What Is the PCAT Writing Test?
The PCAT exam, or Pharmacy College Admission Test, contains five sections and is available to take during four testing windows throughout the year: July, September, October/November, and January. Seating for the exam is based on a first-come, first-served basis, so it is extremely important to register early.
The PCAT Writing test consists of one essay. You are presented with a prompt in a text box in which to compose your essay, and you will have 30 minutes total in which to write it. The prompt will be one short paragraph, outlining a problem. In your essay, you must demonstrate that you understand the problem described in the prompt, and then you must describe a possible solution.
Although that may sound challenging, remember that you do NOT need a vast knowledge of history or politics to do well on this essay; however, some knowledge of current events and world news would prove helpful. The “Problem/Solution” style essay is fairly common, and we’ll look more closely at generally known world problems, their causes, and possible solutions under the strategy section provided below.
In the writing section’s text box, you will have the ability to use basic text commands such as “cut,” “copy,” and “paste,” however, you will NOT be permitted to use any kind of spell-check or grammar check on your finished essay. Consequently, paying attention to proper spelling and grammar, and making sure you have some time to proofread your final essay before the 30 minutes runs out is essential to achieving a high score!
PCAT Writing Score
Your PCAT essay will receive two scores on a scale of 1.0-6.0. One score will be given by a trained reader, and the other may (or may not) be given by Pearson’s Intelligent Essay Assessor. Pearson’s Intelligent Essay Assessor is an automated Internet scoring system that uses programmed knowledge of word patterns against a large database of similar essays to evaluate a student’s written ability. It also checks for spelling and grammar errors.
The two scores are then averaged to calculate your final PCAT Writing score. For example, let’s say your essay receives a 3.0 from the human reader, and a 4.0 from the Intelligent Essay Assessor. Your final PCAT Writing score will be a 3.5. Essays are scored as 0 if left blank, or if written in a language other than English. As long as you make an attempt, you cannot receive lower than a 1.0.
Keep in mind that while your raw scores for the other sections of the PCAT will be available to you immediately after your exam, you must wait 5 weeks for your official PCAT score report and to receive your essay score. Within 5 weeks, you will receive a report that looks like the one pictured.
Notice that the Writing score is set apart from the Multiple-Choice scores. Your writing score is listed in the fifth column, and next to it, under “Mean” is the average score for all test-takers in the past 12 months. You may find that your mean score is different from peers who also took the PCAT around the same time. This is because the specific difficulty level of each prompt is taken into account when calculating the mean score. It’s designed to give you a snapshot of how you compare with the average test-taker around the time you took your exam, but you shouldn’t worry about it. Schools are only interested in the score. Notice as well that you will not be given information regarding the score determined by the human reader, nor the score determined by the Intelligent Essay Assessor.
The two areas that your reader and Intelligent Essay Assessor evaluate when assigning a score to your essay are:
- Conventions of Language
- Problem Solving
“Conventions of Language” refers to HOW you write the essay. Do you use proper spelling and grammar? Do you demonstrate command of the English language, varied sentence structure, and strong, confident rhetorical construction? Do you use consistent, proper punctuation? Clear paragraphs, appropriate organization and planning, as well as a smooth “flow” to your essay will help you earn a 6.0!
“Problem Solving” refers to WHAT you discuss in your essay. Is it clear you understood the problem? Do you offer clear, logical solutions? Be sure to use examples to support your position. Do not fabricate facts and figures, but do use concrete nouns and specific names, places, and people. For example, “Nelson Mandela” is better than “a politician,” and “the civil war in Syria” is better than “current wars.” On this exam, specificity is more favorable than generality!
Official Scoring Rubric
Read through the descriptions below to learn from the “official PCAT scoring rubric” what makes a perfect essay. As you prepare, consider the following: What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Consider how best to spend your time improving in these areas before your test date. You may find it productive to memorize transitions words, read strong sample essays, refine your grammar skills, or review commonly misspelled words. However, the absolute best preparation is to write as many practice essays as possible under the actual test conditions prior to your exam.
Score Point 6: Superior
Conventions of Language
- The writer skillfully applies the conventions of language.
- The writer makes very few, if any, mistakes in sentence formation, usage, and mechanics, and no errors are serious enough to interfere with the overall flow of the response or with its meaning.
- The response exhibits a more sophisticated structural pattern that incorporates a greater variety of transitional words/phrases and shows some evidence of advanced rhetorical techniques.
- The response represents a persuasive essay showing strong evidence of efficient composition skills.
- The solution discussed is clearly related to the problem and is developed with relevant, convincing support (e.g., facts, examples, anecdotes).
- The main tenets of the problem and the solution are discussed and explained with in depth support and detail.
- One or more alternative solutions, or multiple possible solutions, are included with clear discussion, analysis, and evaluation.
- The response is a logical and effectively organized argument that is purposefully presented.
PCAT Essay Writing Strategy
As mentioned above, the PCAT is a classic “Problem/Solution” essay. The types of problems the prompt will address typically fall under three categories:
- Social, Cultural, or Political
Health prompts typically involve issues related to nutrition, medicine, fitness, disease, treatments, etc. Science prompts will address issues regarding theories, research, applications, controversies, findings, etc. The remaining prompts will touch on topics ranging from societal beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, to trends, policies, and laws.
These are areas of discussion frequently found on radio programs such as those airing on NPR, or in news magazines such as TIME. It may be helpful for you to spend time with these publications in the month before your PCAT so you can develop some awareness of the opinions that exist around these “hot button” issues.
Many students worry about not having enough time in 30 minutes to describe a solution. It may prove worthwhile to memorize a list of common solutions to these problems. Select 3 solutions from this list that resonate most strongly with you and commit them to memory:
- More education
- Better leadership
- New method of solving
- Stricter (or looser) laws
- Remove the problem source
- More funding
- Intervention from outside
“More education” suggests that if people were better educated about the problem, then their changing attitudes would help solve it. For example, perhaps if people knew that the landfills were detrimentally impacting the earth, they would be motivated to recycle.
“Better leadership” indicates that the current leaders are ineffective. For example, if the problem in the prompt is the threat of terrorism, it is possible that the current President or members of Congress lack the vision or willpower to do what is necessary to address the issue. You could propose a change in leadership as a possible solution.
“New method of solving” means that the current system is failing, so a new system should be put into place. For example, if the problem described is obesity in America, and the current system encourages people to exercise more, you could argue that a possible solution would be to ALSO remove junk food like candy and soft drinks from schools.
“Stricter (or looser) laws” proposes that the problem could be fixed through law enforcement or judicial system involvement. For example, if the problem is that too many people are dying in car accidents while texting, then you could recommend that the police adopt a harsher system for ticketing those people caught holding their phones while driving.
“Remove the problem source” means that perhaps one way to solve the problem is to eliminate its root cause. For example, if the problem is the damage to soil caused by fracking, you may suggest to stop all fracking and find an alternative that does not result in soil degradation.
“More funding” suggests that the problem stems from an inadequate money supply. For example, if the issue is that there is an excess of homeless people on the streets, one possible solution is that there should be more federal money allocated to programs that assist the homeless.
“Compromise” submits that the problem involves two parties who disagree on an issue who could mutually benefit by meeting each other halfway. For example, the prompt may describe the issue of gun control in America in terms of a disagreement between two groups over the prohibition of gun shows. You could recommend a compromise of stricter limitations on who can buy guns at gun shows.
“Intervention from outside” asserts that the problem is unsolvable by the parties currently involved. For example, in a problem involving armed conflict, such as the civil war in Syria, you could propose a solution of more direct military intervention on behalf of the United Nations or the United States.
PCAT Writing Template
In 30 minutes, you must complete your essay, so it’s crucial you efficiently manage your time. The following strategy is recommended:
STEP 1 – Read the prompt. (1 min)
STEP 2 – Outline your essay. (4 min)
STEP 3 – Write your essay. (23 min)
STEP 4 – Edit your essay. (2 min)
You may not believe that 23 minutes is long enough to write 4-5 paragraphs, but your introduction and conclusion only need to be 3 sentences long. Here is a template you can apply to EVERY PCAT practice essay you compose.
The problem of __________ requires immediate attention. It is harmful to society because ________, and _________. In order to solve this complex problem, there are three actions that must be undertaken: _________, ________, and __________.
One suitable solution that would remedy the problem of __________ is _________. It is particularly effective in this case, because ____________. Though some people may doubt its efficacy, resulting from __________, their assessment is shortsighted based on the evidence of ___________. Additionally, ______________.
It is critical that we take appropriate action to solve the problem of ________. As described, the most effective ways of doing so are _________, ________, and _________. The sooner we enact one or more of these solutions, the sooner we can move on to the other issues plaguing our global community.
All you need to do is fill in the blanks with the prompt’s problem, your chosen solutions, and your specific examples. Now let’s try it out with a sample writing prompt.
PCAT Writing Sample Prompt
Prompt: Discuss a solution to the problems involved in raising children in a country that allows few restrictions on the mass media.
Consider the selection of 3 solutions from the solution list above: more education, more funding, and compromise. Applying these solutions to the template yields:
The problem of the negative influence on the nation’s children caused by the mass media requires immediate attention. This influence is harmful to society; studies have shown that childhood educational development is stunted by excessive audio-visual stimulation in infancy, and that the real-world language skills of older children suffer as a result of their exposure to and interactions using social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat. This problem, although complex, can be redressed by implementing three solutions: more education for parents on the dangers of mass media, more funding for after-school programs, including sports and music that require face-to-face interaction, and a potential compromise between media companies and the FCC so that young children are not regularly exposed to adult content.
Now we’ve set up the three body paragraphs with which to elaborate on each solution: (1) better education for parents on why too much mass media is bad for their kids, (2) more funding for after-school programs, (3) how the media can compromise with regulators to limit exposure.
Next Step: Try writing a 5-paragraph essay and see if you can complete it using this template. If you struggle with pacing, it is fine to write only 4 paragraphs (with only two solutions), but be sure to explicitly articulate WHY your solutions would work! It’s better to have 4 great paragraphs than 5 bad ones. Above all, be patient with yourself, you may need to write several essays before you fully develop your confidence.