The MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section tests your ability to reason and make sense of complex written materials. Students often find it difficult to get ready for this section of the exam. Firstly, you cannot simply review concepts and equations to prepare. Secondly, analytical and comprehensive skills are not easily trained - it takes years to hone them. In this blog, we will give you tips for how to ace your CARS section.
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The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) portion of the new Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) includes 53 questions related to nine passages, which are to be answered in 90 minutes or less. The scary thing about the CARS section (as opposed to other sections) is that there are no prerequisite courses that one can take to guarantee success on this section. In other words, disciplinary expertise is not required in order to do well on CARS. Therefore, more than any other section, preparing for CARS requires you to practice passage interpretation and answering questions over and over until you understand how the questions are put together, and what kinds of deductions you are expected to make.
CARS rewards active, engaged thinking and reasoning in the same way as the Verbal Reasoning (VR) section of the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). We recommend you adopt the following three planks to your preparation strategy.
Tip #1 - 1-2 Years From Testing: Course Selection
A confusing fallacy I hear a lot is that CARS skills are inborn, and not available for improvement. That’s crazy. Critical reasoning skills can certainly be improved and they can be improved in time for your MCAT test date. You just have to start by taking some good courses, most typically found in the departments of philosophy, political science, English and social sciences.
I took an informal logic and a writing course in my first year of university. I learned about composition of narratives and arguments. I got to practice putting together and taking apart premises of all forms. I got to critique the narrative and argument structures my classmates built. These two courses, in concert, made me a better thinker.
For example, have you ever heard of the argumentative tool ‘Begging the question?’ Did you know that it doesn’t actually mean ‘raise the question?’
Here is an example of a Begging the Question fallacy:
The reason everyone wants to see the next Hunger Games movie is because it’s the hottest movie of the season!
Here, the proposition (the thing you want to prove) is also used as a premise (a piece of proof) or assumption (a parameter). The evidence for the claim that everyone wants to see the Hunger Games movie is that tickets are selling, which is just a rewording of the initial claim. If you are using a proposition as both a premise and a conclusion, then that premise can’t be more certain than the conclusion. Also, the argument doesn’t lead the reader from accepted ideas to new ideas, which is the entire point of an argument. It was by reading Jill LeBlanc’s Thinking Clearly: A Guide to Critical Reasoning in the first year of my undergraduate studies that I first came to really understand this. In fact, it was through that course that I first got to know what a premise is, what a proposition is and see them embedded in passages of writing. These are the essential component’s of an argument’s standard form. Appreciating standard form is critical reasoning 101 and I highly recommend reading around this topic using the resource book list above.
I also minored in Economics which required a totally different way of thinking, but it really allowed me to move quickly between alphanumeric formulas, topics in calculus, and /or narrative problem descriptions as they relate to the economy. Passages that relate to macroeconomics on the CARS section are going to be easier for people who have taken an introductory course in economics because the language of this particular social science is not intuitive. You will spend a lot of your energy translating the passage and have little left for interpretation and reasoning.
So plan your academic program to include these courses. They can stretch your mind and help you build different problem solving skills and a diverse vocabulary; all essential to acing the CARS section.
Tip #2 - 1 year – 6 Months From Testing: Reading Widely
Reading is the foundational skill for critical analysis and reasoning. Being able to read deeply, quickly, is how you will be able to unpack the passage and answer the questions in the allotted time.
You should read outside of your comfort zone. Most of you are pre-med students that read a lot of basic sciences. When you’re not reading basic sciences, you’re likely not reading at all. You are trying to catch up on laundry and go to the gym where you likely read trashy magazines. I am so sorry, but things will have to change for the MCAT.
When you’re reading, try not to just race to the end. Try to identify the assumptions of the writing, the arguments being made, and try to evaluate the strength of those arguments.
I have a fun list here of interesting but complex reads that serve as a starting point for a widened vernacular and broader way of knowing about the world:
- Drift, Rachel Maddow
- The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill
- Guns, Germs & Steel, Jared Diamond
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Friere
- The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Padma Viswanathan
- Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
- War & Peace, Leo Tolstoy
- Life of Galileo, Berthold Brecht
- The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
Critical Reasoning and Analysis
- A Rulebook for Arguments, Anthony Weston
- Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach, Douglas Walton
- Thinking Clearly: A Guide to Critical Reasoning, Jill LeBlanc
- Vanity Fair
- The Economist
- Foreign Policy
- The New England Journal of Medicine (Scan their Issues List for Open Access Articles: http://www.nejm.org/medical-index)
Tip #3 - 6 Months From Testing: Practice Tests
Take a practice CARS test about six months from the MCAT. Get your score. Figure out which questions and passages were most challenging for you. Find similar passages in the literature and read them for comprehension and try to answer similar kinds of questions about those passages as the ones you got wrong. Then set a new goal for your CARS score. Every month leading up to the MCAT, rewrite the CARS and watch yourself edge closer to your goal. About two months before your MCAT, if your CARS score isn’t where it needs to be, sign up for an MCAT Prep course. The teachers are people that have excelled at the CARS themselves so they understand how to get you from good to great, if you are willing to put in the practice. Don’t be your own enemy and believe that there is some indelible cap to your CARS score. There isn’t. Work harder and pay attention.
In addition to prep courses, there are a lot of good practice products out there for CARS. In fact, any LSAT prep book with practice questions is good for the CARS. They are available, used and cheap, on Amazon all the time. Then the , the body that administers the , has a Roadmap to Sociology and Psychology available for free on their website. This resource is really comprehensive and we recommend you review this document before setting up your study plan.
In summary, take courses that emphasize critical thinking, read broadly and do more practice questions than you think you can. The CARS score of your dreams awaits.
About the author:
Dr. Ashley Faye White is currently a rural medicine resident at McMaster University and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has an M.D. from McMaster medical school and has navigated her way into med school as a non-traditional applicant.
To your success,
Your friends at BeMo