CARS Lesson 9 — The test writer's perspective
Choosing the passages
Let's imagine a day in the life of an MCAT test-writer. Each section of the MCAT has a team at AAMC, a group of master and apprentice test-writers. The job of putting out an MCAT involves a great deal of knowledge and experience. Some of the people there have decades of experience. They are smart and knowledgeable people. For any section, it's good to think of the MCAT test writers as teachers. Maybe this is cloyingly earnest, but they are trying to make you stronger. For the science sections, deep study of the passages and questions shows the scientific foundation you need to bring to medical school.
One very good perspective to internalize about the science - and psych soc - passages is that everything in a science passage on the MCAT is intended by the test-writers. This may seem obvious or unnecessary to say, but think about it anyway. The intention of a particular sentence within a science passage might not be to communicate directly. It may be an intentionally constructed challenge to intelligibility. A sentence might be cryptic, such as this simple example, protein X binding of ligand Z involves a negatively charged residue within the Y domain of protein Z. The author knows the residue is aspartate! If they were trying first and foremost to communicate with you, they would have identified the residue. It's easy to just read the sentence without seeing what they're up to or to think the challenge is just keeping X, Y and Z straight. What are they doing? You can see there is a question coming where the answer is aspartate or glutamate.
It's different with a CARS passage. The author of a CARS passage is third party and the passage was chosen unaltered. Every sentence of a CARS passage reflects the author's intention to communicate. If that's the case, then why do I stumble in the reading? The author is doing their best! The difficulty you run into may reflect the author's struggle. Help them! The ideas of the author may be difficult to articulate, or they may stumble sometimes in the writing, or you stumble in the reading. You and the author work together to make communication happen. Although it may be hard to remember this advice, never let stress take hold of you when you run into difficulty in a CARS passage. The difficulty is supposed to happen. Now you know one of the reasons AAMC chose the passage for the test. They ran into that part too!
With CARS passages, the test-writer intention isn't a subtext of the writing in the particular way it is in science passages. In the CARS section, the test-writer intention is strong in the choice of the passage. CARS passages present reading challenges that are generative of main idea, author's tone, thematic extension, specific inference and facts & information questions. Have you run into a paragraph where the author presents a set of details with a variety of distinguishing criteria? A facts & information question is coming from that. Was the author dismissive towards a counter-argument or enthusiastic about an idea? Here comes an author's tone question. Did you notice that you had to wait until the end of the passage to understand what the author really thinks? A main idea question is coming.
Writing the questions
For every CARS passage, there was some point in time in the past when it was only a passage on someone's desk at AAMC. The questions hadn't been written yet. Every now and then, put yourself in that place. Read a CARS passage as if you worked at AAMC and had to come up with the questions yourself. What is the creative, generative process connecting the passage to the questions? The test-writer brings everything they know about the structure of arguments, the different kinds of arguments, and the challenges they pose for reading comprehension. Insights will arise that will lead you to many of the questions before you reach them.
Writing CARS questions is a creative, generative process. The passage gives rise to the questions through a projection of the imagination. When you're writing CARS questions you're imagining how hard the reading might be for someone else based on your own experience. The starting point for a question is the question stem. Below is a collection of question stems modeled after the AAMC style.
Which of the following statements, if true, would most directly challenge the assertions of the author regarding the origins of the Oxus civilization?
What is the main idea of the passage?
According to the passage, the primary role of the university provost is to:
Suppose that a preservationist were creating a proposal to save an architectural landmark. The author of the passage would likely advise them to:
The passage suggests that the author believes teaching music appreciation at the high school level to be important because it:
Elsewhere, the author says that “A teacher cannot serve as a substitute parent, nor should they try to be a substitute parent.” This statement agrees most closely with the passage assertion that:
The author’s attitude toward the role of humanities in the education of scientists is most accurately described as:
Which of the following statements, if true, would most weaken the argument of proponents of social strain theory?
Assume that a trove of Egyptian artifacts were discovered at an Indus valley archeological site. How would this information, if true, affect the passage author’s argument?
Which of the following assertions is NOT clearly supported by sociological research provided by the passage author?
What role does the author’s statement “Grant, at least as President, has a poor historical reputation.” play in the passage?
The author uses the word freedom in the sense of:
What is the author’s response to the consensus explanation for the origin of writing in ancient Mesopotamia?
According to the passage, the auteur theory of criticism focuses primarily on which of the following aspects of a work of cinema?
Implicit in the passage is the assumption that:
For which of the following conclusions does the passage NOT offer direct evidence?
The author of the passage rejects the phenomenological approach in art criticism because:
The author of the passage would be most likely to agree with which of the following ideas?
Writing the answer choices
Understanding what the authors of the passages are trying to communicate is a precondition for doing well in CARS, but when you answer a question correctly, you also come to understand what the test-writer has been trying NOT to communicate. Which is the correct answer? Which are the incorrect answers? There are two ways to the answer. You see that the correct answer is sound, or you see that the other three are unsound. They are the three wrong paths. They invited you to follow them, but you were on to them! That wrong answer is ungrounded. That one only pretends to answer the question. That one's just nonsense. When you see the correct answer and know why it's correct and also see the wrong answers and know why they're not correct, you won that round and you move on. You see the intentions of the test-writer.
The whole thing is a silly game, but playing well seems to correlate with a person's general abilities in making written language intelligible and in finding the rational basis in argument. This is how the admissions process operationalizes the measurement of those abilities, so we have no choice but to take it seriously.
There was a time when there was only the passage on the desk at AAMC. Then there was a draft of the question stem. Then the test-writer wrote the correct answer first, before the wrong answers. In the test, you can get ahead of them right here, before a wrong answer anchors your thinking to its framework. If there's enough to go on, treat the question stem as a short answer question and answer it mentally to yourself before reading any answer choices. Act for a moment like you have the job of writing a correct answer. Give yourself a foothold of independent thinking before you start reading the answer choices. The correct answer may not look like yours, but you will be able to read the answer choices much more critically. Have your own thoughts before letting the test-writer think for you with their wrong answers.
After the test-writer composes the correct answer, they compose the wrong answers. They are good at this at AAMC, and they are proud of it. It takes real skill to master the art of being wrong but still sounding right. This is not a reliable key in any way, but let us share a secret. As a test-writer, it's incredibly tempting to put your most subtle wrong answers before the correct answer in the choices. This is a vice in multiple choice question writing. With a group as sophisticated as AAMC, you won't be able to make a fool-proof method out of this perspective. We're sharing this to give you insight into the psychology of the test-writer. If they could get away with it, the test-writer would always prefer the person taking the test not to see the correct answer too soon. They would always prefer you to wrestle with their best wrong answer first. They have a desire to fool you. Wrong answers are motivated. You can often sense it like a 'tell' in poker.
There will be at least a few questions where you find yourself down to two answer choices, and, unfortunately, they both look pretty good. In this situation, it helps to remember something fundamental about the test-writer's process. The test-writer has put something into one of those two answers that makes it unsound. They did this as an intentional step. Stop listening to what's right about each answer. You know that already. That's why you're stuck. Think about what's wrong. Go on the attack. There are many ways an answer may disqualify itself. The point is that when you go on the attack, the correct answer will be strangely impervious to attack. It will be like a smooth stone, but there is a weakness in the other one. You might not love the one that seems impervious to attack. You might have phrased it differently. That's what it means to be the least worse. You can eliminate the other one because now you see what the question-writer did.
Assignment: pretend you work at AAMC on the team constructing the CARS section of the exam. Some candidate passages have been selected. Now its time to write the questions. In one the sets of exercises below, the goal is to write a set of question stems. For the other other set, the goal is to create a correct answer and also a 'tricky' wrong answer to go with each of the question stems provided. There is no score for this. The goal is to get stronger at answering CARS questions through a better understanding of the job of the test-writer.