Page 1 Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Study Guide for the MCAT
How to Prepare for the MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Test
This test is all about understanding what you read, but it includes much more than that. You must understand it well because you will also need to evaluate the material, as it is, and with other components added.
Keep in mind, also, that this section of the MCAT 2015 is not limited to the scientific sphere of knowledge, but includes material from many other disciplines. You will not only be looking at the facts presented in reading complex passages, but assessing other components, such as the author’s purpose and style.
Be sure to review these important skills and concepts:
Foundations of Comprehension
In order to analyze and reason in a critical manner, you’ll need to have the skills involved in reading comprehension. All the information you need, including specialized terms and explanations, will be present in the passage. You will need to be able to gain meaning from reading the passage, as written. This will form the basis for the higher level comprehension skills that are also tested.
Author’s Main Point, Idea, or Thesis
The author’s main point will be discussed throughout the passage. This idea will be the common thread that runs throughout the text, and each supporting idea will be used to support the main idea. You can differentiate between the main point and the supporting ideas by noticing which point is brought up, or supported, throughout the text. You can be confident that if an idea is discussed consistently during the passage, it is the main idea. The supporting ideas will usually be discussed one time each because they are used as building blocks to create the foundation for the main idea.
Sometimes you may be asked to identify places where the author strays from the main idea. An example of this would be an author giving a contrasting argument to clarify their point. The author can strengthen their main idea by identifying a different idea.
As stated previously, supporting ideas are the building blocks that lay the foundation for the main topic. Usually in a passage, the main idea will be introduced first. Next, any number of supporting ideas will be discussed to support the thesis, with the main point restated throughout these ideas and once again at the end. Supporting ideas are usually listed or discussed one time each, and they will all support the main topic.
The author’s tone conveys how he or she feels about a particular idea or topic, and the descriptive words used by an author are a great way to understand their tone. Consider words like aroma and odor. Both words refer to how something smells, but the usage of aroma would suggest that the author enjoys the smell, whereas the usage of odor suggests the opposite. Additionally, the author’s tone can help you recognize the genre of the passage. A professional tone may indicate a scholarly article written to inform. A sarcastic tone, on the other hand, could indicate a satirical essay in which the author is using humor to persuade the reader to take some form of action.
Understanding the author’s purpose for writing specific portions of a passage will greatly help you in answering questions about the text. You may be asked to identify the author’s thesis statement. Usually present in the first paragraph, this statement gives the purpose for the entire passage. The thesis statement can also be called the main idea. Identifying the purpose of supporting ideas may be required as well, so be sure to focus on which points support the main idea and which ones offer a contrast to it. Reading example passages prior to the exam will be helpful, and make sure to pay attention to the different ideas as you read. Are they examples of the main point? Comparisons? Contradictions? Asking yourself deeper questions about the purpose of each idea that you read will help you understand the author’s reason for including them.
The authors may present several different arguments to best prove their point or support their main idea. Identifying the different arguments present in the text is essential for comprehensive reading. Do not assume that each supporting idea is an argument, as multiple ideas can be used to support the same argument. Each argument will differ from the others. After all, arguing multiple points that are similar to each other would be redundant. Most authors will use different types of arguments to prove their thesis in order to convey their point without any room for doubt.
Noticing the author’s use of rhetorical labels will help you to understand the purpose for different portions of the passage. Labels such as therefore, additionally, and for example tell the reader that the author is expounding on a previous idea or argument, rather than introducing a new one. Other labels can indicate a new argument, such as next, secondly, and furthermore. Another example of labels would be those used to indicate the conclusion of an argument or a passage. Examples of these labels include in conclusion and finally.
Perspective of Author
As you read a passage, notice what perspective it is written from. You may be asked questions regarding the author’s perspective of the text. Before you can glean the author’s perspective, you must establish what perspective the passage is written from, as not all texts are from the author’s point of view. Is the passage written strictly from the author’s perspective with no outside input? Or, perhaps the author uses their own perspective but also includes quotes from outside sources, meaning the source’s perspective is included in the passage as well. Some authors choose not to use their own perspective at all and instead present the basic facts gleaned from reputable sources—a common choice in an analysis.
Only after you have established that an author does include his or her own perspective in the passage can you begin to dissect their tone and opinion.
Perspective of Sources Cited
As mentioned previously, many authors choose to include the perspective of outside sources in their writing. This can be a great way to strengthen their thesis, as multiple sources will be a stronger argument. This is especially true if the outside sources are experts in the particular field being discussed, or if they have first-hand experience in it. As a reader, you can recognize when a perspective is from an outside source because the author will have to cite it. Statements from people besides the author should be presented in direct quotations.
Recognizing the structure of the text is essential for understanding its purpose and fully grasping the content. The author may choose from a variety of structures when writing their passage, and many genres of text tend to follow a specific structure. A chronological structure, for example, means that the author will arrange the events or ideas in order of time, and passages of a historical nature almost always follow this structure. A cause-and-effect structure, on the other hand, means that the author will discuss an issue or problem as well as the results of the issue. This structure is often used in the scientific genre or in persuasive writing. By showing the effects of a certain issue, the author can convince the reader to take some kind of action. Lists of the most common text structures can be found online and familiarizing yourself with them will help you understand the author’s purpose for a passage.
True reading comprehension always requires the reader to make inferences from the text. Inferences are ideas or knowledge that are not actually stated in the passage, but that the reader can logically conclude from the text. These inferences require that the reader use critical thinking and always question what he or she is reading. Remember, if something is directly stated in a passage, it is not an inference.
Here is an example of inference: “Diane realized that her brother, Steve, was not at home, and she noticed his soccer cleats were missing from the foyer.” Inference: Steve went to play soccer. (This was never directly stated but can be logically concluded.) Not an inference: Steve is not at home. (This was directly stated in the sentence and thus is not an inference.)
Of course, this is a very basic example of inference, but it should help you get a better idea of what is required to make inferences. As you read passages, constantly ask yourself questions about what certain ideas would logically infer.
Type of Conclusion
You may encounter questions regarding the ending of a specific passage. You must be able to understand how a passage was concluded. Did the author give a firm answer to a question posed in the passage, or was more research required before an answer could be supplied? Did the passage inform you of a true historical event, thus making the ending a firm closure with no room for conjecture? Or perhaps the author was comparing and contrasting two ideas, but the ending was left open to the reader’s own opinions and interpretations regarding which idea was superior. Simply stated, some passages will have a firm ending, while others will be open-ended. Reading comprehension, and correct answers for test questions, requires that you understand how a passage was concluded.
Reasoning Within the Passage
In addition to extracting particular information from the text, you will need to be able to put separate text features together to answer questions. This type of question will involve noticing similarities in text parts as well as making judgments about them. The key to correctly answering a question of this type is focusing entirely on material presented within the passage. Read the questions carefully. If a question says something like, “According to the author…”, base your answer choice solely on the information the author presents, and not on other things you might know. You may be asked to judge a passage on one of these criteria:
Logic or Plausibility
Some questions may require you to judge the author’s logic within the passage. Critically reading the authors’ statements and arguments to determine if they are plausible means that you must constantly question what you are reading. Do not take anything at face value, but question whether the authors have the knowledge and experience to make such statements. Just because the authors “said so” does not necessarily mean that their idea is logical or plausible. Are the authors considering all sides of an argument? Are they biased against certain ideas or people? That will often skew the logic of the reasoning within a passage.
Weighing the strength of an argument presented in the passage will require a critical examination of the evidence and information provided. Be sure to differentiate between irrelevant and important information given during the argument by asking yourself how each idea contributes to the argument. Outside evidence in the form of multiple sources and knowledgeable experts will strengthen an argument far more than the simple opinion of an author or layman. Even if the author is an expert in the field being discussed, it is always best to have multiple sources to strengthen an argument. Additionally, an author or source that treats an idea without objectivity is usually not the strongest source. Credible experts should present information in a clear and objective manner, not a rigid opinion layered with bias.
Reasonable Conclusions or Generalization
As stated before, just because the authors “said so” does not make it so. You need to be able to differentiate between a logical conclusion (based on evidence) and a generalization. When the authors present a conclusion for an argument or idea, revisit the evidence and information provided in the passage and ask yourself if the conclusion is reasonable. Can you logically conclude the same as the authors, based on what you have read? If not, the conclusion is most likely an unreliable generalization to serve the authors’ opinion.
Credible sources, be it the authors or an outside source, should be clearly recognized apart from unreliable sources. They will provide clear and objective information and they will draw conclusions based on facts, not biased opinions. If a source is appearing one-sided or immovable in its opinion, it is very possible that they are not the most reliable source for an argument.
When an author or a source holds an unfair prejudice against certain people or ideas, this is called bias. It is important to be able to distinguish a bias from an objective view to assess an argument’s strength, logic, and credibility. Examine the ways in which the author treats ideas presented in the text. Does the author examine multiple sides of an idea, or simply state one side as fact? Does the author lean toward one side right from the start, without providing proper evidence to support the idea? And perhaps the biggest sign of a bias, does the author use stereotypes or unfair generalizations? Usage of either is a huge warning sign for a biased point of view.
Just as you cannot accept everything an author says at face value, you also cannot assume that all of the stated information is important to an argument. Sometimes information will be presented in a way that appears to support an argument or idea, but further digging can reveal that the information is irrelevant. As you read a passage, ask yourself how each piece of new information is useful to the main point of the passage. Does it support an argument? Contrast it? Give an example? Or, when you really think critically, is it just irrelevant information that does not serve anything at all?
Faulty causality, also known as a logical fallacy, means asserting that one thing caused another simply because it occurred beforehand. An extremely simple example would be arguing that the dog barked before the owner woke up, and thus the owner must have awoken due to the bark. In reality, there are many reasons why the owner could have awoken, including an alarm clock, a bad dream, or simply by chance. The use of a faulty causality is often used as a convenient way to help further one side of an argument, even though there are many more possibilities to be taken into account. If you’ve ever watched a courtroom drama, you will have heard the term “circumstantial evidence”—meaning evidence that could conveniently be used to support one side but cannot be proven without inferring some aspects of the situation.
An author’s use of transitional phrases will often lead readers to believe in the evidence given, but further scrutiny may prove the evidence as being a faulty causality. For example, an author may discuss an idea, and then use the transitional phrase therefore prior to stating the results. As a reader, the word therefore will cause you to instinctively believe that the next part of the text is the logical result. For comprehensive reading, it is essential not to take these transitional phrases for granted. Just because the author uses words like therefore or thus, you must still examine the results to determine if they are conclusive or if there are other possible outcomes.
Significance of Information Given
Not all information within a passage will hold the same significance. A major part of reading comprehension is being able to differentiate between the text that is significant to the main idea and the text that is not, as well as understanding why certain information is significant. Does the given idea support or disprove an argument? Does it have any bearing at all on the discussion at hand? And if so, how? Continually question each piece of information as you read in order to clarify how it is significant to the author and the argument.
You may come across certain discrediting elements when reading a passage. Basically, these are things an author may say that should discredit them as a reliable source in your eyes. Examples of this would be a rigid stance on an argument without supplying proof. Still worse would be the use of demeaning labels or stereotypes—the use of which would reveal an extreme bias. Any author who includes such elements in his or her passage can hardly be trusted to present things in an objective manner.
Reasoning Beyond the Text
Some questions in this section may actually ask you to go beyond the text. You will know when to do this by how the question is worded and you need to read them very carefully. The question will tell you exactly how much extraneous material to apply when choosing your answer. This is still not license to apply everything you might know about the topic, merely what the question directs you to apply.
There are two ways you will be asked to use the text and new information:
Applying New Information to the Text (Incorporation)
This type of question will ask you to take additional information and add it to the information given in the passage. The task can be compared to a “what if” scenario. These are questions you might have to ask as you complete this type of question:
What Is the Effect?
What is the effect of the new information (stated in the exam question) on the “given” information? The given information is what you have already read in the passage. Having a thorough understanding of the author’s stance, as well as the evidence given within the passage, will allow you to correctly infer the effect of new information on the ideas within the passage. Based on what the authors have already said and your understanding of their point of view, you should be able to predict the effects of new information. Understanding the effect of new ideas will be critical when applying new information to the text.
Does the Passage Need to Change?
In the questions that require you to apply new information to the text, the original passage must be considered fluid and malleable. Sometimes the new information provided in a question will not fit with the given information in the passage. It may negate an argument or the thesis statement, and in cases like this you must be able to determine what would have to change. How can the passage be modified to accommodate the new information? Perhaps the stance of the author would have to change, or an argument may have to be reversed. Mentally test each answer option within the passage to see which one would best accommodate the new information.
What Is the Relationship of Text Information to Answer Options?
In order to choose the correct answer option, you must be able to pinpoint the relationship between the given passage and each answer. How do your choices relate to what you have already read? Perhaps one answer is an example that can accompany one of the arguments presented, or a piece of evidence that will prove the author’s point. Read each answer option carefully and determine what each one actually does for the passage. What purpose do they serve?
What Answer Option Changes the Passage the Least?
Other questions may ask you to select the answer option that changes the passage the least. This means you must take what you have already understood about the text (and the author) and select the answer that best fits. Which option is the most similar to the arguments and ideas already presented in the given text?
Applying Information from the Text to a New Situation (Application)
This is the opposite of the previous type of text application. You may use only information given in the passage in evaluating a different situation or context. Here are some examples of tasks you might encounter in these questions:
Identify Author’s Likely Response to a Situation
If you have thoroughly read the passage and applied the tools of critical thinking and reading comprehension, you should be able to understand the author’s stance and opinion. This understanding, and the use of inference, will allow you to predict an author’s likely response to any number of situations. When answering these types of questions, mentally test each answer and select the one that most closely aligns with the author’s viewpoints from the passage.
Choose Analogy for Information in Passage
You may be asked to choose the answer option that contains the best analogy for information given in the passage. These questions are not asking that you choose the answer that is most literally similar to the passage, but the one that is fundamentally close. The two ideas or pieces of information could be two completely different things, but they must have an analogous relationship.
Translate Figurative to Literal
Some passages will use figurative language not meant to be taken literally, but when reasoning beyond the text you might have to apply that language to a new context. In the new context, the figurative speech should be translated to be literal and taken seriously.
Apply Passage Relationships to New Context
As you read a passage, you should identify the relationships of the different ideas, arguments, and pieces of information. An example would be asking yourself how an idea relates to the thesis statement, or how a piece of evidence relates to a particular argument. When reasoning beyond the text, you must be able to apply those relationships into a new context. If the new situation is different than the given one from the passage, how does that change the relationships? Perhaps a piece of information is no longer valid as evidence for an argument, or perhaps the author’s whole point of view would have to change in a different context.
The more you read, the more adept you become at understanding literature and in probing content for hidden meaning and inferred information. Be sure your reading is wide and varied among many topics in the social sciences and humanities. Here are suggestions for areas of reading to practice:
From the Humanities
This type of passage present more ideas than facts. It will be necessary to analyze things like tone and word choice to glean full understanding of the author’s message.
Practice by reading excerpts from the following disciplines:
Architecture, Art, Dance, Ethics, Literature, Music, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Religion, Theater, Studies of Diverse Cultures
From Social Sciences
These are usually nonfiction passages that present many facts and are typically written in a more formal style.
They might include readings from these areas:
Anthropology, Archaeology, Economics, Education, Geography, History, Linguistics, Political Science, Population Health, Psychology, Sociology, Studies of Diverse Cultures