One of the most important aspects of mastering the MCAT CARS section is the ability to pick out key ideas. Now why is this crucial? Well we know from cognitive science that the ability to pick out key ideas and see the relationship between them is really the key to mastering any essay or argument.
Why do I call it an argument? Any essay in essence is an argument. The author is trying to prove a point; he’s trying to convince you of one particular issue, and any argument or essay is governed by the rules of rhetoric.
And what is rhetoric? Rhetoric is the ability to not only construct essays but to understand how they’re constructed, to understand how they are made. It’s this ability (knowing the structure of an essay) that allows you to quickly and efficiently pick out the key ideas within that essay. For example, in all of the essays you’ll be reading, they have a predictable structure. Let’s call it a gross morphology. The overall structure normally consists of a thesis paragraph, which contains the key ideas of the argument; followed by example paragraphs, which provide factual examples or discuss or advance the logic of the arguments; and a conclusion paragraph, which tells you the significance or relevance of the entire essay.
Now in addition to the overall structure or gross morphology of the essay, rhetoric shows us that paragraphs themselves also have a structure and that structure is normally made up of three parts.
The first part is the topic sentence, which is normally the first sentence of the paragraph. It’s in the topic sentence that you’ll see the key idea that’s going to be developed throughout the paragraph.
There will also be a conclusion sentence that will tell you why the paragraph information is important. And in between the topic sentence and the conclusion sentence, particularly if it’s a long paragraph, you’ll find other sentences that also contain key ideas.
How do we pick these out? All of these sentences have what we call rhetorical cues. Rhetorical cues are words or types of punctuation that an author uses to signal to you that this is an important idea. For example, two of the most important rhetorical cues are semicolons and colons. Why are semicolons and colons important? Well in sentences that have semicolons and colons, an author is usually telling you the same thing twice in two different ways. After the semicolon or colon you’ll usually have either an explanatory statement or an example of the idea that the author is talking about in the first part of the sentence.
Semicolons and colons warn you that the author is saying, “Hey, pay attention to this. This is a key idea. I’m not only going to tell you twice but in two different ways and maybe even give you an example so you realize that this is really important.”
The second rhetorical cue is contrast words. Authors will use words like “but,” “however,” “nonetheless,” “yet,” etc and when an author uses a contrast word he’s telling you this is very important. And why are contrast words important? Well after a contrast word an author is giving you a very important idea. Whatever comes before the contrast word is only something to highlight what comes after it. So the author is telling us to pay attention to this.
The third type of rhetorical cue to be aware of is quotation marks. When you have quotation marks, what an author is telling you is to pay attention to a word because it’s really important, or he’s doing something a bit more subtle; he’s using quotation marks to show irony and what he’s really saying is the opposite or what the quoted word says.
Once you understand the gross morphology of the essay and how to pick out key ideas, it will be so much easier for you to understand a text.
Think of it this way: an essay is very much like a Christmas tree. Going up the middle of the Christmas tree is the trunk, that’s the argument. Then you have the key ideas supporting and feeding into that. Then you have the facts that really hang on to the key ideas like ornaments. So if you can understand the gross morphology of an essay, if you can understand the underlying structure of a paragraph, and if you can understand how the key ideas relate to the argument, you’re really going a long way to mastering a text.
In our next post we’ll put this knowledge to use and use rhetoric to deconstruct a MCAT CARS passage.