The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section (CARS) is both the best and the worst section of the MCAT. The reason you must love it is that you aren’t required to store an inordinate number of CARS-related facts and figures in your head as you walk through those doors on test day. The downside of this fact is that you don’t get any free answers for memorizing the yield of ATP from the oxidation of one molecule of glucose.
Pre-med students are smart, and this can be their downfall in CARS. I’ve heard all kinds of excuses about why students will de-prioritize CARS in their test preparation.
- “I can read…”
- “There’s no way to get better.”
- “I’ll make up for it in the other sections.”
Let’s look at CARS misconceptions one at a time:
“I can read…”
Yes, I believe you. My guess is that you are excellent at reading, memorizing, and comprehending deeply complex material. That does not mean you understand how to analyze language to interpret tone, intent, and relevant assumptions. PLEASE do not fall into the ego trap of thinking you are too smart to improve upon your reasoning skills. Success in sciences does not equal success in literary analysis.
“There’s no way to get better.”
This is a common misconception. I often hear that somehow CARS is simply a test of innate ability and preparing for it will lead to marginal improvements at best. This is simply false. The CARS section is highly game-able, although there is no catch-all approach and strategies must be tailored to the student. I have seen students dramatically increase their CARS scores by simply using trial-and-error to find what suits them.
“I’ll make up for it in the other sections.”
This one also comes in the form of people’s natural desire to lean into their strengths. I get it, if you’re scoring a 128 in C/P and a 122 in CARS, it’s obvious which section is going to be more frustrating of those two. With that being said: LEAN INTO THE SECTIONS YOU SCORE LOW ON. Please do this, even if you take nothing else from this post. Medical schools want people that are mentally flexible and can think on their feet, for better or worse this is largely tested in CARS.
Takeaways & Tips:
- CARS requires a set of skills that can be developed with practice and strategy. It is not simply language comprehension but often complex reasoning that asks the reader to develop multiple mental models of perspective, intuit the intent of language choice, and make assumptions. You can and should improve your CARS score by working on this section throughout your study plan.
- Practice every day (or at least most days), even 30 minutes of CARS passages a day will make a huge difference come test day.
- CHANGE how you approach a passage. Don’t like highlighting? Try it. Feel weird to read questions before the passage? Try it. Scratch paper notes too distracting? Try it. The point here is not that all or any of these strategies is best, it’s that any new approach will feel weird, but that should not deter you from mixing it up as you find what works.
- Last thing, (and congratulations if you’ve made it this far) just do some reading. This will help with CARS, but also with your quality of life. Read fiction or something you actually enjoy, and be sure to set aside a little time, maybe at the end of every day to do that. If you’re as nerdy as I am, you might start with The Lord of The Rings trilogy, but go read something you love.