Why you should take the MCAT CARS seriously


 In my opening email to students, where I introduce myself as their tutor, I will frequently ask about their reading comprehension ability.  My exact words are “Think back to your SAT, ACT days and how you did on the verbal sections”.  The reason I do this is because verbal (or CARS, as the MCAT calls it, which stands for critical analysis and reasoning skills) is a good gauge for how uphill the battle will be against the exam.  

In my experience, the students who do the best on the MCAT are the ones who were already very strong verbal test takers.  This might seem very counterintuitive as many people still see the MCAT as a pure science test.  For the old test, this was at least somewhat true, since there were only 3 sections and 2 of them were science-oriented.

But the new test is very different.

While the new test still has 2 sections on science, the other 2 sections of the test are now heavily focused on reading comprehension.  The CARS section tests this, obviously, but so does the psychology and sociology section.  In fact, the psych section feels almost like a CARS section with additional graphs and ‘define this term’ (i.e. social constructionism, self-serving bias) questions.  Even in the 2 other science sections, you will be surprised by how much you can get just by reading the passage and question a little more carefully.  

The bottom line here is to not underestimate reading comprehension on the MCAT, as it permeates all sections and accounts for a good portion of the test.

A reason for why the new MCAT has amped up the reading comprehension, I think, is that they want future physicians to be not just good scientists but also good readers.  Science is ever-changing and (hopefully) ever-improving.  How can a physician keep up to date on these changes without reading and reading extensively?  What I mean is that physicians should not just be reading the New England Journal of Medicine and other scientific journals, but also books, magazines, essays, memoirs, stories, and poems.  So many medical schools remind their students that as physicians, they are not just treating the disease, but the patient as well.  Hence, understanding the human experience is also paramount to understanding human biology, and reading is one of the best ways to understand experiences outside of your own.  

So what does the CARS section look like?

Now that my plug for reading more in general is out of the way, let me introduce you to the structure and content of the current MCAT CARS.  

  • Structure
    • Number of questions: 53
    • Number of passages: 9
    • Number of questions per passage: 5-7
    • Total time: 90 min
  • Passage content
    • Humanities: 50%
    • Social Science: 50%
  • Question types:
    • Foundations of comprehension: 30%
    • Reasoning within the test: 30%
    • Reasoning beyond the test: 40%

On the old test, there were 7 passages and 60 minutes.  Many people struggled with timing because they had less than 10 minutes per passage, and it was hard to gauge whether you should spend 8 minutes here or 9 minutes there.

Now the test allows more time per passage.  And I think this was a very positive change.  I don’t hear as much grumbling about timing as I did before, and most if not all of my students finish on time.  Now, with 9 passages and 90 minutes, 10 minutes a passage is how you should consistently allot your time.  

The CARS Strategy

There are two strategies that I have found work well for students.  If you go online and read the student doctor forum, you will undoubtedly find hundreds more, but each of these strategies are just variations of two core strategies.  Usually, in my first session with students, I will present them with the two strategies, and ask them which one seems to fit them best as a reader and test taker.  Then we will practice with a few passages, and tailor one of the two strategies to work for them.  


Strategy 1:  Read the whole passage thoroughly, then answer the questions.

This is probably the oldest, simplest and most traditional strategy in the book.  This is probably also how you were taught, in your earliest years, to tackle a reading comprehension passage. It is probably the strategy that you are still using now because it is the most sensible and comforting.  I say comforting because this strategy allows the mind to go chronologically through the work, reading the passage (which, in most circumstances, is presented first) before doing the questions.

A person who uses this strategy generally splits the 10 minutes up like this:

Reading the passage: 4-5 minutes

Answering the questions: 5-6 minutes

This strategy does work, but it will only work if you are a certain type of reader, the type who reads carefully, meticulously, but not slowly, and yet is able to read retain everything he/she has read.  These readers can spend 5 minutes with a text and then recall every detail, main idea, inference, because they are thinking while reading, and they do not move onto the next sentence unless they understand the sentence before.  

Sometimes I call these people super readers.

Super readers don’t go back to the passage when answering questions.  They just answer them, one after the other, as if they are answering questions about themselves (what is your age, name, favorite color).  It is all very effortless.  Sometimes a question might give them pause, but they very rarely go back and reread parts of the passage.  They just know.  

Having tutored some of these super readers, I can tell you that they are very rare, and usually come from a humanities background or a childhood of extensive reading.  These super readers also read every day, maybe not a book, but articles, stories, or essays.  If you are a super reader, then this is your MCAT strategy.  Just treat each MCAT passage as you would a New York Times opinion article, and then answer the questions.  Very straightforward.  

Now, even if you aren’t one of these extremely rare super readers, don’t think that the MCAT CARS is unconquerable.  I was never a super reader myself.  When I was studying for the SATs, the ACTs, the CARS, the GMAT verbal section, and the GMAT verbal section, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the exact details that the question wanted me to recall.  I always had to go back and check.   

This made me realize that the ‘read and then answer questions’ strategy is not the best strategy for everyone.  

Strategy 2:  Read the questions first and then go back to the passage to look for the answers

I am a die-hard skimmer.  My reading strategy has always been to skim until something interesting comes up, and then read.  Pathologically, I think this comes from my dislike of wasting time, and also from having to read hundreds of scientific articles.  

Currently, I am doing a PhD in cancer epidemiology.  As an undergraduate, I studied chemistry and did a lot of lab work.  When I wasn’t reading books for school, I was reading scientific articles for results and experimental procedures.  I got very good at the skim-and-hone technique, whereby I would tell myself that I was looking for something (say a stepwise method for the regression), and then scan the article until I found the keywords like “regression”, “stepwise”, “methods” before reading carefully.  Essentially, I was able to get my mind to do a ‘control-find’.

This strategy worked for me on the MCAT.  When I went to the questions first and read them carefully (as well as the answer choices), I went back to the passage and actively looked for the answer.  This strategy was also more ‘fun’ for me, if the MCAT can be fun, because I was using my time wisely and hunting for the answer (like a game).

Here is the sequence of events that goes through my head when I start an MCAT  passage:

  1. Read the first question along with all the answers.  
  2. Categorize the question into “main idea”, “specific detail”, or “inference”
  3. Skim the passage, focusing on the first and last paragraphs, as well as the structure of the passage (i.e where does the author put in background information, where does he/she make an argument, where does he/she critique another person’s argument)
  4. Go back to the question.  
    1. If question is a main idea, answer it based on what the author emphasized in the passage, his/her argument, which can usually be found in the conclusion
    2. If the question is a specific detail, look for the specific detail in the passage using keywords from the question stem, and then find an answer that paraphrases what the passage said.
    3. If the question is an inference, you won’t find the answer in the passage. You can to think critically here and try to find an answer that matches both the author’s position and tone.  
  5. Repeat steps 1,2 and 4 with all other questions

Overall my 10-minute breakdown looks like this:

Skimming the passage: 2 minutes (after reading the first question)
Answering the questions: 8 minutes (includes returning to the passage to read)

For me and many of my students, this strategy was a 180-degree change from the first strategy.  Immediately, my students felt like they were reading more efficiently, with the greater purpose of finding the answer.  

So is it a win-win?  Not quite.

The caveat for strategy 2 is that it feels much less comfortable than strategy 1.   Some students say that they just can’t get over the feeling that they’re missing something if they don’t read the passage word-by-word, or if they don’t read the passage first.  Others have said that they feel lost and disoriented when they read the questions first.

I would be lying if I told you that with practice, this discomfort will pass.  It doesn’t.  Our brains have been wired to read before answering because we want to know the information before we are expected to do something with it.  But keep in the mind that the MCAT is a very special case of reading.  You have to learn how to maximize your time and your comprehension.  This means cutting out the fat and reading only what you need to answer the questions.  While this strategy may seem almost too lean for some people, it will cut down the time you spend on each passage and help you stay focused.

Remember that the goal of the MCAT CARS is to answer the questions correctly. While reading the passage carefully is part of that goal, you should not try to get bogged down by every detail of the passage from the get go unless you are called upon to do so by a question.  

Some other CARS tips

In addition to the two strategies I just presented, I supply my students with a constant stream of other, smaller tips.

  1. Read the question carefully, focusing on modifiers such as adjectives or adverbs

    Many times a student will get the question wrong because he/she missed words like “most”, “least” or “nearly”.  Modifiers are words that can sneak in there and change the meaning of a sentence, so make sure you are reading the questions and not skimming them.

  2. Read the answers carefully, focusing on modifiers such as adjectives or adverbs

    You will be surprised how often the answers guide you to the actual answer.  Sometimes the answers are actually pretty leading.  If 3 out of 4 of the questions come from one paragraph of the passage, you’ll have a good idea of where to look first.  Sometimes you have answers that are opposites of one another (and this is true for all sections of the MCAT, science included).  This is a great situation because now you have just narrowed your choices down to 2.  If one of the two answers is wrong, then the opposite answer has to be right

  3. Think about the author's argument and tone

    Most MCAT passages have a position that the author is trying to sell to you as a reader, and the questions are meant to test whether you got that position or not.  This is why the MCAT verbal is more similar to the LSAT than the SAT, where topics are more neutral and you are advised to pick the least extreme answer.  On the MCAT CARS, picking the least extreme answer is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.  If the passage is extremely argumentative and persuasive, you are much better off picking the extreme answer.  This is why knowing the position and the tone can help you eliminate answers that seem too strong or too weak.   

  4. When in doubt, read the conclusion again

    Many students have trouble knowing where to start with a question.  This is when I tell them to reread the conclusion again.  Usually, the author is trying to say something interesting there.  He/she might be changing his argument, augmenting it, giving you the final word, or going in a new direction.  If the conclusion doesn’t have what you’re looking for, read the paragraph before that.  In other words, read backward, until you get to something of use.  

  5. Look at your other answers and establish some sort of consistency

    I find that incorrect answers come in clusters.  A student might get zero wrong in one passage and then 3 wrong in another.  This suggests to me that the student is not looking at the questions for each passage as a set.  Make sure that your answers in each passage set do not contradict each other.  It doesn’t make sense for the author to believe X in question 1 and then believe Y in question 2, where Y is a counterpoint to X.  Also feel free to skip around within the questions for each passage.  Usually, the first question for each passage is a hard one because the AAMC likes to intimidate you.  Don’t fall for this trap.  If you feel like you’re getting intimidated, go to the second question but make sure that your answers are consistently jiving with the other answers you picked for the passage.


Getting a CARS tutor (and an MCAT tutor in general)

The MCAT is one of those tests where a tutor really comes in handy.   There is so much material tested that studying on your own can be daunting. Many students who try to end up pushing test studying back and back and back, until the test is a month away and then they go into panic mode.  

Tutors can will prevent this from happening because they will will have a plan.  They can also be someone to talk to when you reach the point that I call the ‘dark night of the soul’.  This is a point every MCAT-er reaches.  After months of studying, you might have a hard time keeping in perspective that you are actually improving and learning, and without that perspective, you may soon start to unravel from the duress of the test.

Nothing pushes a student faster to the ‘dark night of the soul’ than CARS, because CARS is hard to improve consistently.  Sometimes a student will show improvement for a few weeks, and then the scores will drop for no apparent reason.  Then after a few weeks, the scores might go back up.  Because the CARS section varies depending on the test prep company, it is very common to show improvement, say, with the Kaplan passages, and then suddenly drop to your pre-studying score when you switch to a Princeton Review test.  A tutor can help you organize your materials and give you the best materials out there, so that when you are practicing, you’re practicing with the good stuff.  Also a tutor is there to reinforce the strategies that have worked for you in the past.  He/she is there to review your practice tests and passages when you are sick of looking and studying from them.  He/she is there to encourage and advise you when you hit your low points.

Keep in mind that studying for the MCAT is both a physically, mentally, and emotionally draining experience.  It is truly a journey in all senses of the word, and having someone there, a mentor and a teacher, who can see the finish line, at times, better than you can, will be indispensable.