Speed and accuracy aren’t just about what you know. It’s also about cognitive functionality, how quickly and accurately your brain is able to process information and ideas. It has a great deal to do with neurophysiology.
There are two components to improving speed and accuracy neurologically. The first involves the meditation exercise. In order to go quickly and have clarity on picking out the Main Idea, Key Ideas, and analyzing questions, you have to have mental clarity. That takes consistent meditation, twice a day, without fail. Why? It greatly diminishes the excess epinephrine stress produces that inhibits your neurotransmitters. It keeps your limbic system from overriding your frontal cortex function, and allows you to engage more of your frontal cortex function in analyzing passages and questions. Meditation is really critical.
The second component involves creating strong enough neural networks, the software that analyzes passages and questions, so that your brain processes ideas and analyzes questions automatically rather than always having to think things through. This involves shifting from a System 2 Operation where you have to analyze everything to a System 1 Operation where your neural software kicks in automatically and does most of the work for you.
Now let’s talk about what it takes to make the shift from System 2 to System 1. Again, consistent mediation is crucial. I can’t stress this enough. You’ve got to get rid of that system drag or you’re in trouble before you even start. Once you’ve installed that daily ritual, religiously, the next step is building those strong neural networks that are going to operate reflexively. We’ve showed you how to do this a piece at a time, but let’s put it all together here so you can use this model, over and over again until the shift is made. Let’s take a look at each step in the process and then see how to increase velocity.
Step 1: Read the first paragraph of the passage and Determine What Kind of Essay It Is.
You should be able to determine if it is an Expository Essay, a Persuasive Essay, a Narrative Essay, or a Descriptive Essay. If you forgot how to tell the difference or what these are, go back to our second blog post or Email in this series and review it.
Step 2: Find the Main Idea.
- If it’s an Expository Essay or Persuasive Essay, it’s usually at the end of the first paragraph. Pay attention to it. Every Key Idea Sentence that follows it is related to it.
- If it’s a Narrative Essay, wait. It’s going to be at the end most likely, or even in the middle. If someone is telling you a story, you want to first think about what their emotional and psychological state is at the beginning of the passage and see how it changes, see how their point of view develops into something different. Where the change occurs is where the main idea is. Your job in the first paragraph is to establish the baseline of where they are starting from so you can notice the difference when the main idea appears
- If its a Descriptive Essay, note that the passage is going to be loaded with details. Don’t try to remember them all. It’s more important to organize them into groups (see below).
Step 3: Relative Importance of Key Ideas in the First or Thesis Paragraph
- If it is a Narrative or Persuasive Essay, look at the other Key Ideas in the first paragraph. They will signal to you what the topics of the following paragraphs will be. This is important because now you will have a road map for the passage. You’ll know exactly where the author is going and how he or she is going to get there. Having this framework is invaluable for comprehension. Mark the Key Idea Sentences and the Main Idea
- If it's a Narrative Passage, again, focus on the author’s point of view, what his opinion is on what he’s talking about and what his emotional or psychological state is. Mark the sentences that discuss this.
- If it’s a Descriptive Passage, get ready to start categorizing groups of facts. The other Key Idea sentences may give you an indication of this and how to organize the ocean of facts you’re going to be reading. Pay attention to these Key Idea Sentences and mark them.
Step 4: How to Read The Following Paragraphs
- In Expository and Persuasive essays, read every sentence for comprehension, but pay special attention to the Key Idea Sentences: Topic Sentences, Conclusions Sentences, and any Sentences with Rhetorical Cues. Mark them.
- In Narrative Essays, pay attention to the events that are being related. They are going to affect the narrator. Note any changes in the narrator’s attitude and keep looking for the big shift. Mark point of view and emotion related sentences.
- In Descriptive Essays, pay special attention to the Topic Sentences. Mark them. They are going to give you a topic to organize all the facts in the paragraph. Look for subheadings and mark them as well. Understand the details, but don’t try to remember them. It will only confuse you. Understand them and have markers to go back to where they are. For comprehension and recall, it’s more important to know what category they are in and how they relay to the topic.
Step 5: Consolidate
- In Expository and Persuasive Essays, reread the Key Idea Sentences, telling yourself a story with them. This will give you an important contextual understand of what the author is saying.
- In Narrative Essays, go back and review the sentences you’ve noted to understand the events and how they are affecting the author.
- In Descriptive Essays, go back and review your main topic heading and see how the marked categories relate to it.
Step 6: Determine the Function of the Paragraph
- In all of the passages, after you consolidate, look at the Topic Sentence. It will usually tell you what the function of that paragraph is, why it is there, what it’s about.
- After you determine function, ask yourself how the paragraph is related to the Main Idea, what is it doing in explaining or supporting it.
Step 7: Questions and Answers:
- Read the question quickly just to get familiar with the language.
- Go back and break it into pieces. Quickly think about what each Constituent Element of the question means.
- Determine the Strategy of the Question. What exactly is the question asking you to do with those constituent elements.
- You are going to have to match the Constituent Elements in the question with either the Constituent Elements in an answer and/or a Key Idea depending on the kind of question it is. If you have to go back to the passage, you’ll know where to go because you’ll know what each paragraph is dealing with and you can quickly find the relevant Key Ideas because you have marked them.
WHEW!! That’s a lot of work, but here’s the secret to success. As you apply this methodology over and over and over again and make it a fundamental part of your MCAT CARS strategy, you’ll build those neural networks that will start to do much of this automatically for you. Your passage reading will become faster and faster and more comprehensive, and you’ll have more and more time to really analyze the questions and answer them correctly.
This method works. It’s not my opinion or my bag of tricks. It’s basic linguistics and cognitive science as taught in any university. I’m certain that it works because I spent years at Harvard as a graduate student and instructor studying this area. Also, I’ve been teaching it for well over a decade. In every class, I’ve watched students just like you master the fundamentals over and over again until they became reflexes, going from taking 20 minutes to fully comprehend a passage to 31/2 minutes after 9 weeks, going from getting 3 out of 6 answers correct to 12 out of 13 in the same period.
You can do this but you’ve got to put in the time. You’ve got to build those strong neural connections that will light up and work without you even thinking about it. Think about how much time our students put in: 36 hours in class, 24 hours in video exercises, and two hours studying each day and working on passages with other students. Mastery, repetition, working with others is how you create those neural networks. It’s the same way you’ll be learning in your 3rd and 4th year of medical school and residency.
Practice does not necessarily make perfect. Perfect Practice makes perfect. It’s about mastery, not “tips for reading faster” or “exam taking techniques”. It’s knowing the fundamentals of how language works and how passages are structured.
Work hard, work smart, Excellence Matters.
Until next time,
PS If you have any comments on what you’re reading, send me an email. I read all of them.
PPS In our next edition we’re going to be talking about Grammar. Learning Grammar isn’t complicated, but it's a real slog. But it's worth the work. It pays off in big dividends in comprehension. Remember those 70 word key sentences that went over 5 lines? Mastering Grammar will let you reduce them to 6 or 7 words. No kidding! It’s basic linguistics.