Having an MCAT CARS strategy can certainly alleviate a lot of stress in preparation for this challenging exam. Whether you work on this strategy on your own or with the help of an MCAT tutor, you must perfect your CARS performance in order to score well on the entire test.

As you probably already know, MCAT performance influences interview invite rates and medical school acceptance rates. You must have an effective approach to reading, understanding, and analyzing MCAT CARS passages to score high on this section of the MCAT.

Today’s blog will reveal the strategies from a 99th percentile scorer that will help you identify CARS question types, teach you how to actively read the passages, and outline a step-by-step strategy for choosing the correct answers. Finally, you will get to read a sample CARS passage, questions, and expert answers. These are the same strategies we teach our own students in our much sought-after unlimited MCAT prep program. Sit back and take lots of notes. Let's dive in!

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Purpose of CARS

The MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section tests your ability to reason and make sense of complex written materials. As a future physician, you must be able to comprehend large volumes of difficult clinical information and develop effective treatment plans while explaining the reasoning behind your decisions to others. The CARS section of the MCAT helps medical schools evaluate your potential to do this successfully.

CARS Structure

CARS is the second section of the MCAT. It consists of a total of 53 questions split between 9 passages with 5 to 7 questions per passage. You will have 90 minutes to complete this section, which means that you will have about 10 minutes per passage. 50% of the passages will cover humanities subjects like literature, philosophy, ethics, art, history, etc., while the other 50% of the passages will cover social sciences, including psychology, sociology, economics, and politics. Remember to visit the AAMC website for any MCAT updates and changes to the format. The CARS section is scored on a curve, just like the rest of the MCAT, and you will receive a score between 118-132 for this section. Since your MCAT score will be evaluated differently by each program, a “good” score will vary from school to school, but a score of 128 will usually put your in the 90th percentile.

Which disciplines do CARS passages cover?

It's important to note that no background knowledge is needed to answer CARS questions, as all the information you will need is contained within the passages. In fact, you should avoid bringing in or referencing outside information as external knowledge may influence your answer choice and cause you to choose incorrectly. Of course, you also can’t prepare for CARS by memorizing passages or correct answers. So, you must be wondering how to study for MCAT CARS? Essentially, you need to learn how to review MCAT CARS passages properly. And I am here to give you some tips and strategies on how to ace this challenging MCAT section.

Would you like to see an expert analysis of an MCAT CARS passage? Check out our video below:

CARS Question Types

The first step to acing your CARS is understanding the three question types that will be included in this section. You need to learn how to identify the question types to answer them correctly, so make sure you include this as part of your MCAT test prep strategy.

Foundations of Comprehension

This type of question will assess your understanding of the passage. Before you can even attempt the other two question types, you must be able to tackle comprehension questions first because you can’t analyze the passage without understanding it. Foundations of Comprehension questions may ask you about the overall main point of the passage or the author's thesis and central ideas. They may ask you to select definitions of specific words or phrases based on the context in which you find them. As I said earlier, comprehension questions will help you build the foundation that will allow you to think about the concepts or facts you read in the passage in a new light, so that you can tackle the other two question types.

These most fundamental questions in CARS will ask you about the basic components of the passages you read. You may be asked to give a general overview of the passage or to focus on a specific portion of the passage. You may have to identify the author’s main thesis, the main idea of a paragraph, or portion of the passage where the author digresses from the central theme. To do this, you will need to understand different parts of the passage and their collective meaning, i.e. what is the thesis statement of the passage, what examples support the main thesis, what statements go against the thesis, etc. Look for signal words such as “for example”, “therefore”, “consequently”, “in fact”, and so on, to identify sentences and passages that could be used as evidence to support the main thesis.

You may also be asked to dig deeper into the text to identify the meaning of a word that the author does not state directly but implies through language or word-use. You will need to note subtle and nuanced rhetorical decisions an author makes to promote or go against arguments found in the passage. For example, is the author being dismissive or bias in the text? Or are they using humor or sarcasm to mask a more serious topic? You may also be asked to address paradoxes, highlighted words or phrases, or an unexpected change in ideas. For example, if the author outlines an opponent’s point of view, you may need to identify this and understand the purpose of its presence in the text. You will also need to be acute to the author's tone and language, as these important rhetorical devices may give away the purpose of the passage (e.g. instruction, persuasion, entertainment).

Examples of Foundations of Comprehension questions:

Reasoning Within the Text

These types of questions will require you to integrate components of the text to increase comprehension of the passage and evaluate the author's use of an argument or claim to support his or her intention. Essentially, you are looking to assess the logic and plausibility of the text, the soundness of the arguments, the reasonableness of the author's conclusions, the appropriateness of the evidence, and the credibility of the author and the sources he or she cites. This may sound like a tall order, but most of us perform these tasks on the daily basis – we often analyze information that is presented to us to decide whether it is legitimate (e.g. the news, an advertisement) You need to assess how well the author uses evidence to support his or her thesis, i.e. are the arguments sound, are they bias, do they create a strong line of evidence?

Remember not to bring in any outside knowledge when you answer questions of this category. Even if you are aware of the topic or have read extensively on the issue the author is discussing, you will need to evaluate evidence that is only found within the text. Base your answers on the content of the passage, rather than your prior knowledge of the matter.

Examples of Reasoning Within the Text questions:

Reasoning Beyond the Text

These questions will ask you to apply or extrapolate concepts from the passage to new contexts or evaluate the impact of new information on ideas in the passage. Reasoning beyond the text may require you to apply the information in the passage to a new situation or use it to solve a problem outside the context of the passage. The correct answer is the option that is the most likely outcome based only on the information provided in the passage and question – so, once again, forget bringing in any outside knowledge. Though the questions are asking you to reason outside of the text, you must still operate within the knowledge parameters set out by the passage and the questions you are given.

You might also be asked to assess what you learned from the passage with a “what if” question, which would involve a reinterpretation and re-evaluation of the passage with the additional fact or idea introduced by the question. You must ask yourself, can the new information coexist with the content of the passage, could it negate an aspect of the author’s thesis? You might also be asked to think of possible logical relationships between the passage content and the facts and assertions included in the answer options.

Examples of Reasoning Beyond the Text questions:

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Strategies to Ace Your MCAT CARS Section

MCAT CARS Strategy #1: Active Reading

How you read the text will greatly determine your progress in reading and understanding of CARS passages. So, the number one strategy for acing your MCAT CARS section is active reading. This is an especially important CARS strategy for law readers, as it allows them to engage with the test and focus on the content, rather than MCAT timing.

Rather than simply skimming over the passages, it might be a good idea to read them out loud. As you read, stop after each paragraph and identify its main point. You may want to highlight any keywords or sentences within the paragraph that you find important to the overall message of the paragraph. These can often serve as important supporting evidence, so make sure you know what the words and concepts mean; take the time to look them up if you need to. After reading each paragraph, summarize its main point in your own words and make sure you understand what it is contributing to the passage at large.

After you finish reading the passage, before you read the questions, use your own words to identify the main point or the central thesis of the passage. Think of the following questions to help you pinpoint the thesis:

  1. What is the topic of this passage?
  2. Does the author feel good or bad about this topic?
  3. Using a specific paragraph within the passage, summarize what the author is doing. Are they giving an example to support or refute their main point? Are they comparing and contrasting concepts? Are they stating their opinion?

Make this routine a part of your MCAT prep. You will notice how these simple questions help you understand the content and the structure of the passage. With their help, you will be able to dissect the passage, identify its main points, and pick out important supporting evidence within the text. Remember, instead of focusing on names, dates, or any other such details, focus on the main arguments the author is making. The identifiers included in the passage will be incidental and therefore will not influence the main argument.

MCAT CARS Strategy #2: Practice Reading Challenging Texts

Let’s be honest – people who do well on CARS are the people who read a lot, which is why improving your MCAT reading comprehension should be your primary goal. Yes, some people start preparing for CARS only 4 to 6 months before they take the test, but the truth is, comprehension and analysis are skills that are acquired by prolonged and extensive reading of complex and challenging materials. So, ideally, students who are looking to do well on their CARS should start reading extensively 2 or 3 years before they take the test. If you do not have the luxury of time, I suggest you habituate yourself to read challenging material as much as possible, as soon as possible. Set aside at least 30 minutes of your day to read classics of literature, literary articles, journals, and other scholarly materials. It is normal to feel overwhelmed when you first start reading these materials; at times, you might not even understand all the words used or concepts discussed. However, keeping up with your reading will improve your comprehension and reasoning skills as you expand your vocabulary and broaden your perspective. Make sure you apply the same system of identifying the main arguments and theses to your practice reading. If you are reading an article, reflect on what the author’s point of view is and identify the main theme of the article.

Be aware, it’s not enough to practice for CARS using CARS sample passages and questions. You must do outside reading in addition to practice passages to succeed on your CARS. Here’s a list of sources you can check out for your CARS practice:

a. The New Yorker, The Economist, the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, etc.

b. Humanities and social sciences journal articles:

c. Classics of literature and philosophy: Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, etc.

MCAT CARS Strategy #3: Identify CARS Question Types

It is common for students to have trouble identifying the type of questions they are facing. It is vital to be able to identify the question category by yourself instead of relying on the AAMC to tell you what it is. This simple approach can really help you improve your MCAT CARS score. Your answers will be hit or miss if you cannot successfully identify the question type. Remember, you should grasp the Foundations of Comprehension questions first, as it would be difficult to reason within or beyond the text if you do not have a good understanding of the text in front of you. If you’re struggling with comprehension, a part of your preparation for CARS should be asking yourself about the main point of whatever material you happen to read. If you’re reading an op-ed article in the morning newspaper, ask yourself a variety of questions, including “What is the main topic of this article?”, “How does the author feel about this topic?”, and “What points does the author use to support or oppose the main argument?” As you continue to prepare for CARS by reading complex and diverse materials, habituate yourself to asking these types of questions. You will soon notice that identifying arguments and main points becomes easier.

Reasoning Within the Text questions involve analysis and critical thinking. As you practice reading classics and journal articles, ask yourself whether the evidence and arguments the authors implement, strengthen or weaken their thesis. You must understand the author’s use of arguments and evidence to be able to identify whether they do a good job of presenting their ideas, i.e. do they provide a variety of arguments, are they demonstrating obvious bias, are they dismissing points of view that are valuable to their argument, etc.? If you understand these nuances, you will find the questions for Reasoning Beyond the Text much easier. Remember, Reasoning Beyond the Text is always based on your comprehension of the passage and your ability to understand the internal arguments of the text. So, when you practice identifying and answering Reasoning Beyond the Text questions, try to analyze what other points the author would endorse based on the arguments he or she has presented. For example, if you read an article about the positive social impact of safe injection sites, you could ask yourself if the author would endorse the legalization of intravenous drugs. Reflect on whether the author would endorse or reject this hypothetical scenario based on the arguments presented in the passage.

MCAT CARS Strategy #4: A Step-By-Step Answer Strategy

When you are ready to tackle the questions, start by carefully reading each question and the answers provided. If you are having trouble identifying the correct answer, follow these steps:

Only practice will get you good results. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect! You will need to practice with CARS sample passages and questions, as well as additional reading, before you see improvement. Even 1 or 2 more correct answers should be regarded as great progress. Remember, even 1 correct answer can increase your CARS score significantly.

MCAT CARS Strategy #5: Working on Speed

During the initial stages of your CARS preparation, you should not focus on MCAT timing. You should focus on answering the questions correctly before you move on to working on your speed. Most students struggle to identify the correct answers in the initial stages of the CARS prep. This is completely normal. When you start studying for CARS, your primary goal should be to identify the question types and slowly work on answering the questions correctly. Remember, CARS prep takes months of hard work, so your progress will depend on whether you practice with additional CARS passages and read complex materials I outlined for you above. Only start working on your speed once you are consistently answering the questions correctly. When you begin timing yourself, start by giving yourself more time, then gradually working down to 10 minutes. To reiterate: do not sacrifice answering questions correctly for speed. First and foremost, you must get comfortable with tackling the questions and identifying the right answer.

TIP: remember to use an MCAT Scaled Score Calculator to see whether you are improving and where your score stands.

Check out MCAT CARS practice passages, questions, and answers in our video:

Sample Passage, Questions, and Expert Answers

Now let's try applying the MCAT CARS strategy I outline above to the sample CARS passage below! Go ahead!

Sample Passage

Both employers and workers are challenged by technological innovations, international trade, deregulation, and changes in the nature and structure of work. Their responses to these challenges indicate their choice of three roads to the new economy. The low road follows the historic path of mass production, emphasizing downsizing, outsourcing, and low-skill employees as ways to cut labor costs. Eventually, this approach, if the norm, must limit a nation's economic competitiveness, living standard, and income equity. 

The high road acknowledges the growing value of investment in highly skilled employees who can react quickly to changing technologies and markets. It presupposes shared power and long-term goals. Only dominant firms can afford to commit resources to training and keeping employees by providing full benefits with high wages. Such firms tend to be protected from domestic or international competitors by technological advantages, large-scale production, or government regulations. Currently, high-road firms account for perhaps 20 percent of employees in the United States. 

About 40 percent of U.S. workers receive no formal training beyond a high-school education. They must submit to the contingencies of low-road employment, remaining at the periphery of the new economy. The remaining 40 percent of the workforce slog along the muddy middle road, getting some advanced education or job-related training but unlikely to enter the dynamic high-road labor market and attract employers who would train them thoroughly to join their core workers. 

The high road is not an easy course for employers to take. Today's global customers and suppliers are linked by a web of standards that affect not only prices but extend to the quality and variety of products, company organization, customer service and its timeliness, and constant innovations. Employers who meet these complex requirements use computer-based methods, which raise the level of skill needed by non-supervisory personnel. For example, instead of checking the quality of the final product, high-road firms integrate quality standards in their automated production process, encouraging workers at all stages of their operation to demonstrate expertise and responsibility. 

High-performance work systems are most successful when training and work reforms are bundled. Similarly, workers find that their general education, occupational preparation, and access to training on the job are complementary in their effect on earnings. Workers who receive formal company training command higher wages than do similar workers who attend only vocational school or receive informal on-the-job instruction. Workers who use computers on the job also earn more than do those of the same education level who do not use computers at work. Moreover, the earning difference increases with the level of technological competence. 

For the United States to compete in an eventual global economy based on skilled workers and quality products, additional employer investment in training is needed now. Policies at all levels should encourage the coordination of employer-provided training and broader schooling. Such policies will realize the highest returns in terms of personal income, adaptation to an increasingly volatile labor market, and efficiency in the transmission of changing skill requirements from workplaces to schools. Although for a particular job, employer-based training or vocational preparation can substitute for generalized schooling, specific training degrades rapidly, and narrow skills seldom transfer well to new job requirements. 

But although high-wage, high-skill jobs create a demand for education and training, training does not create high-wage jobs. Ultimately, a strategy of investment in human capital succeeds or flounders according to the availability of high-wage, high-skill jobs. If investment in workers outpaces the number of good jobs, many very competent workers will face an employment market of many very undemanding jobs.

Questions

1. The author is apparently concerned that adherence to a policy referred to as "the low road" will reduce the competitiveness of: 

A. firms involved in international trade. 

B. the United States in particular. 

C. technology-based economies. 

D. the less-developed nations. 

2. Which of the following findings is most clearly contrary to the reported influence of the use of computers in the workplace? 

A. Office workers can follow computer-generated schedules with less training than they need to devise their own schedules. 

B. Executives who correspond with customers by letter generate more business than those who rely on E-mail alone. 

C. Workers using nonautomated production processes are more efficient than workers on automated assembly lines. 

D. Mechanics who use computerized diagnostic methods earn less than mechanics who use traditional methods. 

3. The author can best be viewed as an advocate of: 

A. the repeal of regulations that protect dominant firms. 

B. an increase in spending on the training of employees.

C. an emphasis on high school vocational education. 

D. the use of computers in industrial production. 

4. Which of the following situations is most likely to constitute a muddy road, as the author uses the term? 

A. Being trained in a skill that qualifies one for only a particular job. 

B. Switching to unfamiliar procedures because of technological changes. 

C. Returning to college to upgrade one's professional qualifications. 

D. Being chronically unemployed because of an inadequate education.

5. Which of the following practices is most apt to promote the outcome attributed to increased worker involvement in the production process? 

A. The workers' use of a computer bulletin board to share tips on quality control. 

B. Close monitoring of the productivity of workers by their immediate supervisors. 

C. The democratic participation of workers in the hiring of potential co-workers. 

D. A profit-sharing program that rewards workers for company successes. 

6. An employer reasons: "If I train my workers, competitors who save money by not providing training will be able to attract my trained workers with higher salaries than I can pay." What possible solution for this employer would most accord with the author's high road? 

A. Support regulatory policies that penalize firms for failing to train workers. 

B. Train workers who agree to repay the tuition if they leave within a set time. 

C. Concentrate on recruiting workers who have been trained by other firms. 

D. Cut costs elsewhere to match the higher wages paid by competitors. 

7. The author asserts that to compete later, employers should invest in training now and also that training does not create high-wage jobs. Together, these assertions imply that: 

A. investment in training keeps costs low by providing a large pool of skilled workers. 

B. in highly paid work, on-the-job training compensates for educational deficiencies. 

C. training is not effective unless it is supplemented by a comprehensive education. 

D. some highly trained workers may not benefit financially from their training.

Expert Answers

Question 1: 

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Question 2:

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Question 3:

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Question 4:

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Question 5:

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Question 6:

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Question 7:

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FAQs

1. Why is CARS so important?

The CARS section tests critical thinking and problem-solving skills. No background knowledge of the content is required. Therefore, it is one of the ways medical schools assess a student's ability to analyze information and solve problems, which are some of the key skills physicians should have.

2. What should I be using to practice passages and sections?

AAMC’s material is most reflective of the difficulty level of the exam. It is available on the AAMC’s website.

3. When should I start studying for MCAT?

You will need to give yourself ample amount of time to prepare for your MCAT. Your CARS section alone will take a lot of preparation, so I would suggest giving yourself no less than 6 months to study. Check out our comprehensive MCAT study schedule to get some ideas on how to organize your time. If you would like to learn how the exam is organized and what topics it covers, you should check out our "How Long is the MCAT?" blog.

4. What kind of questions can I expect in the CARS section?

In this section, all questions will fall into one of these categories: Foundations of Comprehension, Reasoning Within the Text, and Reasoning Beyond the Text.

5. Why is it important to identify the question types?

There are two reasons. One, you may have trouble with only a certain question type, and you should be able to identify which one it is and work on that skill in a targeted way during practice. Two, the question types build on each other. You must be able to comprehend before doing reasoning within the text (analysis). You must be able to do both comprehension and analysis before you attempt reasoning beyond the text (synthesis).

6. Why do I need to identify the central thesis of the passage or the main point of each paragraph?

Identifying the central thesis is often the whole point of Foundations of Comprehension questions. If you can articulate the main point of a passage in your own words, it will be easy for you to answer this question type. Identifying the main point of each paragraph will help you answer Reasoning Within and Beyond the Text questions, as this helps you identify what evidence or arguments the author uses to support their main point.

7. How much time should I take to complete a passage?

The average length of time you should take is 10 minutes per passage, but this can vary depending on the difficulty of the passage and the questions.

8. During the practice tests, what should I aim to score for each passage?

You should aim for a score in the 90th percentile, which is approximately a 128 (based on most recent data released by AAMC). To do this, you should be getting 90% of questions correct (per passage, and on the whole section). However, this is only a guide, as the MCAT is scored on a curve relative to how other students do and the MCAT can vary in difficulty from one test date to another. This is why doing AAMC MCAT diagnostic test is key, as it provides a score in the 118-132 range per section.

9. What if I am just not getting better at CARS?

Do not despair. The CARS section is made to be difficult and challenging on purpose. You need to keep practicing with sample passages and external reading consistently. Most students need at least 3 or 4 months (ideally 6 months) of preparation. It’s important to understand that you cannot just do passages, you must do challenging reading consistently (referring to sources outlined above). Also, it’s more important to see small gains over time (even getting 1 or 2 more questions correct for the whole CARS section can increase your score on each practice test) and you should not expect to see huge increases right away. Going from 124 to 125 is still a big improvement! If you would like to learn more about how hard the MCAT is, make sure to read out blog.

10. When should I take the MCAT?

Whenever you are ready! More specifically, you want to score in the 90th percentile and do so consistently during your practice tests, which means the timeline can vary among individuals. AAMC’s website breaks down percentile scores on the whole test and each section. Note that they do not release how many questions you got correct, as the MCAT is scored by scaling how a student does relative to other students and factoring the relative difficulty of the test questions compared to other tests given during and before that test period.

11. What other resources can I use to prepare for the MCAT exam?

To get ready for the exam, you should start by taking the MCAT diagnostic test. It will reveal the areas of knowledge and disciplines you need to improve. Depending on your weaknesses, check out our MCAT biology questions guide, MCAT chemistry questions guide, MCAT psychology guide, and MCAT physics equations you must know for your exam.

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Your friends at BeMo

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