MCAT Question of the Day: How do I answer Detail Questions?--Part I

One of the biggest challenges that students have in the MCAT CARS Exam is answering questions. Getting a high MCAT Score in CARS, and getting high MCAT Scores in general are among the biggest challenges in medical school admissions.

In our last blog post we talked about how to approach questions in general and how to analyze Challenge Questions.  Let’s now take a look at “Detail” Questions and Support Detail Questions in particular.

Let’s begin by reviewing the basic rules that apply to all questions:

Rule #1: 90% of getting the right answer is understanding the question fully. Again, that might seem kind of obvious, but one of the biggest causes of not getting the right answer is missing a single word in a question that can completely change it’s meaning. In order to make sure that you really understand every part of the question and what it’s asking you to do, you can follow these steps:

A. First read the question through to just get familiarity with the language.

B. Break it up into pieces. Remember we called these the “Constituent Elements” of the question--the key pieces of information in the question.

C. Stop and reflect on what each piece of the question means. Make sure you know what each piece really means. Don’t skip any words.

D. After you reflect on each constituent element, ask yourself, “What’s the “Strategy of the Question?” What precisely is the question asking you to do? It’s not enough to know that it’s a weaken question or a challenge question, or a detail questions if you don’t know the exact steps of analysis that you have take.

The general strategy for analyzing and answering detail questions is very precise and you should use it after you’ve followed the above steps. Let’s look at this general strategy that applies to all detail questions first, and then we’ll look at a specific type of detail questions, Support Detail Questions where we’ll add another step to the general strategy.

So after you’ve read the question, broken it into pieces, reflected on each part and asked yourself “What’s the question asking me to do, you want to take the following additional steps:

  1. Go back to the where the detail is

  2. Read contextually: Don’t just read the sentence that the detail in is. Read the sentence above it and below it. Context is everything

  3. Read carefully


Let’s take a look at an actual question. This is from Examkrackers 2d edition at p. 75:

According to the passage, an ‘old standby’ (line 5) would best be described as an item that:

  1. Has outlived its usefulness.

  2. Has been improved upon but should not be used.

  3. Is still as effective as what is being used nowadays.

  4. Has been improved upon but still functions well.

So first, what we’re going to do is just read the question.

Then we’re going to break it into pieces and really reflect on what the meaning of each piece is:

According to the passage = Given the information in the essay

‘Old standby’ would best be described = ‘old standby’ would be defined as

Now, having broken the question up and reflected on each piece, we’re now going to ask ourselves, ‘What’s the strategy of the question?’. What exactly is the question asking me to do. Here the question is asking you to define what an ‘old standby’ is.

Now let’s apply the second set of rules to find the answer, the rules for any detail question:

  1. Go back to the where the detail is

  2. Read contextually: Don’t just read the sentence that the detail in is. Read the sentence above it and below it. Context is everything

  3. Read carefully

So let’s go back to where the detail is, that sentence, and also read the sentence above and sentence below, carefully. We’ll use the rules of grammar to pick out the keywords in each sentence.

Traditional materials such as wool and eiderdown have given way to polypropylene and a myriad of other plastic like products. Though the old standbys still function as effectively as ever, they are no longer in favor with the more knowledgeable…

Now looking at the constituent elements in the sentences above, notice how the sentence prior to the sentence containing ‘old standby’ has 2 important elements:

Traditional materials...have given way

Now also notice that ‘old standbys’ in the second sentence refers back to ‘traditional materials’ and they ‘have given way’. Now also notice that old standbys still function as effectively as ever. Now let’s reflect on the meaning of each constituent element:

Old standbys = Traditional materials

Have given way = Have been surpassed by or have been improved on

Still function as effectively = Still functions well

Now notice what happens when we put these ideas together:

D. has been improved upon but still functions well (the definition of ‘old standby’).

Notice how well D answers the question.

Again, what are the steps in the process of answering a detail question:

  1. First read the question through to just get familiarity with the language.

  2. Break it up into pieces. Remember we called these the “Constituent Elements” of the question--the key pieces of information in the question.

  3. Stop and reflect on what each piece of the question means. Make sure you know what each piece really means. Don’t skip any words.

  4. After you reflect on each constituent element, ask yourself, “What’s the “Strategy of the Question?” What precisely is the question asking you to do? It’s not enough to know that it’s a weaken question or a challenge question, or a detail questions if you don’t know the exact steps of analysis that you have to take.

After you’ve done this to really understand the question, then:

  1. Go back to the where the detail is

  2. Read contextually: Don’t just read the sentence that the detail in is. Read the sentence above it and below it. Context is everything

  3. Read carefully

  4. Match the constituent elements from the context to the right answer

So those are the general rules that apply to all detail questions. If this seems complicated or time consuming, remember this: once you practice these modalities and use them over and over again with precision, they will turn into reflexes, just like learning to speak a foreign language fluently. Your brain will do this automatically. It just takes time and practice.

Now before we leave today’s topic, let’s take a look at another type of detail question: the Detail Support Question.

Now we’ve already looked at Key Idea Support Questions which are different from Detail Support Questions and if you don’t remember what they are here are links to the blog post and video on Key Idea Support Questions:

Support detail questions are different. What they are asking you to do is to determine whether a key idea has support. Now how can a key idea be supported? There are only 3 ways:

  1. There is a discussion of the key idea after it is stated.

  2. There is an example of the key idea, or

  3. There is some authority cited either in a quote or study.

Let’s take a look at an example from Examkrackers again, the 2d edition at p. 14.

The author claims: ‘Given the commonly known dangers of cigarette smoking, the smoking of a filterless joint of marijuana seems a high risk exercise’. The support offered for this conclusion within the passage is:

  1. Weak; there is no evidence that smoking marijuana cigarettes is dangerous.

  2. Weak: the dangers of cigarette smoking are not commonly known.

  3. Strong; the dangers of cigarette smoking are commonly known.

  4. Strong; the dangers of reefer madness have been well documented.

Here’s where the sentence appears and the context it appears in:

One common finding of medical research is that the few useful components of marijuana might be extracted or administered in oral or injectable form. Given the commonly known dangers of cigarette smoking, the smoking of a filterless joint of marijuana seems a high risk exercise. However, it is revealing to interview those who actually want to use marijuana as a medicine.

Now before you look for the answer. Why don’t you go back first and apply those rules we went over to make sure you really understand the question and have carefully read the context of where the quote appears. Why don’t you do that now before you look for the answer.

Now once you’ve done that, let’s look at the strategy of the question again. What is the question asking you to do?

Is there support for the quote = Given the context of the quote is there a discussion, example, or authority for the quoted language: Given the commonly known dangers of cigarette smoking, the smoking of a filterless joint seems a high risk exercise.

Notice they are asking you for support of that statement within the passage. Let me emphasize again, within the language of the passage. Now look at the context again and notice that there is no discussion, example, or authority for the statement. Let’s look at the answers now.

The author claims: ‘Given the commonly known dangers of cigarette smoking, the smoking of a filterless joint of marijuana seems a high risk exercise’. The support offered for this conclusion within the passage is:

  1. Weak; there is no evidence that smoking marijuana cigarettes is dangerous.

  2. Weak: the dangers of cigarette smoking are not commonly known.

  3. Strong; the dangers of cigarette smoking are commonly known.

  4. Strong; the dangers of reefer madness have been well documented.

You can quickly get rid of D because there is no discussion of ‘reefer madness’ in the context.

You can also get rid of C. Of course it’s true that the danger of cigarette smoking is commonly known. That’s a correct statement. But that is not what the question is asking. What the question is asking is about whether the entire quoted statement is supported in one of those 3 ways and it is not. There is no support for either statement that the harmful effects of smoking are widely known or that smoking a filterless ‘joint’ is a high risk exercise. They are statements with no follow up support. That leaves us with A and B. The first part of each is correct: the support is Weak.

Let’s look at the difference between the two. B states that the dangers of cigarette smoking are not commonly known. That can’t be correct since the language in the passage tells us that they are commonly known. So that answer is incorrect. That leaves us with A and notice what the second part of A says: there is no danger that smoking marijuana cigarettes is dangerous. Think about that. It is correct. No evidence is offered that smoking marijuana is dangerous; it only states that smoking cigarettes is dangerous. Remember, in a question like this, they are not asking you to assume or conclude anything. They are only asking you about what the text says explicitly and there is no subsequent discussion, example, or authority cited for the quoted language.

So that’s how you answer Detail Questions and Detail Support Questions specifically. Practice this method. Use it precisely over and over again, and what you’ll find over a period of time is that your brain will be able to do this quickly and automatically after a period of practice.

In our next blog post, we’ll be dealing with Detail Assumption Questions.  If you want to go even deeper into these issues, come to one of our free classes. They meet every Tuesday evening at 8 Eastern Time. You’ll even have time to ask about any questions that you have about any part of the CARS Exam. Just click the link below to register and you’ll get a link to the class right before it begins. We also have a link to our video on this topic below for further study and a link to our previous videos on finding the right answer with Support and Challenge Questions.

Thanks for spending time with us at the Cambridge Learning Center.