How to Master Questions and Answers

Mastering Questions and Answers

Mastering Questions and Answers

Questions and answers are a huge challenge. Our research has shown that the overwhelming number of students encounter two basic problems that really hurt their MCAT score. The first problem is that they read questions Impressionistically.  That means that they read a question, think they know what it means, and then pick out the answer that feels right. Ask yourself this question: Would you practice medicine that way? “Well it feels like you have leprosy.” Or, “It feels to me that you need knee surgery”. No, you’re going to do a very careful analytical analysis of symptoms, contraindications, and other factors, see how they are related, and do an intelligent differential diagnosis. The same method applies to questions and answers. Remember, the whole purpose of the CARS section is to test whether or not you can think like a physician. That’s what the whole process of MCAT scoring and CARS scoring in particular is designed to test.

The second big challenge that students face is when they get stuck on choosing one of two answers. They know that two of the answers are totally off the wall, but how can you tell which of the remaining two is right? They both seem pretty good. The problem is that if you guess or follow your gut, you’ll get at least half of them wrong. Guessing is not a good MCAT CARS strategy.

What’s the solution? Systematic Analysis of questions and answers, particularly questions. One of the things that we emphasize with our students is that 90% of the getting the right answer is completely understanding the question! In testing our students, we found that those who really mastered this had a very special skill. We gave them a CARS Test without the passages, just questions and answers. The ones that had mastered question analysis got a disproportionate amount of the right answers without having read the passage!

How does this work? All questions linguistically are made up of two parts: Constituent Elements and a Question Strategy. Constituent Elements are little grammatical units, distinct units, that contain pieces of ideas or information. The Question Strategy is what precisely the question is asking you to do with the Constituent Elements. Please forget about that weird term “question stem”. It really doesn’t mean much. What you need to do is determine linguistically what the question is asking you to do.

Let’s take a look at an example from Examkrackers Page 3.

According to the author, Patrick Stewart’s success in the role of the commander of the starship Enterprise in the series StarTtrek was in large part the result of his:

  1. Previous roles in Shakespearean productions.
  2. Ability to make inroads into American films.
  3. Previous classical training.
  4. Ability to incorporate some of Stanislavski’s methods.

The first thing you want to do is read the question quickly just to get an overview. Language familiarity is the first step in really understanding a question. After that, look for the Constituent Elements. This is best done with a strict grammatical analysis but since we haven’t gotten to grammar yet, let me just break it into key pieces so you get the idea and can practice on your own. You want to look at each Constituent Element, and then think a moment about what it means. Here are the Constituent elements:

  • “According to the author”: This is important. There are usually multiple points of view in a passage. They’re asking very directly for what the author thinks.

  • “Patrick Stewart’s success”: OK he was successful.

  • “As the commander”: His role is important. It defines the kind of success grammatically.

  • “Of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek: Another defining modifier. It’s important. He was is a television series

  • “Was in large part due to.” Here is where we find the strategy of the question.

What’s the strategy of the question? It’s asking for a cause and giving you the effects. All of the first four constituent elements are the result of something and you job is to find out what that causal element is.

Now in most cases, finding the right answer is a matching game. The question is going to ask you to match the Constituent Elements, positively or negatively to either one of the answers or match one of the answers to the Constituent Elements of one or more Key Ideas. This question is asking you to match it to Key ideas. Let’s take a look at them in the passage. They are the last two sentences in the fourth paragraph. One is marked by a Rhetorical Cue, a colon (:) and the one that follow it is a Conclusion Sentence. I’ll use Grammar to break out the Constituent Elements for you.

This is not to say that classically trained actors have not made inroads into American film: Consider Patrick Stewart, John Gielgud, and Judy Dench. However, you will notice that such actors are usually typecast as commanding, dignified, well-educated characters, playing basically the same roles in every film.

So what do these Constituent Elements tell us?

  1. “This is not to say”: This is the author speaking in his own voice. It’s his point of view. It’s “According to the author”.

  2. “This is not to say...have not made inroads”: This double negative is a positive linguistically, just like in math. They have made “inroads”. What does that mean? They “have been successful”.

  3. “American films”: Where they have been successful.

  4. “Patrick Stewart”: Actor identified.

  5. “Classically trained actor”: Identifies the actor’s education.

  6. “Typecast as commanding...characters”: Tells the roles they play in films.

Now go back to the Constituent Elements in the question and see how they match the Constituent Elements in the Key Idea Sentences:

  1. “According to the author”………………….”This is not to say”

  2. “Patrick Stewart’s success………………..”have not made inroads”

  3. “As the commander………………………..”typecast as commanding”

  4. “Of starship Enterprise in Star Trek………”American film”

  5. “Was in large part due to”..........................????????????????

Now notice that the Constituent Elements of the question have 4 of the 5 key Constituent Elements of the relevant Key Idea Sentences. The elements on the left, above, are from the question; the ones in the right column from the Key Ideas. But notice the one that is missing. What’s the Constituent Element that’s in the Key Idea Sentences but not in the question? (See the question marks?) The Constituent Element that is in the Key Idea Sentences that is not in the question is:

“Classically trained actor”

Where does that show up? In the answer “c”:

C. Previous classical training

Now let’s match them”

“Classically trained actor………..Previous classical training”

So now you can see how important it is to break a question into Constituent Elements after you read it once to familiarize yourself with the language. (It makes a big difference to know some Grammar so you can determine what the Constituent Elements are in a question. More later.) The Strategy of the Question then tells you what to do with them, either in relation to the Constituent Elements in an answer or the Constituent Elements in an answer.

What’s critical here is that this method gives you an analytical framework for looking at questions and answers. Using this approach will be much different than what you’ve been doing and will produce much better results. Analysis always beats gut responses and guesses. Linguistically, this type of framework always works: Know precisely what the Constituent Elements of a question are and then make sure that you fully understand what the question is asking you to do, the Strategy of the Question.

This methodology, in addition to being the general approach that you should always follow, easily solves the dilemma most students face when they get down to 2 answers and cannot determine which of the two answers is the correct one. Let’s take a look at an example. I like this one because it's an example of how often you don’t even have to read the passage to get the right answer if you really understand the Constituent Elements of the question and answers. I’ll underline the Constituent Elements in the question for you.

The author’s assertion that “even old men had ‘benches of polished stone in the sacred circle’ on which to sit in borrowed glory” (lines 26-28), supports which of the following conclusions?

  1. These elders required a bench in a sacred place befitting their divine authority.
  2. The benches alone would have imparted a divine connection to these human figures.
  3. The circle ‘became’ sacred in the presence of these divine elders.
  4. These undeniably human figures gleaned external authority from a divine location.

Let’s do an analysis of the Constituent Elements of the question.

  1. “The author’s assertion”: We know that this is the author’s point of view, not some alternate quoted source.

  2. “Old men”: We all know what these are.

  3. “Benches of polished stone”: Tells us what they are doing, sitting.

  4. “In the sacred circle”: This tells us location.

  5. “To sit in borrowed glory”: The glory or status is not their own; they have to rely on some other source to give it to them.

  6. “Supports which of the following conclusions”: Here’s where the strategy of the question shows up.

Let’s take a look at the Strategy of the Question first. We have a bunch of Constituent Elements. Let’s first figure out what the question is asking us to do with them.

OK, we’re looking for a conclusion in one of the answers. A conclusion based on what? The Constituent Elements. Again, it’s going to be one of those formulas we talked about in previous posts: a plus b plus c equals d. The “d” is in the answer, and the a,b, and c are in the question. So now we know what the question is asking us to do, and we have the Constituent Elements of the question to do it with.

Now let’s look at two of the answers, the ones that most of our students in our classes have a hard time choosing between before they learn how to do this.

The author’s assertion that “even old men had ‘benches of polished stone in the sacred circle’ on which to sit in borrowed glory” (lines 26-28), supports which of the following conclusions?

  1. The benches alone would have imparted a divine connection to these human figures.
  2. These undeniably human figures gleaned external authority from a divine location.

So you’re stuck on these two answers, what do you do?

  1. Break the two answers into their respective Constituent Elements.

    A. Benches------give divine connection-------to human figures
    D. Human figures--------get external (divine) authority…..from a location

  2. Determine what the precise difference is between them.

    A. In “A” the “benches” give the divine connection
    D. In “D” it’s the “location” that gives divine authority

  3. With that difference in mind, go back to the question. It’s the Constituent Element dealing with what gives “divine authority” that we’re interested in.

The author’s assertion that “even old men had ‘benches of polished stone in the sacred circle’ on which to sit in borrowed glory” (lines 26-28), supports which of the following conclusions?

Now notice in the Constituent Elements of the question, divinity or sacredness is associated only with the location, the “sacred circle” and not the “benches” themselves. So the answer is D.

Again, what are you doing here? You’re first analyzing the Constituent Elements, then determining the Strategy of the Question, then when you’re stuck on two answers that you can’t distinguish:

  1. Determine the Constituent Elements of each question.

  2. Determine the precise difference between them.

  3. With that difference in mind, go back to the Constituent Elements of the question and see which answer has the same Constituent Element as the question.

This methodology works very well for idea type questions. But what about detail questions? In these type of questions you want to add a few more steps. Detail questions are important, even though they are only about 15 or 20% of the questions in the test. Why? Because there is no reason that you shouldn’t get all of them right once you know how to do them. Actually, they are very easy if you are careful and understand the question. All you have to do is add a couple of steps. Let’s take a look at one as an example. This is found in Examkrackers, Page 62.

36. According to the passage, which of the following is most likely to be true about the relationship between the individual soldier and his comrades at the Battle of the Somme?

  1. The individual soldier was motivated to prove his bravery to his lifelong friends.
  2. The individual soldier knew that there were repercussions to saying ‘No’ to an officer.
  3. If the individual soldier stayed within a large group of his comrades he was unlikely to be shot.
  4. The individual soldier was not willing to be shamed in front of his friends.

Now the first thing to know is that all the details or facts within a passage are related to Key Ideas. The details are there to provide examples, amplify, or give explanations of the Key Ideas they are associated with. So in answering this kind of question, your first job is to find out where the detail is located. If you’ve been picking out Key Ideas and marking them, and jotting down just a few words after each paragraph identifying the function of the paragraph as we suggested before, it’s going to be easy for you. If you know what the function of each paragraph is, what each paragraph is dealing with, then you’ll quickly be able to find what paragraph to go to. Once there, you’ll have already marked where the Key Ideas are from your initial reading. Simply go to the Key idea that it would be an example, explanation, or amplification of, and that’s where you’ll find your detail.

Once you’ve found the detail, don’t stop there. Read a few lines above it, and a few lines below it. Just as you did in Consolidating Key Ideas, you want to have a contextual understanding of that detail. It will make all the difference in getting the right answer. Let’s take a look at the paragraph that has the detail and see how we found it. This essay deals with why Allied Soldiers charged into machine gun fire during the Battle of the Somme in World War I.

One may wonder why more men did not refuse to go when faced with such a meager chance of surviving. However, the motivating factors to obey were powerful. The first and possibly the strongest motivator was peer pressure, which was especially intense at the Somme where fighting units were made up of men from the same communities. A man’s unwillingness to embarrass himself in the eyes of his lifelong friends may, in itself, have been enough to compel him to go “over the top,” out of his trench, and into the hail of enemy fire.

It’s a short paragraph, but all of the sentences are Key Idea Sentences with a topic sentence, followed by a sentence with a contrast word, followed by a sentence with emphasis language, followed by a conclusion sentence. I’ve highlighted the detail in red and the context in blue. Always read in context, a line or two above and below the detail to make sure of what it’s saying. When we do this, it’s easy to see that the answer is D: The individual soldier was not willing to be shamed in front of his friends. It says the same thing as the language in red.

Another example is the type of detail question where you have to determine whether a statement or assertion is supported by the author. Again, like any other question, you’re going to determine what the Constituent Elements of the question are, determine the Strategy of the Question, and then, identify the paragraph that it’s in, and read contextually. Now in this kind of a question, how do you determine what ‘support’ for an assertion is? Well, there are really only three ways to support a statement or assertion: you can give an example, give an explanation or discussion, or cite an authority, a publication or person.

Let’s take a look at a question at page 55 of Examkrackers, a detail support question.

17. For which of the following conclusions does the passage offer the least support.

  1. Freud’s theories were fanciful.
  2. Freud believed that men were the first to ‘tame’ the fire.
  3. Freud believed that women were supposed to protect the the hearth-fire.
  4. Simone de Beauvoir felt women were superior to men.

Now in the paragraphs that deal with each of these answers, if you look at the passage you’ll see that A has a lot of support; there’s a very full discussion with examples of why Freud’s theories were fanciful. The same is true for B. There is a discussion and a number of examples. That leaves us C and D.

Let’s look at the paragraph in which answer C is located. The part reproduced comes from the second paragraph in the essay. You can see detail referred to in answer C in red.

The male alone, because of his...capability, had the ability to put out the fire. This ability was unimportant in itself, except that it carried with it the simultaneous possibility of not utilizing that ability...which would make sublimation possible. Women, because they could not fulfill the instinct, could not suppress or sublimate it either, so they were assigned the role of guardian of the hearth-flame that they were powerless to extinguish. Freud’s presentation of his theory deliberately complicates tracing the “role” given to women back to any particular agent, so that their inferior role is meant to be seen as natural and immutable.

There is just a little support, a half sentence discussion “...because they could not fulfill the instinct, could not suppress or sublimate it either…” This is so much less support than the full sentences discussing A and B.

Be careful of answers like the one at D. This idea isn’t even mentioned in the passage. Just remember what the term least support means. There is at least some support. The idea to be supported has to have been mentioned in the text to have any support. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because it isn’t mentioned it’s the right answer.

So in summary, when you are analyzing a question:

  1. Break the question into Constituent Elements
  2. Determine what the strategy of the question is
  3. Go to the paragraph where the key idea or detail referenced is
  4. If it is an idea question, match the Constituent Elements from the question/and or answers to the Constituent Elements of the relevant Key Idea.
  5. If it is a detail question, find the detail in the relevant paragraph.
  6. Read contextually a few lines above and below.
  7. Apply the Strategy of the Question to the Constituent Element or detail in context.

Now you might be thinking to yourself: “Yikes, how am I going to have the time to do all this”? Not to get too technical, but there is a way to vastly increase reading speed and comprehension so that you have the time to do this, but we’ll have to go into a little neurophysiology here.

You saw the steps we were taking in analyzing a passage in previous posts. What happens when you use that modality, consistently and methodically, over and over again, you form strong new neural networks in your frontal cortex. If you do it right and enough times, what happens is that the process goes neurologically from being a System 2 Operation, where you have to think about what you are doing, to a System 1 Operation, something that operates automatically without thinking. It’s the same process as learning a foreign language. When you first start out you have to think about how to translate every word. But once you achieve fluency, you just talk and express your ideas without thinking.

You can do this. In our classes, when students start out it takes them 20 to 25 minutes to analyze a passage. 9 weeks later, they’re going through a passage in 3 to 4 minutes. Perfect practice makes perfect. Using these modalities over and over again will create those neural networks that work automatically, rather than having to think about what you are doing and analyze every sentence. Make the careful repetition or all that you learn in these blog posts the foundation of your MCAT CARS strategy. Remember, you’re smart and you’ve worked hard to get where you are now. You don’t want just average MCAT scores. You’re better than that and you know it. You can do this; just work hard and be methodical.

More on speed in our next installment.

Until then,


PS Work with one or more people on this. It makes a real difference.
PPS If you haven’t done so already, take a Diagnostic Test and sign up for a free class where you can learn more and get all of your questions answered.