The best CARS strategy for slow readers comes down to strengthening your reading comprehension and your reading speed. You’ll need to improve both to ace this tough and dreaded section of the MCAT. But how fast is fast enough? In fact, the real answer is not too fast, not too slow. What’s important is to be able to read and understand a passage in about 4–5 minutes. How you get there is up to you. So, if you’re struggling with how to review for the MCAT CARS section as a slow reader, there is hope. You can learn strategies to excel on this part of the test. In this article, we’ll look at why the CARS section of the MCAT is tricky for slow readers, what might be affecting your reading comprehension, key CARS areas where slow readers struggle, what can help you ace this section, and the best strategies for training for the CARS section as a slow reader.
Disclaimer: MCAT is a registered trademark of AAMC. BeMo and AAMC do not endorse or affiliate with one another.
>>Want us to help you get accepted? Schedule a free strategy call here.<<
How Hard Is the CARS Section of the MCAT?
Students preparing for the MCAT will have heard about the dreaded Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of this difficult exam. The CARS section of the MCAT is known to be the hardest section of this test, with students scoring the lowest average scores in this section overall.
What makes the CARS section so difficult? Unlike the rest of the MCAT, CARS doesn’t just test you on your knowledge or ability to memorize and recall a lot of complex information. The CARS section, as its name implies, assesses your ability to:
- Read complex passages filled with high-level vocabulary
- Understand the key information contained in these passages
- Apply your critical thinking and reasoning skills to answer multiple choice questions
The CARS section contains 9 of these passages, with a total of 53 multiple choice questions to answer. Therefore, each passage includes about 5–6 questions.
It’s also important to know how the questions in the MCAT CARS section are broken down.
First, 60% of the questions you’ll be asked will require that you use your understanding of the passage or the reasoning within the text. More than half of the answers to the CARS section questions are found within the text passages themselves. The remaining 40% of the questions will ask you to apply your reasoning to a new scenario beyond the one in the text. Therefore, understanding the important information in the passage is crucial to correctly answering the question.
CARS is a significant portion of the MCAT and excelling on it requires a very different skillset than that required for the rest of the MCAT. Above all, it requires strong MCAT reading comprehension so that you can better understand the passages and provide the right answers to questions.
For many students, reading comprehension is a hard-won skill, and improving your reading comprehension is not something you can achieve in the same way you would study for any other test. For slow readers, the CARS section of the test can be the toughest part. You’re only given so much time to complete the test, and if you have trouble deciphering the complex information in the question passages, you may miss key details for answering correctly. If you’re slowed down in the CARS section, it could affect your performance on the rest of the test.
Fortunately, there are still ways to ace the MCAT – and the CARS section – even if you’re a slow reader. To start, it’s essential to identify what may be affecting your reading speed or comprehension – because you can’t overcome an obstacle if you’re not aware that it’s there.
Thinking differently about CARS, as an investment in your future, can help. Excelling in this section of the MCAT means learning new skills that will serve you well in both your studies and your career. Let’s put it this way: you will need these skills anyway, so use CARS as your opportunity to acquire them.
Factors Which May Affect Reading Speed and Comprehension
Many slow readers are used to thinking that their low reading comprehension skills or inability to easily understand a text means they will not be successful test takers. They may suffer from a lack of self-esteem or confidence in their ability as readers, which can itself affect their reading speed and comprehension. When you are anxious and focused on failure, you waste time that could be devoted to reading or attempting the questions.
But the CARS section of the MCAT doesn’t require you to be a speed reader. It mainly seeks to evaluate your reasoning and thinking skills. In fact, reading super-fast is not recommended for anyone taking CARS; rather, a faster medium speed will work well for average readers. So, while you do need to improve your reading speed, you can take on a manageable goal, even as a slow reader, and achieve it.
Consider some of the factors that might be affecting your reading ability or reading comprehension:
Need MCAT CARS practice? Check out our video on the hardest MCAT CARS passage analysis:
As you advance in your medical studies, reading complex texts is going to become more prominent, and you will be expected to process detailed information, such as prescriptions and procedures, quickly and accurately. Therefore, if you are not a strong reader, you will need to adopt strategies and learn skills that will serve you in your future career, not just in MCAT CARS. Knowing you have to ace this skill – and not just this test – may give you the conviction you need to make a plan.
Identifying Reading Deficits
Reading deficits are of two main types: basic reading problems and reading comprehension problems. Here's a few key areas where slow readers struggle:
Basic reading skills are those that are an essential prerequisite for students to be able to develop higher order reading skills like comprehension. If you have difficulty understanding the relationship between sounds, letters, and words, you may have basic reading problems.
You can answer this question for yourself by reading a challenging text out loud. Do you read it fluently? Or do you sometimes have to pause to re-read and understand the meaning of the words or sentence? If basic reading problems are afflicting you, before considering MCAT prep books and the rest, it’s time to assign yourself some corrective reading. By this we mean going back to a reading level that was easy or “fluent” for you and working up by degree of difficulty. An array of on- and offline book series and other resources are available for this purpose but getting some professional help with this will save you a lot of time and energy.
Once you are earnest about taking the MCAT and getting ready for CARS, it is best to start with a diagnostic test. A tutor can help here as well, as they can go over passages with you, ask you questions, and provide practice CARS tests for you to try. You can also find sample MCAT CARS questions and answers to practice with. Once you know what an MCAT CARS text passage might look like, it will seem less intimidating. You can then start to learn simple strategies to help improve your understanding of texts while practicing the act of reading new and complex information, distilling it, and analyzing it.
Best CARS Strategies for Slow Readers
Whether you struggle with reading comprehension, understanding a text, time management, focus, or vocabulary, there are proven strategies for you. Reading is the skill required for acing this section of the MCAT, so much of your MCAT CARS strategy as a slow reader will integrate reading practice.
Preparing for CARS is less like studying and more like training to compete in an athletic event; for example, you would not memorize a precise sequence of moves to use in a soccer game. Instead, you would learn the skills and strategies to initiate and respond to actions on the field. You need to have that same readiness and flexibility with CARS.
It's also essential to understand that preparing for CARS is distinct from taking the test itself. In fact, as we have already mentioned, many of the tools used by slow readers to achieve academic success cannot be transferred to the computerized testing environment.
Fortunately, at BeMo, our MCAT prep focuses on techniques that can be used before the test (study skills, learning strategies) and during the test (test-taking strategies). What all 3 have in common is that they can be learned: they are not dependent on the content with which you are presented on the test. Rather, you will acquire the skills that enable you to face any passage and series of questions, simply by following the pre-determined steps and strategies that you have confirmed work for you.
Study Skills and Learning Strategies
Success on the CARS section of the MCAT is 90% preparation. How do you learn best? In a quiet room? In a busy café? Through images? By listening? To create optimal learning conditions for your MCAT CARS prep, set yourself up somewhere you are comfortable and where you can read and use technology.
#1 Immersive reading
Once you have identified any obstacles to reading, begin by elevating your reading intake and appetite.
Working from your established level, start to increase your exposure to text. You might, for example, try following along with an audio book for a multimodal approach. This can enhance your understanding of the written word, and even if you only listen, the story will introduce new vocabulary and ways to express ideas. Similarly, you might select a book that has a film version to further your understanding of its meaning. The idea is to immerse yourself in reading that is fun and engaging before you start to focus on how to increase your MCAT reading comprehension. Use a screen reader for documents, websites, articles, reports, and other online publications to increase exposure to text throughout the course of your day.
#2 Reading with purpose
When you are reading a passage, after one or two sentences, pause and ask yourself what you’ve understood.
Does this sentence present a new argument or new topic in the text? Does it support a previous argument or provide evidence of a claim? Does it provide context to existing information, or does it add nothing new? Don’t linger on it – read another line or two. Then, ask yourself another question. Questioning yourself as you read will help you dissect complicated texts more efficiently, but it will also interject a rhythm to prevent you getting stuck on a particular sentence. After every few sentences, always ask a question. This is how you will make reading and understanding a text a single task that occurs simultaneously – in approximately 4 minutes.
#3 Peer mediated instructional approach
This is a form of instruction that involves two or more students working together to problem solve.
Slow readers may wish to consider companions for some of their reading activities, such as study groups, book clubs, or read aloud sessions. You might read a play, go to see it with a friend, and discuss it. Reading dates should be a significant part of your study schedule. Students who have trouble focusing or staying on task can benefit from a peer to hold them accountable, and social learning can break the isolation of studying, which can be hard on students’ mental health. Sometimes, discussing a complex passage with someone else can help you deepen or confirm your own understanding of it. Try breaking a passage down to its main theme or argument and explaining it to a friend or family member. If you can explain a passage in a way that it can be understood, you have a good grasp of the content.
#4 Corrective reading
This is a direct instruction remedial reading program designed to teach a wide range of reading skills to struggling readers via step-by-step lessons on decoding and comprehension.
You can access corrective reading through adult education programs, government organizations, volunteer services, or admissions consulting services. Commercial self-study materials are also available.
#5 Direct instruction
This is an explicit or systematic teaching approach that breaks down learning into steps and uses various modes, including lectures, tutorials, discussion, recitation, participatory learning, and observations.
Direct instruction can take place in a group or in a one-on-one setting. English improvement classes and MCAT CARS prep are two different forms of direct instruction.
While many study guides advise that students take notes or write their own summaries of the passages in the CARS section, this will be a distraction and waste valuable time for most slow readers.
Moreover, for slow readers, the emphasis should be on reading, not writing, to avoid putting up a secondary obstacle. Other study guides recommend, when working with practice paper tests, that students highlight the keywords or phrases in the text. Highlighting can be useful, but as it can’t be replicated in the exam environment, it shouldn’t become a crutch. Rather, test takers should first focus on understanding the passage and discerning the intent of the questions and then concentrate on formulating brief responses using keywords and ideas they have mentally identified in the text.
#7 Concept mapping
Concept maps target reading comprehension skills by creating visual organizers of elements in texts, to help readers organize new information and make meaningful connections between ideas using lines and arrows, for example, or by sorting into themes and categories.
This could be an effective rapid strategy to use when you first encounter a text as a slow reader. However, to avoid wasting time, make this a quick brainstorming activity to loosen up your impression of the passage. Then, get on to your reading as soon as possible.
#8 Time management
Remember that reading and understanding an MCAT CARS passage should take about 4–5 minutes, so why not aim for 4?
If you set your goals higher than the minimum, you’ll be sure not to miss the mark. Again, think of CARS prep as physical training.
Ultimately, once you’ve tried different approaches to practice tests, ideally with the guidance of an advisor, you’ll select the ones you find most helpful and stick to your strategy on test day.
#9 Use timed practice passages
Once you start working up to material at the CARS level, timed practice passages are a must, not only to improve your timing but so you’re practicing with as close a simulation as possible to the real MCAT.
Take note of how long it takes you to read a passage, read the questions, and decide on an answer. What part is taking you the longest to complete? Where can you save yourself time? Use your timed practice tests to help you identify and correct any issues.
Students often think they must have a fantastic vocabulary to do well on MCAT CARS, but that’s not really the case, and as a slow reader, you can waste valuable time trying to learn the dictionary.
You can’t predict which passages or words you’ll encounter when you take the test. The best strategies for acquiring vocabulary are to read texts at increasing levels of complexity, listen to programs or presentations that you find difficult to understand, and engage in in-depth discussions – on any topic. With greater exposure to all kinds of words, your brain will get better at matching a symbol – the word – with its meaning. More importantly, you will start to recognize how words slot into a context – remember, it is the context that you will need to analyze and understand in MCAT CARS, not the precise meaning of every word.
Previously, we stated that MCAT CARS is 90% preparation, which leaves only 10% for the test itself. How does that make any sense? Of course, 100% depends on your performance on the test, but once you sit down to write it, you have only your strategies and skills to rely on. For CARS, you should take the MCAT when you feel like you can confidently tackle any passage.
Before you start the CARS section, take a breather, rest your eyes, and reflect on how far you’ve come.
Remember the tools in your toolbox: all that corrective reading, practice, discussion with peers, expert tips… these don’t disappear just because you’re finally here in the exam. Just start reading; your new skills will kick in.
#2 Immerse yourself in the passage
If you implement the strategies described here and in your MCAT CARS prep sessions, you might still sit the MCAT as a “slow reader,” but you’ll be a skilled one.
Maybe reading will never be as easy as breathing for you, but you’ll know how to approach the task based on the muscle memory of skills built up over many hours of practice. Instead of being hyper vigilant about your timing and worrying whether you will understand the passages and questions, you will feel much more at ease as a reader.
#3 Read with purpose
Aim to get into the rhythm you practiced during your prep as quickly as possible.
Implement your strategy of interjecting a pause and a question after every couple of sentences to ask yourself what you’ve understood. Look at the provided questions and check whether they relate to any of the same questions you are asking. Engaging with the material right away will distract you from any anxiety or unimportant concerns. Remember, you’re aiming to read and understand the passage in 4 minutes.
#4 Remember your time management
Keep to the rhythm you established at the pinnacle of your preparation.
Resist the temptation to read faster than you are used to or jump ahead to the questions if that’s not what you planned. Similarly, don’t panic at the sight of a particularly difficult passage and suddenly slow your pace. Whatever your strategy is, stick to it. If you’re struggling with a question and the clock is ticking, mark the question you’re unsure about and come back to it. There is no point wasting time agonizing over a single answer.
Here are some different approaches to managing your time during MCAT CARS:
- Read the entire passage and answer the questions in the order they appear.
- Read only the first and last paragraphs before reading the questions.
- Read the questions before the passage.
- Skip one or two of the nine passages to save time.
- Try to identify the easiest passages and deal with them first.
Each of these approaches has its merits and potential pitfalls, but we would favor option 1, even if it seems the most conventional. Basically, all the other strategies require leaving out or skipping information somewhere, which seems antithetical to “comprehension.”
#5 Use your new vocabulary
Chances are, you’ll start reading a passage and right away spot words you’ve never seen before, but don’t worry.
You won’t need to know every unfamiliar word to answer the question. Focus on identifying the important information in the passage and noticing how the unfamiliar words fit in. See if you can guess their meaning by their context or relationship with other words. If a sentence still doesn’t make sense, move on. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with words you don’t recognize and spend precious time trying to decipher them.
#6 Eliminate wrong answers
Once you’ve read the question’s possible answers, try to eliminate one or two wrong answers based on your understanding of the question or after you’ve read through the passage.
This will help you narrow down the information in the text further because you’ll be discarding irrelevant or incorrect information from the wrong answer possibilities.
Want more MCAT CARS strategies? Watch this video!
Who Can Help You Ace CARS as a Slow Reader?
There are two key resources you can use to help you ace CARS as a slow reader. MCAT CARS tutors and MCAT CARS prep courses are both solid choices if you want professional, personalized, effective help in understanding and acing this section of the MCAT. Read on to learn more and consider which option is best for you.
MCAT CARS Tutors
There are myriad ways you can prepare for your MCAT and improve your MCAT CARS section score as a slow reader. Hiring an MCAT CARS tutor can be a great idea, as they will be able to address specific issues you may face in the test room and provide personalized, one-on-one help you won’t be able to get from MCAT prep books or MCAT prep courses. Tutors are specially trained to help students overcome obstacles such as being a slow reader or having low reading comprehension so that they can perform better on these important tests.
An MCAT CARS tutor may be the best choice for you if you’re a non-traditional medical school applicant, English is not your first language, you struggle with reading comprehension or passage-based questions, or you have a learning disability which makes the MCAT CARS section especially challenging. For these test takers, the personalized coaching of an MCAT tutor will be the best avenue to acing CARS.
MCAT tutors can also help you develop strategies for managing your time during the test, which is a crucial skill not only for this exam but for future exams you’ll face in medical school. Given how long the MCAT is, a tutor can work with you to manage the time you’re provided wisely when writing the CARS section.
MCAT CARS Prep Courses
MCAT CARS prep courses provide many of the same benefits as tutors, though they may be less personalized. Still, they can be a huge help to students who are slow readers or who otherwise struggle with the format of CARS. An MCAT prep course can teach you study strategies, provide practice tests, and guide you through practice CARS passages to help you increase your reading speed and comprehension. A prep course can also give you answer strategies to use to save yourself time without sacrificing accuracy.
Not sure an MCAT tutor is for you? Watch this video to find out:
While this is not an exhaustive list of CARS strategies for slow readers, they can all certainly benefit you as you study for the MCAT. The CARS section can be particularly intimidating to slow readers, but it can be conquered with good practice and effective strategy. Using our CARS strategies outlined above, or with the help of an MCAT CARS tutor or prep course, you can ace the CARS section of the MCAT, too. If you need a bit of extra help preparing for this challenging exam, check out BeMo’s MCAT prep and schedule a free consultation!
1. How can I improve my CARS reading comprehension?
The most effective way is to practice your reading skills with practice questions or practice tests. Read practice passages alone or with the help of an MCAT CARS tutor to develop your reading comprehension skills.
2. How can I improve my CARS reading speed?
There are a number of ways to increase your CARS reading speed, but if you’re a slow reader consider timing yourself on practice tests or build a habit of reading the questions and multiple-choice answers first to get an idea of what the passage will contain.
3. What is the MCAT CARS section?
The CARS section of the MCAT is generally considered the toughest part of the test for its complexity. It requires good reading comprehension, critical thinking and reasoning skills in order to master.
4. How do I study for CARS as a slow reader?
The best way is to use a private MCAT tutor who can help you identify the obstacles you face as a slow reader and the best strategies for overcoming them. Otherwise, make good use of practice tests and work on your reading comprehension skills.
5. Can I take the MCAT if I have learning disability?
Yes; if you qualify for MCAT accommodations you can apply for these for your test. For example, if you have a learning disability or other condition which prevents you from taking the test under normal circumstances.
6. How fast should I be reading the MCAT CARS passages?
You should be spending 10 minutes on average per question, with 4-5 minutes for reading the passage and the remaining for reading the question and answering.
7. How long is the MCAT CARS section?
The CARS section is comprised of 9 text passages and 53 multiple-choice questions. This equals out to about 5-7 questions per passage.
8. How hard is the MCAT CARS section for slow readers?
The CARS section of the MCAT can be difficult for slow readers because it necessitates good reading comprehension and you’re not given a lot of time to answer all the questions. However, you can still ace this section of the test by working on your reading comprehension and reading speed, using strategies to help you absorb, understand and use the information given in the passages.
Like our blog? Write for us! >>
Have a question? Ask our admissions experts below and we'll answer your questions!