One of the questions that we hear most often from students is “How do I get more answers right on MCAT CARS practice passages and in the exam itself?”
That’s a critical question because your score depends totally on how many questions you answer correctly in the time allotted.
Now when you look at the methods described in most MCAT CARS practice books, they give you a lot of tips and tricks on how to answer questions. And when you learn these tips and tricks and use them on practice passages, the first thing you notice is that they don’t work very well. You’re still getting a lot of wrong answers.
And why is that? Well, it’s because these methods are anecdotal rather than scientific. Think of it this way. When a patient comes to see you with a serious medical condition, are you going to use tips and tricks to treat her. No, Your going to use your basic knowledge of medicine combined with your reasoning ability to do a proper diagnosis and treatment.
The same is true in CARS. You have to have basic knowledge of how language works and the reasoning ability to use it properly. Like any other area of science, you need a clear analytical method of understanding what’s in front of you.
Now the method I’m going to describe to you is not my method, and it’s not the Cambridge Learning Center’s method. It’s the standard scientific approach that’s taught in any university department that deals with texts or what you would refer to as passages. It’s even used to program artificial intelligence.
So let’s talk about this method. It’s made up of 3 parts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic.
What’s grammar? Grammar is the study of individual types of words, the jobs they do and how they relate to each other.
Rhetoric is how language is used to convey ideas.
Logic is understanding how those ideas relate to each other.
Let’s take a look at some questions to see how this works. In doing this, let’s keep some general principles in mind:
90% of getting the right answer is fully understanding the question. Most students read a question and assume they understand, but that’s often not the case. They don’t fully understand what the question says, and what the question is asking you to do
In order to fully understand a question,
First: Read it to get familiar with the language
Second: After you read the question, Disaggregate it. Break it down into grammatical units and reflect on the meaning of each unit;
Third: Understand what the strategy of the question is. What is the behavior that the question asks you to engage in? What are you supposed to do with those pieces of the puzzle;
Fourth: Match the constituent elements of the question, or the key idea referred to, to the constituent elements of the correct answer.
This is the basic scientific method that works all of the time once you learn to use it properly. Let’s use it on a passage from Examkrackers, the second edition, pages 38 and 39. There are plenty of PDF’s of this edition on the Internet in case you want to go over the whole passage.
Let’s take a look at question 14:
14. Which of the following claims is NOT explicitly presented in the passage as an example of an “undeniably” human figure?
- Roman Emperor Justinian
- English kings
- I Only
- II Only
- III Only
- I and II Only
So the first thing we’re going to do is read the question to ourselves just to get familiar with the language. So just stop here for a minute and read the question just to get familiar with it as a first step.
But we’re not going to stop there. What we’re going to do after the initial reading is to disaggregate the question, break it into grammatical units, and then really reflect on the meaning of each unit. So let’s do that now. Let’s take each constituent element and really think about what each means. We can even paraphrase it to make sure we really understand it:
Which of the following claims = One of the answers below
Is not explicitly presented in the passage as an example of = Isn’t mentioned as an example of
An undeniably human figure = A clearly identified human figure
Notice that we have 3 constituent elements:
One of the answers below
Isn’t mentioned as an example of
A clearly identified human figure
Now for those of you who have studied some grammar and rhetoric you know that when an author is using 2 emphatic adjectives; the tone demands attention. Notice in the last constituent element you have
A clearly identified human figure
Not just any human figure, but a clearly identified human figure. The tone of these adjectives tells us they are key to getting the right answer.
Now that we understand the constituent elements of the question, the pieces of ideas or information, the pieces of the puzzle, let’s ask ourselves:
What is the Strategy of the Question?
What does the question want me to do with these pieces?
Notice, it’s not about the shape or category of the question:
Those are just categories.
What’s important is what is the behavior the questions asks you to engage in?
So what’s this question asking me to do with the constituent elements?
Find the answers below that Isn’t mentioned as an example of A clearly identified human figure
So once we really understand the constituent elements in the question and understand the strategy of the question, we’re ready for the fourth step:
Match the constituent elements of the the question, or the key idea referred to, to the constituent elements of the correct answer.
Now let’s take a look at where this appears in the text. It’s in the 2nd paragraph:
(l. 13-15) ‘Ancient law was often attributed to a divine lawgiver or a messenger with a connection to the divine’
(l. 20,21) ‘Sometimes lawgivers were undeniably human figures’
(l. 21, 22) ‘Roman Emperor Justinian’ ‘English Kings’
(l. 16) Moses
The pronouncement of ancient law was often attributed to a divine lawgiver, or else a messenger with a visible connection to the divine or supernatural. Their commandments and prohibitions were transformed into a binding “law” by an external authority, “the lawgiver”, or, more precisely, the ancient community’s shared belief in the lawgiver’s intrinsic power, omniscience, or justice. Examples of the supernatural-authoritative lawgiver abound; the Bible (direct word of God), Moses (messenger of God), Christ (son of God, miracle worker), Athena (goddess, masculine woman, supernatural birth, messenger of Zeus) and the seer Tiresias (venerable, blind, visionary, hermaphrodite) are just a few examples. Sometimes, of course, the lawgivers were undeniably human figures, such as Roman Emperor Justinian, the English Kings, or even the town “elders.” Yet even then, devices were constructed for them to forge a public link with the divine; Roman Emperors typically acted as High Pontiff in talking auguries, while rulers had prophets, priests, and the “divine right of kings,” and even old men had “benches of polished stone in the sacred circle” on which to sit in borrowed glory. Thus, ancient low with its fundamental reliance on external authority, had little need to justify its content internally.