521+ MCAT: Techniques for Mastering CARS

Critical Analysis and Reading Section (CARS) is the most underrated, and most often ignored, section of the current MCAT. Too many students see a familiar format of reading passages and answering questions, something they’ve done since taking EOGs in elementary school, and think that this particular section of the MCAT will be a cake walk.

It’s not.

As most students find while completing practice exams or upon receiving their official score, CARS can be a sinkhole to another otherwise successful test-taking experience.

What are the specifics of CARS?

90 Minutes. 53 Questions. Nine separate passages.

While the majority of the MCAT is a passage-based exam, the writing in CARS is both longer and more complex in content.

Taken from the AAMC Website:

“Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills passages are relatively short, typically between 500 and 600 words, but they are complex, often thought-provoking pieces of writing with sophisticated vocabulary and, at times, intricate writing styles.”

Translation: don’t expect to be reading Harry Potter on test day. That being said, you will not be expected to read the equivalent of research papers or PhD dissertations. Instead, the writing is comparable to what you would find in an upper level Humanities course–English, Philosophy, Sociology, etc. For some, this is going to be new territory. If you are coming from a strictly STEM background, as most pre-medical students are, it becomes even more important to prepare for the passages presented in this section.

Do I need to study for CARS?

Yes, and no.While I hope I have made it clear by now that CARS is every bit as difficult as other sections of the MCAT, there isn’t much you can study for. The reason being that CARS is unique from the other sections of the test. According to the guidelines published by AAMC, the makers of the MCAT, none of the questions asked in the critical reading section will require outside knowledge from what is presented in the passages.

What this means: Unlike the Biological, Physical and Behavioral Sciences Sections, you won’t have to study/memorize/master any outside knowledge to do well on CARS. There will not be questions that require an understanding of the subject material outside of what is given in the text. Which is a good thing. Essay topics range from 1960’s political propaganda to ancient Greek philosophers.

What this Doesn’t Mean: Too often, I have found students interpret this message as ,”I should be able to find all of the answers within the passage.” That’s not the case. There will be content-based questions that specifically ask for you to recall details presented in the text–hence the critical reading aspect of what the section is testing. But more often, your questions will focus on the analytical side of reasoning. You will be asked to draw connections, deliberate main points and compare thematic elements. While all of this analysis can be done solely by what is given in the passage, that doesn’t mean you can always directly confirm your answer through the passage alone. More than any other section, Choose the Best Answer applies heavily in CARS.

Can’t I just ignore CARS and do really well on the rest of the MCAT?

The simple answer is no.

Especially if you want to score in the top percentile of test-takers.

Many students plan their studying for the MCAT around building their strengths to cover for their weaknesses. This is the best practice for establishing a mediocre or just-above-average MCAT score. I’ve pointed this out before, but to truly do well on the MCAT, you must do well on the individual sections. It’s also exponentially more difficult to make a perfect score (132) in a section, as opposed to an excellent score (129 – 130).

Let’s examine the scenario.

Sam is incredibly proficient in the science portions of the exam. He is a biochemistry major with a minor in cellular biology. He has been tutoring organic chemistry for years and consistently does well in the Biological and Physical Foundation sections of the exam. He receives his MCAT score as follows (percentiles are from the updated 2017 rankings):

Physical: 132 (100th)

CARS: 124 (49th)

Biological: 132 (100th)

Behavioral: 125 (55th)

Total Score: 513 (90th)

A 513 is not a bad score, but it would put you in the average to below-average of matriculant scores to medical school. Another thing: getting a 132 in any single subject is incredibly difficult. Having two 132s is even harder. Consider the difference between a 132 and a 131. To score a 132 you must be in the 100th percentile of all test takers, while a 131 is the 99th percentile. The difference between the two could mean only a handful of questions. That means one or two wrong answers on the MCAT could bump your total score down a point. You don’t want to play with those kind of odds.

Let’s instead consider a more well-rounded test-taker.

Jill is a biology major with a minor in political science. She attends a liberal arts college (no bias here) that promotes a well-rounded education for undergraduate students. Because of this, Jill has taken coursework related to english, psychology and sociology. While proficient at biology, she also evens her study efforts and focuses on the weakest points in her practice exams. The following is her score breakdown:

Physical: 129 (93rd)

CARS: 129 (95th)

Biological: 130 (97th)

Behavioral: 129 (92nd)

Total Score: 517 (96th)

Four points higher than the first example. You may be thinking, four points is not that big of deal. But Jill’s score is a more realistic breakdown to aim for. On top of that, a 517 would put her as an above average applicant for nearly every medical school outside of the Top 5 – 10 range. Depending upon the rest of her application, those four points could be the difference between an acceptance and having to reapply. While the MCAT is not the sole focus of applying to medical school, it is the one factor of your application you have the greatest control over in the least amount of time (i.e. it’s hard to change your GPA after several years of undergraduate work).

I reiterate the purpose of doing well on each section of the exam because CARS is by far the most likely to be overlooked. No one goes into the MCAT expecting to do poorly on a particular section of the test. But their preparation would lend itself otherwise. If your studying skews heavily to the biology and chemistry portions of the test, you are ignoring over 50% of the content you will be scored on. Keep that in mind. While you may not be consciously ignoring or preparing to do poorly on a section like CARS, the way you prepare for the MCAT might point to that alternative.

How should I plan to study for CARS?

I will admit, CARS is the most difficult section of the exam to prepare for in terms of strategy.

To begin, make sure that you have days devoted to CARS in your study schedule. If you are using a rotational plan, such as Monday is devoted to Chemistry, Tuesday to Physics, etc., make sure that you are devoting a full day to the CARS section as you would any other subject. CARS makes up 1/4th of your entire score and therefore deserves at least a comparable amount of attention as what you would be given to the Physical, Biological, or Behavioral section.

Study days should be devoted to working through passages. Take it slow, especially at first. Early study efforts are not about speed. You should be developing a process for systematically working through the passage and then answering the questions. More exposure to passages will not only improve your reading comprehension but will allow you to hone in on commonly tested but implicit factors, such as the theme of the passage or the argument that the author is constructing.

If possible, make sure that the majority of your passage reading is done on a computer. There are many websites with example passages. If all you have access to is a physical workbook–such as a part of a study bookset–then refrain from using highlighters or other underlining techniques. You will not have access to it on the real MCAT, so there is no reason to develop the habit while studying (there is a point-and-click highlighting function on the real exam, but this differs from being able to mark anywhere with a pen).

As you get closer to the test date (2 months out), start timing yourself on passages. While I think it is more important to focus on being thorough as you develop your critical reading acumen, at some point you will have to speed up the process. Don’t rely on crutches that take up an unrealistic amount of time. If you find yourself going back to the passage on every question, your chewing up minutes that you won’t have on the real test.

Once you get within the one month of the actual test, you should be aggressive about your timing. The section averages to ten minutes per passage (90 minutes, 9 passages). Some will be longer than others in terms of content, and each passage can have a variable number of questions. But your goal should be ten minutes per passage. Cut yourself off from reading or answering if you find yourself going over. This will help you develop that sixth-sense on test day for knowing when to move things along.

Intensity is every bit as important as a frequency in studying CARS. Some have suggested doing a few passages each day. Instead, I tell students to do at least nine passages every time they study for CARS. Nine is the number of passages you will be required to read on the test, so you need to build up the endurance for at least that number. This may lead to fewer days devoted to CARS overall, but the effect is much greater.

I am consistently scoring in the 124 -126 range. How can I improve my actual score?

The following are some tips I’ve found for students hitting a wall with their CARS score:

  1. Take a 30 – 45 second break between each passage. Focus on breathing and resting your mind during this short break. I know what some of you are thinking: that leaves less time for reading/answering questions and I’m already pressed for time. In the long run, clearing your mind between each section will make the process much easier overall. Each passage and question-set in CARS is unrelated to the previous, meaning you need to compartmentalize the passages in your mind. You don’t want something you read earlier to bleed over into your thinking process on a different passage.
  2. Take short notes. Many of the mainstream test-prep services have particular strategies for tackling the CARS section, the majority of which involve writing out a shorthand template while reading the passage, which you can later refer to while answering the questions. I find this process wastes a lot of time, distracts you from reading deeply into the passage and doesn’t particularly help when it comes to answering the questions. Instead, I prefer writing “gut-feeling notes.” After you answer enough CARS passages and take enough practice tests, you will develop a sense for the types of questions that will be asked of you. That means, if you are going to write anything at all, it should be short (5 word) key points, no more than 2-3 per passage. Most of the time, you will not even look back at the key points that you write. Instead, they serve as a way-point for your mind in thinking about the passage. It’s as if you are highlighting what was most important from the reading. Some examples include, “disagrees with Plato,” or “2nd paragraph time allusion.” They should be short and scribbled in a way that does not actually take your eyes or attention off of the reading.
  3. Refer to the passage as little as possible. This tip takes some explaining. After you read through the passage initially, your goal should be to refer to the passage as little as possible. There will be some questions that ask you to recall facts or statements you read earlier. But for all other questions, particularly those dealing with abstract concepts or implicit reasoning (which are the majority), unless you can pinpoint exactly in your mind where the answer was stated, refrain from looking back at the passage. For three reasons:
    1. It wastes time. Scanning the passage over and over again is the single greatest time sink you will have in CARS.
    2. It promotes confusion. Your first reading of the passage should provide a serviceable “snapshot” of the writing that you can then use to answer questions. Anything less, and you are reading too quickly or superficially. However, the more times you refer to the passage, the less likely you will understand the implicit nature of the passage. The reason being is that you are reading things out of context, either by skimming or targeting particular sentences. This will lead to greater confusion and a weakened grasp of the passage as a whole that will make it more difficult to answer the analytical questions being asked.
    3. More than likely, what you are looking for isn’t there. Most students, when faced with a question they are unsure of, immediately return to scanning the passage in an attempt to find the answer. While outside knowledge is not required for CARS, most of the questions will not be asking for answers that can be found directly in the passage. Therefore, repeatedly reading/skimming the passage will not improve your chance of reasoning the correct answer. Instead, you are choosing the best answer. “Best” selection comes from being able to reason and analyze what you have read, not from desperately searching for an answer. In all, returning to the passage often is a primary source of wasted time and creates a sense of desperation in the test-taker when they are unable to find what they are looking for.
  4. Read More. For some, this will be a non issue. For others, pick up a damn book. The key to CARS, and the MCAT in general, is critical reading skills. If you aren’t reading often, you aren’t developing yourself into a better reader. I can understand if the last thing you want to do after a day of class and studying for the MCAT is to read. So do it right before bed. Or first thing in the morning. Find a time that works for you and aim for at least 20 – 30 minutes a day. Any subject. Any genre. Just read.

About Mike LaVere

Student, author and aspiring surgeon. Former bar bouncer and meat butcher. Mike LaVere graduated from a top university with a degree in English and Creative Writing. After spending several years working in healthcare as a surgical technician and EMT, Mike returned to college to obtain a post-baccalaureate degree in Biochemistry before applying to medical school. In addition to providing help for new writers and pre-medical students, Mike writes about the current state of healthcare and how it can be improved. His mission in life is to improve the quality of patient care around the world by inspiring providers to be more passionate about their work and to take pride in caring for their patients.