Improve your CARS reading speed in weeks by quickly finding the main idea

The CARS section of the MCAT Exam can be really scary. There never seems to be enough time to really analyze a passage. Some of the passages are so dense that it takes countless minutes to do them. Then when you rush you make too many mistakes. It feels like everything is working against you.

Improve your CARS reading speed in weeks by quickly finding the main idea

Improve your CARS reading speed in weeks by quickly finding the main idea

It’s not that you don’t know how to read. Everyone taking the exam does. The problem is that you don’t know how to read critically, and that’s a whole different way of analyzing a passage. Trying to decipher a CARS passage with the same skills that you use to read a science text is like trying to play tennis with a golf club. You need different tools, and the first tool you need to help you read faster and have a clear understanding of a passage is a basic knowledge of Rhetoric.

Knowing some fundamentals of Rhetoric will allow you to pick out the main idea and key ideas quickly and begin to understand the relationship between them. This is critical in the CARS Exam since 80% of the questions deal in one way or another with the main idea, key ideas, and the relationship between them.

Don’t worry if this is all new to you. I had to learn the same things myself when I was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. The reading load was so heavy that I was afraid I was going to flunk out. Fortunately, the Education Psychology Department had a really intensive course in critical reading that saved me and I was able to graduate from college with honors and then go on to graduate school at Harvard. But this is not about me. It’s about you improving your MCAT score in CARS and getting into medical school.

So let’s take a look at some fundamentals of Rhetoric together and see how they’ll help you improve your speed and comprehension.

The first thing rhetoric will do is help you find the Main Idea in an essay quickly. How? By helping you determine what type of essay you are reading. Knowing what type of essay you are reading will tell you exactly where to locate the Main Idea, the idea that holds the whole essay together, the reason why the author wrote the passage in the first place. There are 4 types of essays and you’ll find the main ideas in different places depending on the type of passage you’re reading.

An Expository Essay explores a particular topic in order to make a single point. A Persuasive Essay tries to convince you of a particular point of view or calls you to act in a particular way. In both of these essays, the main idea is usually found at the end of the first or Thesis paragraph. As you read these types of essays, keep in mind that all that follows this main idea is related to and in support of it. A good example of an Expository Essay can be found in the Examkrackers 101 Passages in MCAT Reasoning on page 22 (Test 1, Passage III) and an example of a Persuasive Essay can be found at page 90 (Test V, Passage V). Examkrackers provides a good source of CARS practice passages.

Let’s look at the first paragraph of the Expository Essay referenced above.

It might be argued that the main purpose of modern fashion is to make the wearer appear more attractive. But at least for men, this is not the main function that clothes fulfill.

Notice that the last sentence tells you what the essay is going to discuss: For men, the main purpose of clothing is not to look more attractive. The essay then goes on to discuss the history of clothing and how men are more interested in clothing that conveys “Power and Status” rather than a better physical appearance. Notice that in this Expository Essay, the author wants to “explore” a particular issue.

Now let’s look at the first paragraph of that Persuasive Essay, one where the author wants to persuade you of a particular position.

Since its foundation, America has been a land of opportunity and freedom, promoting a tradition of self-reliance and independence. Our country has flourished because it has embodied a commitment to human freedom, human rights, and human dignity. However, since the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973, which legalized abortion of unborn babies, our country has undergone a radical moral decline. As the “right to life” is snatched away at the moment of birth, and even before, the fundamental rights, on which America was established, are being denied and trampled upon. This poses a serious threat to our nation for “The future of democracy...depends on a culture capable of forming men and women who are prepared to defend certain truths and values” (pg. 439).

Notice that last sentence. The author wants to convince you of a particular point; he wants you to agree with him. Roe vs. Wade and the legalization of abortion poses a threat to democracy. Notice also how strong the language is in the whole paragraph: this author is taking a position that he wants you to adopt.

Narrative Essays have a different structure with the main idea in a different place. They are usually much more personal and conversational.

Let’s look at Narrative Essays. A narrative is a story, much like a novel or a movie. In these stories, there are two things at work and interacting: a plot and a main character. Think of your favorite movie. You have a character who experiences certain events and he or she either changes or gets an insight they never had before and changes mentally and emotionally. A good example of this is on page 120 (Test 7, Passage IV). These essays are much less theoretical and more psychological. In this essay, we see the main character go through a series of psychological changes culminating in the last paragraph where he gets a whole new insight from his experiences. In this type of essay, the main idea can be at the end or in the middle. What you want to look for is “How is the character changing?”. Let’s look at the first and last paragraph of this essay.

When I hear that someone has published a successful novel, bought an awesome stock, or filled the racks of a pottery store with her wares, my heart contracts with jealousy. Damn! How come they can do that and I can’t? Another opportunity gone. Now I’ll never be able to get my foot in the door. This jealousy also manifests itself in demeaning introspection and self- evaluation. I’m such a loser. Actually it's worse. I just read the other day that there is no such thing as a “lost opportunity”: somebody else always takes advantage of it.

Now notice that in this first paragraph, the author is telling you a personal story about his life, a Narrative. Notice also that he is describing his psychological condition with a lot of emotion. What are the emotions? He’s frustrated, dejected, really in a state of despair. Now think about the ideas that he is conveying. He’s saying, “I’m unable” and if “one person wins, another loses”.

Now compare the psychological and emotional tone of the last paragraph and how his feelings and ideas have changed. This is where the Main Idea is, what he has learned, how he has changed.

Hey, the pie gets bigger all the time. I have to realize that someone else’s good fortune is certainly not my personal misfortune. Someone else’s good fortune actually increases the opportunities for all of us. I mustn't measure my life or career by the success of another. The only yardstick to measure success with Is the satisfaction and contentment we find within ourselves.

When you compare these two paragraphs, you can see how different the narrator’s emotional and psychological states are, and how his point of view has changed. He’s no longer frustrated or dejected; he’s actually hopeful and optimistic, a huge change. Notice also how his ideas about life have changed, his point of view. He no longer thinks in terms of “winners and losers”. “The pie always gets bigger” and “Someone else’s good fortune only increases the opportunity for all of us.” Here’s where you find the main idea, in the last paragraph. If someone else wins, that increases rather than diminishes my chances.

In this type of essay, the main idea might be in the middle and then the author will talk about what he or she is going to do now with that changed perspective. The key to understanding this kind of essay is finding the initial psychological or emotional state with its accompanying point of view and then seeing what the change is that takes place.

Descriptive Essays are just that: they’re filled with a lot of descriptions. Take a look at Passage VI on Test 2 at page 44. This type of essay is just filled with details and you can tell one of these passages by understanding the main idea and then looking at the first sentence of each paragraph. Let’s look at the first paragraph in this essay.

Most moviegoers tend to sum up all of a film’s features-acting, directing, special effects, and script-into a blanket “I loved it” or “hated it”. But movie industry workers, and even film connoisseurs, can attest to the contribution of the movie’s “cinematics” or technical features, towards creating any movie’s atmosphere.

Now just like a Narrative or Persuasive Essay, the main idea is in the last sentence of the first paragraph. But these are very different essays from the ones we’ve discussed so far. Sure, the main point is that the “cinematics”, the technical features are what are important in creating the “atmosphere” of a movie, but what’s most important in this kind of essay are the details. Now in the majority of passages on the test, details aren’t as important as the key ideas and the relation between them (We’ll be doing another long email on key ideas soon.) But in this kind of essay, almost all the questions will be detail questions.

Wow! How do you remember all of the details? There seems to be a million of them. To read quickly and really understand what the author is doing, the key is that you don’t want to try to remember them! It’s more important to understand what the author is doing and being able to locate where the details are!

Go to the text of the essay. Print it out or get it on your Ipad or phone. It’s too long to put in here. Notice the main idea: cinematics create the atmosphere of a movie. Now look at the first sentence of each paragraph.

  • The second paragraph deals with “shots” or “scenes”.
  • The third paragraph deals with “Camera angles”.
  • The fourth paragraph deals with “Optics”.
  • And the fifth paragraph deals with “Perspective”. 

Now how do you know when you’re reading a Descriptive Essay? After the first paragraph, you’re going to be drowned with descriptive details. When you see this you have to realize what the author is doing. The key to going quickly is to first understand this and then take a quick look at the first sentence of each subsequent paragraph. The author is going to describe the cinematics: shots, camera angles, optics, and perspective, each in a separate paragraph. Read each paragraph for understanding, but don’t try to keep all the facts in your head. It’s an impossible task that will drive you crazy. Instead, remember what each paragraph is discussing and just mark where the subtopics begin. For example, in the paragraph on shots or scenes, the author discusses “extreme long shots”, “long shots”, and “medium shots”. Understand these sentences as you read them and mark them along with the first sentence in the paragraph. When you’re then asked a detail question, you’ll then be able to quickly go back to the right paragraph and zero in on the detail they are asking about.

Now as you can see, one of the most important aspects of reading a passage quickly and knowing how the parts relate to the whole is understanding what kind of essay you’re reading and how the parts relate to the whole. This will definitely increase your reading speed. A real grounding in rhetoric will help you to score in the upper MCAT score range, which is a critical factor in admissions. Remember, MCAT scoring can be really strange at times. An increase of just 7 points above the average MCAT scores will raise you from a just the average score to the top 25%.

We’ll be going deeper into rhetoric and other aspects of passages in later emails, but remember, the key to reading quickly and comprehensively is mastering the elements of written language like Rhetoric and Grammar. It’s just like learning Organic Chemistry. You’ve got to master the fundamentals. There are no “Tips or Tricks” or “Exam Taking Techniques”. But if you work hard and master these fundamentals, you will succeed, just like you did in your science courses.

We have a lot of free materials on the fundamentals. If you haven’t done so already, you can take one of our live free classes or take a free diagnostic test to see where you are. 

We analyze all of the diagnostic tests and will send you comments on where and how you can improve. In our free class, we go into detail on the test and also have a question and answer period where we can go into detail on any issue that’s giving you trouble.

Best wishes in your studies. You’re going into one of the noblest careers in the world.

PS In our next installment we’ll be talking about how to manage test taking stress/anxiety. It’s one of the biggest impediments to reading quickly and comprehensively.