Approaching MCAT Passages vs Questions & Answers - Interview w/ Don Osborne of INQUARTA

Don: Hello and welcome back to the MCAT Club. Today I’m very pleased to welcome back Leonardo Radomile from the Cambridge Learning Center. Hi Leo, how are you?

Leonardo: Good to see you Don. Glad to be here.

Don: We have been talking for the last couple of videos about a wide range of understanding relative to rhetoric and grammar as well as linguistics, understanding of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and just how to put all those together relative to taking a test like MCAT or MCAT2015. And in the previous video we talked a little bit about test questions and answer choices and having a good sense and understanding of just how important it is to be aware of the detail relative to them. But now what I want to ask you is more about understanding passages and specifically this: so how does approaching a passage differ from how you would recommend that I approach, say, a test question or a set of answer choices?

Leonardo: That’s an excellent question and there’s sort of an ironic answer in that the approach is the same but very different at the same time. You’re using the same elements. Remember in the MCAT what you’re using is grammatical analysis, rhetorical analysis, and looking at the relationship of ideas and then being able to reflect on them. Now in looking at passages, what you’re doing is following the ideas, picking out the key ideas using rhetorical skills (what’s important and what’s just information) since 80% of the questions are idea questions. So what you’re doing is isolating using rhetoric and then reducing using grammar and looking at the relationships. So rhetoric is primary, grammar is secondary (it gives you the tool to reduce and clarify), and relationship of ideas is third. Okay, now when you go to questions and answers you use the same skills but you reverse them. Since one word makes all the difference in a question or answer, what you really focus on is not the rhetoric but the grammar. What precisely is this question or answer saying and, in addition to that, paying real attention to modifiers like that one word that can make all the difference. So the first thing that you do is a very, very careful grammatical analysis in the questions and answers rather than a rhetorical analysis. Then you bring in rhetoric and you ask yourself, “Okay what is the strategy of the question? What are they precisely looking for?” So step number one there is to understand the grammar, precisely what it’s saying. Then looking at the strategy. In the analysis of texts, you’re doing it the opposite way. First you’re looking at what are the key ideas rhetorically, then you’re using grammar to reduce and simplify. Think about it this way: the approach to texts is like looking at gross physiology, looking at the relationship of the parts. Okay. When you get to questions and answers, it become cytology. You’re looking under a microscope at the mitochrondria, the cell membranes and everything else. It’s a very, very, very detailed analysis.

Don: Okay, so I think I get it. But honestly, you know, I’m a little bit confused. I’m especially confused about this one key part, which is: you say it’s important when I read a passage to literally distill the passage down to the main ideas.

Leonardo: Mhmm.

Don: Well how do I know what a main idea is? How can I figure that out?

Leonardo: Okay, going back to the analogy of physiology, every essay has a predictable gross morphology, just like you can predict that a human has a head, torso, two arms, two leg. So the first thing is you’ve got your thesis paragraph, which is the first paragraph. That’s where the main idea is going to be. That’s where the argument is that the author is going to prove throughout the essay. So if you can analyze the key ideas in the thesis paragraph, it gives you two great advantages. One, you exactly what the main idea is that holds the whole essay together. But in addition to that, what’s really critical is if you understand those key ideas, they give you a blueprint of exactly how the essay is going to develop so you can anticipate where you’re going and you know how it’s developing. Then after that, picking out the key ideas in each paragraph allows you to see how the argument is developed rather than getting drowned in information.

Don: Right.

Leonardo: It gives you an x-ray or an MRI of exactly what the essay is. It gives you the analytical tools to really understand what’s going on.

Don: So I know that a typical MCAT or MCAT2015 passage is going to be relatively long.

Leonardo: Sure.

Don: I hear what you’re suggesting may be to distill that long passage to something as simple as, I don’t know, 8 or 9 or 10 single sentences.

Leonardo: Exactly. Maybe a few more than that, around 12-15. You can get an essay that’s 750-1000 words and you’ll have maybe 12-15 key sentences. Some of them will be as long as 40 or 50 or even 60 words. But you can get that sentence and grammatically cut it down to what it’s essentials are where you’re left with maybe 5 words. So instead of having a mass of information, 750-1000 words, you’ve got 75 very clear words that tell you precisely what the argument is.

Don: Okay, so that I understand, and I buy it because I see it all the time both in practice tests but also all over writing. It appears constantly, right?

Leonardo: Yeah.

Don: But you said something at the beginning, and I think it’s true, but I don’t think it’s true all the time, and that is that the thesis paragraph is the first paragraph, the topic paragraph. What do I do when I’m reading and the first paragraph doesn’t even feel anything like a topical paragraph, it just feels like it’s some sort of preamble? How do I know that the first paragraph is that thesis paragraph? How do I get that assurance?

Leonardo: Okay, well that situation is very rare. You might see that maybe 1 every 40 essays. But if you know how to pick out key sentences, you will see, usually in a first paragraph like that, the only key sentence is going to be the conclusion sentence that’s going to lead you right into what, let’s call it the thesis paragraph, is. And knowing rhetorical cues allows you to weigh the content of that paragraph. If you’ve got a first paragraph that doesn’t have key sentences in it, or only has one key sentence in it, then you know immediately that it’s going to be the next one. That’s where the content rich paragraph is going to be. So that’s an analytical skill that’s picked up very easily once you know the rhetoric.

Don: You know, I’m fascinated. I really wanna spend more time talking with you about this but we’re out of time. But I could talk to you about this for hours because I think it’s an amazing aspect of how you can sort of have this intersection point between standardized testing and the mind’s pliancy and the ability for all of us to really develop our minds to be really good at this skill, you know?

Leonardo: Sure, it’s a whole new domain of learning.

Don: It is, it is.

Leonardo: And what we tell our students in our courses is it’s not brain surgery, but it is brain science. And if you can master organic or biochem, you can certainly do this.

Don: Well that makes me feel better. I think you guys have a free class that if I wanted to learn more I could go in and I could sign up for, yes?

Leonardo: Yeah, that’s correct. We have a one hour free class that we offer every week and it’s a full hour of going into really, really deep detail on exactly what the MCAT tests and what you need to know. And it’s free and students get an awful lot of information and we open it up for an unlimited period of time for any questions and answers that they may have after we give them the basics of what they need to know.

Don: Okay, so I’ll put a link to that in the description. And I’ll put it here on the video as well so that if you’re watching this video and want to click through and sign up for this free class then you can.

Leonardo: Great, appreciate it.

Don: Ya, thank you very much for the time. I really appreciate it.

Leonardo: Always good to spend time with you Don.

Don: Take care.