How to Master Critical Analysis & Reasoning for the MCAT

In our last post we discussed What the MCAT Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills (CARS) Section is Testing. In this post we’re going to introduce you to what you need to learn in order to have the skills to do the required analysis.

So what’s it take to analyze a text? It takes mastering grammar, rhetoric, reflective intelligence, and the relationship of ideas.

The first thing you have to learn is rhetoric. What is rhetoric? Rhetoric is understanding the gross morphology of essays. It gives you a clear understanding of what the format of essays are, what the typical patterns are, and how they’re structured. It shows you how to look at a text and pick out those segments that are the most important. And, just as you’ve learned the gross morphology of the human body in physiology, essays have a predictable structure as well. For example, you normally have a thesis paragraph, usually the first paragraph, where you can find the main idea that the writer is going to prove or convince you of.

Then, within each paragraph there is usually a topic sentence where the key idea or topic of the paragraph is introduced. Each paragraph usually has conclusion sentence as well which will tell you what the significance of the information or ideas in the paragraph is. In each paragraph you will also have other key ideas which are marked by “rhetorical cues,” punctuation or types of words used by an author to signal that he is making a significant point.

Once you can pick out what’s important in each paragraph, grammar gives you the tools so that you can analyze the sentences and reduce them down to a key idea.

But what exactly is grammar? It deals with the nature of words, what they are, what roles they play, and how they relate to each other to make meaning in a sentence. Now this is particularly important in analyzing key sentences because we’ve all seen texts where a sentence is six or seven or even eight lines long, which is about fifty or sixty words. How do we figure out what the author is really trying to say, the key point in the sentence? Grammar allows you to take those fifty or sixty words and reduce it down to a five or six word concept that gives you real clarity as to what the key idea is. We’ll focus more on grammar in future posts as well.

Once you’re able to pick out the key sentences and then extract from them the key ideas using rhetoric and grammar, the next thing you have to master is the relationship of ideas, which requires the development of reflective intelligence. Reflective intelligence is knowing not only what a text says, but what it means, what it infers, and what it implies. It’s much like a number series in math where you see two, four, six, eight, blank. What goes in the blank? Well you can infer that it’s a ten.

Reflective intelligence is very, very different from the way that you’ve learned science. When you’re learning scientifically what you’re doing is memorizing a large degree of facts, a great degree of detail, and then using them in a very clear, formulary manner. Well, verbal skills are very, very different from that.

With reflective intelligence, rather than looking at the facts, you’re looking at the flow of ideas. Then you’re looking at what the relationship is between the ideas. You need to not only see the relationship between the ideas but also to then be able to reflect and see what that implies. Once you master this domain of learning and this way of thinking, you’ll be able to see what an argument forces you to conclude, even though its not contained in the text. And that’s the ultimate objective of verbal reasoning.

Rhetoric, Grammar, Reflective Intelligence. These are the areas that you must master in order to master the MCAT CARS section. It sometimes seems unfair that after all of those years of focusing on the sciences you’re being tested on verbal reasoning, something you haven’t worked on at all. It’s almost like having mastered tennis over a four year period and then coming to the big tournament and all of a sudden you’re put on a golf course with a set of golf clubs – you’re simply not prepared. But just as you learned in science, the domain of verbal reasoning has its own rules, its own way of thinking, and its own fundamentals. And we’ll be going into more depth on each of these so that you’ll have everything you need to master them.

So that’s an introduction to what you need to learn in order to successfully analyze a text, and the next step is mastering questions and answers.

Questions always have a specific strategy, they ask you to engage in a specific type of mental behavior that leads you to understand what the question is really asking for. And it’s here that grammar is really critical. What you’ll see in questions and answers is that a single word - knowing how an adjective works, or how an adverb works, or how it changes the meaning of the sentence - can make all the difference in the world.

Once you’ve mastered the skills that it takes to do verbal analysis (grammar, rhetoric, reflective intelligence, and questions and answers), another thing that will really improve your performance is mastering the cognitive exercises that will increase your brain functionality. And we’ll introduce you to that in a future post.

Again, this is just an introduction to the basic skills involved in verbal reasoning. In the future we’ll have a series of posts devoted to each of these topics. Stay tuned for more.