Questions and Answers: Analysis of ‘Support Questions’.

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.

Some of the CARS questions can be very difficult, and sometimes it seems that the examiners are trying to trick you. But there is a way to analyze questions to make sure that you really understand what they’re asking for and know where to find the right answer. It’s all based on linguistic analysis, and even though you haven’t been exposed to it, I can assure you that language analysis is an exact science and once you learn the rules, you’ll be able to answer questions correctly and consistently.

Today we’re going to be talking about first type of ‘Support’ questions, those dealing with key ideas in the passage. Later, we’ll be doing more videos on the other types of questions. But before we go into any specific type of question, let’s look at the general rules that govern all types of questions.

Rule #1 is that 90% of getting the right answer is understanding the language of the question.

Now for most students that seems pretty obvious, but the truth of the matter is that they read the question too quickly and don’t appreciate the depth of what the question is saying. For example one question may ask you, ‘What’s the main idea’ as opposed to ‘What is a main idea’ of the passage. Now notice that there is only a one word difference between these two questions: the difference between ‘the’ and ‘a’. But in language analysis, that is all the difference in the world. ‘The’ main idea refers to the single idea that the whole passage is built around. ‘A’ main idea simply refers to one of perhaps fifteen or more supporting key ideas in the passage.

The second challenge that students have is that they often don’t understand the strategy of the question. In most of the prep books they simply categorize questions. You’ll see terms like: Support Questions, Weaken Questions, Inference Questions, etc. But they never explain the exact type of analysis that you have to do to really understand what the question is asking for.

Let’s take a look at the first issue: really understanding what the questions says in depth. Doing this requires a two step process.

  • The first step is simply reading the question to get familiar with the language.

  • The second step is disaggregating the question, breaking it into pieces (‘Constituent Elements’) and really reflecting on the meaning of each piece.

Now disaggregating and reflecting on language is something that humanities students do all the time but something science students are never trained in. Reflection is something that humanities students do easily because they’re trained to do it. But don’t think that it’s something that you can’t learn and master.

Let’s take a look at two different examples of ‘Support’ or ‘Agree Questions. These all come from Examkrackers 101 Passages (2d Edition). It’s at page 23, question 16:

16. Which of the following is offered as support for the statement “marijuana’s use as a medicine has proven inconclusive or has tended to show that its side effects rendered cannabis unsuitable as a medicinal drug”. (lines 48-50):

A. Cannabinoids were only slightly more effective than codeine in controlling pain.

B. The central nervous system was depressed by marijuana.

C. Marijuana use causes toe fungus and thrush, which in turn cause emotional damage.

D. The DEA has reluctantly agreed to provide funds for further testing.

Why don’t you stop here for a minute and see if you can figure out the answer.

After you’ve tried to figure out the answer, let’s use our first two steps:

  • Read the question to get familiar with the language.

  • Disaggregate and reflect on each Constituent Element.

So after you’ve read it, let’s break it into pieces and reflect on each piece:

Which of the following = One of the answers below

Is offered as support = Provides evidence or shows that

Marijuana’s use as a medicine = Medicinal Use

Has proven inconclusive or side effects rendered it unsuitable = We don’t know if it can be used as a drug or Side effects make it a bad choice

Don’t worry if this seems like a slow process. After you practice it enough, your brain will just do it automatically.

So now that we understand what the question says, we have to understand the ‘Strategy of the Question’. I know it’s a support question, but that’s just a category. Knowing the strategy of a question means that you know exactly the kind of analytical behavior that the question is asking you to engage in: you know in precise terms what you’re supposed to do with the constituent elements of the question.

Using linguistics and logic modules, let’s look at the formula for precisely what the question is asking you to do: it’s strategy. Here’s the formula:

  • One or more constituent elements of the correct answer has positive evidence for one or more constituent elements in the question or key idea referred to.

Let’s think about what the means: the right answer has a piece of language that provides proof for a piece of language in the question or a key idea that the question refers to.

Let’s get rid of the wrong answers first.

A and D are true statements taken right from the passage:

16. Which of the following is offered as support for the statement “marijuana’s use as a medicine has proven inconclusive or has tended to show that its side effects rendered cannabis unsuitable as a medicinal drug”. (lines 48-50):

  1. Cannabinoids were only slightly more effective than codeine in controlling pain.
  2. The central nervous system was depressed by marijuana.
  3. Marijuana use causes toe fungus and thrush, which in turn cause emotional damage.
  4. The DEA has reluctantly agreed to provide funds for further testing.

The mistake that so many students make with answers like these is that they may remember reading one of these statements and think its the right answer. ‘Oh yeah, I remember that. It must be right’. But notice that neither of them answer the question; neither provide proof showing that ‘marijuana’s use as a medicine has proven inconclusive or its side effects rendered it unsuitable…’ Just because you remember something doesn’t mean its the right answer.

So that leaves us with B and C. What’s the difference? Notice how answer B provides clear evidence. The central nervous system being depressed by marijuana is clearly evidence of one of the constituent elements in the question: its (marijuana’s) side effects render it unsuitable as a medicinal drug.

Now you might be asking why answer C is wrong. That’s easy. It’s just a misquote from the passage. In one of the key idea sentences it does say that marijuana use causes toe fungus and thrush, but it doesn’t say that it causes emotional damage. Don’t worry, if you’re wondering how to pick out key ideas, we have a video and blog posts on that and there’s links to them below.

So let’s review what we’ve learned so far:

1. 90% of getting the right answer is deeply understanding the question.

2. In order to deeply understand a question:

a. Read it first to get familiar with the language.

b. Break it into pieces or constituent elements and reflect on the meaning of each piece, really think about it.

3. Determine what the strategy of the question is: what is it asking you to do precisely?

a. With a support question for key ideas: One or more constituent elements of the correct answer has positive evidence for one or more constituent elements in the question or key idea referred to.

4. Don’t be fooled by true statements from the passage just because you remember them if they don’t answer the question.

Again, this seems like a lengthy process, but once your brain is trained to do this, it will operate like a reflex.

We offer free classes on Tuesday nights on different CARS issues, including questions and answers. Join us as we go into real depth on a number of CARS issues and there’s always plenty of time to answer questions on any part of the CARS Exam that you may be having difficulty with. Just click the link below to register.

So thanks for joining us at the Cambridge Learning Center. Until next time, see you then.

Video on finding key ideas: