Day 11 – CARS Question Types – The Main Idea

Ok, back to the grind! Hopefully, you actually read through yesterday’s post about a few small changes you can make that will have a major impact on your ability to perform your best come test day. It’s a big deal so don’t skip it! It’s the MCAT Marathon, not the MCAT Sprint!

Remember, do two passages today, and be sure to do the keyword review! Today, we start a mini-series on the question types the MCAT uses to populate the CARS section. It’s fine to read through these posts and try to utilize the tips I lay out here, but if you are still struggling with your timing (which is fine and normal), don’t focus on these more advanced techniques until later. You’ve got to learn to walk before you can run and strategies pertaining to question types on the CARS are some of the most advanced we’re going to explore, so cut yourself some slack if everything takes some getting used to. Let’s get into it!

The Main Idea:

Main ideaquestions may seem easy as they are asking you in the most general terms, “What is this passage about?” But often, Main idea questions are also the ones that intimidate students the most. Instead of zooming in on one manageable portion of the passage, one detail or one argument, main idea questions require you to actually understand what the author is trying to do in a global sense i.e. why the author wrote the passage and what’s the point of it all? If you struggle to keep arguments straight, to see the big picture, or to understand the “Why” of the passage, main idea questions are going to be tricky for you, at least initially. Beyond the particulars of the main idea question type, having a firm grasp of the main idea of the passage is going to help you answer most CARS question you’ll see on test day in one way or another. It’s not always easy to see the main idea at first, but with a little practice, we’ll get you there. And fortunately, we’ve got a few tricks you can use which make it seem as if the main idea comes to you. I call this approach, Painting to the Main Idea:

What’s the Frame?

The first thing you want to do is to take a look at your frame. During your preview read of the passage, you should be able to figure out more or less what the frame of the passage is. This is the broadest category that your passage fits in. The frame of a passage on General Lee’s strategy at Gettysburg would be the Civil War. Within a frame, there are thousands upon thousands of possible subjects for a passage. When we are framing a passage, we are looking for the broadest category that still tells us something about the passage so we can use that frame to organize our thinking about it. Identify the frames for the following passages snippets:

Examining the gradual changes in rural Spanish in the Dominican Republic.

The philosophical implications for young existentialists post-World War II.

The social significance and impact frozen dinners had on the 1950s familial unit.

Once you’ve identified the frame, you’ve not only framed what you are talking about (the painting inside the frame), but you’ve also learned something about what you aren’t going to be talking about. This can be incredibly useful when trying to eliminate answer choices. In establishing a frame for the passage, you’ve set for yourself boundaries for a possible answer to a main idea question.

Notice for the first passage, the frame might be something like linguistic change. Thus, we know that any answer choices to a main idea question cannot have a broader scope than linguistic change and that in all likelihood the scope will actually be narrower than the frame. Think of the frame as the outer boundary and that the correct answer will always be contained within it. For the second passage, the frame might be something like post-WWII existential philosophy, or maybe just even post-WWII philosophy. It would depend on your 10 to 15 second preview read of the passage. For the third, it might be something like social influences on the family. Notice that a more general answer choice concerning sociology wouldn’t be narrow enough to be a correct answer to a main idea question as it resides outside the frame.

What’s the Point?

If the subject of a passage is the “What,” the point is the “Why.” Why did the artist paint the painting? Did she paint it to evoke the feelings of passion and love, or to remind you of the experience of a lazy relaxing day in a field of wild flowers? In terms of the CARS, why did the author write the passage? Why didn’t she just leave the page blank? In the case of the Civil War passage about Lee, it isn’t clear based on the information given to you, but a few possibilities include:

  • Lee’s strategy was risky.
  • Lee’s strategy should have won him the war.
  • Lee’s strategy was ill-conceived.

The failure of Lee’s strategy turned the tide of the Civil War.

The possibilities are endless, so I won’t be exhaustive here, but what I want you to see is that the point of the passage is why the author wrote it. If you are able to frame the passage, understand its subject, and identify its point, you’ve figured out the main idea of the passage.

The possibilities are endless, so I won’t be exhaustive here, but what I want you to see is that the point of the passage is why the author wrote it. If you are able to frame the passage, understand its subject, and identify its point, you’ve figured out the main idea of the passage.

Examples of Main Idea Question Stems:

The MCAT will ask you for the main idea in a number of different ways. Below, I’ve included a few examples. Main idea questions are as general as they come on the MCAT CARS, so this will be your first indication you’re dealing with a main idea question type.

The main idea of this passage is:

The author’s central argument is:

The central thesis of this passage is that:

The author most likely wrote this passage in order to:

Which of the following best characterizes the main idea of the passage?

What is the author’s central concern?

The author can best be viewed as a proponent of:

The intended audience of this passage is most likely:

Tips for Main Idea Questions:

– General questions have general answers!

– Look for the argument or idea that is so central to the passage that without it, the passage would no longer make sense; it would have no teeth; its purpose would be unintelligible.

– Eliminate answer choices which contain arguments the author doesn’t actually make in the passage, and then sort through the arguments she does and determine which is the most significant. Be on the lookout for answer choices which subtly flip the author’s argument while retaining her language.

– Look for too specific or too narrow of answer choices. If an idea is only touched on in one paragraph, it is not likely to be the central argument of the passage.

– While general questions will almost always have general answers, be wary of too broad of answer choices. While the too narrow or too specific trickster answer choice is the most common, the MCAT has been known to widen the scope far beyond the passage to create an incorrect answer choice.

– Be on the lookout for “correct” arguments, which are arguments that the author makes, but that are not the central argument or thesis of the passage. Once you think you’ve found your choice, decide if the passage would make any sense without the idea represented in the answer choice. If it wouldn’t, you know you’ve got your answer, because a passage without its main idea makes no sense.

Ok, that’s it for today. Keep an eye out for main idea questions as they come up in your daily two passages and also be sure to integrate the tips we’ve laid out for you. Great job. It’s going to pay off! Keep up the great work!

Today’s Assignment: Do Two CARS Passages Individually, Under Timed Conditions

“Opportunities don’t happen; you create them.”
– Chris Grosser

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