Mastering Unfamiliar Topic Passages

It seems really strange to test pre-med students on passages dealing with topics like 16th Century Legal History of Francis Bacon’s Philosophy. What could that have to do with the practice of medicine? But believe it or not, it does.

What they’re testing is your analytical ability, your ability to look at information and see if you can figure out what something means when you’ve never seen anything like it before. You’ll certainly see that when you’re a resident training in a large hospital. Many patients just don’t have symptoms that fit the textbook definitions and cases you’ve studied in medical school. You’ve got to be really creative and analytical in practicing medicine, especially with those patients who have symptoms that no one’s ever seen before.

The same thing holds true in analyzing passages dealing with topics you’re totally unfamiliar with; the same type of reasoning applies. So let’s take a look at how to approach what we call ‘Esoteric Passages’. As you read these, adjust your thinking. Don’t think of them as a problem; think of them as an opportunity. Students that don’t know how to read these passages get lost and get most of the answers wrong. But if you master the following modalities, you’ll get a lot of the answers right, and it will increse your analytical ability to a point where it will not only increase your CARS score, but also increase all of your MCAT scores.

When you’re practicing or taking the test, the first thing to determine is whether or not it is in fact an Esoteric Passage’. Sometimes they will give you a passage on something you haven’t studied, but it’s a really easy read and you can get through it.

The really difficult passages, the Esoteric Passages, have two characteristics: first, they are dealing with subjects you didn’t study and have terms that you’ve never seen before. You have no clue about what they mean. Second, the sentence structure is really complex. So, if they have terms you can’t understand and really long, complex sentences, you know that you’ve got to use the analytical techniques we’re going to be discussing here.

The first of these is ‘Intertextual Reference’. Intertextual Reference will give you the ability to decode any term that you’ve never seen before and really understand what it means. Here are the principles:

  1. Any term in a passage that you don’t understand is actually defined somewhere else in the passage. This doesn’t apply to common vocabulary terms that college students should know already. You’re expected to know them so make sure you study your SAT and MCAT vocabulary lists again.
  2. To find the meaning of an unusual term.
    1. First look at the term itself. Does it have a root that you’ve seen in other words that you do know. That will be one key to meaning.
    2. Second, look in the sentence. There is often a phrase there that defines it.
    3. Third, go back to the other key sentences (see our blog on key sentences if you haven’t already) and ask yourself the ‘3 R Questions’:
      1. Does the unfamiliar term RESEMBLE a previous term in a key sentence; or
      2. Does it REFER to a previous term in a key sentence; or
      3. Does it REMIND you of a previous term in a key sentence.
    4. If you still can’t find an explanation in the sentence where it appears or in a previous key idea sentence, it will be explained in a later paragraph.
      1. Disaggregate it. Break it up into pieces.
      2. Reflect on each piece. Think about what the plain meaning of the language of each piece means.
  3. If a sentence is really dense, and you can’t figure out what it means:

Let’s take a look at an example. This is from Examkrackers 101 Passages in MCAT Verbal Reasoning (Test 2, Passage 1, p.34). Spend a few minutes reading it to yourself and see how much of it you understand.

The concepts of right and wrong and good and evil in a universal sense, are irrational and, as such, are valueless and even damaging to society. Logical concepts are based upon a series of verifiable premises that, when placed side by side, create an argument via the rules of logic, to a conclusion. In order for a concept to have logical clarity, the accuracy of the premises or the validity of the argument may be disputed, but these essentials of logical structure must be present. Traditional moral concepts fail in this regard.

Universal morality is not grounded in verifiable fact but in faith. Its apologists claim factual basis as evidenced by overwhelming mutual agreement: “We all sense morality, so it must exist.” But can mutual sensation evidence fact? Descartes correctly argued, “I think therefore I am.” Though Descartes example may demonstrate that sensation can evidence fact, it is the certainty that is founded in self-sensation that compels his argument. This is certainly lost in the mutuality of the group. For instance, “We think, therefore we are,” relies upon faith in the existence of others. How can one be certain that the thought of others is not a self-manufactured illusion? It is this uncertainty of mutuality that undermines the validity of a concept of universal morality. Right and wrong in the moral sense rely on the feelings of others that can never be ascertained with confidence.

...Although the concepts of right and wrong cannot stand alone as universal truths, right and wrong can be qualified in a deterministic sense, not only allowing moral judgements but requiring them. If man is a product of his biological makeup as science tells us he is, man must act to reproduce; and not just to reproduce, but also create an environment that is most conducive to the reproductive efforts of his own offspring. According to the factual findings of science, any action not conducive to these goals cannot be perpetuated and is, in fact a waste of energy that would reduce the chance of achievement of these goals. The rules of Darwinism dictate that animals exhibiting such behavior would be less fit. Such animals, their offspring, and their behavior would be doomed to extinction.

Actions that are not conducive to the goals of reproduction as prescribed by Darwinism are ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ actions, while those that are conducive are ‘right’ or ‘good’ actions...

Before we analyze these paragraphs, take a look again at the rules above, and make sure that you understand them. I don’t want you get lost as we go through the explanation below. After you reread the rules and make sure that you understand them, you can go through the explanation below.

Let’s start out with the first paragraph:

The concepts of right and wrong and good and evil in a universal sense, are irrational and, as such, are valueless and even damaging to society. Logical concepts are based upon a series of verifiable premises that, when placed side by side, create an argument via the rules of logic, to a conclusion. In order for a concept to have logical clarity, the accuracy of the premises or the validity of the argument may be disputed, but these essentials of logical structure must be present. Traditional moral concepts fail in this regard.

You can tell from this first paragraph that we’re dealing with an Esoteric Passage. It’s an unfamiliar topic (philosophy, morality, logic) and you’ve got some really complex sentences. Again, using the rules above and what you learned with regard to finding the Main Idea and Key Ideas, let’s start analyzing.

Let’s start with the first sentence. Remember, if you don’t understand it, just break it up into pieces, disaggregate it, and reflect on what each piece means.

The concepts of right and wrong and good and evil in a universal sense, are irrational and, as such, are valueless and even damaging to society.

It’s a long sentence dealing with a topic we’re not familiar with, but we know it's a Key Idea Sentence because it's a Topic Sentence so we have to make sure that we understand it or we’ll get lost. So let’s take the first piece:


The concepts of right and wrong and good and evil in a universal sense, are irrational and, as such, are valueless and even damaging to society.

Don’t just read it, reflect on it, think about what it means just as you would in evaluating a patient’s symptoms. What does it mean?

Here, the author is talking about morality, what you learned in church, in a synagogue, or mosque. Generally, that’s where people learn these things. Now let’s take the next piece.

The concepts of right and wrong and good and evil in a universal sense, are irrational and, as such, are valueless and even damaging to society.

Again, reflect on this, what does it mean. Well, if it's universal, it applies to everybody, so we’re talking about the ideas of right and wrong that just about everybody or most people have. Now let’s take the next piece.

The concepts of right and wrong and good and evil in a universal sense, are irrational and, as such, are valueless and even damaging to society.

OK, they are irrational. That makes sense. Now look at the phrase ‘as such’. Think about what that means. Those two words are important. The phrase ‘as such’ creates a cause and effect relationship: because concepts of right and wrong and good and evil in a universal sense are not logical, that makes them valueless and damaging to society. So if irrationality makes a valueless concept, what do you think makes a valuable concept? It would be the opposite, something logical or rational. So let’s take a look at the next sentence.

Logical concepts are based upon a series of verifiable premises that, when placed side by side, create an argument via the rules of logic, to a conclusion.

Now notice the author has brought in a new term, ‘Logical concepts’. What does it mean in this context. Well, using our rules, what does it refer to or remind us of? In the topic sentence, a Key Idea Sentence, we saw the term ‘irrational’. Isn’t ‘logical’ the opposite of ‘illogical’ and isn’t ‘illogical’ a synonym for ‘irrational’? So you can see the reference: the author is contrasting a rational or logical concept with an irrational or illogical one. So what is a logical concept? One that has ‘verifiable premises’, premises you can check, and a logical structure leading to a conclusion.

Now let’s go to the next Key Idea Sentence, the Conclusion Sentence:

Traditional moral concepts fail in this regard.

Now again, we have a new term, ‘Traditional moral concepts’. What does that refer to? It resembles ‘...right and wrong and good and evil in a universal sense.’ Again, you can see how ‘moral concepts’ refers back to ‘right and wrong and good and evil’, and ‘Traditional’ refers back to universal.

Just as we said in the rules. Every term you see in an Arcane Passage is defined somewhere else in the passage, and when the sentences are too big to understand, break them up and reflect on each piece.

Now let’s take a look at what the Key Ideas are telling us in this paragraph.

Because universal morality is illogical it's worthless and damaging to society.
Worthy or valuable concepts of morality have verifiable premises and a logical Structure.
Because traditional (universal) morality lacks this, it fails (worthless and damaging).

So we know from the Main Idea (the last one) that this passage is going to be largely about the failure of traditional morality.

Now let’s go to the next paragraph. Read it and see if you can figure out what’s going on:

Universal morality is not grounded in verifiable fact but in faith. Its apologists claim factual basis as evidenced by overwhelming mutual agreement: “We all sense morality, so it must exist.” But can mutual sensation evidence fact? Descartes correctly argued, “I think therefore I am.” Though Descartes example may demonstrate that sensation can evidence fact, it is the certainty that is founded in self-sensation that compels his argument. This is certainly lost in the mutuality of the group. For instance, “We think, therefore we are,” relies upon faith in the existence of others. How can one be certain that the thought of others is not a self-manufactured illusion? It is this uncertainty of mutuality that undermines the validity of a concept of universal morality. Right and wrong in the moral sense rely on the feelings of others that can never be ascertained with confidence.

Notice that at the beginning of this paragraph, we have a new term, ‘Universal morality,’ but by now you can see, using our rules, that the author is talking about the same subject again. Now let’s look at the argument, or logical ordering of ideas leading to a conclusion, in this paragraph and see where it takes us. It gets pretty dense and convoluted, but I’ll show you how to get through it, and this will work in any Arcane Passage.

The topic sentence is pretty easy: traditional morality is based on faith, not fact. The next sentence tells us that its defenders say the evidence for universal morality is that everyone agrees that it exists, so it must exist. The author then asks a question, challenging that position. So again, let’s disaggregate, take it a piece at a time, and reflect on each piece, and you’ll see how well you can understand it.

Descartes correctly argued, “I think therefore I am.”

The first part before the quote signals to us that the author is agreeing with Descartes. This is important since it tells us what the author’s point of view is, what his opinion is. Then we get the quote. It’s not as difficult as it appears. Just break it into pieces and reflect.

I think = I am thinking; I have the ability to think
Therefore = cause and effect
I am = I am alive, I know I exist
Put it all together: Because I can think, I know I’m alive.

Again, when you disaggregate and reflect, even the most convoluted language begins to make sense. Let’s look at the next sentence.

Though Descartes example may demonstrate that sensation can evidence fact, it is the certainty that is founded in self-sensation that compels his argument.

Using the same method of disaggregation and reflection, we end up with:

Feeling can evidence fact, but it's what you feel yourself that makes his argument Descartes) convincing.

Now let’s look at a couple of more sentences.

This is certainly lost in the mutuality of the group. For instance, “We think, therefore we are,” relies upon faith in the existence of others. How can one be certain that the thought of others is not a self-manufactured illusion?

Let’s see what we get:

This (certainty about your own feelings) is lost in the group. You have to rely on others. How do you know if they are telling you the truth. (You can only be absolutely certain of what you feel)

Now let’s do the last two sentences and see how our translation comes out:

It is this uncertainty of mutuality that undermines the validity of a concept of universal morality. Right and wrong in the moral sense rely on the feelings of others that can never be ascertained with confidence.
Because you can’t be really sure about the feelings of others, this weakens the concept of universal morality. If universal morality relies on the feelings of others, you can never really know that.

Now what I’d like you to do is go back over the rules and see if you can work through the last two paragraphs that I haven’t worked through here. See if you can do the last two yourself. Remember, disaggregate, reflect, and use the intertextual reference rules.

It isn’t easy and it's going to feel clumsy, but so will your first dissection in anatomy class. It’s quite clear as you practice over and over again, that you can become a skilled surgeon. The same is true here. As you do more and more of these types of passages, your language sensitivity and reflective ability will grow and you’ll also become much faster.

Remember, succeeding in CARS is never a question of “tips” or “tricks”. It’s all about knowing the fundamentals of language and reasoning, and applying them over and over until they become reflexes and you can do them quickly. There’s no doubt you can raise your MCAT score with improved comprehension. If you’ve mastered physics and chemistry, you can certainly learn how to read Esoteric Passages. We want to see you in the upper 25% of the MCAT percentiles. Use these modalities in the unfamiliar topic CARS practice passages, and you see how your speed and comprehension improve in even the most difficult essays.

Don’t forget that if you have any questions we have live online classes where we go over passages and answer any questions that you have. You can sign up for them here: