How to Analyze a MCAT CARS Passage Using Grammar

Our last post discussed the fundamentals of grammar and now we’re going to use that knowledge to analyze a passage. If you haven’t read "First Step in Improving Your MCAT CARS Score: Grammar" go ahead and read it now before continuing on with this post. Trust me, it’ll make a lot more sense and and this post will be much more beneficial if you do.

We’re going to look at a passage from the “Examkrackers 101 Passages in MCAT Verbal Reasoning 2nd Edition” and see how this works. Even though this book was geared towards the old MCAT Verbal section, the passages are still very similar to what is on the CARS section. And regardless, what's more important than the passage is the approach. We’ll be using Passage VI of Verbal Reasoning Test 8. It’s on page 140.

We’re just going to be working with the first paragraph. Now, when you read this, please take your time and see if you can pick out the main ideas. Here’s a copy for those of you who don’t have the book in front of you:

“While Western readers are used to reading Homer’s Odyssey as an epic tale of the Trojan War hero Odysseus’s homecoming, it also provides a survey of the hospitality accorded to strangers by different peoples of the Hellenic world, as the oft-detoured Odysseus seeks shelter at various points on his voyage home. It is clear that the ancient Greeks took the ceremony of hospitality very seriously. In Greek mythology/religion, to harm a guest after offering him hospitality under your roof was considered a mortal sin punishable by Zeus, the ruler of the gods.”

Most students when they see a passage like this will go through it painstakingly, trying to figure out what it is saying and remember as many facts as possible. This is both a slow and very confusing process. Cognition, or understanding, is based on seeing clearly the key idea and how the different parts of the sentence relate to each other, not trying to remember facts. And grammar allows you to do just that.

Let’s take a look at this paragraph together using a grammatical analysis.

We know from rhetoric that the topic sentence ––the first sentence here ––is critically important. It has a lot of information in it and is very long. It’s over 50 words! So how do we extract what’s really important?

The rules of grammar tell us to look at the main clause first: the part of the sentence that has a subject and a verb and that could stand by itself if you take it out of the sentence. The second rule that we would apply here is to strip away any modifiers, like adjectives and adverbs that are not critical to the meaning of the sentence. This would leave us with:

     “It provides a survey of hospitality.”

Notice that we’ve reduced the jumble of over 50 words to a clear, core idea about the Odyssey. This is the key point the author is making: it, the Odyssey, provides a survey of hospitality.

If we apply the same type of analysis to the conclusion sentence, which we know is significant from our discussion of rhetoric, we can reduce it to:

     “To harm a guest was considered a sin.”

Notice what we’ve done. We’ve extracted the two key ideas in clear language. This is not to say you’re going to ignore whatever else is in the paragraph, or that the other language is irrelevant. What you are going to do is focus on or emphasize these two ideas.

Notice what happens when you do that. Everything else makes sense. You have a cognitive framework that organizes all that language for you and makes it clear and comprehensible. You can then see how the second sentence and the rest of the language relate to those key ideas.

You see, a grammatical analysis allows you to, in effect, take an x-ray of a sentence, especially a particularly long sentence. It allows you to see the underlying structure of that sentence and see what’s really important and what’s not so important. It allows you to see clearly what the argument of the author is, where he’s going with his ideas, and what they really mean.

We know from cognitive psychology that the more clearly you see the idea, the more deeply you’ll understand it. And not only that, but when your understanding improves, your speed improves. And not only will your speed improve, but you’ll also retain information a lot better so that when you go to the questions and answers, you’re going to remember a lot more from the text. If there’s something that you don’t remember, you can go back to the key sentences and quickly isolate exactly where that information is.

All of this may seem like a lot of work, and it is. But just like you mastered organic chemistry, you can master this. It’s just a question of learning the basic concepts and then understanding the relationship between them. It’s like learning a sport; we’ll explain how in a future post.

So what’s next? Once you’ve picked out the key sentences and analyzed them accurately, seeing how the ideas relate to each other is particularly important for the questions they ask you: “What does the author imply? What does he suggest? What can you infer?” Seeing that relationship of ideas will really give you the answer to all of these questions. We’ll discuss this in more depth later.