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 MCAT subjects, the critical analysis and reasoning (CARS) section is rooted entirely in reading skills, analysis, and methodology. 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 5 Steps to Improving Your MCAT CARS Score How to Improve MCAT CARS Score in a Week FAQs

What Makes CARS Different

CARS differs greatly from the other 3 sections of the MCAT, but it’s crucial to fully understand how this section works to successfully improve your performance on it. CARS consists of 53 questions split between 9 passages, with approximately 5 to 7 questions per passage.

CARS questions don’t demand recall of facts or formulae; instead, they test your abilities in active reading, critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. These skills are crucial to doing well on the entire MCAT, but the point of CARS is to test these skills with 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 is to think on your feet in a high-stress environment and answer questions based on this material only.

“CARS is a difficult section to predict … I had CARS days where I did very well and where I did very poorly. Learning the best strategies and moving quickly, as it can often be a section where you are pressed for time, will help you do well.” – Dr. Monica Taneja, MD, University of Maryland School of Medicine.


This may seem like a tall order, but it doesn’t require years of planning or a graduate degree in literary analysis. Although an MCAT CARS prep course or MCAT CARS tutor may be helpful for many students when it comes to acing CARS, there are some tried-and-true strategies you can implement even in MCAT self-prep that can yield greatly improved results in this challenging section. 

Want to learn simple strategies to increase your MCAT score significantly? Watch this video:

5 Steps to Improving Your MCAT CARS Score

The following MCAT CARS tips capture 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. We’ll also discuss ways to think and act decisively when it comes to analyzing passages and narrowing down potential answers. We’ll begin with “long term” study strategies and then move into specific test-day tips.

1. Enroll in Relevant Coursework

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. 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.

For Dr. Taneja, her undergrad background was well-suited to CARS prep, but many premeds have the opposite experience! Acing the MCAT therefore requires a well-rounded background of knowledge.

“Half the exam is not scientific so you do not need to be a science major to do well … For me, I was not a science major, so I knew the two science sections required my biggest focus. I could more easily do well in CARS/Psyc, but devoting a large portion to science study was important for me to pass those sections.”


2. Get Comfortable with the Unfamiliar

The series of passages in CARS 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. If you’re a non-traditional applicant coming from the humanities, you may have greater familiarity with challenging non-science texts, but for many premeds, anything outside of the sciences may feel disorienting or frustratingly unusual.

The only way to combat this is to diversify your reading early on. You need to be patient with yourself initially, while still sticking to your MCAT study schedule. One novel or 2-3 articles per week is usually sufficient to build your ability to adapt to unfamiliar material and language.

“I equate CARS to going to the gym–you can’t expect the day before a strength or endurance competition that you will suddenly perform well; it requires longevity in your training. I promised myself when I started preparing for the exam that every day (regardless of my commitments), I would read 1 CARs passage and try to struggle through it. It took several months to see this payoff, but slowly, my score started to bump up, and I started recognizing the patterns.” – Dr. Shaughnelene Smith, DO


Lastly, while you should indeed be patient, you should also push yourself to read genuinely challenging material. 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.

For more discussion of CARS reading and answer strategies, check out our video on CARS practice passages!

3. Use Active Reading Strategies

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 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.

One of the main aspects of active reading, and a good CARS strategy for slow readers, is to read your material aloud. 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. 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 do so as you narrow down potential answers.

“Summarizing each paragraph into my own words and using that to guide the main idea of the passage was most helpful. In terms of study habits, doing minimum 1 passage a day throughout the study period was most helpful as it helped me to become familiar with the type of questions, and concentration needed, to excel at CARS.” – Dr. Neel Mistry, MD, University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine.


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. 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

Eliminating wrong or misleading answer options is the first thing you should do after reading a CARS passage. It’s a lot easier to choose between 2 options than 4. 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.

“One of the best strategies for me was answering the question before reading the answer choices. This way I didn’t get swayed if my initial analysis had a choice, I almost always stuck with it.” – Dr. Monica Taneja, MD


CARS isn’t a gut-instinct section of the test, but you shouldn’t discount your intuition either. Choose between the better or most likely answers before moving on in good time. Additionally, remember that you are not penalized for guessing. You are not marked down for wrong answers, therefore do not leave any questions blank.

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.

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. If an answer simply seems right but you can’t explain why, it may very well be incorrect.

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. And remember, trust that your study strategies will pay off!

“Reading the passage and being able to answer all the associated questions within a limited time frame is most challenging … trust the effort you have put in and go in with confidence on test day.” – Dr. Neel Mistry, MD.


See these 5 helpful steps in our infographic:

How to Improve MCAT CARS Score in 1 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.

However, if you are looking to improve your MCAT CARS score by a few points a week before the test, there are some strategies you can try implementing to achieve this goal.

Strategy #1: Know How to Identify CARS Question Types

There are 3 different types of CARS questions:

  1. Foundations of Comprehension
  2. Reasoning Within the Text
  3. Reasoning Beyond the Text

Why is this so important to know? Because question types signal to you which approach you need to take to answer them correctly. Understanding what the questions are asking and being able to identify them can help you confidently choose the right answer.

“I felt while I could read all I wanted, my issue came with the questions. I felt that by practicing CARS questions everyday, I was able to improve my score over time.” – Dr. Noah Heichel, DO.


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.

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.

Strategy #2: Practice Good Timing

MCAT timing is everything. You will have 90 minutes to complete the CARS section, so you cannot spend more than 10 minutes per CARS passage.

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. 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. 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.

“Practice was perhaps the most important habit I had to instill [for CARS]. It was important I became accustomed to reading long passages and be able to answer the questions afterwards. With repetition, I became better and better at reading, understanding, and ultimately extracting relevant information in a short period of time.” – Dr. Tony Huynh, DO, Touro University Nevada


Strategy #3: Work on CARS Prep Outside of Study Hours

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.


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?

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 to answer questions about a passage or text. 

4. How long will I have to complete the CARS section?

You’ll have 90 minutes to complete this section. 

5. When should I start studying for CARS?

Start preparing for CARS as soon as you begin your MCAT prep! CARS study should be an integral part of your studying, especially if this is your weakest section. 

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. If you’re short on time, try to identify which response seems “most correct” and go with it. 

7. What is a good score on the CARS section?

Average scores on CARS tend to be lower than those of other MCAT sections. The mean MCAT CARS section score is 124, or 48th percentile. 

8. Is CARS viewed differently than the rest of the MCAT by medical schools?

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. But what a given program chooses to extrapolate from your CARS score varies quite a bit from school to school. McMaster medical school for instance only weighs an applicant’s CARS score when evaluating their application materials.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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