CARS: Proven Strategies for the MCAT’s Strangest Section

Posted by Connor on 10/11/17 6:43 PM

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As a premed student, you’re likely comfortable with science questions. Even if you don’t know all the material, you’ve had plenty of practice answering experimental and knowledge-based questions, and generally know how to approach them. That experience will serve you well in the bulk of the MCAT.

The section most likely to take you by surprise, however, is “Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.” The long passages are densely packed with esoteric information about obscure subjects. The questions, unlike the Verbal section of the SAT, require you to critically analyze (get it?) what you’ve just read. The answer choices can be so similar that the choice seems purely subjective. And, to top it off, time isn’t exactly on your side: you have 90 minutes to read 9 passages averaging 600 words each, and answer 53 questions about them.

I have heard people on the Internet say that “you can’t study for CARS.” They claim that some are born with the ability to see through the murky, convoluted passages. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I am living proof of that: I scored very poorly on my first few diagnostics, scoured the internet for advice while practicing for weeks, and came out on the other side with a 132. CARS may be daunting, but there are a variety of techniques that train your brain to adjust to it, as well as strategies to use while taking the section.

Step 1: Training

Like a muscle, your ability to read a CARS passage needs to be exercised.  Just like any sport, you need to train it daily to maximize its potential. For CARS, this means reading, and not Facebook posts or your Twitter feed.  Try to find material that really challenges you to understand it: works by philosophers or the magazine The Economist are good examples. Try to read something like that every day, for just 30 minutes, and afterwards challenge yourself to summarize the main arguments of the passage.

As you get more comfortable with this level of material, you’ll want to move onto reading sample CARS passages. If you have a tutor, you’ll have access to more than you’ll need. At the end of the day, CARS is about practice, practice, practice. The more you read, the more your reading speed and comprehension will increase. Doing at least one CARS passage a day in the month leading up to your test is a great way to ensure your muscle is in good shape.

As side note, when you read, try your best to make yourself care about what you’re reading. The number one way the CARS section will trick you is by trying to bore you to tears. No matter if you’re reading a historical account of the first congressional vote in Iowa or a summary of the rise of neo-expressionist painting, if you can get yourself invested, you will retain more information.

Step 2: Approaching the Passage 

Now that you’ve learned the “brawn” of tackling CARS passages, let’s talk about the “brain”, the strategies you can employ to pick out useful information. We can define “useful” information as that which conveys the main ideas of the passage, including the author’s tone, the thesis, and the evidence. Here are three techniques for doing just that.

The Highlighter

The MCAT software doesn’t feature many tools, but the highlighter makes up for that. It allows you to pull out key words, phrases and sentences that help construct a picture of the passage’s argument. In my experience, the highlighter is the most time-efficient tool available to help you digest the passage. But that begs the question: What do we highlight? As a rule of thumb, the best things to highlight are: 

  1. Numbers (Dates, quantities)
  2. Names (People, places, concepts)
  3. Arguments and theses

Like reading itself, highlighting is a skill that takes practice to improve. You may initially over-highlight or under-highlight the passage, but with time, you’ll hit the sweet spot. After that, every time you want to highlight something, your brain is telling you “this is important.” Remember, the goal here is to minimize re-reading of the passage, which is a major time drain.

The “Main Idea” List

This technique is more time consuming than the highlighter, but allows you to build a more helpful framework for understanding the passage. Here’s how it works: most passages have five or six paragraphs. As you start the passage, jot down a blank list with a number for each paragraph. When you finish a paragraph, write down its main idea. How does it contribute to the passage? By providing background? Supporting evidence? Dissenting opinions? Be sure to include relevant names and definitions.

Even though the passages are only 600 words on average, they can still be daunting to get through and understand in four minutes, assuming you leave five for the questions. Writing down the main idea ensures that, when you return to the passage after looking at the questions, you’re not just staring at a formidable block of text: instead, you have a concise and thorough outline of important information.

The Notebook

As the name suggests, this strategy involves taking notes on the passage as you read. These will go into more depth than the “Main Idea” list, and will hopefully capture information. The downside is that this is a major, major time commitment, and if you’re reading fast, you can’t guarantee that your notes will be complete. This is not a technique that I would personally recommend, but I’ve included it because I’ve spoken to many people who’ve had great success with it.

At the end of the day, no one strategy is supreme. We all have different learning styles, and that is especially true with respect to CARS. For me, the highlighter strategy gave me the most success by far. The key is to try them all repeatedly and see what works for you. 

Step 3: Approaching the Questions

The previous two steps outlined how to train your brain to quickly read and comprehend dense passages, and how to best sift the information to find what you will need to answer the questions. The questions themselves are another beast altogether. In this section, we’ll look at four major types of questions that you’re likely to see.

Connecting Concepts

These questions will take two or more concepts from the passage and ask you to relate them to one another. For example, a passage about Cognitive Behavior Therapy might include a paragraph about 19th Century behaviorists and their philosophy. A question might ask you, “How would the 19th Century behaviorists react to CBT?” Your highlighting or Main Idea list will be important here: use what you know about each concept to respond.

Purpose for the Passage

Questions like this are asking you what importance a certain phrase, sentence or paragraph has to the passage. A classic example is: “How does this sentence support the author’s argument?” You will need a strong understanding of the thesis of the passage to answer.

Affecting the Argument 

Many questions pose hypotheticals about how the thesis of the passage would be strengthened or weakened in light of new, outside information. For example, “How would the author’s argument be affected if new information X was discovered?” Like the previous two question types, here you are being challenged to form a relationship between the main ideas of the passage and another piece of information. This is another example of why, rather than a list of minutiae, a deep understanding of the central themes of the passage is most useful.

Applying to an Example

These questions will ask you to apply one of the main themes or concepts from the passage to an outside example, such as an experiment or piece of historical data. Once again, having a thorough comprehension of these main concepts is your best ally in this case.

While there are other types of questions I could list here, these four are guaranteed to show up multiple times in each of passage. As you’ve noticed, the theme has been to wrap your head around the most important and central ideas of the passage first and foremost. There will be some questions that require you to go back and hunt down specific details; ideally, you’ll have those highlighted or on your list.

Closing Thoughts and Final Hints

By now, you hopefully have a solid sense of how to approach the CARS section. I should reiterate that practice is the key to all of these strategies. The more your brain is confronted with CARS, the more it will become accustomed to its style. Practice needs to be consistent, as well: just like a muscle, it needs to be exercised on a regular basis in order to be maintained. Additional practice early on in your study cycle will allow you to experiment with different strategies for tackling the passage.

Due to the nature of CARS, I strongly recommend finding a tutor if you’re struggling with it. Whereas, in the science sections, you’ll be able to identify why your answer was right or wrong based on the material, the answers to CARS questions can be much more subjective. Having an outside expert explain an answer to you is often the best method of learning from a mistake. Tutors can also provide you with a great deal more practice passages and questions.

I want to include a few final tips here. First all, pace yourself. Keep an eye on the clock and try not to spend more than 8 minutes on each passage. If you find yourself spending more than 30 seconds on a single question, mark it and come back to it at the end. Try to leave yourself at least 5 minutes at the end of the section to go back to your marked questions. Remember, there’s no penalty for guessing, and you’ll likely be able to narrow the answer choices down to a 50/50 shot.

Secondly, I want to re-emphasize the importance of trying to care about what you’re reading. Find a way to make it interesting to you. If you’re bored, you’re guaranteed to absorb less information. It is in the interest of your score to engage, and I promise you, AMCAS makes the passages boring for exactly that reason.

Finally, relax! One of the biggest hurdles to overcome for the entire MCAT is your own nerves. You’ll be stressed out walking in on test day – everyone is. The key is to “go zen” and adopt the attitude you had while studying. Confidence plays a major role in test performance. Practice, and feeling comfortable with the section, is key to developing that confidence. The road to building it may be long, but with enough dedication, trust me – anyone can do it.

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