Are you wondering how to review MCAT CARS effectively and how to improve your MCAT CARS score? So many students dread the Critical Analysis and Reasoning (CARS) section of the MCAT because they think that they can’t prepare for it, but the truth is that they just don’t know how to. It is especially dreadful for those who do not find reading comprehension their strongest suit.
Unlike in the other three sections, your success doesn’t rely on your own knowledge but instead, it is all about your critical reasoning skills and your ability to breakdown information. The MCAT is a hard test and you want to make sure you do everything you can to get the best MCAT score possible. This article will provide the MCAT CARS review strategies that you need to prepare for and ace the most dreaded section on the MCAT. Plus, we share the most failproof CARS strategy for slow readers!
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What Is The Purpose Of MCAT CARS?
In order to properly review MCAT CARS passages, you need to understand what exactly they are designed to test. While the other sections of the MCAT are designed to test your knowledge on specific topics, the CARS section is specially made to evaluate the critical thinking, reasoning and deduction skills that you will need to be successful in medical school and later on in your medical career. The thing that most people don’t realize is that we already use those skills on a regular basis. For example, when you were getting dressed this morning. You might have picked out a shirt and then analyzed the information you had to see if the shirt was appropriate. You probably thought about your plans for the day and the weather. Maybe after considering those factors, you opted to wear a different shirt instead. That is, you were using the same skillset that the MCAT CARS tests.
Even though we all use these skills to an extent every day, certain professions, including doctors, have to use them more often than others. As a physician, you constantly have to read complex clinical information, understand it, make decisions based on this data and explain your reasoning to other colleagues or patients. Critical reasoning is like a muscle - the more you exercise it, the stronger it is, and to ace the MCAT CARS, you need to be a strong critical thinker.
What makes CARS difficult is the fact that it is designed to test your comprehension and analytical skills by asking you to critically analyze relatively short passages that are not only complex but also contain sophisticated vocabulary. The section consists of nine passages with five to seven questions per passage for a total of fifty-three questions. To get an even better idea of what to expect, you can take a tour of the MCAT exam materials on the AAMC website where any format changes will be noted.
Now that you have a better idea of what this section of the MCATs actually is, let’s get into how to study for the MCAT and MCAT CARS specifically, including review strategies.
Interested in 5 easy steps to help you improve your MCAT CARS score? This infographic might help:
Step-by-Step Guide For How to Review MCAT CARS
Understand the question types
The MCAT CARS passages cover a variety of subjects. Half of them will be related to social sciences like psychology, sociology, or politics; the other half will be about the humanities, i.e., literature, philosophy, or ethics. You should expect to answer five to seven questions for every passage. These questions will fall into three main types of questions: Foundations of Comprehension, Reasoning Within the Text, and Reasoning Beyond the Text. Understanding the question type will help you figure out the best way to approach it. Here are a few examples for context:
Do not use any outside knowledge
There is no background knowledge required to score well on MCAT CARS. As evidenced in the examples above, most of the answers that you will be looking for will be in the passages that you read and the rest of the answers will require you to think critically about the information that you just read. You do not need to cram passage examples or different humanities concepts to improve your score. Reviewing passages and broadening your knowledge can definitely help you with the MCAT CARS strategy but what is even more important is to focus on building the right set of skills. If you know how to actively read a passage and break it down properly, you are more likely to answer the questions correctly even if the passage is about a topic completely unfamiliar to you.
It is also important to remember that the questions you are answering are about the passages and nothing else. If you start using outside knowledge to inform your answers, you might make things even more confusing. Simply focus on the passage in front of you and trust in the fact that the answers you need are already within that text.
Want to go over some MCAT CARS practice questions and expert answers together? This video is for you:
Learn the art of active reading
Active reading simply means reading with the aim to understand. Rather than skimming the text to understand the gist of it, active reading requires you to take the time to understand the main thesis of the text. When you’re reading your biology textbook, you are reading to gain new knowledge. When you are actively reading, you are reading with the same aim of understanding the new material but also, being able to engage critically with it. MCAT reading comprehension should be a skill you work to build as you prepare for the exam, as it will be important for all sections, including CARS. Here are a few tips that you can use to help you improve your active reading skills:
Right answers first, speed later
You get about ninety minutes to complete the CARS section - which means about ten minutes per passage. That’s not a lot of time considering the fact that you will need to answer five to seven questions for each passage. That said, giving the right answer to each question is more important than how fast you can answer it. You need to remember that the MCAT CARS is timed but your initial prep doesn’t need to be. We highly recommend focusing on learning how to answer the questions properly first and then working on MCAT timing.
We suggest that you tackle your MCAT CARS review questions in 3 steps:
- Identify the type of question. (Identify the category of question that it falls under and figure out where the answer is most likely to come from. Is it in the passage or will you need to apply the material from the passage to another concept?)
- Breakdown the passage. (What is the text about? What is the author's point of view on the topic? What arguments did they put forth to support their conclusion?)
- Try to answer the question before looking at the multiple-choice options. (You’ll likely find your answer phrased differently in the options.)
The more often you do this with different passages, the easier it will become, and you will find that your speed will improve too. Focus on building the right MCAT CARS strategies first. It is only when see that you are consistently answering more questions correctly that you should start thinking about timing yourself.
If you're worried about how to deal with a difficult MCAT CARS passage on the exam, check out this infographic:
Build your vocabulary
The CARS section is not designed to test vocabulary, but the passages often include sophisticated language, so we recommend learning some new words while you are doing your MCAT CARS review. One way to do this is by taking more humanities and social science classes. The passages that you will be reading will come from subjects in those disciplines so having an understanding of terms that are common in those fields can come in handy. Another way to improve your vocabulary is by reading. Yes, we’ve mentioned it before, but it really does make a big difference. Read classical novels, contemporary books, articles in the newspaper, an academic thesis, etc. Read everything that you can and look up any words that are unfamiliar. This is a sure way to improve your vocabulary.
Bonus Tips for Improving Your MCAT CARS Skills
Give Yourself Time
If you want to get a good MCAT score, getting ready takes time. Learning how to review MCAT CARS passages requires patience and practice. Most people need a minimum of 3-6 months to prepare. You might need less or more but either way, you need to make sure that you give yourself ample time to learn, practice, get help, and improve. As you take practice tests to see if you are improving, make sure to use our MCAT Scaled Score Calculator to see in what percentile you are scoring.
Take an MCAT Prep Course or Hire an MCAT Tutor
Many students hit a score plateau while preparing for MCAT CARS. Maybe you’ve studied as hard as you can but you just don’t see any improvement. Or maybe you just need some help applying some of the tips that you’ve been given. Investing in an MCAT tutor or an MCAT Prep Course can definitely be worth it. The right prep course will come with an instructor that knows this process well and who has access to resources that can be very useful to you.
Join a Book Club
Book clubs are all about reading and engaging with the material that you’ve read. This is a great way to read more books, especially those outside of your comfort zone. It’s also a great way to learn how to question different texts. Most book clubs have a series of questions that they will ask about the assigned book, thus allowing you to practice picking out key information from a text and thinking about it critically.
Many students go into the MCAT CARS section of the exam thinking that all will be well if they get easy passages and they will be doomed if they get difficult ones. That doesn’t need to be you. If you give yourself ample time to prepare using the tips and strategies that we outlined above, you are very likely to do well on the MCAT CARS. You can’t prepare for CARS in a way that will make you feel 100% secure. There is no way to know exactly what kind of passage you will get and what topics you need to read about beforehand, but the good news is that you do not need to know those things to be successful. If you read challenging texts, engage with the material that you read and practice answering questions using the tips above, you will be equipped to handle any type of passage.
1. What kind of passages should I expect?
You should expect nine relatively short passages. They tend to be about 500-600 words long. The specific topics will vary, but they will be related to social sciences like psychology, sociology, or politics, or the humanities, i.e., literature, philosophy, or ethics.
2. When should I start preparing for MCAT CARS?
As early as you possibly can. Most students will need at least 3 to 6 months to prepare for the MCATs in general, and CARS can be especially challenging. You can start preparing during your undergrad by taking more humanities and social classes as electives. The more practice you have, the better your critical reasoning skills will be.
3. How can I improve my MCAT CARS reading ability?
There are many ways to improve your comprehensive reading skills. First, you need to read as much as you can, and you need to do so actively. Read things that are not familiar to you, read aloud, and practice answering questions about the material you read. You might want to consider joining a book club or taking some literature classes because they are great places to practice these skills.
4. How important is the CARS section of the MCATs?
CARS is a section of the MCAT, so it is important for that reason alone. Beyond that, many schools look at the scores of this section because of its complexity and holism. For example, McMaster medical school considers the CARS score more than the overall MCAT score.
5. Is it actually possible to improve my score on the CARS section of the MCATs?
Yes, it is. Many students hit a score plateau while reviewing for the MCAT CARS because they are not improving their critical thinking skills. Practice is great, but practice alone will not get the job done. It’s important to increase your reading comprehension and analytical skills if you want to see improvement. You may also want to see if there is an MCAT prep course that could benefit you.
6. Is CARS like the reading section of the SATs?
The English section of the SAT is often compared to CARS but they are actually not very similar. This is a much longer exam with passages that are of a much more complex nature than anything you would have seen on the SAT. In other words, the SAT evaluates what you learned in high school, while CARS evaluates your analytical and critical thinking skills.
7. What previous knowledge do I need for MCAT CARS?
Applying outside knowledge to a CARS question can be counterproductive. Everything you need to answer the questions will be in the passage. You can also use the process of elimination to get rid of obviously wrong answers. Once you’ve done that, go back to the passage, read it actively, and your answer should be in there.
7. How hard is CARS?
It’s hard. How hard depends on how well prepared you are. It does have the lowest average score of all the MCAT sections, so it should not be taken lightly. That said, if you follow the guidelines that we’ve outlined in this article, you are well on your way to doing well on this dreaded section of the MCAT.
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