Why Is This So Important?
If you’ve been preparing for the MCAT for more than a few weeks – whether you’re taking a course, reading prep books on your own, or working with a tutor – you’ve probably heard this piece of CARS advice: “Don’t choose an extreme answer!” But what makes a CARS answer extreme, and why are extreme answers so likely to be incorrect? Do situations exist where it is a good idea to choose an extreme option?
To answer these questions, we need to delve into the logic of CARS passages, questions, and answers, as well as the logic behind written language in general.
Imagine that a question asks the following:
“With which of these statements would the author most likely agree?”
Now, imagine that two of the answer choices are as shown below:
- The debate tactic described in the second paragraph is extremely flawed and is never the best persuasive method to use in a debate scenario.
- Participants in a debate may benefit from avoiding the persuasive strategy described in the second paragraph.
Of course, we obviously haven’t even seen the associated passage, so we have no clue about this author’s tone or beliefs. But even so, take a look at option A. This choice describes the tactic as “extremely flawed” and uses the word “never.” For option A to be correct, the author would need to have conveyed that no scenario exists in which this debate tactic would be the best method to use. This is unlikely to be the case unless our author is highly opinionated and speaks in very black-and-white language.
Even then – take a look at option B! This choice is far more moderate, saying only that debaters “may benefit from avoiding” the tactic in question. Even if the author did state an opinion similar to choice A, that would make choice B something he would agree with as well – participants would benefit from avoiding this debate strategy that he dislikes so strongly. Choice B is an easy statement to agree with in general, while choice A has so much extreme language that it is quite likely to contradict the author somewhere in the passage, even if we cannot find where.
The point is this: MCAT questions often include an extreme answer and a “less extreme version” that is making a similar point. Overwhelmingly often, the less extreme/more moderate choice will be the correct one, simply because people are more likely to agree with a broad, moderate statement than a specific, very strong one. Correct answers are often marked by words that signify moderation, like “may,” “might,” “could,” etc.
So, now that we understand why extreme answers tend to be poor choices, what words can we look for to spot them?
Extreme answers often include all-or-nothing terms, like “always,” “never,” or “none.” They may include strong comparison words, like “best” or “worst.” Keep a special eye out for less common extreme words, such as “prove” and “disprove.” (Remember, it’s very difficult to “prove” something correct, so an option that says the author “proved” a particular point is likely not a great choice.)
Finally, are there any cases where you do want to choose an extreme answer?
Absolutely! “Least” and “Not” questions are good examples; if the author is neutral and a question asks what he would “least” agree with, the answer could very well be an extreme statement. In other question types, extreme answers can be correct if the author is strongly opinionated, in particular if he mentioned the extreme point directly in the passage.
Of course, no strategies and tips can replace your very best resource – your own review of CARS passages. Practice spotting extreme answers, and each time you miss a question, compare the wrong answer that you chose with the correct one. With practice, you’ll start to get a feel for what characteristics make a wrong answer wrong, and your CARS journey will become that much easier.