mcat, critical analysis and reasoning, mcat tips

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning (CAR) portion of the new Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) includes 53 questions relating to nine passages, which are to be answered in 90 minutes or less. The scary thing about the CAR section (as opposed to other sections) is that there are no pre-requisite courses that one can study to guarantee success on the section. In other words, disciplinary expertise is not required in order to do well on CAR. Therefore, more than any other section, preparing for the CAR 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 going to be expected to make. 

CAR 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 CAR 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 CAR 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 CAR 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:

BOOKS

General

  • 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

MAGAZINES

  • 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)

WEBSITES

Tip #3 - 6 Months From Testing: Practice Tests

Studying for the CAR is actually just going through mounds and mounds of practice questions. There is no guiding document. It’s just try, and try, and try again. (Here is a Sample Practice MCAT CARS Question & Answer)

Take a practice CAR 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 CAR score. Every month leading up to the MCAT, rewrite the CAR and watch yourself edge closer to your goal. About two months before your MCAT, if your CAR score isn’t where it needs to be, sign up for an MCAT Prep course. The teachers are people that have excelled at the CAR 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 CAR 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 CAR. In fact, any LSAT prep book with practice questions is good for the CAR. They are available, used and cheap, on Amazon all the time. Then the AAMC, the body that administers the MCAT, 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 CAR score of your dreams awaits. 

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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.

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