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Course: MCAT > Unit 1

Lesson 1: Critical analysis and reasoning skills (CARS) practice questions

Foundations of comprehension

Master the art of tackling 'foundations of comprehension' questions on the MCAT. Learn to identify main ideas, interpret author's claims, understand specific words or phrases, and decode the author's attitude. Also, discover how to analyze passage structure and interpret rhetorical devices for a comprehensive understanding.
Visit us (http://www.khanacademy.org/science/healthcare-and-medicine) for health and medicine content or (http://www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/mcat) for MCAT related content. These videos do not provide medical advice and are for informational purposes only. The videos are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen in any Khan Academy video.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Joshua Iyalagha
    What's the difference between allegory and symbolism?
    (14 votes)
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    • leafers seed style avatar for user Dar Es Wissam
      Allegories are short stories meant to convey a moral or philosophical idea. They almost always use symbols. For instance, if I were to tell you a story about monkeys and the monkeys used bananas to buy things, then the bananas become a symbol for currency. Now, if my story is about greedy monkeys hoarding bananas causing a collapse of society and it is meant as a lesson for our own greed, then that is an allegory.
      (29 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user ♪♫  Viola  ♫♪
    Fellow MCAT takers:
    I realize the best way to practice CARS is through practicing passages. Other than the practice passages here on Khan Academy, what other resources are you using for practice questions?
    (15 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Ghazaleh EA
    I still do not understand what an allegory is. Could someone please explain it in simple terms? Thaks
    (3 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user ahoevelmann2020
    What is the purpose of figuring out a different meaning of the authors words?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Rachel
      It's really to understand what the author is saying. If I say I want to "give you my two cents," I guarantee I won't actually be giving you money. This is important in medicine, especially when diagnosing a patient who probably won't know any of the medical terms of their condition. You need to be able to take what someone is saying, and pull something meaningful out of it.
      (7 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user RuchirKodihalli
    Can someone explain what a "Point Counterpoint" is again ()? I didn't completely understand what it is, or how it differs from "Compare and Contrast".
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Bonnie Taylor
      I can see why this might be confusing. Perhaps think of Point/Counterpoint as a discussion between two people who are having a disagreement. For example, two roommates are considering getting a dog. One person might say “dogs are fun to play with outside” and the other might say “yes, but you have to take them for a walk every day.” Then the first one might say “That’s OK, I will do it every day!” But the second person will say “what if you are too busy with school?” These people are not necessarily comparing their views, but just responding to each other with their ideas of what it would be like to have a dog. That is different from compare/contrast, where two things are examined for similarities or differences. Perhaps the roommates want to decide to get either a cat or a dog. They might compare cats who are thought to be clean, with dogs who are thought to be dirty (contrast). Or maybe both kinds of pets might be playful (compare). You might use the compare/contrast strategy to have a discussion about which pet to buy, but that discussion would likely turn out to be a point/counterpoint discussion.
      (8 votes)
  • leafers tree style avatar for user scregor
    As far as test taking strategies go, is it recommended that we read the entire section, or should you read the questions first, and then try to answer them after having read corresponding parts of the text?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user sai.kollimarla
    Hi does this help for gamsat test in Australia? Or are you intending to make one for gamsat?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user lindseyokafor
    In the first example, where you brought up the main idea question. I was wondering how you knew you could be able to replace the word 'passage' with 'final paragraph' or '3rd paragraph'?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user s917397
    how old are you supposed to be to take the test
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Kit Minden
    Is there a highlighter tool?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hi, in this video I'm going to tell you about foundations of comprehension questions. These are one of three types of questions on the critical analysis and reasoning skills section of the MCAT. These questions are designed to test your basic understanding of the passage. These questions can take many forms, but many of these will be familiar to you from other tests. Some common questions will ask you about the main idea or theme of the passage, about the intended meaning of specific words or phrases, or why the author organized or wrote a passage in a specific way. Let's start with a quick example of a main idea question. Which of the following best captures the main goal of the passage? First of all, where it says, "the main goal," we could replace that phrase with the "key idea," "core theme," "central purpose." All of these are asking about the main idea of the passage. I could also replace "passage" with "final paragraph," or "third paragraph," and it's still the same type of question. All I want you to notice here is that the question wants you to be able to recognize a good summary or paraphrase in the main idea that the author is saying. Another similar type of question could ask you to identify an author's main claim or position. The author will often state this for you in a passage using a thesis statement that might start with words like, "I believe," or "It is clear that," or "My main point is." This usually comes in an early section. For example, take a look at this statement: "Every student deserves one year off to explore the world." This statement is important because it tells you what the author believes. It serves as the author's thesis statement and foreshadows what they are going to argue. By saying "deserves," the author is suggesting that every student who wants to take a year off to explore the world should be able to do so. This can also be seen as a claim that the author is making. A claim is a statement that gives you the author's position, point of view, or perspective on a topic. You could also be asked what conclusion the author is trying to draw. This is yet another way of asking you about the main point that the author is trying to make. When answering these questions, one great place to look is at the end of the passage to see if the author attempts to offer a clear conclusion as part of the closing section. Examples of these kinds of questions include, "Which of the following phrases most accurately "captures the author's theme?" "Based on the passage, the author most likely "believes that." "Which of the following sentences best represents "the author's conclusion?" Some questions will ask you to infer the author's attitude or perspective on a topic by considering their particular words or phrases. For example, if an author writes, "How many people died in the Vietnam War? "A novice might count up the bodies on the battlefield. "However, expert analysis shows us that deaths off "the battlefield far outnumber deaths on the battlefield." A question about this example might ask, "Which approach to assessing the death toll "in Vietnam does the author favor?" The author uses the word "novice," and "expert," to suggest that the expert way is better. Sometimes the words themselves come loaded with meaning. We call that connotative language. The author can reveal their perspective or attitude toward information by using loaded adjectives or adverbs, like "evil," "valuable," "unfortunately," or "rightly." Some questions may require that you use the absence or presence or such words to infer whether the author seems to be neutrally and objectively conveying factual information versus stating their opinion, or revealing a bias about the issue. Some questions will ask you to determine the intended meaning of specific words or phrases. Sometimes the author will use unfamiliar words or terms, and you'll need to figure out their meaning from the rest of the passage. Other times, the author will use familiar terms, and you'll need to decide the precise way they are being used. An example of this question would be, "What does the author "mean by the phrase "medical interventions"?" If in the passage, the author introduces the idea of medical interventions, and then gives you examples of helmets, seat belts, vaccines, talk therapy, massages, home remedies, yoga, medications, and surgeries, then you get the sense that the author's definition of medical intervention is really pretty broad. Instead, if the author talks about medical interventions and then just discusses different types of antibiotics, then that would be a more narrow definition of the term. For other foundation questions, you'll need to pay attention to the author's use of signal words, and to consider the passage structure. One example that you might use signal words or text structure to answer is, "What is the primary purpose of paragraph 3?" The author can include many kinds of signal words that you could use to help answer this question. These can include words and phrases like "importantly," "the only thing that matters is," or "for example." This can help you identify basic information like thesis statements, main ideas, and examples. Phrases like "by the way," or "in a few cases," can help signal a minor point, departure, or digression from the main theme. Phrases like "in addition to," "therefore," and "consequently," can help you follow an author's argument. Considering the structure of the passage can also help you in similar ways. For example, two common text structures, point counterpoint, and compare and contrast, can also help you to identify distinctions being made by the author. A point counterpoint text is almost like a discussion between two people. The author goes back and forth laying out points from two different sides. A compare and contrast text will generally first discuss the commonalities between two things, and then highlight the differences. Noticing when passages have these structures will help you know where to look to see how positions or concepts might differ. Phrases like, "on the other hand," "in contrast to," "but," or "however," are likely to appear in these kinds of texts, and they can help you to identify distinctions that the author's trying to make. An example of a question that you might use these ideas to answer is, "According to the author, what are "two perspectives on this issue?" Other common structures include listing of ideas, or a chronological structure, where the author walks you through events in the order they happened. In these cases, it's often helpful to look for words like, first, second, or third, that might help you to identify how many different points are being made; or words like "next," and "and then," that might help you follow the chain of events. Another common text structure is the cause effect structure, where the author first lays out a set of conditions or factors, and then discusses how effects or consequences result from them. In these passages, you should look for causal words like "because," or "due to." An example of a question that you might use these ideas to answer is, "What is the primary cause of the problem "as implied by the passage?" If there's a specific phrase that you are asked about, then it can be helpful to consider how the passage is organized, where that phrase appears, and that can give you a clue of what its purpose might be. Another final type of example is that you may be asked to interpret rhetorical devices. These are devices that the author uses as a way to convey their message. Rhetorical devices include the signal words discussed above like "however," and "on the other hand," but they also use things like repetition or parallelism. Repetition and parallelism are when words or sentence structures are repeated. These are examples of literary devices that may be used by the author to draw attention to particular phrases. The author may also use other literary devices such as metaphor, sarcasm, allegory, or symbolism. Metaphor is when the author compares one thing to another. "Jobs are prisons." Sarcasm is when the opposite of what is stated is meant. "Dental work is a joy." Allegory is when the author relates a narrative or story that's really meant to be understood as being about something else, with the characters being meant to personify abstract ideas. In all of these cases, the author is not expecting their words to be taken literally, and questions may ask you how the author is intending their words to be interpreted. An example of a question asking you about the author's use of a literary device is, "The author makes use of sarcasm in this passage for what purpose?" A closely related idea is that of symbolism. Symbolism is when the author uses an object or concept to represent something else. An author may describe an episode in which a character sees a beautiful flower that's fighting to grow through the cracks of a grimy city sidewalk. In this case, the author may mean that the character actually sees the flower, but may also be using the image to convey a message of beauty in unexpected places, which may be a theme for the work. An example of a question about the author's use of this device would be, "Which of the following is implied "by the use of imagery about the flower?" Similar to word choice, literary devices and figures of speech like metaphors can also reveal an author's position or attitude on a topic. They can color the author's message by using more or less pleasing examples. For example, comparing a political candidate to Robin Hood is likely to suggest a more positive view of the candidate than comparing the candidate to Hitler. An example of a question that asks you about this idea is, "It can be inferred from the author's tone that they believe "which of the following?" I hope this video has given you a good idea of what many questions in the foundations of comprehension category will ask you about. To better understand these types of questions, be sure to try some practice items, and check out the other videos in this section.