Identifying the Key Ideas in MCAT CARS Passages Using Rhetoric

In "The Key to Breaking Down a MCAT CARS Passage: Rhetoric" we went over the basics of rhetoric. You’ll want to review that post before we go ahead and use our knowledge of rhetoric to deconstruct a MCAT Verbal Passage.

We’re going to be using a passage from “ExamKrackers 101 Passages in MCAT Verbal Reasoning 2nd Edition.” It’s Passage III of Verbal Reasoning Test 1 and can be found on page 22. Even though this passage was prepared for the old MCAT Verbal section, we promise analyzing it provides just as much benefit for the new CARS section. What's important is the approach, not the passage.

Read the first paragraph really carefully and try to get as much out of it as you can. Here’s the paragraph for those of you who don’t have the book in front of you:

“Arguments abound over whether marijuana should be legalized. Many of these arguments pertain to the federal guidelines for lengthy prison sentences meted out for what is considered a relatively petty crime. Others point out that marijuana is a drug that could, and should, be used for medicinal purposes. But most proponents of legalization ignore the mounting evidence that points to the long-term damage to the user and to society as a whole.”

Let’s go over it together. First look at the topic sentence. The topic sentence will tell you what the paragraph is about. Now this is particularly important in a thesis paragraph, because the thesis paragraph is the key paragraph of the essay; that’s where you’re going to find the author’s argument: the key idea that the author wants to prove or convince you of.

We’ll look at the topic sentence together:

             “Arguments about over whether marijuana should be legalized.”

What the author is telling us is that this essay is going to be about the legalization of marijuana.

Now let’s take a look at the conclusion sentence:

“But most proponents of legalization ignore the mounting evidence that points to the long-term damage to the user and to society as a whole.”

Notice this: it’s not only a conclusion sentence that tells us that this is a key idea, but it also starts with a contrast word: “but.” Now the author is telling us here, not only is this our conclusion, not only is this important, but I’m really going to emphasize this with another rhetorical cue. He’s making his point in a really strong way. And what’s the point he’s making? If we take a look at the language we see that what he’s telling us is people who are in favor of legalization are ignoring the damage that marijuana does.

The key ideas in the thesis paragraph are critical for two reasons. First, they’re telling you what the argument is. Second is that they allow you to anticipate and understand the structure of the entire essay. The author has told us that there are a lot of arguments for legalization but what he’s also told us is that these arguments ignore the damage of marijuana.

Let’s take a look at that conclusion sentence again, looking at it very carefully:

“But most proponents of legalization ignore the mounting evidence that points to the long-term damage to the user and to society as a whole.”

What we’ve got in this conclusion sentence is two things that the people in favor of legalization ignore. One is long term damage to the user and the second is the damage to society as a whole. Now in reading and understanding this you can see that the rest of the essay is going to be organized around proving that there is long term damage to society and also long term damage to individuals. So you immediately know what the gross morphology is; you know there is going to be a section on damage to society and a section on damage to individuals.

Now what’s the advantage of this? Well we know from cognitive science that if you can see the structure of an essay, if you can see the structure of how ideas are laid out, then that gives you a framework for understanding. So while other people are going through these essays and really struggling line by line and paragraph by paragraph trying to figure out what is going on, you have a complete understanding of what the argument is and you can anticipate and understand the points that are made following it.

In effect, you can now see the Christmas tree, the trunk of the tree (which is the argument or the main idea), and how the two key ideas feed into it.

Let’s go over the next paragraph of this passage to make sure you really understand this approach. Read it very carefully and see how much you can get out of it:

“In the Netherlands, marijuana has been legally available since 1976. ‘Coffee shops’ sell cannibis over the counter in many parts of the country. However, more people have tried cannabis since it has been legalized. At the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, Arjan Sas and Peter Cohen divided Amsterdamers surveyed regarding their marijuana use into two groups - those who were born before 1958, in other words who were 18 or older in 1976, and those who were born after 1976, for whom cannibis has always been legal. Only 19 percent of the older people had tried cannabis, compared with 38 percent of the younger group. It would seem then that legalization promotes experimentation with cannabis, if not also even harder drugs.”

Now let’s take a look at this paragraph together. First, go to the topic sentence:

“In the Netherlands, marijuana has been legally available since 1976.”

So that’s really important; the author is telling us that we’ve got a lot of history with this. Now look at the conclusion sentence:

“It would seem then that legalization promotes experimentation with cannabis, if not also even harder drugs.”

The conclusion sentence tell us what the significance of the information in this paragraph is.

If you look at it carefully, there are two ideas there. The first is that legalization increases usage. The second is that it might be a gateway to other drugs. So when we take a look at the contents of the conclusion sentence what the author is telling us is that legalization produces more usage of marijuana and, in addition to that, it may lead to the usage of more harder drugs.

Now this is a pretty long paragraph and the question then becomes how do we look at the information that’s in between the topic and conclusion sentence and pick out the key ideas? Well again it’s through the use of rhetorical cues. The first rhetorical cue we see is quotation marks around coffee shops. What does that tell us? It tells us it’s important. But note that it’s used ironically. Basically coffee shops aren’t actually coffee shops; they’re really marijuana dispensaries. So the author is telling us that these things are the opposite of what they seem.

Notice this as well, whenever you have irony there is always more than a hint of criticism. So the author is signifying to us again that these coffee shops are not only not what they seem, but he doesn’t approve of them. So that’s the second key idea. Now let’s see if there are any other rhetorical cues.

In the second sentence we have a contrast word: “however.” So we know that there’s a key idea here. This third key idea is that since legalization more people have tried or are using marijuana.

We also have the conclusion sentence, which means that this paragraph actually has four key ideas. Now it’s not that you’re ignoring the information in between, but that statistical study mentioned in between is just fill-in information. It’s good to be aware of it but realize that 80% of MCAT CARS questions are idea questions. And if you understand the key ideas and understand their relationships to one another you’re going to get those questions right. The facts will tend to stick to those key ideas and if you don’t recall them immediately then you’ll be able to very quickly move back to the text and find where they are.

Let’s recap. In the first paragraph, or thesis paragraph, there are two key points. First, that there are lots of arguments about the legalization of marijuana and second, that they ignore the damage to the user and society.

In the second paragraph, two key ideas are greater legalization (and the author disapproves of that) and that legalization promotes greater use and the use of harder drugs.

Now another thing to notice is the relationship between the two paragraphs. Notice that in the conclusion sentence of the thesis paragraph the author talks about the damage to the user and society. Then notice that in the second paragraph, particularly in the citing of those statistics and studies, what the author is talking about is the damage to society. So what you can see is how that second paragraph relates to the conclusion sentence in the thesis paragraph. The author is going down the first main idea, which he laid out in the thesis paragraph. In the subsequent paragraph you can anticipate that he’s going to be talking about the damage to the individual.

So now you can see how the principles of rhetoric allow you to analyze the overall structure of an essay, the structure of a particular paragraph, and to see how they’re related to each other. This is one of the keys to mastering and excelling on the  MCAT Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills (CARS) section. And by excelling we mean getting a score of ten or better.

There’s no mystery to mastering MCAT CARS; it’s all about fundamentals. What we’ve discusses may seem new to you, but if you can master chemistry and physics you can just as easily master verbal reasoning. Just as in the sciences, verbal reasoning has its fundamentals and once you master those you’ll be able to go through essays with a great deal of facility.

Like we tell our students at the Cambridge Learning Center, this is not brain surgery. It’s not really complicated. But it is brain science. You have to understand the underlying mechanisms of how a language works and that’s what’s really going to help you improve your MCAT CARS score.