A simple approach to CARS questions

By Hugh S.

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section of the MCAT can be daunting for many STEM-minded examinees. While it's fair to say that CARS questions are challenging, it's unfair to say that they are unfair. With sentence structures like that last one, reading a CARS paragraph can be mind-numbing. I’m here to share one trick I used to cut through the brain fog and stay focused. It’s simple - look for the answer! 

While this strategy applies to other sections of the MCAT, “looking for the answer” is especially useful with dense, esoteric CARS passages. The strategy generally means that you first read the questions before you read the passage. Just click through the 5 or 6 questions and highlight what the stem is actually getting at. Some types of questions can be quite simple to answer if you know that you are trying to answer them before you even start working with the passage. For example, a question such as “What does the author use as evidence to support X claim” requires that you identify where in the text the author is discussing the claim and from there, you might just have to scan a few lines to figure out how the test writers rephrased text. 

1. Read each question and highlight the key action words

Take a glance through each question and highlight the important part of the question stem and briefly look through the possible answers. Remember – one of the answers must be right and all the rest must be wrong for one reason or another. 

2. Read the passage

Try this method with and without any other CARS strategies you use, such as writing the key message of each paragraph . As you’re working through the passage, keep in mind what matters – the answers! You know at this point what you need to look for: key phrases that are quoted directly in the questions, important themes, etc. Highlight what’s relevant to the questions as you go.

3. Revisit the questions and answer what you can

This step takes some knowing yourself. Get the low hanging fruit first, meaning answer the questions that are obvious based on steps 1 and 2. Hopefully you will have answered all but maybe 1 or 2 of the questions already. If anything is really stumping you, then determine if it’s worth spending more time on now or flagging and returning to later. This judgement call can take some practice, but when you are on a time crunch, this strategy saves you valuable seconds off of each question, especially the easy ones. 

Generally, I recommend learning about multiple test-taking strategies and trying them out on practice questions before the big day. Once you find what strategy works best for your brain, keeps you focused, and consistently aids you in answering correctly, stick with it and practice, practice, practice! CARS is challenging, but it is not impossible. 

Hugh graduated summa cum laude from Northeastern University, where he studied Biochemistry. During his time at NEU, he led RAISE, a chemistry and engineering student research group dedicated to tackling planetary health issues. He's now an MD Candidate at Harvard Medical School.


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