Figuring out how to improve your MCAT CARS score is something that plagues most students throughout their preparation for the test, and especially if they’re planning to retake the MCAT. Unlike the other science-focused sections of the MCAT, the critical analysis and reasoning (CARS) section is rooted less in expansive factual content knowledge and almost entirely in reading skills, analysis, and methodology. What this means for your MCAT study schedule may seem vague and difficult at first, but by following the steps we outline in this blog, you can both improve your CARS score and head into the MCAT knowing you can weather whatever the test throws at you.
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What Makes CARS Different
It’s widely known that CARS differs greatly from the other 3 sections of the MCAT, but it’s crucial to fully understand the way this section works in order to successfully improve your performance on it. While each section of the MCAT features a number of passage-based questions, CARS is entirely passage-based. It consists of 53 questions split between 9 passages, with approximately 5 to 7 questions per passage.
As noted above, these questions don’t demand recall of facts or formulae; instead, they test your abilities in careful/active reading, critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. These skills are, of course, crucial to doing well in the other sections of the MCAT, but the point of CARS is to test these skills without recourse to preexistent knowledge. Reading a passage in the MCAT physics section well is vital to answering its related questions, but you may already know most or even all of the information required to answer correctly. CARS, on the other hand, utilizes unfamiliar passages and topics in order to test your ability to read and understand new information. In fact, you are discouraged from considering any external information when you confront a CARS passage. One of the main foci of CARS strategy, then, is to sharpen the skills necessary to thoroughly but efficiently process this new material, and to think on your feet in a high-stress environment well enough to answer questions based on this material only, with no outside/previous knowledge.
Want to learn simple strategies to increase your MCAT score significantly? Watch this video:
This may seem like a tall order, and indeed it is to an extent, but it doesn’t require years of planning or a graduate degree in literary analysis. Although an MCAT prep course may be helpful for many students when it comes to CARS, there are some tried-and-true strategies you can implement even in solo study that can yield greatly improved results in this challenging section.
5 Steps to Improving Your MCAT CARS Score
While the following list is not a complete explanation of what we teach in our consultations—which would take hundreds if not thousands of pages to fully elaborate—it captures the basics of how to approach CARS prep in a way that will greatly reduce the sense of the unexpected and help you increase your CARS score during your full MCAT diagnostic and practice tests. Additionally, we’ll also discuss some ways to sharpen your ability to think and act decisively when it comes to analyzing passages and narrowing down potential answers. We’ll begin with “long term” steps, i.e., strategies that require some time to implement, and then move into specific test-day tips.
1. Re-Enroll in Relevant Coursework
Before we launch into steps to take during the months leading up to your MCAT test date, it’s worth noting that CARS preparation in the broad sense begins long before you determine when to start studying for the MCAT. Analysis and comprehension skills aren’t built overnight, nor even over just a few weeks or months. Given the prevalence of English courses in most lists of medical school prerequisites, it’s worth considering taking some extra humanities and social sciences courses between now and your testing date if possible, which will not only help you develop skills useful for CARS but for a career in medicine overall. If you’ve given yourself enough time between discovering your CARS difficulties and your next test date, you should ideally be able to squeeze in at least 1 or more of these courses, especially since they’re largely intro-level and sometimes even pass/fail.
2. Get Comfortable With the Unfamiliar
The aspect of CARS that makes many students assume that it’s impossible to prepare for and improve upon is the novelty and complexity of its passages. The series of passages in your test could include anthropological papers, excerpts from Victorian fiction, and just about anything else you can think of. As such, how can you prepare if the material’s a mystery?
As we’ve said in just about every article on how to study for the MCAT, CARS is about how you read, not necessarily what you read. From the very outset of your study, getting comfortable with unfamiliar material is a must, and so we recommend compiling a list of books, magazines, and short articles that are mostly outside your comfort zone. If you’re a non-traditional applicant coming from the humanities, you may have greater familiarity with challenging non-science texts, but for many students heading to medical school, anything outside of the sciences may feel disorienting or frustratingly unusual.
For more discussion of CARS reading and answer strategies, check out our video on CARS practice passages!
The only way to combat this is to diversify your reading early on, and to do so in a way that doesn’t put pressure on you, at least initially. The best way to incorporate unfamiliar readings is in a controlled and well thought-out way throughout your months of prep. Cramming in ten novels and a dozen philosophical journals into a 1- or 2-week period solely dedicated to CARS prep is decidedly not the way to do this, as you’ll almost assuredly feel overwhelmed, and not have enough time and energy to dedicate to digesting and thinking about the material in a meaningful way. You need to be patient with yourself initially, while still sticking to your schedule. One novel or 2-3 articles per week is usually sufficient to build your ability to adapt to unfamiliar material and language.
Lastly, while you should indeed be patient, you should also push yourself to read genuinely challenging material. Just any old Stephen King novel won’t give you the best bang for your time-buck—instead, consider classic authors like Charles Dickens, Djuna Barnes, Jorge Luis Borges, or the Bronte sisters, who write with a different era’s dialect and vocabulary. Additionally, pop history may be too accessible to really stress your mental muscles, so consider the work of more academic-adjacent writers like Stephen Jay Gould, Barbara Tuchman, or Mary Douglas. Ultimately though, the level of challenge that best fits your needs and abilities is somewhat relative, so be wary of overreaching as well. If a book feels genuinely over your head, and you’re struggling to finish a single chapter in a session, you can always adjust to more accessible content and move on to more challenging reading with each week. The main goal here is to assemble a menu that’s diverse and workably challenging.
3. Improve Your Active Reading Strategies
This builds on and clarifies point 2. After you’ve mapped out your readings for your MCAT CARS prep, you’ll want to structure the way you’ll read these texts. One of the reasons you’re not power-reading your challenging materials is that you need to not only understand their idiosyncrasies but also develop a sense of how to read through them. That is, if you get tripped up by the often bloated sentence structure common to academic writing, it’ll be much harder to keep up the pace during your exam. Likewise, if you’re reading a Faulkner novel during your CARS prep, you can easily miss the layers of meaning undulating around beneath the sometimes chaotic stream-of-consciousness writing many of his books employ. In other words, you need to be able to dissect, analyze, and take away the main messages and arguments of what you are reading.
The best way to do this, and one of the main aspects of active reading, is to read your material aloud. This doesn’t require an audience at all, and in fact, it’s probably better to read aloud solely to yourself in most cases, as you can slow down, repeat phrases, and really chew up the text before moving on to another sentence or paragraph. Strive to identify main points or important details in your reading materials, such as clear argumentative sentences, symbolism, and other devices. This is often harder to accomplish with fiction, but if you’re reading a history, social science, or philosophy text, you can absolutely treat each page or chapter like a CARS passage, pausing to re-articulate a section’s main arguments and details, its author’s stance on the information they’ve articulated. On test day, being able to quickly isolate and articulate the main idea of a passage is incredibly important, and you need to be able to use it as you narrow down potential answers.
Another important aspect of active reading is to question and engage critically with the material. This doesn’t mean trying to articulate counterpoints to every argument made, but rather if something sounds weird, or an argument feels incomplete or flawed, examine and articulate why that’s the case. The passages on the CARS section are pulled largely from academic writers, but even the best of the bunch still make mistakes. These mistakes may be unnecessarily complicated language, unsupported arguments, or just making a flat-out wrong assertion, but in every case, you should strive to not gloss over sentences or ideas that feel awkward to read. Understanding why something doesn’t work or at least doesn’t seem to work is an important skill that will keep your confidence up on test day.
4. Quickly and Ruthlessly Narrow Your Answer Options
This carries for practice questions during your study phase as well as test day. As noted above, eliminating wrong or misleading answer options is the first thing you should do after reading a passage. It’s a lot easier to choose between 2 options than 4, and the AAMC doesn’t go out of its way to muddy the waters in this regard. That is, there will often be at least 1 if not 2 answers that just immediately stink of wrongness, and you should excise them from your attention immediately.
Many students make the mistake of sticking on a strange answer, going back into the passage to see how this or that option could possibly be true. We might call this “trick question disease,” and the prognosis is almost always unwittingly talking yourself into a wrong answer. The AAMC really is not trying to throw you off in CARS, and so if an answer seems truly out of left field, and doesn’t seem to make sense in context of the other answers, it’s almost assuredly wrong. Sure, there’s a slight chance that there’s one standout, unique answer and the other three incorrect options are cloaked in the same mistaken camouflage, but if this is the case, it will likely immediately be clear as the right answer, not something you need to unpack and process in order to feel sure of. CARS isn’t a gut-instinct section of the test, but you shouldn’t discount your intuition either. Slice away the garbage, and choose between the better or most likely answers before moving on in good time.
You’re going to need time to read your passages, so developing this ability to quickly narrow down your potential answers is crucial. It’s important to move patiently and unhurriedly throughout CARS, but you also need to beware of getting stuck in the mud too, not necessarily because you’ll run out of time but because, as it’s the second section of the test, you may deplete your mental energy before even hitting the exam’s halfway point. Lastly, on this note, as you complete your MCAT CARS practice questions and answers, begin timing yourself in later sessions to ensure you don’t spend more than 10 minutes on a given passage. Timing yourself is not necessary at the early stages of your MCAT CARS prep, as you should focus on choosing the correct answers, but as your skills grow, try speeding up and timing yourself during practice. Additionally, you’ll want to aim to get 90% of your questions correct by the time you take the actual MCAT.
5. Know Why the Correct Answer is Correct
Not only do you need to know why an answer is correct but, ideally, you should be able to articulate why in your own words. You obviously won’t have time or need to do this on test day, but this point kind of dovetails with the controlled application of intuition mentioned above. If an answer simply seems right but you can’t explain why, it may very well be incorrect. Throughout studying and certainly on the big day, you need to have a substantial sense of confidence in your answers to avoid waffling or doubt. Feeling that sudden pang of uncertainty and wanting to go back to a prior question is anathema to keeping up a confident pace on the CARS section, so give yourself an extra 10-15 seconds, when needed, to make sure you have an articulable sense of why you’ve chosen a given answer.
This also builds on the active reading strategies discussed above, and illustrates why they’re so fundamental to doing well on the test. A chimp can probably guess a correct answer or two on CARS, but you, as a thinking and reasoning human being, need to have a well-oiled machine in your brain that can analyze and select answers based on their content and your prior knowledge. Maintain your active reading throughout CARS, and don’t fall into half-reading passages and guessing out of panic or exhaustion, however hard to fight that second force may be.
See these 5 helpful steps in our infographic:
How to Improve MCAT CARS Score in a Week
Right off the bat, we want to emphasize that one week is not enough to start preparing for the CARS section. As we mention in many of our articles, your preparation for CARS will ideally start long before you decide to take this challenging test. If you get into the habit of reading and analyzing complex texts in high school and undergrad, you will be better prepared for the CARS section.
However, if you are looking to improve your MCAT CARS score by a few points a week before the test, there are some MCAT test prep strategies you can try implementing to achieve this goal.
Strategy #1: Make Sure You Know How to Identify the Question Types
This is essential for CARS success, so it’s worth repeating. If you have not nailed down this fundamental component of MCAT prep, then you need to spend some time the week before your test making sure you can identify the CARS question types:
Why is this so important? Because question types signal to you which approach you need to take to answer them correctly. For example, if you identify that you are facing a Foundations of Comprehension question, you will know that the answer is revealed somewhere within the passage. You are looking for information the passage already includes, such as the thesis, the main message, or the opinion of the author.
If you are facing a Reasoning Within the Text question type, you will know that the key to answering correctly can once again be found in the passage, such as supporting arguments, evidence to support the author’s opinions, opponents’ arguments, and so on.
And if you are facing a Reasoning Outside the Text question type, then you will know that you will need to apply your own critical thinking skills and author’s arguments to an external, maybe even hypothetical situation. This is why grasping Foundations of Comprehension and Reasoning Within the Text question types must be absorbed first, since you cannot reason outside the text without fully understanding the passage and its supporting arguments.
TIP: when you review the passage and its related questions, stick to reviewing and answering them in the order they are presented. Most often, Foundations of Comprehension questions are asked first. Answering them right away will help you identify the main message. Reasoning Within the Text questions are usually asked after Foundations of Comprehension, which gives you a chance to understand the arguments used in the passage. And Reasoning Outside the Text questions usually come last, by which time you understand the passage and can attribute the logic of the passage to external situations. While some passages and questions may stray away from this order, most stick to it.
Strategy #2: Practice Good Timing
MCAT timing is everything. And while speed is not something you need to worry about when you start your MCAT prep, when you’re a week away from your test date, you need to practice in a realistic, timed setting. And just as a reminder, here’re some quick info on MCAT CARS timing you should keep in mind:
You will have 90 minutes to complete the CARS section. It consists of 9 passages with 5 to 7 questions per passage, for a total of 53 questions. This means that you cannot spend more than 10 minutes per CARS passage. You can sometimes afford to take a little longer on a passage if you sped through a passage earlier in the CARS section but try not to take longer than 10 minutes per passage.
So what can you do to stick to your timing? One of the most important tips when it comes to speed is this: do not get bogged down by the minor details of the passage, such as unknown vocabulary or identifiers.
Firstly, vocabulary building should have been part of your MCAT CARS prep for a few months now, so a week before the exam is not the time to start pouring over the pages of an Oxford Press dictionary. Unknown words or phrases can be distracting but knowing them is not the key to answering your questions correctly. Focus on the narrative, the massage, and the arguments of the passages. A few words you do not know should not and will not affect whether you can find the correct answer.
Secondly, any identifiers you see in a passage are irrelevant. A key time-saving tip is to never let your mind wander, trying to remember what else you know about the passage’s topic. Don’t worry if your passage mentions places and people you don't know of. Disregard any identifier in the passage and focus on the thesis and supporting evidence. Any Reasoning Outside the Text question will not rely on your knowledge of identifiers, but only on your understanding of the passage and your critical thinking skills.
Strategy #3: Learn to Identify Clearly Wrong Questions
We have already mentioned this strategy in the article, but if you find yourself a week before your test unable to identify at least the wrong options, then you might want to rethink your test date. While selecting the correct answer is your goal, you should also be able to narrow down your choices within a few seconds after reading through the answer options.
Not only does this help with sticking to MCAT CARS timing, but it also gives you more chances to select the correct answer. The only strategy for improving this ability is, once again, to be able to understand what kind of question you are facing. If you understand what’s being asked of you, you will be able to remove the wrong answer options within a few seconds and be left with maybe 2-3 options that look like the most likely answer.
Strategy #4: Always Answer the Question Even if You Do Not Know the Answer
This is closely tied to the tip we mentioned above. If you can identify the totally wrong answers, then you will give yourself better chances of choosing the right one even if you cannot clearly identify which one is 100% correct. Let's say you have 5 answer options in front of you – this gives you only a 20% chance to choose the correct answer. If you narrow your answers down to 2, you will increase your chances to 50%! A much better opportunity to get the question right.
Additionally, remember that you are not penalized for guessing. You are not marked down for wrong answers, therefore do not leave any questions blank.
Strategy #5 Actively Read News Paper Articles on Your Way to Work/School
This strategy will help you work on your CARS prep outside of your home, as you continue to stick to your commitments outside of MCAT.
Remember our tips for active reading strategies we list earlier in this blog? Apply them to everything you read throughout the day. As you are riding the bus or subway to work or school, read the paper from front to end, analyzing each article. Ask yourself questions like "What is the thesis of this article?", "What is the supporting evidence the writer uses to argue his view?", and "What is the purpose of this article?". When you answer these questions, make sure to use your own words to articulate your responses.
Finally, remember that if you do not feel ready for your test, it might be wise to reschedule your MCAT test date.
Finally, while you need to take the MCAT and your preparation for it seriously, try to avoid taking it too seriously. By that we mean not panicking when something doesn’t make sense immediately, and to not allow a passage’s complexity to stifle your own critical thinking skills. You absolutely will not have confidence in your answers if you approach CARS feeling like the person speaking to you in a passage is some otherworldly intellectual titan you’re just trying to keep up with. It’s imperative, rather, to focus on the content and essential arguments in a passage, and not let stylistic flourishes and other forms of unfamiliarity intimidate you. You can’t prepare for CARS in a way that gives you perfect comfort with every conceivable subject or passage, but by following the steps above and reading as much as you can comfortably manage, you’ll be able to adapt and work through those aspects of the section that can’t be completely predicted.
Check out our video on 5 strategies for acing CARS:
1. How long is the CARS section?
CARS is comprised of 53 questions split between 9 passages, with 5-7 questions per passage.
2. Is CARS the hardest portion of the MCAT?
Because of its relative unpredictability and complexity, CARS is indeed often cited as the hardest section on the exam. This is also illustrated by CARS having the lowest average scores of each of the 4 sections of the test.
3. What is “active” reading and why is it so important for CARS?
Reading is a fundamentally passive activity in most cases, especially when we read fiction. We usually read the words in a way that creates a scene or imaginary experience, and let information roll through our awareness without thinking critically about it. Active reading strategies demand continuous analysis and interrogation of a text, whether its style, content, or underlying arguments. This is important for CARS because that’s exactly how you utilize critical analysis and reasoning in order to answer questions about a passage or text. Your mind and attention needs to stay “plugged in” throughout in order to notice important details and establish meaning.
4. How long will I have to complete the CARS section?
You’ll have 90 minutes to complete this section. This may sound like a lot for only 9 passages, but time can easily get away from you depending on how confident you are in your strategy. It’s therefore imperative to build speed and efficiency toward the end of your CARS prep, when you’re dedicating more time to practice questions and exams.
5. When should I start studying for CARS?
There are a few answers to this, but there are two main phases of CARS prep. The first, which begins even before you matriculate to your undergraduate school, is reading challenging material and developing your critical thinking skills. This is a lifelong process so in a sense this phase of prep begins far out from the exam, but can be sharpened and deepened as you take humanities and social science courses in your premed degree work. The second phase would begin once you start studying for the MCAT proper, and continue throughout this period, by working through a curated reading list and working on practice questions. So, to recap: in one sense you’ve already begun, but in another, CARS prep as such begins approximately 3-6 months ahead of your test date. Understanding the importance of both of these timelines is vital to maximizing your score though.
6. If I genuinely don’t know which answer is correct for a given question, how should I guess?
Always begin by excising any obviously incorrect answers, narrowing down the range of possibilities. There are often multiple “sort of” true answers that obfuscate or confuse, slightly, the genuinely correct response. If you’ve let your time get eaten away by an impasse like this, try to identify which response seems “most correct” and go with it. The intellect-heavy aspect of CARS makes for a quick deterioration in pacing and confidence if you get stuck on an answer set like this, so if you do find yourself needing to guess and move on, try to shake it off and not dwell on your uncertainty as you move on to the next question or passage.
7. What is a good score on the CARS section?
Our answer to any version of this question, regardless of section, is “the highest score you can get.” Average scores on CARS, as noted, are lower than those of other sections – 127 as of the 2019-2020 testing year. But the overall average is mostly meaningless and should not guide your studying whatsoever. Stick to a well-designed plan and do your best.
8. Is CARS viewed differently than the rest of the MCAT by medical schools?
By some, yes. McMaster medical school for instance only weighs an applicant’s CARS score when evaluating their application materials. The complexity and holism of the CARS section means that medical schools do generally see your score on this section as a reflection of your broader intellectual and analytical abilities, although this doesn’t mean a lower CARS score can’t be somewhat overshadowed by stellar performance on the rest of the exam. Basically, CARS is viewed as a fairly unique section of the MCAT because it is, although what a given program chooses to extrapolate from that varies quite a bit from school to school.
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