MedicalPodiatry

How To Get More CARS Questions Right

One of the questions that we hear most often from students is “How do I get more answers right on MCAT CARS practice passages and in the exam itself?” That’s a critical question because your score depends totally on how many questions you answer correctly in the time allotted. When you look at the methods described in most MCAT CARS practice books, they give you a lot of tips and tricks on how to answer questions. And when you learn these tips and tricks and use them on practice passages, the first thing you notice is that they don’t work very well. You’re still getting a lot of wrong answers.

Why is that? It’s because these methods are anecdotal rather than scientific. Think of it this way: when a patient comes to see you with a serious medical condition, are you going to use tips and tricks to treat her?  No, You’re going to use your basic knowledge of medicine combined with your reasoning ability to do a proper diagnosis and treatment.

The same is true in CARS. You have to have basic knowledge of how language works and the reasoning ability to use it properly. Like any other area of science, you need a clear analytical method of understanding what’s in front of you. The method I am going to describe to you is the standard scientific approach that’s taught in any university department that deals with texts, or what you would refer to as passages. It’s even used to program artificial intelligence.

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So let’s talk about this method. It’s made up of 3 parts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

Grammar is the study of individual types of words, the jobs they do, and how they relate to each other.
Rhetoric is how language is used to convey ideas.
Logic is understanding how those ideas relate to each other.

Let’s take a look at some questions to see how this works. Remember, 90% of getting the right answer is fully understanding the question. Most students read a question and assume they understand, but that’s often not the case. They don’t fully understand what the question says, and what the question is asking you to do.

In order to fully understand a question:

  • First: Read it to get familiar with the language.
  • Second: After you read the question, disaggregate it. Break it down into grammatical units, and reflect on the meaning of each unit.
  • Third: Understand what the strategy of the question is. What is the behavior that the question asks you to engage in? What are you supposed to do with those pieces of the puzzle?
  • Fourth: Match the constituent elements of the question, or the key idea referred to, to the constituent elements of the correct answer.

This is the basic scientific method that works all of the time once you learn to use it properly. Let’s use it on a passage from Examkrackers, the second edition, pages 38 and 39. Let’s take a look at question 14:

14. Which of the following claims is NOT explicitly presented in the passage as an example of an “undeniably” human figure?

I. Roman Emperor Justinian
II. English kings
III. Moses

A. I Only
B. II Only
C. III Only
D. I and II Only

The first thing we’re going to do is read the question to ourselves just to get familiar with the language. Stop here for a minute and read the question just to get familiar with it as a first step.

But we’re not going to stop there. What we’re going to do after the initial reading is to disaggregate the question, break it into grammatical units, and then really reflect on the meaning of each unit. We can even paraphrase it to make sure we really understand it:

Which of the following claims = One of the answers below

Is not explicitly presented in the passage as an example of = Isn’t mentioned as an example of

An undeniably human figure = A clearly identified human figure

Notice that we have 3 constituent elements:

  • One of the answers below
  • Isn’t mentioned as an example of
  • A clearly identified human figure

For those of you who have studied some grammar and rhetoric, you know that when an author is using two emphatic adjectives, the tone demands attention. Notice in the last constituent element you have “a clearly identified human figure.” Not just any human figure, but a clearly identified human figure. The tone of these adjectives tells us they are key to getting the right answer.

Now that we understand the constituent elements of the question, the pieces of the puzzle, let’s ask ourselves: What is the strategy of the question? What does the question want me to do with these pieces? Notice, it’s not about the shape or category of the question: support, weaken, inference, etc. Those are just categories.

What is important is the behavior the question asks you to engage in. What is this question asking me to do with the constituent elements? “Find the answers below that isn’t mentioned as an example of a clearly identified human figure.” Once we really understand the constituent elements in the question and understand the strategy of the question, we’re ready for the fourth step:

Match the constituent elements of the the question to the constituent elements of the correct answer. Let’s take a look at where this appears in the text. It’s in the 2nd paragraph:

The pronouncement of ancient law was often attributed to a divine lawgiver, or else a messenger with a visible connection to the divine or supernatural. Their commandments and prohibitions were transformed into a binding “law” by an external authority, “the lawgiver”, or, more precisely, the ancient community’s shared belief in the lawgiver’s intrinsic power, omniscience, or justice. Examples of the supernatural-authoritative lawgiver abound; the Bible (direct word of God), Moses (messenger of God), Christ (son of God, miracle worker), Athena (goddess, masculine woman, supernatural birth, messenger of Zeus) and the seer Tiresias (venerable, blind, visionary, hermaphrodite) are just a few examples. Sometimes, of course, the lawgivers were undeniably human figures, such as Roman Emperor Justinian, the English Kings, or even the town “elders.” Yet even then, devices were constructed for them to forge a public link with the divine; Roman Emperors typically acted as High Pontiff in talking auguries, while rulers had prophets, priests, and the “divine right of kings,” and even old men had “benches of polished stone in the sacred circle” on which to sit in borrowed glory. Thus, ancient law with its fundamental reliance on external authority, had little need to justify its content internally.

Using analytical tools from rhetoric and grammar, we can identify the 2 key idea sentences referred to and the details supporting them. Student who learn rhetoric and grammar have already done this quickly as they read the passage. Notice that knowing where the key ideas are will quickly show you where the sought after detail is. Right after the second key idea sentence you have examples undeniably human figures, the Roman Emperor Justinian and English Kings.

But we’re not looking for undeniably human figures. We’re looking for what is ‘not’ an undeniably human figure. That means that in this paragraph there’s only one other place to go, to the other key idea. And what do we find there as an example? Answer C, Moses.

Let’s look at another question from the same passage, question 18:

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

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

Work on this question with me. First, I want you to read the question to yourself, just get familiar with the language. Stop here and take a moment to do that.

Now take your time and break the question into pieces, the constituent elements. Just take one piece at a time, and when you take that piece, stop and really reflect on it. What does that piece of language really mean? Stop here and do that now.

Ok, now let’s figure out what the strategy of the question is: what is the question asking you to do with those pieces of the puzzle, the constituent elements? See if you can figure that out. Stop here and come back when you’re done.

Let’s compare notes. I’ll show you what I did in my analysis of the constituent elements of the question and see if any or all of it matches yours.

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

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

Even old men Old men
Benches of polished stone Benches of polished stone
On which to sit They sat on them
In borrowed glory Something external gave them glory or spiritual authority

Now let’s see what the strategy of the question is. What does the question want us to do with these constituent elements? This is what some of those practice books call a ‘support question’, but that isn’t very helpful. It’s just categorizing the question. It doesn’t tell us precisely what to do with the question, but rhetoric and grammar do.

Support Question:

  • One or more constituent elements in the right answer
  • Provides positive evidence
  • For one or more of the constituent elements in the question or the key idea refereed to

In this type of question, one or more constituent elements in the question or key idea referred to provides positive evidence for one or more of the constituent elements in the right answer choice. Now let’s look at the answers.

A. These elders required a bench in a sacred place befitting their divine authority. Let’s look at the constituent elements

Elders required a bench in a sacred place Nothing in the question ‘requiring a bench’
Befitting their divine authority Borrowed authority

Notice that there is nothing in the constituent elements of the question ‘requiring’ a bench. So that element has to be wrong. It doesn’t match and therefore disqualifies this answer. But if that wasn’t enough, notice the third constituent element. According to the constituent elements in the question, these elders didn’t have their own authority—it was borrowed authority. Grammatically, notice how the adjective ‘borrowed’ modifies the word ‘authority’ and tells you that the authority was not their own.

B. The benches alone would have imparted a divine connection to these human figures.

The benches alone Circle is sacred
Would have imparted Aren’t sacred, can’t impart
A divine connection to the human figures  

This is another place where grammar plays a key role in understanding why this answer is wrong. Notice that in the constituent elements of the question, the circle is sacred. So the benches alone couldn’t give or ‘impart’ a connection to the divine.

C. The circle ‘became’ sacred in the presence of these divine elders.

The circle ‘became’ sacred Borrowed glory
In the presence of these divine elders Old men

Did the circle become sacred in the presence of these divine elders? Let’s take a look at the constituent elements of the question. These are not divine elders; they are described in the question simply as ‘old men’. And notice that they had to ‘borrow glory’. What does that tell you? They didn’t possess it so they had to borrow it from someplace else. So now you can see why C is wrong.

That leaves us with D by process of elimination. But let’s understand why D is correct. Let’s look at the constituent elements of the answer and compare them to the constituent elements of the question

D. These undeniably human figures gleaned external authority from a divine location.

Old men Undeniably human figure
Had benches of polished stone
In the sacred circle From a divine location
To sit in borrowed glory Gleaned external authority

Notice how the constituent elements line up perfectly. Old men are ‘undeniably human figures,’  the sacred circle is a ‘divine location,’ and borrowed glory means the ‘gleaned’ or got it from an ‘external authority’.

From these two example questions, you can see how a linguistically-based analytical method will get you the right answer every time you use it properly. There’s no magic here or tips or tricks, just scientifically-based analysis using linguistics. It’s the same method they use to program artificial intelligence. The key is fully understanding the question, as defined above.

You might think that this is hard to do and takes too much time, but the opposite is true; this is where cognitive psychology comes into play.

First, it’s a lot easier to learn grammar, rhetoric, and logic than it is to learn organic chemistry. It just isn’t that hard. It takes some time, but you can certainly master it.

Second, once you master it and start applying it to passages over and over again, it becomes automatic, like a reflex. In cognitive psychology this is known as going from a System II Analysis to a System I Analysis. In System II you have to think about it. In System I your brain does it automatically. It’s been our experience in working with thousands of students (and all the research shows) that once you master this, you should be able to competently read a passage in about 4 and a half minutes and do the questions in about 3 and a half minutes. That’s a lot different than just reading a question and going for the answer that ‘feels right’. Having the analytical tools that work will give you the ability to get the right answers that you need. Remember, CARS is the last hurdle between you and medical school. Give it the attention that it needs.

You can also watch a video version of this article here.

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Leonardo Radomile is the senior CARS instructor at the Cambridge Learning Center. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard where he was an instructor at the Harvard Kennedy School. CLC offers free classes on the fundamentals of critical reading. You can sign up for one he... Leonardo Radomile is the senior CARS instructor at the Cambridge Learning Center. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard...