Jump-Start 3 – Putting It All Together: Arguments

In the last two days, we’ve covered the most basic elements of a CARS passage. Our hope is that you will begin to look for these elements as you read through passages and our drills, asking yourself as you go “Which element is this?” Being able to read critically is not an inherent trait some people are born with and some are not. It is a skill that you CAN develop with practice.

Today, we’re going to build upon what we’ve already learned and bring it all together to discuss identifying passage arguments. While you’re now familiar with the individual parts of a CARS passage, you must be able to see how they relate to one another in furthering the author’s larger point to truly excel at the CARS. Appreciating the relationships between ideas and information on the CARS are fundamental to a great score. Understanding these relationships and the purposes behind them boil down to argument identification. This is an absolutely critical skill, because it helps you better understand the structure of what you’re reading and identify the main idea of the passage, but also because the majority of CARS questions involve analyzing passage arguments.

If you’re taking this mini-course a few months ahead of your dedicated study period, you’ll be able to focus on improving your reading strategies so when you get to dedicated CARS prep, you’ll be prepared to excel! We discuss at length how you can continue to practice at the end of this mini-course but one way to do so would be to get a head start by signing up for our “Extended CARS Bootcamp.” You can find more details here.

By the way, if you were looking for your daily MCAT joke, here you go! Time to get going!

How to Dissect Arguments – Are You Trying to Sell Me Something?

 

There are three steps to identifying and dissecting passage arguments. The first step, and often the hardest initially to recognize, is to determine if the author, or someone the author is talking about, is trying to convince you of something particular, or several things, throughout the passage as a whole. The easiest way to think about this is what happens when you walk onto a car lot. You instantly are swarmed by a salesperson who has one and only one goal: to sell you a car. They are trying to convince you to open your wallet and buy a car. So, the first step as you read is to ask yourself, “Is the author trying to sell me something?” Obviously, I don’t mean literally sell you a car (: but is the author trying to sell you an idea or a belief? This first step is simply a yes or no question. If you answer yes, then we move on to the next step.

The second step of the identification process is to try and understand what you’re being sold. What is the author’s claim? Sometimes this will be obvious, sometimes it won’t. It’s critical that you start with the “what” question, because it is much easier to first spot a claim than to spot support. A good question to ask yourself is “What’s the main point of all of this? Why did the author write this paragraph?” Try and get in the author’s head. If you had written this paragraph, what would your purpose have been?

The third step is to look for the reasons “why” the author provides in his “sales pitch.” In our analogy of the car salesperson, the third step is identifying the support for the sale. “You should buy this car because it has excellent gas mileage, comes with a 100,000-mile warranty, and was voted sexiest car of the year last year.” These are all reasons why you should buy (or in the case of the CARS “believe”) what the author is selling. It’s significantly easier to identify support once you’ve identified the claim(s) in the paragraph or passage, so it’s essential you follow this three-step process in order.

Step 1: An attempt to convince?Am I being sold something?
Step 2: Find the claimWhat am I being sold?
Step 3: Find the supportWhy should I buy?

Let’s put this into practice with an example.

a
Unlike modern approaches to literary criticism where the goal is to understand what the author truly meant to write, post-modern criticism has focused on decontextualizing literary works from their authors’ intentions and particular contexts in order to forge individualized meaning. It no longer matters what a work’s author originally meant or hoped to mean, because a work’s meaning to an individual cannot be forced or coerced. It either is meaningful to an individual or it isn’t.

Furthermore, meaning is not absolute but is relative to the one creating it. Can anyone name a painting or sculpture that has ever meant exactly the same thing to two different people? Impossible. The focus is not to be placed on the author but on the reader; who they are, where they come from, and what they bring with them to the endeavor of reading critically.

 

So, let’s break down this paragraph using our three-step process:

Step 1: Is there an attempt to convince? – Yes, absolutely.

Step 2: Find the claim – What a work means depends on the individual reading it, not what the author originally intended.

Step 3: Find the support – The meaning of something cannot be forced. It either means it or it doesn’t. Which painting has ever meant exactly the same thing to two different people?

Now, let’s break down this paragraph into claims and support. While there is a lot of explanatory support building the general case and background for the claims the author makes, I will only highlight the most significant support for the claims.

NOTE: A point that we explore in much greater depth in our full CARS Bootcamp course is how to correctly highlight on the CARS. The most important point you must remember when it comes to highlighting is that the more you highlight, the less useful that highlight is. Highlight as little as possible while still giving yourself a reminder of what it is you want to highlight. On the CARS, you should NEVER highlight full sentences. If you’d like to learn more about our highlighting strategies, check out our CARS Bootcamp.

While for the sake of instruction, we highlight both the claims and support, on the real MCAT we recommend that you only highlight the claims. Claims are bold, support is underlined, and details are italicized.

..::..

Unlike modern approaches to literary criticism where the goal is to understand what the author truly meant to write, post-modern criticism has focused on decontextualizing literary works from their authors’ intentions and particular contexts in order to forge individualized meaning. It no longer matters what a work’s author originally meant or hoped to mean, because a work’s meaning to an individual cannot be forced or coerced. It either has a particular meaning to an individual or it doesn’t.

Furthermore, meaning is not absolute but is relative to the one creating it. Can anyone name a painting or sculpture that has ever meant exactly the same thing to two different people? Impossible. The focus is not to be placed on the author but on the reader; who they are, where they come from, and what they bring with them to the endeavor of reading critically.

..::..

While the larger argument of this paragraph is to argue for a post-modern approach to literary interpretation, there are two claims being made to further that goal. The first claim is that it doesn’t matter what the author originally intended. This is the first bolded text. The support we have for this claim is that meaning cannot be forced and that it is either meaningful to someone or it isn’t. The second claim is that meaning is not absolute but is relative. This is supported with the example of the paintings never meaning the exact same thing to two different people.

Daily Drill #1:

For each of the following drills, on a scratch piece of paper, 1) determine if an argument (claim + support) is present, and 2) if there is, dissect the argument into its claim and supporting evidence.

1) To do well on the MCAT, your name must have four letters and start with the letter “k.”

2) Kevin did not return to work for three weeks because he was at a training session in California and then took a vacation to the Bahamas.

3) How can anyone say that doctors make too much money and should be paid less? Most doctors end medical school hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and need to be well compensated to pay back their student loans.

4) Rates of juvenile obesity have continued to rise over the last decade. The obvious indictment should not be lost on anyone when we look at those schools who have implemented recommended “healthy lunchroom” policies in comparison to those schools who have not.

5) While free speech is a fundamental human right, there are situations when it is in the public’s best interest to curtail this right. Yelling “fire” in a confined public space has a reasonable chance of causing serious concern and pandemonium among those gathered and could easily lead to serious injury or even death. In such a situation, while the right to free speech would ideally be preserved, the intent and subsequent action of someone who uses his right to free speech as a mechanism to bring about harm to others is not unlike someone placing a bomb in a public space. We don’t allow the latter, so why would we allow the former?

..::..

Answers – Daily Drill #1:

  1. To do well on the MCAT, your name must have four letters and start with the letter “k.”
    • Not an argument – While this certainly represents a claim, however dubious it might be, there is no support given to back up it. Thus, it cannot be an argument.
      a
  2. Kevin did not return to work for three weeks because he was at a training session in California and then took a vacation to the Bahamas.
    • Not an argument – While technically statements of fact are a sort of claim, on the CARS, facts are not to be considered as claims. The CARS will never deceive you regarding the veracity of stated facts. If a CARS passage says Kevin did not return to work for three weeks, this is not a claim. It is a statement of fact that you should assume to be true. Thus, in this case, we have a statement of fact and then an explanation of that fact. There is no debatable claim being made.
      a
  3. How can anyone say that doctors are greedy, make too much money, and should be paid less? Most doctors end medical school hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and need to be well compensated to pay back their student loans.
    • Argument – This is a slightly more difficult construction of an argument than we’ve encountered before as it is not straightforward. What is the claim? People that say doctors are greedy and make too much money are wrong. What’s the support for this claim, doctors need to be well compensated to pay back costly student loans. While the claim is not directly stated, it is clear what the author is arguing for.
      a
  4. Rates of juvenile obesity have continued to rise over the last decade. The obvious indictment should not be lost on anyone when we look at those schools who have implemented recommended “healthy lunchroom” policies in comparison to those schools who have not.
    • Not an argument – This example shows how tricky identifying an argument can be. It certainly sounds like the author is arguing for something, but what is the “obvious indictment” the author references? Notice that he never ever actually says it. You might read into the example that lunchrooms are the problem, but when we look at the support the author supposedly gives, what are we left with? Notice that while a comparison of schools is mentioned, we are not given the results! It’s not hard to see how this could be turned into an argument, but based on what we’re given in the example, it’s not an argument yet. We need more!
      a
  5. While free speech is a fundamental human right, there are situations when it is in the public’s best interest to curtail this right. Yelling “fire” in a confined public space has a reasonable chance of causing serious concern and pandemonium among those gathered and could easily lead to serious injury or even death. In such a situation, while the right to free speech would ideally be preserved, the intent and subsequent action of someone who uses his right to free speech as a mechanism to bring about harm to others is not unlike someone placing a bomb in a public space. We don’t allow the latter, so why would we allow the former?
    • Argument – This is another more nuanced and complicated argument, the sort that you’d be likely to encounter on the CARS. You can tell the author is trying to sell you something. The claim is that free speech ought to be curtailed in some situations, namely when it is intended to cause others harm. The support for this claim is the author’s comparison to our restrictions on the placing of bombs in public spaces because that too causes harm to others. The author sees no difference between the two.

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