I often get questions and compliments about the free materials we give away and the quality of our free classes. I often hear, “Wow-that was great information. Why do you give so much stuff away?”.
For a lot of reasons. First, as a nonprofit research institution we get a lot of feedback from students that helps improve our research and teaching. Second, we figure that if you see the value of what we give away, you’ll see how valuable our courses can be in making sure you master the CARS Exam. Our primary objective is to make sure that you reach the top quarter of the MCAT percentiles. But enough about us. Let’s make sure that you learn how how to relate Key Ideas to each other and then relate them to the Main Idea.
I want you to start out by thinking about the relationship of the Main Idea to the Key Ideas like a formula: A plus B plus C plus D equals E. It’s a logic formula. The Main Idea (E), or Conclusion of the author’s Argument about a particular point that he wants to explore or prove, is supported by and the logical conclusion of the Key Ideas, A, B, C, and D.
Let’s take a look at an example from Examkrackers Test 1, Passage III, Page 22. We use this example in one of our videos, but we’ll be going into a lot more depth here.
Arguments abound over whether marijuana should be legalized. Many of the Arguments pertain to the lengthy prison sentences meted out for what is Considered to be a relatively petty crime. Others point out that marijuana is a Drug that could and should be used for medicinal purposes. But most proponents Of legalization ignore the mounting evidence that points to the long-term damage to the user and society as a whole.
Let’s pull out the Main Idea and the Key Ideas in this Thesis Paragraph. Again, I’m going to use grammar to simplify things (more on that in a later email).
Should marijuana be legalized? It’s only a petty crime. It can be used medicinally. But proponents of legalization ignore the evidence of damage to users and society.
Now let’s go over the formula that the author is giving us. In the topic sentence he’s telling us that a lot of people want to legalize marijuana. He then gives us two reasons. Why did I pick out these two as Key Idea sentences. Remember, we said in our last lesson that whenever you have a contrast word it’s going to be a key idea sentence. Well here, you have two contrasting ideas compared, so even though you don’t have a contrast word, you do have a contrast. It’s the contrast itself that’s important, not just the contrast word. The word is only a signal and you can have contrasts without it and they love to have contrast questions. So take note of this.
We then have the all important Conclusion Sentence: People in favor of legalization ignore the damage to users and society. The Conclusion Sentence is all important. It tells you what the rest of the essay is about. But don’t ignore the other key ideas. In a Thesis Paragraph those other Key Idea Sentences tell you basically what some of the key paragraphs are going to be talking about. They give you an outline of the rest of the passage. Think about how powerful knowing that is. You not only know where the author is going, you know how he’s going to get there! Think about how many times you’ve slogged through a passage and could never figure where the author was going and what the passage was really about. THOSE DAYS ARE OVER! From now on you have the analytical skill to know what it's about and how the idea is going to be developed.
Let’s take a look at the next paragraph. When you read a paragraph you want to read every sentence for comprehension, but you want to emphasize the Key Idea Sentences. Let’s do it together, and this time I’ll underline the Key idea Sentences, but again, read the others for comprehension. They are there for a reason.
In the Netherlands, marijuana has been legally available since 1976. “Coffee shops” sell cannabis over the counter in many parts of the country. However, more people have tried cannabis since it has been legalized. At the Center for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, Arjan Sas and Peter Cohen divided Amsterdammers surveyed regarding their marijuana use into two groups- those who were born before 1958, in other words who were 18 or older in 1976, and those who were born after 1976, for whom cannabis has always been legal. Only 19% of the older people had tried cannabis, compared with 38% of the younger group. It would seem then that legalization promotes experimentation with cannabis, if not harder drugs.
There is a lot of information in this paragraph, but remember, this isn’t a science text where detail are important. 80% of the questions relate to Key Ideas, and we only have 4 Key idea Sentences. Let’s look at what they’re telling us.
Cannabis has been legally available in Netherlands since ‘76. It’s widely available. More people have tried it since legalization. Legalization promotes use and may be harder drugs as well.
Take a look at the second underlined sentence. Why is “Coffee shops” in quotation marks? Remember our punctuation class of Rhetorical Cues tells us that one use of quotation marks (“”) is ironic, signaling that the word means something very different or even the opposite of what it says. The author is making two important points here. First, these aren’t really coffee shops at all. They’re marijuana dispensaries hiding as coffee shops. Second, irony is always accompanied by sarcasm, making fun of something and being critical of it. These punctuation marks tell you the author doesn’t like this easy availability.
Now notice, there are 4 Key Idea Sentences but really only 3 Key Ideas. since one is repeated twice. “Marijuana has been legal since ‘76. It’s widely available. Legalization promotes use if not harder drug use. There’s a lot of information in this paragraph, but notice how few key ideas there are and how clearly you can see them. Sure there’s plenty of information there about the study. But that’s only there to evidence and emphasize the key ideas. Don’t try to remember it. Understand it, but focus on the Key Ideas. The other information is only illustrations.
Now after you’ve picked out those Key Ideas, you’re going to do 3 very important things regarding their relationship: Consolidation, Determining the Function of the paragraph, and it’s Relation to the Main Idea.
When you Consolidate, you’re going to go back and tell yourself a story using the key ideas. This is a critical step. Why? Consolidation gives you what is known cognitively as Contextual Understanding. This does three things: first, it automatically allows your brain to understand the relationship between the Key Ideas in the paragraph; second, it emphasizes the Key Ideas for you and separates what’s most important from incidental facts; and third, the seeing the relationship and repetition increases recall of the ideas dramatically and helps you remember them when you get to the questions.
The next thing you’re going to do is ask yourself what the Function of the paragraph is. You can usually do this by just looking at the first sentence. “Cannabis has been legally available in the Netherlands since 1976.” So the Function of the paragraph is to discuss legalization of cannabis in a whole country. Right!
Now, let’s take a look at the Relation to the Main Idea.
Marijuana has been legal in the Netherlands since 1976 But proponents of legalization ignore the evidence of damage to users and society.
The Netherlands is a whole country, a whole society, isn’t it? The relationship of this paragraph to the Main Idea is that the author is now talking about the first half of his Main Idea: damage to a society.
Now you may be thinking, “This is crazy! I don’t have time to do this. I don’t have enough time now to get through a passage and answer the questions let alone do all this junk. Just give me a shortcut!” Not so fast. This will increase your speed. How. A little cognitive psychology and neuroscience will show you how.
When you first start doing this, it’s going to be really slow. You’re going to have to think about what you are doing, step by tedious step. But it is just like learning a new language. In the first two years of let’s say, Spanish, you’re slowly learning vocabulary and how to put sentences together. But let’s say after you learn that I give you a paragraph from a Spanish novel to translate. It’s going to take a lot of time for you to do that. But let’s say that afterwards, I send you to a small town in Mexico for 6 months where nobody speaks English. You have to use your Spanish every day, and at the end of 6 months you’d be fluent. From habitually speaking Spanish, your brain would automatically process what you’re hearing and saying You wouldn’t have to think about what you’re saying or what’s being said to you just like you don’t have to do that with English. You would just talk and be able to automatically speak and understand.
In cognitive psychology and neuroscience, we call that going from a system 2 operation to a system 1 operation. You go from something you have to think about to something that your brain does automatically without thinking. It becomes a reflex. In our courses, when a student first starts analyzing passages this way, it make take him or her 25 minutes to analyze a passage. By the end of the course, they are going through a passage in 3 to 4 minutes! It’s not so much that practice makes perfect; it's that perfect practice makes perfect, going through passages over and over using the precise methodology until the new neural networks you’re making are so large and strong that they light up automatically. Sure it’s a lot of work, but how much did you work to master organic chemistry? Excellence Matters. This is the most significant part of the MCAT exam, the most heavily weighted part. It’s worth it. This is the last roadblock standing in your way to putting on that white coat and wearing it for the next 50 years.
Let’s take a look at the next paragraph.
Medical research has repeatedly provided evidence that marijuana use causes Permanent physical, psychological, and thus emotional damage to to those who Regularly use it. Studies at the University of Maryland and UCLA indicated that The regular smoking of only two marijuana cigarettes a day would tend to Promote toe fungus and thrush. But over the years, much stronger evidence has Surfaced: for example, that heavy marijuana users perform poorly at work or School, and are likely to be delinquent, and develop psychiatric problems, or have Abnormal brain waves. Repeatedly, however, such studies have encountered the Same question: are the problems caused by smoking marijuana, or is it just that People with problems are more likely to end up using marijuana heavily?
This is a denser paragraph than the previous one, but no worries, you won’t get many of these in the test except for those really weird humanities passages (more on those in a later post.) Let’s analyze.
Marijuana causes permanent physical, psychological, and emotional damage to regular users. Users perform perform poorly, are more likely to be delinquent develop psychiatric problems, and abnormal brain waves. But the same question comes up: does use cause the problems or is people with problems that use?
Now go back and Consolidate: read the key ideas in one contextual, flowing story. Do that now, and afterwards ask yourself, “What’s the function of this paragraph?
It’s simple: marijuana use causes all kinds of uses to the user. Just look at the Topic Sentence. After you do that, let’s figure out how this relates to the Main Idea.
But proponents of legalization ignore the evidence of damage to users and Society.
You can see that this paragraph is dealing with the “damage to users” as opposed to the damage to society in the previous paragraph. So now we see how the author has firmly established the two main points of his argument. But notice, that he ends the paragraph with a question. This question will be answered later in the essay. Just keep an eye out for it and be aware that there is an answer in the passage.
Let’s do just one more paragraph to make sure that you’re absolutely clear about the method you have to use. In this one, I’m going to use grammar to highlight just the important parts of the Key Sentences so you can see how it amazingly simplifies those long sentences, jammed with often superfluous facts that keep you from understanding the simple point of the sentence,
Marijuana is addictive. According to Wayne Hall, director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, cannabis is not generally regarded as a drug of dependence because it does not have a clearly defined withdrawal syndrome. But that, he says, is an old definition of addiction: “While there may be a debate about whether there is a cannabis withdrawal syndrome, there is no doubt that some users want to stop or cut down their cannabis use and find it difficult or impossible to do so, and they continue to use cannabis despite the adverse effects is has on their lives.
Now go back and consolidate to get a contextual understanding.
After you’ve done that, ask yourself what the Function of the paragraph is? See if you can figure it out before going further. (Don’t cheat. I’m watching you. See that red light on your camera?...Kidding) Lighten up and see if you can figure it out.
It’s simple: Marijuana is addictive and the rest of the paragraph discusses that. No think about how that relates to the main idea (No looking, I’m watching).
This paragraph again is related to the author’s second point: the damage to users that proponents are ignoring.
Now you know a lot more about how to analyze a passage. As you can see, it’s not about simple tips for reading faster. It’s about really understanding how language works and how ideas are related to each other. Mastering the fundamentals of Rhetoric, Grammar, and the Relationship of Ideas is the only reliable way to increase reading speed and comprehension.
In later posts we’ll be discussing even more analytical skills,like some of the fine points of grammar, that will allow you to see what’s important in those really long, confusing sentences and reduce them to a clear statement of five or six words. We’ll also be talking about more ways to increase brain functionality, and thus speed and comprehension by increasing phytonutrient intake. There’s a huge body of evidence that this not only dramatically increases ATP output in neural cells but even increases the number of your mitochondria. Cool stuff and very effective.
Again, work hard and work smart. You didn’t master organic chemistry casually. You studied hard, methodically, and succeeded. And don’t forget to MEDITATE!!! It really works and makes you more efficient and less stressed. It’s important and the science is rock solid. Our research shows that it can be worth as much as 2 points on your CARS score. Remember, it only takes 7 points overall to go from from an average MCAT score to combined MCAT scores that put you in the top quarter. Mastering CARS will not only assure you of a 127 or better, but it will also raise your overall MCAT scores because you’ll read faster, better, and more clearly analyze and answer questions.
Until next time,
PS We love to hear from you. Don’t be shy about contacting us if you have any questions.
PPS Remember to work with someone else, or better yet, in a small group. These concepts are embedded more deeply when you do them as a group, just as you would in residency training.