A simple and effective strategy for CARS

CARS MCAT

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of the MCAT can be challenging to tackle, and it’s hard to know how to approach it. But you CAN study and practice for it.

Structure of the CARS Section

The goal of CARS is to test your critical thinking and reasoning skills. Check out the breakdown below:

  • Timing: 90 minutes
  • Passages: 9 total, 500-600 words each
    • 50% humanities
      • Architecture 
      • Art 
      • Dance 
      • Ethics 
      • Literature 
      • Music 
      • Philosophy 
      • Popular Culture 
      • Religion 
      • Theater 
      • Studies of Diverse Cultures
    • 50% social sciences
      • Anthropology 
      • Archaeology 
      • Economics 
      • Education 
      • Geography 
      • History 
      • Linguistics 
      • Political Science 
      • Population Health 
      • Psychology 
      • Sociology 
      • Studies of Diverse Cultures2
  • Questions: 53 total, 5-7 questions per passage
    • 30% foundations of comprehension
    • 30% reasoning within the text
    • 40% reasoning beyond the text

 

From the structure alone, you’ll have 10 minutes per passage. So, you’ll need to pace yourself accordingly and use your time efficiently.

A simple CARS strategy for reading passages

CARS passages are notoriously long and tedious to read. Here’s a strategy to get the most out of them as you’re going through.

1. Before reading anything, scroll down and read the source of the passage.

The source of the passage is an easily overlooked piece that will contextualize the rest of the passage. Usually, it’ll have the author, title, and year. This will give you a sense of what to expect for the rest of the passage.

2. Visualize what you’re reading and read with excitement!

Hype yourself up for the topic. For the next 3-4 minutes, tell yourself that you’ve always wanted to learn about whatever the author is talking about.  This will help you focus and remember more things in the passage. It will also take the edge off some anxiety, because CARS can be stressful.

While you’re reading, highlight minimally. There are two approaches you can take here:

  1. Highlight 1-2 summarizing key words in each paragraph. This will help if you tend to struggle with pure passage content and comprehension.
  2. Highlight important transition words. Marking them really puts emphasis on the structure of the passage and will give you key insight to what the author thinks. This will help if you tend to struggle with reasoning questions.

For example, take “[Sentence 1]. However, [sentence 2]. Therefore, [sentence 3].” From this structure, we can see that the author believes sentence 3 is true because of reasons in sentence 2. It’s also implied that the author disagrees partially or fully with sentence 1.

3. When you’re done with the passage, before reading any questions, close your eyes and come up with 2 things: the main idea of the passage and the author’s tone.

Keep these short (just a couple of words). The main idea should be a succinct idea, like “trains are better than cars” rather than “trains vs. cars.” Tone can be captured in a simple positive, neutral, or negative. Jot these down on your notepad for reference as you go through questions.

This approach to reading passages will help you establish a solid framework to use as you answer questions. Focusing on the broad ideas and tones will make most questions more straightforward.

What To Do When You’re Stuck on a Question

In no particular order:

  • Reread the question in between answers. Remind yourself what you’re trying to answer.
  • Read the question along with the first word of all the answer choices. Remove any potential fluff that’s distracting you.
  • Rephrase the question and/or answers. Simplify complex phrases or words, but be careful not to change any meanings.
  • Remember that the answer is always in the passage. You don’t need and shouldn’t use any outside information.
  • Don't try to justify partially wrong answers. Right answers are always 100% correct. Some answers might be attractive, but strike them out if you see anything wrong.
  • Ask yourself: what would a 3rd grader pick? Don’t overthink or spend too much time on any single question. This is usually my last-ditch effort.

There is no one-size fits all strategy for CARS, but there are a plentitude of strategies and tips out there. Here, I’ve given you one simple strategy for you to try. I’d recommend using practice passages to test out what approaches naturally work for you. A tutor can help guide you more specifically. Once you find what’s best, it’s all just practice!

Jessica attended Middlebury College, where she majored in Neuroscience and graduated summa cum laude. After a gap year split between clinical work in interventional psychiatry and management consulting, she is now pursuing an MD at Duke.

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