Jump-Start 4 – A Systematic Approach to Answering CARS Questions

Up until this point in our mini-course, we’ve focused exclusively on how to read critically on the CARS. I believe that for most students, this is the area that is most challenging and unfamiliar, but it also is the area where they can improve the most. The reality is that it’s not particularly difficult to read and think in the way the CARS requires. What is difficult is that most premeds don’t have much experience reading and thinking in that way.

So there really are two issues: 1) Many students don’t know how to read critically. And 2) few students have experience or practice doing it. We’ve worked hard these last few days to begin to teach you critical reading skills, and later on in our mini-course, we’ll discuss in detail the best ways for you to practice these skills (over and over again) going forward as you prepare to take the MCAT. Practice is essential, because knowing what to do and actually being able to do it are two very different things on the CARS.

With all of that said, today, we are going to shift our attention to another area of great importance: answering questions. After all, you don’t get any points for “reading.” You get points for answering questions. The primary reason we do CARS practice passages is to build strong and reliable habits that naturally produce good scores. The more we practice these habits, the more natural they become, and the more consistent our scores are.

Over my many years working with students and reflecting on the very best habits to build for the CARS, I’ve developed what I call the “Answering Algorithm.” It’s a step-by-step process I believe you should follow every single time you answer a CARS question. Not some of the time. Not just on hard questions. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

The reason I suggest this is because if you practice enough, it will eventually become second nature, and you won’t even have to think about it. I’ve developed this algorithm in a way that has built into it a variety of sophisticated answering techniques that leverage the format and nature of the CARS. This approach gives you a highly systematic and methodical way to optimize your chances on every single question. I can’t emphasize this enough. Do this every time, and eventually, you won’t even notice you’re doing it. Don’t build habits that you’ll eventually have to undo down the road. Let’s get down to business!

Opps…I almost forgot: Your moment of science Zen for today. Enjoy!

The Answering Algorithm:
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I’m going to lay this algorithm out in a step-by-step process. While it may not be necessary to use each step, you need to be sure that you complete these steps in order. It’s possible you will answer the question after step 1 or 2. That’s fine, but it’s critical you never jump ahead or go out of order. A lot of thought and experience is behind our recommendations and they give you tools to use when you get stuck on the harder questions.

The first step is to eliminate any answer choices you can. You should NEVER start by trying to find the correct answer. This is critical. There are three reasons for this recommendation. The first is that it’s significantly easier to select the correct answer out of two possible answers choices versus four. Even if you end up guessing, you’ll improve your chances by 50%!

The second reason this technique is so important is that it ensures you don’t get tricked by a knee-jerk selection of an incorrect answer choice. If you evaluate each answer choice with a keen eye to which answers are wrong, it will be harder to make a “silly” error on a question you would have, otherwise, gotten right.

The third reason this technique is so effective is that in the process of eliminating answer choices, you may well gain insight about what the correct answer should look like. In remembering what the passage says, referring back to the passage to check answer choices, and thinking about what would constitute a correct answer choice as you eliminate wrong answer choices, you necessarily develop insights about the correct answer, making it much easier to select the correct answer when the time comes.

So, in this first step, there are only two options for an answer choice: “wrong” or “maybe.” You are NOT trying to select the correct answer choice in this first step. You’re just trying to strikeout (and yes, use the strikeout feature!) wrong answers. But, and this is a big but, but it is critical that you only eliminate answer choices that you are at least 90% sure are incorrect. If you aren’t all but certain that an answer choice is incorrect leave it as a possibility.

A very common mistake many test takers make is prematurely eliminating answer choices. It’s much better to be conservative. Even if you can only eliminate one answer choice, it’s much better to eliminate ones you know are wrong than accidentally eliminating the correct answer, which then makes it impossible for you to get the question right. If you think an answer choice might be right, it gets the “maybe” label. If you’re confused or don’t understand an answer choice, it gets the “maybe” label. If you think an answer choice is wrong, but have some doubts, it gets the “maybe” label.

The second step is fairly self-explanatory: out of your remaining choices, try and select the BEST answer choice. Remember that correct answers on the CARS might not be perfect. You may have an uneasy feeling or feel dissatisfied about an answer choice. That’s okay. It just needs to be the BEST answer out of the choices you were given.

Another important point to remember is that just because an answer choice is accurate or true does not mean it correctly answers the question you’re being asked. True/ accurate does not always equal correct on the CARS. Make sure your answer choice actually answers the question you’re being asked. At this point, you may need to refer back to the passage to compare the evidence for two or more of the remaining answer choices. This will likely be the slowest step. The answer choices that remain have already passed an important test, so they deserve to be weighed carefully against each other before you choose one as “correct.”

The third step only occurs if you’ve failed to select what you believe is the best answer in step 2. This often occurs and is fine. Don’t feel bad (at all)! You’ve still got a great chance of getting this question correct even if the correct answer doesn’t immediately jump out at you. The third step is extremely simple. If you get to a point where you’re stuck and can’t see which answer is correct, reread the question and remaining answer choices! Yeah, I know…not rocket science. But it’s not uncommon that if you’re stuck, you may have misunderstood what the question is actually asking. Rereading the question and remaining answer choices might clue you in to the part you’re missing. It also refreshes your memory of the exact details of the question which might become fuzzy after completing steps 1 and 2. When you’re stuck, reread the question!

Step four is just a repeat of step 2. Try to select the best answer choice!

The fifth step is where the real magic happens. Whenever you miss a question on the CARS, you’ve actually made two mistakes. The first is that you failed to select the correct answer. The second mistake is that you failed to recognize that you were being tricked by an incorrect answer or said another way, there was something about the wrong answer that you overlooked.

If you have to make two errors to miss a question, this also means there are two paths to a correct answer! You can select the correct answer outright, or you can eliminate all the incorrect answers, leaving you with the correct answer! Even if you have no idea why the correct answer is right, if you know why the other three answers are wrong, you get the question correct! Let me say that again, you don’t have to know why the correct answer is right to get the question correct. This is HUGE!

So, how do we translate this into an actionable step? If you can’t get to the correct answer by seeing which answer is correct, get to it by eliminating the incorrect answers. This means, instead of looking for the correct answer, select the LEAST WRONG answer!

What I mean by “pick the LEAST WRONG answer” is that you pick the answer choice that has absolutely nothing wrong with it.  The least wrong answer choice does not contradict anything said in the passage. It doesn’t even have any tension with anything said in the passage. The answer choice that has even a hint of possibly being wrong should be the one you eliminate.

You can even take this a step further and say that the LEAST WRONG answer is the one that has the least possibility or opportunity to be wrong. This would mean that you pick the most conservative and limited of the answer choices. Picking the LEAST WRONG answer choice means you don’t go out on a limb. You stay firmly planted on the ground. Even if you don’t have a reason to believe that the answer choice is correct, if it has less wrong with it than the other remaining answer choice, you should choose the least wrong answer choice.

There are a few reasons why this strategy works. The first and most important is that correct information in an answer choice does NOT make it right. But incorrect information in an answer choice DOES make it wrong. The correct answer on the CARS will be 100% right and contain 0% wrong information. So, if you have a hint of something being wrong in an answer choice, it likely is wrong.

You’ve likely been in what I call the 50/50 situation many times. You’ve eliminated two answer choices and are left with two very good sounding answer choices. The test writers set up the CARS this way, usually leaving two answer choices that trip most people up. One of these answer choices might even sound a lot better than the other (When I say “sounds good,” I mean there’s something compelling about it. The answer choice seems to answer the question. It relates to the passage and has direct and clear connections to what the author says.), BUT this really great sounding answer choice has something about it that isn’t quite right. There’s something off about it. The other answer choice sounds good too, but not AS good as the first. The difference is that this okay sounding second answer choice has nothing wrong with it. Which one do you choose? You choose the second one, even if it doesn’t “sound as good,” because it is the LEAST WRONG answer.

This technique alone can net incredible gains in CARS scores over a short period of time. It just takes some practice to perfect as it’s not the normal way we usually think about answering CARS questions. We go into much greater depth about how to pick the LEAST WRONG answer choice as well as provide a lot of practice for you to hone this skill in our CARS Bootcamp.

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So…as a recap to how you should approach answering every single CARS question:

Step 1: Eliminate any answer choices you canOnly eliminate answer choices you’re 90%+ sure are wrong

Step 2: Select the BEST answer choiceIf you’re stuck, proceed on to step 3

Step 3: Reread the question stem and remaining answer choices

Step 4: Select the BEST answer choiceIf you’re stuck, proceed on to step 5

Step 5: Select the LEAST WRONG answer choiceIf an answer has any wrong information it can’t be correct

Daily Drill #1:

For the following paragraph, note any claims the author makes.

There is an ongoing debate in developmental psychology stewing about the possible effects of TV on brain development of toddlers. Some studies link early TV viewing with later attention problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. However, other experts disagree with these results. One study found that TV viewing before the age of three caused slight decreases in several measures of later cognitive development but that between ages three and five it slightly helped reading scores. While it may be tempting for parents to put their infant or toddler in front of the TV, especially to watch shows created especially for them, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against it because of how crucial these early years are in children’s cognitive development.

Adapted from: Television; the World at Our Tips, Is it Always Good?. (2014) –  Zaky, Eman Ahmed. https://www.ijsr.net/archive/v5i1/NOV153065.pdf
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Daily Drill #2:

Answer the following question using your knowledge of the passage and by eliminating the wrong answer choices and selecting the LEAST WRONG answer choice.

1.) The experts who disagree with the link between early TV viewing and later attention problems likely believe that:

  1. TV programming can be educational for children.
  2. TV shows created for young children is healthier.
  3. TV viewing has no effect on attention span later in life.
  4. TV is still not understood by those in the medical profession.
    a

Answers – Daily Drill #1:

There is an ongoing debate in developmental psychology stewing about the possible effects of TV on brain development of toddlers. Some studies link early TV viewing with later attention problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. However, other experts disagree with these results. One study found that TV viewing before the age of three caused slight decreases in several measures of later cognitive development but that between ages three and five it slightly helped reading scores. While it may be tempting for parents to put their infant or toddler in front of the TV, especially to watch shows created especially for them, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against it because of how crucial these early years are in children’s cognitive development.
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Answers – Daily Drill #2:

1.) The experts who disagree with the link between early TV viewing and later attention problems likely believe that:

  1. TV programming can be educational for children.
  2. TV shows created for young children is healthier.
  3. TV viewing has no effect on attention span later in life.
  4. TV is still not understood by those in the medical profession.
    a

So, if we’re looking to select the LEAST WRONG answer choice, we need to first eliminate the answer choices that have something wrong with them. Notice that answer choice (A) brings in information that is never discussed in the passage. While it is possible that these experts believe this, is there any support in the passage for this idea? None. It is always wrong when an answer choice makes an assertion that is not supported by the passage. Turning to answer choice (B), is there any reason for us to think that these experts believe TV shows created for young children is healthier? No! This is a completely made-up and unsupported idea. Made-up and unsupported ideas in an answer choice are always wrong. What about answer choice (C)? Is there anything wrong with it? Not that I see. It’s a very bland answer choice. There’s nothing really great about it either. But is there anything in tension with the passage? Is there anything that isn’t supported or represents a misunderstanding of the passage? Nope. Let’s take a look at the final answer choice. Is there any reason for us to think these experts believe those in the medical profession don’t understand TV? Nope. This is completely unfounded. The only time the medical profession is mentioned is in the last sentence AFTER these experts are discussed. This is clearly a suspicious answer choice.

Thus, when we take it all together, it’s easy to see that answer choice (C) is the LEAST WRONG answer choice and is correct even though there might not be much about it that we like.

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