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How to Interpret Graphs on the MCAT

Written by Nassim on Sep 2, 2022

Seeing a graph on an MCAT question can be very unnerving. Even when you have mastered the content during your preparation, seeing it presented in a graph format can make you feel less confident. Students might get intimidated by all the lines and numbers and feel like they cannot understand the main point of the graph. However, there are a few tips that can help you navigate your way through these questions. In this post, we will show you the best ways to improve on MCAT graphs, and graphs and statistics on the MCAT.

Graph Interpretation Questions

When data is presented in graphs, it is quicker and easier to understand. Graphical presentation of data is beneficial when you need to analyze and compare complex and extensive data.

Graph interpretation requires reasoning and mathematical skills; therefore, it is usually seen in scientific exams, such as the MCAT. These questions require understanding the relationship between the figures, reading a text, and applying analytical skills to choose the best answer.

Graphs and the MCAT

You’ll see different visual tools on the MCAT to present complex data more efficiently. These visual tools include graphs, maps, tables, charts, and images with trends, patterns, categorical information, or statistics. You might see graphs in MCAT biology, chemistry, psychology, and sociology questions.

Graph interpretation is an essential skill you must work on during your MCAT prep. You’ll need it not only to get a good score on the MCAT but also for your future career in the medical field. As a physician, you’ll need to comprehend complex data and be able to interpret figures and results, and that’s why MCAT expects students to know the basics of graph interpretation.

Are MCAT Graphs Difficult to Understand?

MCAT graphs might be challenging because of the large amount of data they present. Time limitations and test anxiety might make it even harder to understand the figures and their connection to one another. Some students might get bogged down by the graphs because they either try to memorize the information or cannot identify the critical parts of it. They might get lost and fail to find the relationship between the data.

A graph might look chaotic or confusing at first glance, especially for those who do not identify as visual learners or have little experience with scientific charts, graphs, or tables. However, with enough practice, you can master these types of questions.

Different Kinds of MCAT Figures

There are different types of figures on the MCAT. Some are more straightforward and require little interpretation, while others are more complicated and require higher reasoning skills. Here we’ll look at different types of figures that you could face on the MCAT:

Line Graphs

Line graphs or line charts are ubiquitous on the MCAT. They have two axes: Y and X. Independent variables are presented on the X axis (horizontal), and dependent variables are shown on the Y axis (vertical). The goal of the graph is two show the relationship between these two types of variables.

Pie Charts

Pie charts can be used to compare categorical data. Data is divided into slices to illustrate a certain proportion or percentage. Generally, pie charts are easy to comprehend, but they might get confusing if there is considerable data. In this case, it is imperative to focus on the relationships and sections required by the question and not get distracted by the extra information.

Bar Graphs

In a bar graph, values are represented by bars that reach various heights. They can be made using stacked bars, horizontal bars, vertical bars, or grouped bars (several bars that compare values in a category). A bar graph’s goal is to efficiently and visually communicate relational information. The value of the data is represented by the height or length of the bars, and levels on the y-axis correlate to the value.

Box Plots

A box plot, also sometimes called “box and whisker,” can be used to show the median, range, quartiles, and outliers. It can also tell whether the data is symmetrical or how tightly it’s grouped. The edges of the box indicate the highest and lowest values for each data collection. Single points or dots can also be used to depict outliers. Box plots are commonly used to encapsulate several plots and significant amounts of data in a limited space, and you’ll probably see at least one on the MCAT.

Images and Maps

Data over a specific geographic area can be represented using maps. You don’t need to be an expert in geography to understand this, but you should note where the data clusters are located or what the different colors on the map mean.

Images are visual representations of the situation described in the text and are intended to help you comprehend the issue better.

How to Interpret Graphs in MCAT

Understanding graphs can significantly improve your MCAT score. There is not a graph for every question, but when they accompany a passage, they make it easier to understand and sometimes even hint at the correct answer.

You can also prepare yourself by checking the high-yield MCAT topics. The graphs change from test to test, but specific topics frequently pop up. Familiarizing yourself with these topics can give you enough contextual information about the charts and make them easier to understand.

Here are some strategies that will help you interpret MCAT graphs more quickly and use the critical information to find the correct answer:

Passage First

Some students can’t resist the urge to jump to the graph without reading the passage first. However, if you focus on the text first, you’ll get the necessary contextual information to answer the question, and the graph will look less confusing. You cannot identify the critical data presented in the chart if you skip the textual information, especially when the graph is packed with too much data. Reading the passage can also be time-consuming and constantly jumping between the graph and the text is not a very good idea.

Don’t Skip the Title and Headings

After reading and understanding the passage, you will go over the graph. The title of the graph and the headings on the axes or the title of the presented data are all important because they will give you enough clues to understand the information. They might even hint at the answer. In short, titles are your guides and can help you orient yourself through the graph.

Pay Attention to the Units

You must pay attention to the graph using specific mathematical units. They are even more important if the question involves formulas. However, sometimes the graph includes mathematical units, but they don’t affect the answer. In these cases, note the units but focus more on the presented data.

Find the Patterns and Trends

The most important stage of graph interpretation is finding the main trends and patterns; otherwise. you won’t understand the result or the main point. Ask yourself questions such as: Is there any significant increase or decrease in the line graph? Can you see a visible gap in a bar graph? Is there a significant difference or similarity in the proportions of the pie chart?

These questions will help you compare and contrast the data to find a meaningful pattern or trend. Finding the relationship between the data is the key to the correct interpretation, and you’ll get better at it if you practice graph analysis during your MCAT prep.

Draw a Conclusion

This is the final stage of graph interpretation. By this stage, you’ll have understood the main points of the graph. Now is the time to connect the dots in your mind and find the relationship between the textual information in the question and the visual representation of data in the graph to choose the correct answer. You need to have strong analytical skills and good knowledge of MCAT content at this stage. Both are equally important because no graph reading strategy can help you choose the best answer if you are unfamiliar with the content. At the same time, if you have mastered the content but lack sufficient reasoning skills, you’ll fail to see the trends and patterns.

If you are a stranger to time management skills, time can become your number one enemy. Remember that acquiring sufficient timing skills is a priority in your MCAT prep journey. That being said, you need to remember one crucial point: Timing is essential, but it is not everything! What good is completing the test on time if you cannot get the questions right? We advise you to leave doing timed questions until after mastering the content.

The ideal time to read an MCAT graph is almost 30 seconds. This might sound scary. However, if you have enough practice, you’ll see that this much time is enough to get all the necessary information from the graph. It’s also good to remember that not all the data presented in the graph is important. Some act as distractors or are not significant in the overall trend or pattern, and with practice, you’ll get better at identifying these distractors.

At the beginning of your MCAT prep, it might take you more than 30 seconds to read and understand a graph. This is entirely normal, so don’t panic. Just keep practicing and add timed practice tests to your routine.

More Tips to Ace Graph Questions

Graphs can be intimidating, so it’s a good idea to become familiar with as many different types and practice questions as possible.

• Start with practice exams. Use them to identify the areas that require more focus and work on them.
• Don’t let complicated charts and graphs scare you. Remember that no matter how complicated they look, you only need a handful of points to answer the question.
• Make sure to have a strategy for every question. Start by scanning the data, chart, or graph for all the pertinent information. Take note of what each axis represents and what kind of data is displayed.
• Go through the question and identify the keywords that could help you guide your way through the graph.
• Don’t get distracted by the details, which typically provide more information than is necessary to answer the question. After analyzing all aspects of the data, return to the question and let it guide you through the graph.
• Remember that you don’t always need to make accurate calculations; sometimes, an educated guess may suffice. However, you need to be familiar with various basic arithmetic concepts, such as percentages, ratios, and fractions.

Final Word

In this post, we talked about the best ways to improve graph reading skills for MCAT. At first sight, graphs might seem difficult to read and understand, but with a few interpretation techniques, they become a lot easier!

If you include sample passages and graphs in your study routine, you’ll gradually get better at making connections between written information and visual data. In the beginning, just focus on your ability to analyze data and find the main patterns and trends. But after some time, you need to add timed practice to your schedule because time limitation is not something that you can handle without practice.

Always remember that a graph is a visual representation of data intended to draw attention to the most crucial points. Therefore, you shouldn’t let the details confuse you or bog you down. Focus on the main points and let the question guide you through the graph by determining what is important and what is not.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of speculation and making an educated guess. Even in complicated graphs, you can always find enough clues to help you guess the correct answer. Then, you can verify your guess by checking the exact data on the graph.

To get even more out of your MCAT prep, be sure to check out all of the free tools that Jack Westin has to offer, including the Jack Westin Question Bank, Live Sessions, and Diagnostic Exam.

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