The First Thing You Should Do When You Read a MCAT CARS Passage

If you really want to master a MCAT CARS Passage and truly understand it and be able to answer the questions correctly, the first thing you want to do when examining a passage is to figure out what the narrow subject of the text is. And you should be able to do that in two or three words. You’re not looking for what the argument is, nor what the main idea is. Just what it is about. Is it about baseball? Football? What is the narrow, narrow subject?

Now why do you want to do this? Well from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, we know that when we focus on exactly what it is about and reduce it to just a couple of words, we activate what’s known as the reticular activating system.

Now what’s the reticular activating system? The reticular activating system is that part of the brain that begins to recognize and organize information. You’re familiar with this even if you’re not familiar with the name. A typical example is when you misplace your cell phone and you’re looking around your apartment. What your reticular activating system will do is emphasize everything that looks like your cellphone, and de-emphasize everything that doesn’t look like it.

The same process takes effect in the mastery of MCAT CARS Passages. You want to stimulate your reticular activating system because if you know exactly what the subject of a text is, your brain will automatically start organizing the material around that and make it more comprehensive.

When you look a text, I want you to think of four things. What’s repeated, referred to, explained, or described in the first paragraph. Then reduce it to as few words as possible, preferably two or three. Again, what’s repeated, referred to, explained or described in the first paragraph. Go ahead and try it with this excerpt from ExamKrackers 101 Passages in MCAT Verbal 2nd edition. This is Passage III of Verbal Reasoning Test 1 on page 22.

“Arguments abound over whether marijuana should be legalized. Many of these arguments pertain to the federal guidelines for lengthy prison sentences meted out for what is considered a relatively petty crime. Others point out that marijuana is a drug that could, and should, be used for medicinal purposes. But most proponents of legalization ignore the mounting evidence that points to the long-term damage to the user and to society as a whole.”

Okay. What’s repeated, referred to, explained or described is the legalization of marijuana. What you want to do is make a little note, take a literal note, and write legalization of marijuana in the margin.

Why should you actually write it down in the margin? Well, for a number of reasons. This is called a cognitive anchor. One of the things that’s been found in a great deal of experimentation and studies is that when we somatize the process of reading, when we bring hand to eye coordination into it, cognition really deepens, your understanding really deepens, and you recall the facts much more easily. It takes very, very little time and effort to do this. It’s just a couple of key words. But this little step is much more important than underlining. Underlining does not have the same effect.

So, again, what you want to do is write one or two words at the very top that signifies what is being repeated, referred to, explained, or described in the thesis paragraph. In this sample paragraph, you’d write something similar to “arguments over legalization.”