When you’re talking about the MCAT, there’s one subsection whose name strikes fear into the hearts of science-oriented premeds: CARS. As someone who never took more than the bare minimum of required humanities classes and learned English as a second language, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Test prep companies often try to sell certain “methods” that will guarantee a higher CARS score. Write down summaries of each paragraph! Skip around and do the passages based on increasing order of difficulty! Highlight everything! Unfortunately, most of these methods are gimmicks that are created to market the brand and make companies stand out amongst their competitors rather than actually help you. Given my own success on the MCAT and the success of my students, I wanted to share my honest assessment on commonly circulated tips for the CARS section of the MCAT:
1. To highlight or not to highlight, that is the question.
I am a firm believer that highlighting is solely dependent on the individual. If you find that highlighting helps, great! If you find that highlighting distracts you and takes up too much time, there’s no problem with ditching a method that doesn’t work for you.
If you do choose to highlight, remember to stick to main ideas, key transition words (i.e. “But…”, “However…”, etc.), and unique words that are defined by the author.
2. Process of elimination is your best friend!
If there’s one thing you take away from this blog post, always make sure that your answer is supported by the passage. Oftentimes answers that are out-of-scope can seem attractive because they sound like logical assumptions or deductions. If you find yourself between two answers where one is supported by the passage but isn’t that attractive versus one that isn’t mentioned in the passage but seems attractive, the answer is likely the first choice. You must be able to defend your answer.
Be wary of answers that use extreme words like always, never, etc. This doesn’t mean that you should automatically eliminate them, but it’s usually uncommon to have an author who argues 100% for one side or the other.
Go into the passage without any assumptions or outside knowledge. You want to be able to take in the author’s opinion with a blank slate. There are most certainly times when outside knowledge CAN help you (i.e. I found knowledge from my philosophy classes somewhat helpful), but be careful about how you apply said knowledge.
- Should you write down summaries of each passage?
Summaries may be a good way to analyze passages when you first begin doing CARS passages. However, I would caution against investing too much time into this method unless you’re extremely solid with time, because you only have about 10 minutes per passage. Your overall focus when you’re reading a passage (whether you jot down notes or not) should be getting the main idea.
- Does the order of passages matter?
Similar to writing down summaries, rearranging the order of passages you do is another strategy that’s touted as a method that can boost your score. This is another strategy that I would be skeptical of—if you’re skimming the passages/questions and then assessing their difficulty, that can be a significant time sink in your precious allotted 90 minutes. If you want to maximize your score, you’ll eventually have to answer all 53 questions anyways.
Going through the exam, marking difficult questions, and then checking your answers is essentially the same thing as saving the harder passages/questions for last except much more time efficient (you’ll have done at least one pass through every question). The only caveat is that you may have to reread certain parts of the passage or remember the main argument.
- Time per passage?
It’s generally recommended that you spend on average 10 minutes per passage. Of course, this will vary from passage to passage and it will also depend on the difficulty/number of questions. If you’re finding more success by skimming the passage quickly (2-3 minutes) and then rereading specific sections to answer the questions (7-8 minutes), that’s completely valid. If you find yourself answering more questions correctly when you read the passage thoroughly (4-5 minutes) before answering questions (5-6 minutes), stick with that method. Ultimately, the way you spend those 10 minutes is entirely up to you.
- ESL woes…
It’s an unfortunate truth that CARS undoubtedly favors those who learned English as their native language or started reading from an early age. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to do well on this subsection. If you’re having trouble understanding certain vocabulary words, keep a record of those words and their definitions. If you encounter an unfamiliar term on the real deal, look at the surrounding context or assess the author’s tone.
In the end, CARS is not some insurmountable obstacle on the MCAT. With enough dedication, practice, and self-reflection, it’s wholly possible to do well. Don’t feel compelled to do CARS passages a certain way; the best method is one that works for you.