-Schedule.php.

The standard registration fee covers the cost of sending your official transcript to up to three schools, which you will select when you register. If you choose to send your official transcript to additional schools after you take the exam, you may do so for $20 each.

Your official score report will be available to you online for free until one year after your test date. After one year, you will need to pay a fee of $20 to access your official score report, which will be available to you for five years after your test date.

Scoring

The multiple-choice questions on the PCAT are scored electronically and the Writing subtest is scored by trained scorers who assess problem-solving ability and language skills.

Every multiple-choice question is worth a single raw score point, regardless of difficulty. Wrong answers and unanswered questions both result in the loss of a point. Since you will not be penalized more for a wrong answer than an unanswered question, you should answer all of the questions.

Your Writing task will receive a score between 1 and 6, with 6 being the best possible score.

Pass rate

The PCAT is not an exam that students pass or fail. The schools to which you send your official transcript will consider your PCAT score in addition to other factors, such as your grades. Speak to the admissions offices of the schools to which you are applying in order to learn the average scores they accept.

PCAT scores range from 200 to 600, with 400 being an approximately average score. If you want to aim for a high score, consider that a score of 430 is very good and will place you around the 90th percentile of PCAT test-takers.

If you want to further break down your PCAT score, you should know that the subtests are scored separately, then averaged. So if you don’t score as well on one section, you can make up for it by scoring very well on other sections.

Study Time

Since the PCAT is one of the most important tests that pharmacy students will ever take, most students begin studying for the exam months in advance. It is recommended that you study for 1 to 3 hours each day. You will not be able to cram for the PCAT a week or two before the exam.

You can use our study materials to determine which areas you are weakest in. Then, plan to spend the majority of your study time focused on those areas.

What test takers wish they would’ve known:

  • As with most exams, you should make sure that you arrive at the testing center a few minutes early with any necessary materials and get plenty of rest the night before you take the exam.
  • Wearing layers to the testing center is a good idea in case the temperature is uncomfortable for you.
  • During the exam, you should definitely opt to take the 15-minute break. Since the exam is very long, your mind will benefit from having a few minutes of rest.
  • Since all of the multiple-choice questions have the same value, don’t spend too much time on a difficult question. After spending a couple of minutes on a question, eliminate any answer choices that seem unlikely and select an answer. You can go back to the question later if you have extra time.
  • Studying with a friend can make the task less of a chore and help keep you accountable. You can also listen to music while you study, as long as it does not distract you, and take a break every 30 minutes or so.
  • You’ll be able to take the PCAT again, but you should prepare for the exam with the mindset that you’re going to take it just once. You’ll save yourself time and money by taking the PCAT very seriously and doing your best the first time around.

Information and screenshots obtained from the Pearson PCAT web site: http://pcatweb.info/.

Writing

The Writing subtest has one prompt. You will have 30 minutes to complete this content area.

We will discuss five topics related to the Writing subtest:

  • The Writing Task Prompt
  • Prewriting
  • Writing
  • Revision
  • Common Errors

So let’s talk about them.

The Writing Task Prompt

The Writing task will contain a prompt that addresses one of the following topics:

  • Health, including medicine, nutrition, fitness, and therapies
  • Science, including research, controversies, and education
  • Social, cultural, or political issues, as relating to pharmaceutical laws, policies, and trends

The prompt will allow you to demonstrate your problem-solving skills by writing about a solution to a specific problem. It is important that you read (and re-read) the prompt carefully so that you fully understand what is being asked of you. If you do not do this, your essay will not address the correct ideas. 

Let’s look at some example prompts that are similar to what you will see on the real PCAT:

Prewriting

After reading the prompt, the prewriting stage begins. Let’s review some concepts.

Brainstorming

Begin brainstorming by jotting down any big ideas that come to mind after reading the prompt. Then, see if you can expand upon any of those initial ideas by recording related details and connections that you can make. Often, one of your very first solutions will be the one you want to write about.

For example, imagine that you are given this prompt: 

Many studies show that the number of adolescents who use illegal drugs is increasing. Suggest a solution to the problem of illegal drug use by adolescents. 

You may write down “prevention,” “education,” “danger,” and “role models” as some major ideas that come to mind.

Then you can connect the concepts: Education should be used as a preventative measure against drug use in adolescent populations. Adolescents must be taught about the dangers of illegal drugs, including death. Role models who adolescents respect and admire can teach adolescents about these dangers.

From there, you can think about the “big picture” that your ideas represent and come up with a thesis, which might look like this:

Fewer adolescents would use illegal drugs if the United States implemented an anti-drug campaign that featured popular role models, such as actors and musicians, who spoke out about the dangers of illegal substances.

Planning

After brainstorming and choosing your stance, you can begin planning your essay. You should make an outline, or informal map, that you can follow while writing your essay. Your map should show what you plan to talk about in each section of your essay. 

Let’s say that the prompt asks you to discuss a solution to the problem of human deaths caused by pollution. Your outline might look like this:

  • Introduction paragraph: Thesis statement which directly responds to the prompt. Discussion of why pollution causes deaths emphasizing why this pattern must be stopped.
  • Body paragraph: Making pollution an international priority, bringing global awareness to the problem.
  • Body paragraph: Researching programs to find how pollution can be minimized, securing funding for these programs.
  • Body paragraph: Implementing research and monitoring of programs to determine whether they lower pollution levels and whether there is a decrease in the rate of related deaths.
  • Conclusion paragraph: Main idea restated in different words, summarizing key points.

Notice that the map includes an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph. The body paragraphs support the main idea of the introduction and add details. The conclusion wraps up the key points but does not restate the same ideas in the same words. You want to avoid redundancy in your essay, so presenting your main idea in different words is very important.

After you have your map, you’re ready to go. Fill in the details and use the map to stay on topic. Remember that this task is meant to evaluate your writing skills and your problem-solving skills. It is important that you show evidence of clearly planning a solution to the given problem.

Writing

On the PCAT Writing subtest, you want to show off your language skills and make it clear that you are able to communicate your ideas in writing.

Word Choice

One way that you can show that you are able to communicate well is to choose your words wisely. They should be clear and specific so that the reader understands exactly what you are saying. You should also vary your word choice in order to avoid redundancy. Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1

Too vague: If people do not vote, they will not get the full benefits they would have otherwise. 

More specific: If United States citizens do not vote, they are missing an opportunity to affect the policies and laws under which they live. 

Example 2

Too redundant: Several scientists at XYZ University have studied the effects of radon. The work of these scientists can be seen in various research studies, and many of these studies have appeared in peer-reviewed research journals. 

Appropriately varied: Several scientists at XYZ University have studied the effects of radon. Their research appears in many peer-reviewed journals.

Structure

When you write your essay, you will already have your map (from the prewriting stage). Follow that outline and your paper will maintain the structure that you have planned. You should also make logical connections between paragraphs and sentences.

Here is an example:

  • No connection: The deforestation of the area has resulted in habitat loss for several species, including the eastern gray squirrel, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, and the ruby-throated hummingbird. Humans rely on plants as a source of oxygen.
  • Connection: The deforestation of the area has resulted in habitat loss for several species, including the eastern gray squirrel, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, and the ruby-throated hummingbird. Humans, as well as animals, suffered when these trees were destroyed. Humans rely on plants as a source of oxygen, and now that the trees are gone, they can no longer serve that function.

Not only should your paragraphs be well structured and include connections between sentences, but the content within each sentence should be well structured too. 

Avoid sentence fragments that contain incomplete ideas and run-on sentences that should be broken into multiple sentences.

Grammar

The scorers who read the essay responses on the PCAT will be checking to make sure that test-takers use correct grammar. 

Here are some common principles of grammar you should be familiar with.

Verbs must agree with their subjects. Take a look at the following examples. In each example, the subject is in bold text and the verb is italicized:

  • Incorrect: Each one of Dr. Brown’s patients have an upcoming appointment.
  • Correct: Each one of Dr. Brown’s students has an upcoming appointment.

Plurals of words created by adding the letter “s” don’t need apostrophes. In the following examples, the plurals are bolded.

  • Incorrect: The Heisenberg’s sent car wash coupon’s to all their friend’s.
  • Correct: The Heisenbergs sent car wash coupons to all their friends. 

(The one exception to this rule is that you can use apostrophes when writing the plurals of individual letters: We need to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s.)

Revision

After you write your essay, spend a few minutes reading over your work and making revisions. You will spend the majority of your time planning and writing, not revising. Since your essay will have been planned out carefully, you will not need to change entire sections; doing so after you write will just cost you time. 

You would not be in a good situation if you erased a paragraph and your time ran out before you could rewrite it!

Let’s look at some “dos” and “don’ts” for revision:

Biological Processes

The Biological Processes subtest has 48 questions. You will have 45 minutes to complete this subtest.

This subtest can be neatly divided into three major areas:

  • General Biology
  • Microbiology
  • Human Anatomy and Physiology

Let’s talk about them.

General Biology

First, we’ll review a couple of general biology concepts: cellular metabolism and genetics. It is very likely that you will see questions about both of these concepts when you take the PCAT.

Cellular Metabolism

Cells contain thousands of chemical pathways called metabolic pathways. These pathways begin with a particular molecule that is changed through a series of steps. Metabolic pathways can be catabolic or anabolic. 

  • Catabolism: compounds are broken down and energy is released
  • Anabolism: energy is spent to build compounds
    • To remember the difference, recall that bodybuilders use anabolic steroids to get bigger!

So catabolism occurs to give the body energy. Here are some catabolic processes:

  • Polysaccharides are broken down into monosaccharides. For example, starch is broken down into glucose.
  • Proteins are broken down into amino acids. Sometimes, this occurs for the purpose of creating glucose.
  • Nucleic acids are broken down into nucleotides, such as purines, pyrimidines, and pentose sugars. 

Anabolism occurs when the body must build or maintain tissue. Here are some hormones that drive anabolic processes:

  • Insulin
  • Testosterone
  • Estrogen
  • Human growth hormone

Cellular respiration is another important term to know. It refers to the catabolic processes by which organisms digest molecules and produce ATP. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the nucleotide that stores and transports energy within a cell.

When cellular respiration takes place in the presence of oxygen, it is called aerobic respiration. Anaerobic respiration, on the other hand, does not require oxygen.

Genetics

Genetics questions about genes, chromosomes, and DNA frequently appear on the PCAT. We’ll look at each of them.

Chromosomes are made of DNA and proteins. DNA molecules are tightly packaged within chromosomes, and this is why they are able to fit inside cells. Chromosomes also help ensure that DNA is replicated correctly within cells.

Human somatic cells typically contain 46 chromosomes arranged into 23 pairs. One pair of chromosomes, the sex chromosomes, are different in males and females. Females contain the sex chromosome set XX, while males contain the sex chromosome set XY. The other 22 pairs are called autosomes, and they are the same in males and females. Most human cells are diploid, because each cell contains two sets of chromosomes (one pair from each parent). 

Because humans receive chromosomes from both parents, they receive genes from both parents. Genes contain codes of the proteins of cells. Genes are located on chromosomes, and they are composed of segments of DNA.

Microbiology

The Biological Processes subtest will probably ask you questions related to microbiology and it is likely that you will see test items about bacteria and viruses. Let’s explore those topics now.

Bacteria

There are three main bacterial shapes. Most bacteria fall into one of these three categories:

  1. Cocci: Spherical bacteria without flagella that are named according to how many cells are linked together
  2. Bacilli: Rod-shaped bacteria with flagella that are named according to how many cells are linked together
  3. Spirilla: Spiral-shaped bacteria with flagella

Bacteria also have different temperature requirements:

  • Thermophile: Optimal temperature for growth is between 45°C – 70°C
  • Psychrophile: Optimal temperature for growth is between −5°C and −15°C
  • Mesophile: Optimal temperature range for growth is between 25°C and 45°C; most bacteria are mesophiles
  • Hyperthermophiles: Optimal temperature for growth is between 70°C and 110°C

Bacteria also tend to prefer a pH of 6.8 to 7.2, and they require nutrients like carbon, sulfur, potassium, and calcium.

Viruses

A virus is a very simple genetic system, yet viruses play a major role in terms of disease. Here’s an overview of viruses:

  • Viruses are nonliving.
  • Viruses do not have cell walls, membranes, cytoplasm, or ribosomes.
  • Viruses cannot perform metabolic processes without a host.
  • Viruses cannot reproduce, mutate, or survive without a host.
  • Viruses are about 1,000 times smaller than a typical bacteria cell.
  • Viruses consist of DNA or RNA packaged inside a head called a capsid.

Some viruses cause infected cells to create toxins, and other viruses contain toxic components themselves. The damage caused by a virus is dependent on whether the infected tissue is able to regenerate healthy cells. Sometimes viruses cause permanent damage.

Human Anatomy and Physiology

Next, we’ll take a look at the anatomy and physiology of our own species. You can expect to see some questions related to this topic on the PCAT. Let’s review a couple of human body systems now.

The Nervous System

You probably remember that the nervous system is comprised of the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS):

The CNS is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The PNS is made up of cranial nerves, spinal nerves, and peripheral nerves. The CNS contains relay neurons and the PNS contains sensory neurons and motor neurons.

The PNS allows the CNS and the rest of the body to communicate.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls involuntary responses and regulates physiological functions, such as heartbeat. The somatic nervous system (SNS) consists of sensory nerves and somatic nerves. For example, when you eat a banana, your SNS allows your taste buds to communicate with your brain so that you know the banana is sweet.

The Endocrine System

This system produces and regulates the hormones that affect emotions, growth, organ function, metabolism, and reproduction. The hypothalamus, which is located in the brain, connects the endocrine system and the central nervous system. Your hypothalamus regulates sleep, hunger, and thirst, as well as emotional responses. 

Refer to the diagram below as you read more about the endocrine system.

  1. Pituitary gland: Located at the base of the brain; produces these hormones: somatotropin, thyrotropin, corticotropin, antidiuretic hormone, and oxytocin
  2. Thyroid gland: Makes the thyroid hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine (T3); aids in metabolism, brain development, and growth
  3. Thymus: Part of the lymphatic system as well as the endocrine system; produces T-cells that fight infection
  4. Adrenal glands: Located above each kidney; they have two parts, the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla 
  5. Pancreas: Produces insulin and glucagon, hormones that control glucose levels; insulin also helps to supply the body with energy
  6. Reproductive glands (ovaries and testes): Testes (in males) secrete androgens, which are hormones such as testosterone; ovaries (in females) secrete estrogen and progesterone 

And that’s some basic information about some Biological Processes concepts that you are likely to see on the test!

Chemical Processes

The Chemical Processes subtest has 48 questions. You will have 45 minutes to complete this content area.

This subtest can be neatly divided into three major areas:

  • General Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry 
  • Basic Biochemistry Processes

So let’s talk about them.

General Chemistry

First, we’ll discuss some basic chemistry topics, like atoms and elements, that you are very likely to encounter on the PCAT. Ready?

Let’s begin!

Elements and the Periodic Table

The electronic structure of each element determines how the element appears on the periodic table. The group numbers can be found on the table:

The group number describes the number of electrons in the outermost shell of an element. The number along the left side of the table is the period number. It describes the total number of electron shells in an element.

Because the periodic table is structured this way, you are able to tell which elements have similar characteristics. If you were asked to identify an element with the same number of electrons in its outermost shell as Palladium (Pd), you could look at the table and identify Nickel (Ni) as an example. Elements in the same vertical group have the same number of outer electrons.

By looking at each individual element on the table, you can learn even more:

Hydrogen is located at the top of Group 1 on the table, but it has more in common with noble gases than with the other elements in Group 1. It is found as a gas in nature, but the rest of the elements in Group 1 are called alkali metals.

Ions, Molecules, and Compounds

Only six elements on the periodic table (the noble gases, found in group 18) are comprised as single atoms. The other elements are either ions, molecules, or compounds:

Chemical Bonding

Atoms can be bonded together by ionic bonds or covalent bonds. Let’s compare and contrast these two types of bonds.

Covalent bonds may be polar or nonpolar. Nonpolar covalent bonds are formed between atoms of the same electronegativity; the bonding electron pair is shared equally between the atoms.

Polar covalent bonds form between atoms with different (but similar) electronegativities. The bonding electron pair is not shared equally. The bonding electron pair is pulled closer to the atom with a higher electronegativity. 

Chemical Reactions

We’ll briefly review the four main types of chemical reactions next.

  1. Combination (synthesis) reaction: Two or more elements or molecules are combined to form a product. The general formula for a combination reaction is: A + B → AB
  2. Decomposition reaction: A substance is chemically broken down into two or more products. The general formula for a decomposition reaction: AB → A + B
  3. Single or double displacement reaction: An atom from one molecule is transferred to another molecule. A single displacement reaction is written using this formula: AY + B → A + BY
  4. Neutralization reaction: This reaction involves acids and bases. An acid and a base combine to form water and a salt. For example, hydrochloric acid (HCl) with sodium hydroxide (NaOH), a base, to form sodium chloride (NaCl) and water: HCl + NaOH → NaCl + HO

Balancing Chemical Equations

Chemical equations are always written with the reactants on the left side of the arrow and the products on the right side of the reaction arrow. 

Let’s balance a chemical equation step by step.

When propane (CH) is burned in the presence of oxygen, it produces water and carbon dioxide: CH + O → HO + CO

When we write down the number of atoms for each element, we see that they are not the same:

So, we will need to add some coefficients in front of some of the atoms. Let’s start by balancing carbon.

Next, let’s think about hydrogen and oxygen, using our new equation:

CH₈ + O → HO + 3CO

We’re getting closer because carbon and hydrogen are balanced, but oxygen is not. We need to take oxygen from 2 to 10 on the left side. We can do this by adding a coefficient of 5.

Now we have our balanced equation:

CH₈ + 5O → 4HO + 3CO

Organic Chemistry

Next, we’ll review a couple of organic chemistry concepts that you are likely to encounter on the PCAT.

Atomic Bonding

Covalent bonds, which we recently reviewed, are the most prevalent bonds found in organic compounds. Remember that in a covalent bond, electrons may not be shared equally between two atoms. A covalent bond tightly binds two atoms because the shared electrons are pulled toward the nucleus of each atom. 

If the atoms are too close together, they will repel each other. If they are too far apart from each other, they will not interact. There is an optimal distance between the two atoms (called the bond length); this optimal distance is needed to form a covalent bond.

The maximum number of electrons that can fill the valence (outer) shell of a molecule is eight (there are very few exceptions). So, when an atom has eight electrons, it is in its most stable state. This is the octet rule.

  • A carbon atom has four valence electrons, each of which are capable of forming a bond (to make eight).
  • An oxygen atom has six valence electrons and seeks two shared electrons (or two covalent bonds) to make eight.
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus atoms each have five valence electrons, so they seek to make three covalent bonds. (Once again, for a total of eight.)

Sometimes, the octet rule is broken, and when this occurs, an unstable bond is formed.

Nomenclature and Functional Groups

Organic compounds can be classified based on their functional groups. Some functional groups, like alkenes, alkynes, and aromatic rings, only contain compounds that are composed of just carbon and hydrogen molecules. These groups differ in the nature and number of their bonds. Other functional groups have bonds that contain oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, metals, and halogens.

Some of the most common functional groups in organic chemistry are carbonyls, alcohols, carboxylic acids, esters, and amines. Let’s review them now.

Carbonyl compounds contain a carbon-oxygen double bond. A C=O bond is called a carbonyl bond. This is the general structure of a carbonyl-containing compound:

Carbonyl compounds include aldehydes, ketones, esters, and carboxylic esters.

Alcohols contain the functional group –OH, called a hydroxyl. See how ethane becomes ethanol (an alcohol):

Remember that alcohols end in -ol.

Carboxylic acids a carbon (C) atom is bonded to an oxygen (O) atom by a double bond and to a hydroxyl group (―OH) by a single bond. A fourth bond links the carbon atom to a hydrogen (H) atom or to some other univalent group that contains a hydrogen atom. 

Ethanoic acid is an example:

Esters are compounds derived from an acid, and at least one –OH group from the acid is replaced by an –O–alkyl group. This process is called esterification. 

Esterification is reversible; an ester can break down into an alcohol and an acid. Also, esters (like ethyl butyrate and propyl acetate, shown below) give many fruits their flavors.

Amines are molecules with the properties of a base; when an amine reacts with an acid, it neutralizes to form salt and water. They can contain a benzene ring (C6H6). 

Below, you can see a diagram of a benzene ring (left) and a diagram of aniline, a simple amine. The benzene ring in amine is pointed out for you:

Basic Biochemical Processes

Next, we’ll discuss some basic biochemical processes involving carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids (DNA/RNA), the four classes of biomolecules. 

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the major energy source for most cells and they aid in the synthesis of lipids and proteins. Three key elements make up carbohydrates:

  • Carbon 
  • Hydrogen 
  • Oxygen

Carbohydrates are generally made up of a set of carbons that are arranged in a linear or ring structure, and have hydroxyl (-OH), keto (-[C=O]-), or aldehyde (-[CH=O)] groups attached to these structures.

A monomer is a molecule that can be bonded to identical or different molecules to form a polymer. Monosaccharides represent the monomer of carbohydrates.

Lipids

Lipids include waxes, oils, phospholipids, triglycerides, and fatty acids. Lipids are necessary for:

  • Energy storage 
  • Cell membrane structure 
  • Hormone regulation 
  • Cell signaling

The three main classes of lipids are:

  • Triglycerides: These have a glycerol head and three attached fatty acids.
  • Steroids: These are usually hydrophobic and insoluble in water. 
  • Phospholipids: These have a polar head group and various numbers of fatty acid tails. They usually have both hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts.

Proteins

Proteins provide structure and help the body’s cells to perform a number of functions. Protein monomers are amino acids. Some common amino acids include:

  • Tryptophan
  • Aspartate
  • Lysine
  • Threonine
  • Glutamate
  • Methonine

Amino acids can join together through a process called dehydration synthesis to form peptide chains. Two amino acids joined together are a dipeptide. A polypeptide is made up of 3 to 30 amino acids joined together. Chains made up of more than 30 amino acids are called proteins.

Critical Reading

The Critical Reading subtest has 48 questions. You will have 50 minutes to complete this content area.

This subtest focuses on three major concepts:

  • Comprehension
  • Analysis
  • Evaluation

Let’s talk about them.

Comprehension

First, we’ll talk about the types of passages that you may encounter on the PCAT and discuss some strategies for understanding what you read.

Passage Types

On the PCAT Critical Reading subtest, you will be presented with six passages that will each contain about 500 to 600 words. After each passage, you will answer corresponding multiple-choice questions. Prior knowledge of the content is not necessary to perform well on the test. 

The passages on the PCAT are highly varied, so the best strategy to ensure that you perform well on the Critical Reading subtest is to use practice tests to become familiar with analyzing texts and looking for answers.

The passages that you encounter on the test will be some combination of the following passage types:

  1. Historical topics
  2. Contemporary topics (current events)
  3. Cultural topics (traditions of various cultures)
  4. Ethical topics (matters of right and wrong)
  5. Political topics
  6. Technological topics

Vocabulary

When reading, it is important that you understand the words in a passage. Otherwise, you may get lost and become confused about what the passage is telling you.

While a large vocabulary will be helpful when taking the exam, you can also use context clues to identify unknown words.

Context clues can help you to determine the meanings of unknown words and phrases in a passage. Using context clues means that you consider the words surrounding an unknown term to understand what the term means. 

Let’s practice with an example. Read the following sentence:

Female suffrage spells justice and vindication for the modern woman and we must adopt it forthwith, <u>without unnecessary delay</u> and formalities.

So, what is the meaning of the word “forthwith”?

It means “immediately,” or “without delay.” The underlined context clue “without unnecessary delay” can help you to determine the meaning of this term, even if you have never encountered it before.

Main Idea vs. Details

On the Critical Reading test, you will need to determine the main idea of passages and understand details within the texts. Let’s review these concepts now.

The main idea of a text is the “big picture.” If you ask yourself, “What is this text about?” and can answer in a few words, you know the main idea. Another strategy to find the main idea is to look for ideas and words that are repeated throughout the text.

The details, on the other hand, just support the main idea. They may help to prove the author’s point, give examples, or add background information.

Making Inferences

We just talked about main ideas and how they are different from the supporting details in a text. Although you can expect to answer some questions directly with answers that are directly stated in the text, you will also need to determine correct answers which are not directly stated in the text.

So, how do you answer a question if the answer is not directly stated in the text? You make an inference. An inference is a logical conclusion that you can reach based on what you do know. Let’s look at an example:

Rigidisdermis affects over a million Americans each year. Sufferers exhibit tough, itchy patches of skin which tend to take months to heal. Fortunately, new discoveries have made it possible to prevent outbreaks of rigidisdermis and researchers are currently working on a medication that can be applied to affected areas of skin. 

So, what is rigidisdermis? It’s just a made-up word! But you can make an inference that it is a skin condition. All inferences should be supported by the text. 

You would not, for example, infer that rigidisdermis is a species of octopus! Of course, that would be a very silly inference, but you understand the point: stick with what the text says. 

There are other inferences that you could make after reading the same passage. For example, you could infer that the medication mentioned is not yet approved by the FDA. After all, “researchers are currently working on it.”

Analysis

Now that we’ve discussed comprehension, we’ll talk about analysis, which requires you to think about the text a bit more deeply.

Tone and Purpose

Authors have five main purposes for writing:

  1. To entertain
  2. To inform
  3. To describe
  4. To explain
  5. To persuade

It is very important to know whether you are reading a persuasive passage or another type of passage. When deciding whether a passage is persuasive, think about the author’s tone. The author’s tone is the language that shows the attitude that he or she has towards a subject.

View the examples of tone words in the chart below:

If the author is using words that have negative or positive connotations, you should know that he or she probably wants you to feel a certain way about a topic.

Fact and Opinion

In this section of the PCAT, you are likely to encounter some questions that ask you whether something is a fact or an opinion. Here are some examples of how the questions might be phrased:

  • Which terms from the passage show the author’s opinion?
  • Which statement from the passage is the most opinionated?
  • Which sentence from the passage reflects an opinion held by the author?

When determining whether an idea is a fact or an opinion, look for biased language and tone words. 

Making Connections

On the PCAT, you will have to decide how different ideas in the passages relate to one another. Here are a few examples of how concepts in a text can relate:

  • Sequential Relationship: One event follows another in order of occurrence.
  • Cause and Effect Relationship: One event causes another to occur.
  • Problem and Solution Relationship: A solution is assigned to a problem.
  • Compare and Contrast Relationship: Two or more items are described in order to show how they are they alike or how they differ.

PCAT questions about the relationships between ideas can appear in a variety of ways. Here are some examples:

  • How are the ideas in paragraphs 3 and 4 related?
  • Which paragraph gives a solution to the problem described in paragraph 2?
  • What is the relationship between (idea x) and (idea y)?

Evaluation

Evaluation questions might ask you about bias in the passages, how ideas are supported, or about a thesis or conclusion. Let’s take a look at those topics now.

Bias

You will likely need to identify an author’s biases or draw a conclusion about the author based on his or her biases. A bias is a personal opinion or feeling.

Here are some examples of how bias questions may appear on the exam:

  • You can determine that the author is biased about (idea x) based on which of the following sentences from the passage?
  • Which detail from the text best shows the author’s bias against (idea x)?
  • Why is the author biased towards (idea x)?

Try to answer the following question:

The arctic fox is not only a beauty in his coat of pure white, but is unusually brainy. Persecuted animals, like persecuted human beings, become very wise. Nature is kind to the fox in his arctic home, and in the winter turns his coat snow white so that he may easily escape his enemies—especially hunters, who seek to murder him for his beautiful fur. He is skilled in his distrust of wires, sticks, guns and strings. No man knows better than he the meaning of foot-tracks in the snow, and how long they have been there, and which way they lead; thus, those that survive their enemies have acquired extreme wisdom, and keep carefully away from everything that is at all suspicious to their eyes and nostrils.

Which line from the passage indicates that the author is biased against an idea?

  1. “…beauty in his coat of pure white…”
  2.  “…the meaning of foot-tracks in the snow…”
  3. “…hunters, who seek to murder him for his beautiful fur.”
  4.  “…away from everything that is at all suspicious…”

The correct answer is C. Option A shows bias toward something – the foxes. Options B and D do not show bias. Choice C shows bias against hunters who want to “murder” the fox.

Support

Ideas in the passages are supported with details. On the PCAT, you will likely encounter questions that ask you to evaluate the support the author includes for his or her arguments. When determining why a detail is included, consider the main idea and the author’s goal. How does the detail help the author to make his or her point?

Read the example excerpt and try to answer the following question:

Young people in the modern-day United States routinely receive vaccines that protect them from more than a dozen diseases, including measles, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Most of these diseases are now less prevalent than they were during any other period in history, and this medical accomplishment is attributed to years of immunization. It is crucial that individuals receive vaccines.

Vaccines are used to make individuals immune to serious diseases without the risks associated with having the actual disease. Without a vaccine, individuals must actually get a potentially harmful disease in order to become immune to the pathogen that causes it. Vaccines are most effective when administered to individuals at certain ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes a schedule for childhood vaccines. Parents should consult this schedule, as well as their childrens’ pediatricians, to ensure that their children are vaccinated at the correct time.

In the second paragraph, why does the author include the information that unvaccinated individuals must get a disease in order to become immune to the pathogen that causes it?

  1. To support the idea that vaccines, while helpful, are not completely necessary
  2. To support the idea that diseases cause serious health risks
  3. To suggest that individuals should inoculate themselves by exposing themselves to diseases
  4. To support the idea that individuals should receive vaccines

The correct answer is D. The author’s main idea is expressed at the end of the first paragraph: “It is crucial that individuals receive vaccines.” This is the idea referred to in Option D. 

Thesis and Conclusion

Some Critical Reading questions will ask you to identify the author’s main thesis and determine how well it is supported. Here are some examples of how Thesis and Conclusion questions may be presented to you on the test:

  • What evidence, if included, would best support the author’s main point?
  • Which line from the passage best supports the author’s main idea?
  • Which line from the passage does not support the author’s thesis statement?
  • Which paragraph in the passage least supports the author’s thesis?
  • What information, if true, would most strongly support the author’s main idea?

Thesis and Conclusion questions are very similar to Support questions. The difference is that Thesis and Conclusion questions ask you to assess the strength of the support that details lend to the main idea.

Quantitative Reasoning

The Quantitative Reasoning subtest has 48 questions. You will have 50 minutes to complete this content area.

Let’s discuss three major topics on this subtest:

  • Algebra
  • Precalculus
  • Calculus

Let’s talk about them.

Algebra

You can expect to encounter some algebra questions while taking the PCAT. It’s important to know that these questions may be “disguised” as word problems. Make sure to read each question carefully and identify exactly what it is asking you. 

Let’s review some algebraic concepts.

Exponents and Radicals

We often encounter exponents as numbers that are squared (such as 4²) or as square roots (such as √4). Remember, the square root is just the opposite of a squared number (√4 = 2). The √ symbol is called a radical.

You are probably also used to seeing cubed numbers (such as 4³) since these are used to describe volume. A cube root is the opposite of a cubed number (∛64 = 4).

Although squared and cubed numbers are probably most frequently encountered, remember that numbers may be raised to many different powers. Any number raised to the power of one is equal to itself and any number (with the exception of zero) raised to the power of zero equals one. Here are a few examples:

5¹ = 5
2,600¹ = 2,600
52 = 1
8 = 1

So, what if an exponent is a fraction?

An exponent of ½ is actually a square root:

An exponent of ⅓ is actually a cube root: 

Remember that when multiplying two numbers with exponents, you must add the exponents. For example:

2³ ∙ 2² = 2

When dividing a number with an exponent by another number with an exponent, you must use subtraction:

2³ ÷ 2² = 2¹ = 2

Let’s try an example equation that uses exponents and radicals.

First, let’s solve the multiplication in the first set of parentheses:

Remember that a number raised to the power of ½ is the square root of that number. The second set of parentheses encloses the square root of 25.

Next, we will raise 80 to the power of 0:

Then, we’ll find the square root of 25 again:

There are two 5s that do not have exponents. This means that they are each raised to the power of one:

We solved the equation! Next, we’ll review linear equations.

Linear Equations

Linear equations are used to describe lines on coordinate planes. The standard form of a linear equation is ax + by = c.

Here is an example of a linear equation in standard form:

2x – 4y = 2

Not all linear equations are presented in standard form. Here are a few examples of linear equations that are not written in standard form:

y − 5 = −3(x + 5)
2x = -4y
3x – 4 + 4 = -10 + 4
x + 9 – 9 = 12 – 9

A system of linear equations refers to two or more equations that work together. Let’s look at an example of a system of linear equations and solve it:

y = 2x + 4
y = 3x + 2

Since each equation equals y, each equation is equivalent:

2x + 4 = 3x + 2

Move the x variables to one side by subtracting 2x from 3x. Remember that x by itself means 1x.

4 = x + 2

If 2 is subtracted from each side, we find that x = 2. Now you know that 2 is the value of x, so you can plug 2 into the second equation and solve it.

y = 3x + 2
y = 3(2) + 2
y = 6 + 2
y = 8

We find that in this system of linear equations, x = 2 and y = 8.

Quadratic Equations

A quadratic equation describes a parabola when it is graphed. You can see an example of a parabola below.

Notice that (-3, 6) and (-1, 4) are two points on this particular parabola.

The standard form of a quadratic equation is ax² + bx + c = 0. The quadratic formula, shown below, is used to solve these equations.

Let’s look at an example of a quadratic equation and solve it:

6x² − 5x − 3=0

Here, 6 = a, -5 = b, and -3 = c. We can plug the values into the quadratic equation formula:

Notice that the 5 outside of the radical is negative; in other words, when multiplied it becomes a positive. Let’s go ahead and square the -5 inside the radical.

Next, we will perform the multiplication:

Notice that there are really two answers here because of the plus or minus (±) sign. Remember that a parabola is curved and what appears on one side is mirrored on the other side. That’s why two “opposite” answers are correct: they mirror one another.

Precalculus

Next, let’s look at some precalculus concepts that you are likely to encounter on the exam.

Trigonometric Functions

The basic trigonometric functions are called sine, cosine, and tangent. Pictured below are a right triangle and the formulas for these functions:

Angles may be measured in degrees, or they may be measured in radians. A radian is equal to 57.295… degrees. The table below gives information about sines, cosines, and tangents of some common angles.

Many test-takers find it helpful to memorize the information in the table since questions about sine, cosine, and tangent frequently appear on the test.

Vectors

Some quantities can only be described by both a magnitude and a direction; these quantities are called vectors. A vector is represented by an arrow. The direction of the arrow indicates the vector’s direction, and the length of the arrow indicates the vector’s magnitude.

To add two vectors, match the tail of one vector to the tip of the other vector. Take a look at how vector a is added to vector b below:

We can also rearrange the two vectors so that the tip of B is matched to the tail of A. This is another way of adding the vectors:

Notice that the outcome is the same. This is because a + b = b + a, just as 2 + 3 = 3 + 2.

When two vectors have the same magnitude and direction, they are equal. When they have the same magnitude but are opposite in direction, they are negatives of each other. The vectors shown below are negatives of one another:

If c and d are vectors, cd = c + (-d). This is how we can subtract d from c:

A vector may be expressed by an ordered pair (x, y); x is the vector’s horizontal magnitude and y its vertical magnitude.

We can apply the basic operations on vectors and their geometric interpretation with a few simple rules.

Addition of Vectors (Algebraically)

Given two vectors a and b, we find their sum a + b with the following steps:

  • To find the x-component of a + b, add the x-component of a to the x-component of b.
  • To find the y-component of a + b, add the y-component of a to the y-component of b.

A few properties apply to the addition of vectors:

  • a + b = b + a (commutative law)
  • a + 0 = a
  • d + (e + f) = (d + e) + f (associative law)

Let’s try an example:  x = (4, -7) and y = (1, 11). To find x + y, we

find the new x component: 4 + 1 = 5

and find the new y component: -7 + 11 = 4

so that x + y = (5, 4)!

Complex Numbers

A complex number is expressed as a + bi. While a and b are real numbers, i is an imaginary number. Here are some rules to know about imaginary numbers:

Let’s practice by simplifying this expression: (5 − 2i) + (−5i) − (−1 − 2i)

First, put the like terms together: (5 + 1) + (−2i − 5i + 2i)

Now, add the like terms: 6 − 5i

You now have the simplified version of the expression! Let’s move on to some calculus concepts next.

Calculus

Let’s review some calculus concepts which are likely to appear on the Quantitative Reasoning subtest of the PCAT. Understanding these concepts will help you to perform well as you take the exam.

Limits

A limit is the output value that a function approaches as the input approaches a given value. For example:

means that as x approaches 0, the value of the function approaches 0.

The limit value is the y-value that the function is approaching; therefore, it does not necessarily have to equal the function value.

Find a Limit: Evaluating by Substitution

There are multiple ways to evaluate a limit. The first step is to always plug in or substitute the x value into the given function.

Here’s an example:

Find a Limit as x Approaches Infinity

When evaluating a limit as x approaches infinity, it is important to look at the location of the highest degrees or powers of the function in the limit.

  • If the highest power is in the numerator, then the limit fails to exist. A vertical asymptote is located here.
  • If the highest power is in the denominator, then the limit approaches zero.
  • If the highest powers are the same in the numerator and denominator, then the limit value is the coefficients of the terms with the highest powers.

Derivatives

And that’s some basic info about the PCAT!