Passage mapping made easy: tips for the MCAT CARS section


One of the most dreaded sections of the MCAT is the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section. This is an especially tough section because it’s not based in facts, which makes it much harder to “study” for in a traditional fashion. It is also typically the section where students feel the most pressed for time, and relative to the science sections, it’s much harder to get away with answering questions without reading the passage.

Many MCAT prep resources (books, tutors, classes, etc.) suggest some form of passage mapping as a way to offer students a concrete, methodical approach to every CARS passage. However, passage mapping is a skill in itself, and it is one that many students may resist learning. Here, we’re going to talk about why passage mapping is SO important and how to write a strong passage map.

As a quick reminder, a passage map is: a systematic, organized way to take notes on MCAT passages in order to understand the passage as you read and save time while answering questions. It should contain enough information to remind you of the purpose and main topics of a passage without having to go back and read the piece. It’s a combination of the content you might gather if you skimmed the passage PLUS your own basic analysis of that content.

Let’s get started:

Why do I have to passage map?

1. Passage mapping actually SAVES time.

This is the biggest complaint students have about passage maps- that writing the passage map down takes extra time, and this is a LONG section where students often feel they can’t afford to add extra steps. It is true that passage mapping is an extra step and that it can take more time at first, but once you get good at it (this means practice!) and find a style that works for you, it will become a quick, painless process. More than that, having a passage map to refer back to will mean that you don’t have to re-read parts of the passage once you get to the questions, and you will be better able to predict correct answers. That means spending less time looking for and debating which answer choice is best!

2. Passage mapping is a methodical approach that you can apply to ANY passage.

Passage mapping can help answer subsequent questions, even if you're not very comfortable with the passage's subject matter. Many of the passages are designed around topics that aren’t common knowledge. They may not be very interesting to you, and they are likely to be unfamiliar. It’s impossible to “study” for the MCAT CARS section, but when you come to a passage that deals with something totally new to you, it’s helpful to have a strategy to fall back on that helps you break the passage down into smaller, more manageable parts. It can also be comforting on test day to know that you have a plan of attack and a place to begin. Finally, the specific skills used in passage mapping force you to think about what you’re reading in a way that is aligned with what MCAT questions will be asking.

3. Passage mapping keeps you focused.

Particularly in high-stress situations, it’s easy to read an entire paragraph before realizing that you didn’t internalize what you just read. Jotting down notes while you read forces you to pay attention and helps you remember what you read.

4. Passage mapping helps you understand the content.

By using the passage map to neatly summarize the content, you are effectively forcing yourself to process the information and its context.

5. Passage mapping helps you understand purpose.

For everything you read, you’ll want to think of the bigger picture-- how the different pieces of the passage fit together. A passage map helps you zoom out to a bird’s eye view of the piece and reminds you why the author wrote it in the first place. Was the author’s goal to convince you, the reader, of something? Was it to describe an event? To compare two theories? Knowing this context will help you make inferences and support/rebuke claims that are likely to be made in the questions about this passage.

How do I create a good passage map?

1. Write one short sentence to summarize each paragraph. 

Think like the author. Pretend you are writing the outline the author used to write the passage in the first place. After each paragraph, pause for a second and summarize that paragraph in one sentence. Save time by writing down the key parts of that sentence in shorthand that makes sense to you. Keep track of keywords and any words with which you’re not familiar.

2. Assign a verb to every passage.

This goes back to the idea of understanding the author’s purpose in writing the piece. Some examples may be: “to compare,” “to argue,” or “to describe.” Many MCAT questions have to do with the author’s intentions.  You need to have this context in mind when answering any of the following types of question stems

  1. Which of the following would the author most likely agree with?
  2. The purpose of this passage is to…
  3. If true, which statement would offer the strongest support for the author’s claim?
  4. If true, which statement would most strongly refute the author’s claim?

Often, you can get a lot of information from the first paragraph, where you will likely be able to parse out a clear thesis.

3. Summarize comparisons.

If the author refers to the theories of two psychologists, it is important to keep track of which theory belongs to which psychologist AND how those theories are different from each other. It is almost guaranteed that any passage whose assigned verb (in your passage map) is “to compare” will have a question that asks you about the differences between whatever is being compared, and that the answer choices will mix and match pieces of the passage into combinations that are incorrect in an attempt to throw you off. Contrast words like “however,” “on the other hand,” and “but” should draw your specific attention.

In addition, pay attention to whether the author seems to agree with one side over the other. In our psychology theories example, perhaps the first psychologist had one explanation for why people are generous, and then a second psychologist came along with another theory that the author paints as much more plausible. Pay attention to the tone used to describe each theory (maybe one is “naïve” or “astute” or represents an “early understanding”) to help you decide whether the author leans one way or another.

So, let’s do a quick passage map of this blog post to summarize what’s been discussed.

Passage:  Passage Mapping Made Easy: Tips for the MCAT CARS Section

Verb: to explain (purpose, components, benefits of passage mapping)

Intro: Passage mapping = important CARS strategy, includes summary + analysis

Follow these steps on the MCAT CARS section, and you’ll be sure to improve your score!

Emily holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MD from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She's currently completing training in gastroenterology at Mount Sinai Hospital.


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