Module 1 CARS - Understanding Verbal Reasoning Exams

Critical Analysis and Reasoning

With the challenge of the science sections, it's easy to neglect preparing for the CARS section of the MCAT. Many students can become intimidated by this portion of the exam and put off working in this area until it is too late to get much improvement. Verbal reasoning questions can seem like a kind of code generated by a puzzle master, and the test-prep companies perpetuate this idea, frankly, because if there is a secret code, there must be a secret key. This is not to suggest neglecting to study test-taking methods. We will do our share of categorizing questions and sharing tips and tricks in this course. However, the most substantial progress can be achieved through strengthening your reading ability, by which I mean the ability to engage attentively and critically with another person's ideas as they are presented in writing. Too great a focus on test-taking methods in reading a verbal reasoning passage can become a barrier to engaging with the voice of the writer.

John Avery - Miss Aurus

Reading is a complex interaction between the text and the reader. As a creative, analytical skill, reading critically requires continuous practice. The more you practice, the better you will become at interpreting the nuances of CARS passages.

Here is one 'secret' that is easily worth a standard deviation on the exam if you can fully internalize its meaning. Every verbal reasoning passage was written by an actual person for an audience. They aren't creating a puzzle. They are trying to communicate ideas. If you can actually suppose for a moment that you were the person the passage was written for, that the passage was written to communicate to you, it will be a natural response for you to give your full attention and apply the kind of sophisticated understanding that you naturally, give, say a friend's words who is telling you about something in your personal life. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt that they really mean to be understood by you, and you will understand much more of what you read without a struggle. Listen to the voice in the writing. Too many students read the passages as if they were deciphering a code, like they were watching strangers interact through a periscope, and they miss the voice in the writing that way. Try to picture the writer. Is she an auburn haired lady with glasses? An avuncular old guy with a bola tie? Read with interest. When you hear the voice, listen carefully. Try to picture the author as a real person, not just because the questions are coming, but because communication is happening. Communication is the essence. Your own response is not only important. It's the key. Find the real person in the writing and you will naturally comprehend the main idea. Its subtleties will be intuitive, much more so than if you try to decode the passage like a puzzle.

A Two-Fold Approach
This is not to say that you should completely ignore test-taking strategies and tricks. Far from it. Actually, such things can be very beneficial, and we should study the CARS section as a form in its own right with its own rules, because, if you think about it, there is another writer that matters in addition to the author of the passage. This is the author of the questions, the MCAT writer.

In everyday life, when you read a novel or an editorial in the newspaper, your mind works on many levels to interpret the intentions of the author. There is the expressive dimension of the writing. There is the field of reference, and there is the aesthetic dimension. Likewise there are dimensions to the verbal reasoning, multiple-choice question, and it is to your benefit to explore the MCAT question as its own kind of literary form. Unlike the author of passage, who is trying to communicate, the author of the questions has a different agenda, to measure how strong a reader you are. Let us approach the art of question writing as if we ourselves were apprentices of the test-writing guild. What are the different types of questions and how is the selection of answer choices created. How is the 'best' answer created? How about the 'second best' answer? Let us discuss the types of questions on the Verbal Reasoning section of the MCAT.

Five Main Kinds of Verbal Reasoning Questions

Almost all verbal reasoning questions fall into one of five categories:

Main Idea
These are general questions dealing with the cardinal issues of the passage. Main idea questions are designed to see if you grasped the central theme of the passage as a whole. Typical question prompts of main idea questions are the following:

The passage as a whole suggests that the author believes that . . .

Which of the following would be the best title for the passage?

The author's main purpose of the passage is to . . .

Author's Tone
This type of general question asks whether you understood the author's point of view on the subject of the passage. These questions are often the most subtle. Is the author being critical or supportive. Is their tone objectively neutral or biased and partisan? The differences among the answer choices in tone questions can sometimes be hard to tease out. Prompts for tone questions will be similar to the following:

The author's attitude toward his subject is one of . . .

Which of the following characterizes the author's likely intended audience?

The tone of the passage might best be described as . . .

Thematic Extension
These questions are in the same family with the Main Idea or Tone questions, which deal with the passage as a whole, but Thematic Extension questions ask you to take the author's argument or point of view and draw a conclusion about another subject or derive a broader proposition. These questions have prompts that look like the following:

How would the author of the passage respond to . . .

Which of following would the author probably recommend in a situation where . . .

It can be inferred from the passage that . . .

Specific Inference
These questions will identify a specific section of the passage and ask for an interpretation that goes a little deeper than the explicit reference, asking you to read 'between the lines'. These questions are often about judging the shade of meaning the author puts on a word within a specific context. Typical question prompts often including phrasing such as:

The author uses the term ____ in line ## to mean . . .

Lines ## - ## imply that the author . . .

The author brings up the example of ____ in order to . . .

Facts & Information
On one level these questions are a test for your retention of specific facts or concepts stated in the passage. However, on another level, they are a test of how well you synthesized and retained the organization and flow of the passage. This is because often the process of answering this kind of question involves returning to the passage to find the information. Typical prompts include phrasing such as:

The author states that . . .

According to the passage, who was the first person to ever . . .

Which of the following does the author claim . . .

The understanding of these five types will be a touchstone for our approach to the test. We will return to them again and again. Each type of question has its own 'tricks' and tendencies, and as the modules progress you will come to recognize them by second nature. By systematically approaching the analysis of your performance in terms of these five types, you will be able to analyze your strengths and weaknesses more easily. This gives us the basis to improve your Verbal Reasoning test-taking skill in a methodical way.