Improve your CARS Reading Speed by quickly finding the Key Ideas: Part I

So now you know from our previous blog posts how to find the Main Idea and how to reduce Stress and Test Taking Anxiety through Meditation. Let’s focus on the next topic in Rhetoric: how to quickly find key ideas. Rhetoric is a fundamental building block of your MCAT CARS Strategy

Improve your CARS Reading Speed by quickly finding the Key Ideas: Part I

Improve your CARS Reading Speed by quickly finding the Key Ideas: Part I

When I was a freshman in college, I took a philosophy course with a really brilliant professor. The lectures were amazing but the readings were so obtuse I couldn’t figure out what an author was saying. So I know how you feel. Sometimes when you’re reading a passage it seems like a “Wall of Words”, a “Forest of Facts”. It’s frustrating, and even a little scary not to be able to determine clearly what the key ideas are in the passage. It’s something you have to do or you’re just going to drown in a deluge of words--Help!

Here, again, Rhetoric is is your life raft, a key element that will increase reading speed and comprehension. It allows you to separate the wheat from the chaff, the key ideas from the incidental facts. Those key ideas and the relationship between them are what 80% of the questions are going to be based on. Sure there are a few detail questions, and maybe even a Descriptive Essay with lots of details (more about that in another post) but again 80% of the test centers around key ideas. To get into medical school, you want to score higher than the average MCAT scores, and being able to quickly pick out the Key Idea Sentences in a passage is a big step toward doing that. 

 

So what we’re going to do today is explore the first two topics of four on how to find key ideas. What are they? Structure and Punctuation. Punctuation? What are you kidding me? You mean like periods and commas? That’s right, Punctuation. By the end of this post, you’re going to fall in love with Punctuation, you might even get as weird as I am about it and I’m a real Language Maven. It can be the light that illuminates a dark passage.

 

But let’s look at Structure first. You’ve seen how important it is to recognize different types of essays so you can find where the main idea is. In scientific terms, let’s think about classifying the type of essay as Taxonomy. When you think about Structure, you have to think in terms of Morphology. This stuff really is scientific. If you have any doubts, look at the work Noam Chomsky has done at MIT. All of computer language is based on his Linguistic/Logic Models.

 

In any essay, each paragraph usually has a predictable structure that will signal where many of the key ideas are. There is a Topic Sentence and a Conclusion Sentence. Both are Key Idea Sentences. The Topic Sentence is either going to tell you what the idea is that’s going to be explored in the paragraph or tell you what the subject matter of that paragraph is going to be. Understand it and pay attention to it. This sentence is the key that unlocks the entire paragraph.

The Conclusion Sentence is most often critical as well. It usually informs you why the entire paragraph is relevant, what it’s conclusion is, what the whole paragraph is leading to.

Let’s take a look at a couple of paragraph examples, again from Examkrackers Passage IV in Test 1 at page 24. The passage deals with the Governor of New York’s plan to reduce the state’s hospital costs. Read the paragraph to yourself and then go back and focus on the Topic and Conclusion Sentences.

 

The major concern is that this plan will shift rather than reduce medical costs, thereby creating winners and losers. Among the winners will be, predictably, the state itself which will reduce the amount it pays for medical training subsidies through Medicaid (the nationwide program that subsidizes medical care for low income residents, particularly for emergency hospital care). Insurance carriers are also expected to benefit; by exploiting the state’s high concentration of hospitals, insurers will probably be able to negotiate discounts for clients’ hospital care, thus cutting costs and increasing their profit margins. These clients themselves may also share in the savings, depending on what percentage of the discounts will be passed along to consumers. On net, It is anticipated that most will probably enjoy somewhat lower premiums.

Now put the Topic and Conclusion Sentences and use them to tell yourself a story:

The plan will shift rather than reduce medical costs, making winners and losers. Most [insured people] will enjoy lower premiums.

Notice when you tell yourself a story, a narrative, with the key ideas, the paragraph is not just a jumble of facts. It makes sense. This governor has a plan to reduce the state’s hospital costs, but he’s really just shifting the cost. People with insurance are going to make out well, but some people are going to get hurt in this process. See how it's all starting to make sense?

Let’s take a look at the next paragraph. Again, read it through first, then go back and tell yourself a story using what the first and last sentence say.

Much of the “savings” will fall on the shoulders of New York City, which will have to scramble to subsidize costs for the poor and uninsured, who will be turned away from hospitals. Hospitals may opt not to turn away any, and, in fact, will be prohibited from turning away certain extremely low income patients, whose right to certain emergency care is protected by the state’s Hill-Burton law. Of course, should hospitals continue to offer access to the uninsured, they will effectively be subsidizing the poor and will be rewarded with lower profit margins. Some may be forced to close.

Again, let’s tell a story. 

The “savings” will fall on New York City which will have to scramble to subsidize costs for the the poor and uninsured who will be turned away from hospitals. Some [hospitals] may close.

It’s pretty dramatic stuff and doesn’t look like a good plan. Now let’s put some key ideas from both paragraphs together and see what we get.

The plan will shift rather than reduce medical costs, making winners and losers. Most [insured people] will enjoy lower premiums. The “savings” will fall on New York City which will have to scramble to subsidize costs for the the poor and uninsured who will be turned away from hospitals. Some [hospitals] may close.

Now notice how doing this takes two huge paragraphs of information and turns them into a story that makes sense. Now you’re finding the key ideas and you can start to make sense of their relationship: “The governor’s plan won’t reduce costs, it will just shift them to the city who will have to pick up the cost. Worse yet, some hospitals may close.” These two paragraphs are now now longer a jumble of disconnected facts.    

Now let’s discuss the second tool for picking out Key Idea Sentences: Punctuation. Did I mention how Punctuation was one of my favorite topics? The shelter in the storm? The light at the end of the tunnel? The rain in the desert? Sorry, I get excited about this stuff. You will too when you see how it marks some sentences as Key Idea Sentences and has a big influence on the meaning of others. Let’s go back to the first paragraph. In we find the following sentence:

Insurance carriers are also expected to benefit; by exploiting the state’s high concentration of hospitals, insurers will probably be able to negotiate discounts for clients’ hospital care, thus cutting costs and increasing their profit margins.

Notice that this sentence has a semicolon (;). You’re thinking what’s the big deal, right? It’s a very big deal. Whenever you have a semicolon (;) or a colon (:) in a sentence an author is telling you that it is a key idea sentence. Why? Because whenever you have a semicolon or a colon, it is followed by either an explanation or an example in the same sentence. Why is this significant? The author is making the same point twice to make sure your hear him. Not only that, but she is telling you this in two different ways so you really get it. Got it? So whenever you see a sentence anywhere in a paragraph, note that it's a key sentence. We call these types of markers for Key Idea Sentences, Rhetorical Cues.

Now let's take another look at the topic sentence from the second paragraph:

Much of the “savings” will fall on the shoulders of New York City, which will have to scramble to subsidize costs for the poor and uninsured, who will be turned away from hospitals.

Notice that in this sentence “savings” is in quotes. That’s important. Whenever you see quotation marks in a sentence, no matter where the sentence appears in the paragraph, it marks it as a key idea sentence.

But what is the significance of “ “ ? When quotation marks are used it tells you one of three things. First, the author may be redefining a word to give it a new meaning that you are not familiar with. For example, take the word Performance. The normal use of the word means something an entertainer does, a song, a dance, a play. But if you’re reading a humanities essay on legal theory the author will signal that by “performance” she means complete fulfillment of the all the legal obligations of a contract. The author is pointing it out to you. It’s an important key sentence.

Here, though, quotation marks are used in a second way, to express irony, that is, using a word to mean it’s opposite. So when the author puts “savings” in quotes, he’s doing two things: first he’s telling you that they are not savings at all; and second, he’s being sarcastic. He doesn’t like this and thinks it's a bad idea. So here, the use of quotation marks not only tells you that it's a key idea sentence but also subtly tells you what the author’s opinion of this plan is.

Knowing how quotation marks are used lets you “read between the lines”. The third use of quotation marks is to make a point emphatically, just as I did in the last sentence with “read between the lines”. So whenever you see quotation marks, know that it is a key sentence and determine how the author is using them.

The third use of quotation marks is to make a point emphatically, just as I did in the last sentence with “read between the lines”. So whenever you see quotation marks, know that it is a key sentence and determine how the author is using them.

The next type of punctuation that marks a Key Idea sentence wherever it may appear in Italics. Let’s look at the same sentence again.

Much of the “savings” will fall on the shoulders of New York City, which will have to scramble to subsidize costs for the poor and uninsured, who will be turned away from hospitals.

Italics are a very strong form of evidence. They scream out to you “Notice me and notice this sentence”. What is the author emphasizing here? The author is emphasizing and thinks it's really important that the state is really shifting the burden to the City. With this emphasis he’s basically saying, “Poor New York City. They’re really sticking it to you.”

So let’s review where we are and now that you have a better understanding and let me give you some study notes.

Some of the ways to pick out Key Idea Sentences

  • Topic Sentence: very important. It’s the key that unlocks the whole paragraph and tells you what is going to be discussed in the paragraph, what it's all about, or tells you the idea the author is going to discuss in that paragraph. Understand it or you’ll get lost.
  • Conclusion Sentence: tells you why the paragraph is important to the overall Argument or what the author’s formula of ideas is for proving his Main Idea.
  • Colons (;) and Semicolons (:): Mark very important points where an author is telling you something in two different ways to really make sure that you get this important idea.
  • “Quotation Marks”: are used in one of three ways, sometimes more than one at once.
    • Ironically: to mean the opposite of what they say and tell you of the author’s disapproval,
    • To redefine a common term in a new way, or
    • To just emphasize an important point

Notice how when you start learning the fundamentals of language, these passages begin to make sense. They’re not just a jumble of facts. You can start to see what is really going on. What the author wants to prove, and how he supports it with his logic formula of Key Ideas that make up his argument.

Study these notes. Don’t read this material casually. Would you read an organic chemistry text casually. This is just as important, even more important since you already know organic and CARS is going to determine whether you get into medical school or whether you get into the school of your choice. Remember, MCAT scoring can be pretty strange. An overall increase of just 7 points can take you from the 50th percentile to the top quarter. That’s the MCAT score range that will get you multiple admissions. So use what you are learning in these blog posts methodically as you go through your CARS practice passages. These are not just tips for reading faster; they are proven methods of increasing both speed and comprehension.

You know how important raising your score is. Where you go to school can have a big influence in where you get matched for a residency. Where you get trained in residency is going to have a big influence on what hospitals you get affiliated with and the quality of professionals you’ll work with. You’re probably going to be practicing medicine for the next fifty years. So the next few weeks and months can have implications for a lifetime. Set yourself up to win. Excellence Matters!!

Again, make sure you work with a classmate, better yet, do it in a group. It’s not just about absorbing ideas; it's about fluency just like a language. Think about how doctors are trained to practice medicine. Sure, the first two years you learn medical sciences and just grind it out like you did in college. 

But what happens the next two years, and the four years you spend in training? You work back and forth in groups, trading ideas, getting different perspectives, learning how to think on you feet and react intelligently. When you go on rounds with an attending physicians with a group of residents or med students and a patient presents, its like a tennis game of ideas, back and forth, back and forth, with different perspectives until you come up with the best diagnosis.

You may remember that old television program “House” where the brilliant diagnostician had a team of residents. They had the toughest cases that they always solved, back and forth, back and forth, until the finally made the diagnosis that saved a life in impossible circumstances. They were the best.

Don’t be a good doctor. Be a great doctor. Study hard. Meditate. Help each other. That’s how we’ve done it over the years and trained students to think like doctors, lots and lots of them.

Until next time,

Leonardo
Leonardo@cambridgelearningcenter.org

PS Next time, we’ll go into the last group of Rhetorical Cues, certain words and groupings of words. Then I’ll put it all together for you.
PPS If you haven’t done so already, sign up for a free class or take the diagnostic test. I analyze all of them.