How to Answer MCAT CARS Questions: Reflective Intelligence

As we’ve mentioned before, reflective intelligence is critical in understanding the relationship of ideas in a MCAT CARS passage. Again, reflective intelligence is knowing not only what a text says, but what it means, what it infers, and what it implies. And this is what the MCAT CARS questions you’re scored on will be asking you about.

We’re going to use an essay by Sir Kenneth Clark to look at how apply reflective intelligence. As we explained in “The First Thing You Should Do When You Read a MCAT CARS Passage,” you want to look at the paragraph and see if you can figure out what it’s about or what the subject is. You do this by looking for what’s repeated, referred to, explained, or described.

Here’s a copy of the paragraph:

“I am in the Gothic world, the world of chivalry, courtesy, and romance; a world in which serious things were done with a sense of play - where even war and theology could become a sort of game; and when architecture reached a point of extravagance unequalled in history. After all the great unifying convictions that inspired the medieval world, high Gothic art can look fantastic and luxurious - what Marxists call conspicuous waste. And yet these centuries produce some of the greatest spirits in the history of man, amongst them St. Francis of Assisi and Dante. Behind all the fantasy of the Gothic imagination there remained, on two different planes, a sharp sense of reality. Medieval man could see things very clearly, but he believed that these appearances should be considered as nothing more than symbols or tokens of an ideal order, which was the only true reality.”

Okay, so what’s repeated, referred to, explained or described? Gothic. Gothic world, gothic art, high gothic, etc. So it’s about the gothic world. Now, that’s one thing, but what does this all mean? You’ve got a lot of language that pre-med students aren’t used to. They’re talking about architecture, theology, games, Marxism... so how do you figure out what this is about? Well, this is where grammar, rhetoric, and reflective intelligence comes in. As soon as you pick up these skills, you’ll be able to take something this complex, something as unfamiliar as this, and master it really quickly.

Let’s look at the first sentence:

“I am in the Gothic world, the world of chivalry, courtesy, and romance; a world in which serious things were done with a sense of play - where even war and theology could become a sort of game; and when architecture reached a point of extravagance unequalled in history.

How do we tear that apart? Well, it’s the first sentence and is a topic sentence, so we know it’s important. We learned that from rhetoric (see…).  But notice also that there’s a rhetorical cue there: a semi-colon. And a semi colon usually signals a clarifying statement which is either an example or an explanation. So all of that text – all forty-eight words of it – is really an explanation of what the Gothic world is.

But how do we figure out what the author is saying the Gothic world is? He describes it as:

“a world in which serious things were done with a sense of play - where even war and theology could become a sort of game; and when architecture reached a point of extravagance unequalled in history.”

Whatever could that mean? Here’s where reflective intelligence comes in. Let’s look not at what the words say but rather at what they mean. Let’s reflect on what the author’s purpose is in using this kind of language.

We’ve got a world where “serious things were done with a sense of play,” so we’ve got a contrast of serious and play. A world “where even war and theology...”, which are both pretty serious things, “...could become a sort of game” Now a game is not serious at all. So we’ve got serious, and play, war and game. It’s a series of contrasts. So we know what the words say, but what the author is trying to tell us, what he’s showing us, is this great contrast. When we reflect on this contrast he’s showing us, we see that what he’s telling us is that the Gothic age was an age of contrasts.

So that’s the reflection: not only seeing what the words say but seeing what they mean, seeing how the author is using these words to convey a certain meaning.

Now let’s take a look at the next two sentences:

“After all the great unifying convictions that inspired the medieval world, high Gothic art can look fantastic and luxurious - what Marxists call conspicuous waste. And yet these centuries produce some of the greatest spirits in the history of man, amongst them St. Francis of Assisi and Dante.”

Using Grammar (and if you need a refresher check out "First Step in Improving Your MCAT CARS Score: Grammar" and "How to Analyze a MCAT CARS Passage Using Grammar"), we know that when we see “after all the great unifying convictions that inspired the medieval world” that it’s a subordinate clause. It’s just a modifier. The guts of the sentence are “high Gothic are can look fantastic and luxurious.”

But notice the contrast that comes after in the next sentence. Reflect on it. What is the author showing us? The author is contrasting fantasy and luxury with spirituality. So again, he’s telling us that the gothic world was a world of great contrasts, and what were the contrasts he has shown us so far? Serious and play. Luxurious and spiritual.

Let’s look at the conclusion sentence:

“Medieval man could see things very clearly, but he believed that these appearances should be considered as nothing more than symbols or tokens of an ideal order, which was the only true reality.”

The main idea here is that medieval man (that’s the “he” the author is referring to) believed that appearances should be considered as nothing more than symbols or tokens of an ideal world.

Now let’s put it all together from the very beginning. We’ve got:

“the gothic world is a world of contrasts”

“the world of contrasts was the contrast between the spiritual and the physical”

“the physical is just a representation of the real ideal spiritual world”

So what we’ve been able to do is take this wall of worlds and use grammar, rhetoric, and reflective intelligence to reduce it to just a few words and a few key ideas.

These are the kinds of skills you really need to master in order to do well on the MCAT CARS section. It’s seeing what the relationship of ideas are, seeing how the flow of the argument goes, being able to take those really large sentences and break them down into smaller ideas, then seeing the relationship between those ideas and how they relate to the the topic or theme of the passage. Understanding this is what is going to allow you to answer MCAT CARS questions correctly.

Now, this can be a little bit difficult initially for science students because you’ve learned in such different ways. This is a whole new method of cognition but it’s something that any student can learn. One of the things to think about is when you take a look at these essays, cognitively think of them like a Christmas tree. The subject and theme is the trunk of the tree. The main ideas are the branches. And the facts are the ornaments. Once you understand the relationships of the ideas, once you understand how the basic theme influences all of them, all of it just comes together.

In addition to that, all of the studies have shown that rather than trying to remember facts, when you simply follow the flow of ideas, what happens is that the facts literally stick to them. You will remember the facts much more just by following the ideas that by trying to remember all the facts. Because when you remember them, and you lose the relationships, then it just becomes a wall of words again.