Developing your ability to learn how to improve your MCAT reading comprehension is one of the most challenging and important prep obstacles of this exam, not only because it requires extensive practice, but also because having strong reading comprehension skills is essential for health professionals. All sections will require increased reading comprehension. Understanding and interpreting complex texts is a valuable skill for both your personal and professional lives. This article will walk you through the A-to-Z of improving your reading comprehension skills in preparing for the MCAT and share a failproof CARS strategy for slow readers. Our team of experts put together a series of tips, strategies, and resources that will help you learn how to improve your MCAT CARS score and ace other sections of the MCAT.
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What Does Reading Comprehension Refer To?
To understand how to study for the MCAT, you need to understand the concept of reading comprehension, especially to earn a high MCAT score. Since we were kids, we’ve been told that reading opens our minds and makes us more creative, smart, and insightful. But sometimes the mere act of reading doesn’t mean that we fully understand the message of a text. Understanding single words and putting them in context are two very different things. Reading comprehension refers to the ability to process and recognize the main ideas of a text. In order to fully comprehend a text, we must be able to make connections between words, identify concepts, and use our reasoning skills.
Why Should You Improve Your Reading Comprehension Skills?
The key to knowing how to review MCAT CARS is to acknowledge that good reading comprehension is fundamental for success as a medical professional, as complex texts are a major element in the life of medical students and doctors. However, being able to understand complex texts can be a valuable skill in any aspect of your life. It can improve your communication skills, make you more empathetic, and a more efficient learner.
If you want to become a doctor, the MCAT is one of the main reasons why you should start working on improving your reading comprehension skills, specifically for your MCAT CARS prep. This test will determine your chances of getting into medical school and includes a whole section aimed at assessing your reading comprehension skills, which is famously titled MCAT CARS.
The reason schools want to evaluate your reading comprehension skills is that you will be required, in med school, to read and interpret a lot of written information, especially in the first two years. You will have to understand and apply information from medical journals, scientific journals, and textbooks. Medical professionals in training will also need to learn how to parse scientific journals and other materials to update their knowledge that applies to their practice. If you struggle with any of these elements, you might consider an MCAT CARS prep course. Otherwise, you may end up looking at how to get into medical school with a low MCAT.
Interested in a few quick tips on how to improve your MCAT CARS section? This infographic is for you:
Why Reading Comprehension Skill is Needed for All MCAT Sections
First, strong reading comprehension skills are important not just for CARS, but for the entire MCAT. While it’s true that perhaps CARS is the most demanding in terms of reading comprehension skill, the other sections will require it as well. MCAT passages must be read and interpreted in every section, which means you will be applying many of the same interpretive techniques you would for CARS. So while sections and subjects require different skills and knowledge, reading comprehension is ubiquitous.
Strong reading comprehension also means less re-reading, and therefore better timing and less missed questions, resulting in a higher score.
Active Reading Vs. Passive Reading
Active reading refers to reading material with the purpose of trying to analyze and understand the author’s meaning. To read actively, you have to engage with the text to extract the information relevant to your purposes. Here are some strategies for active reading, which will help you with your MCAT reading comprehension prep:
- Outlining keywords or important phrases
- Summarizing the information succinctly
- Putting brackets around the thesis or hypothesis
- Annotating the text
- Considering the author’s meaning or purpose as you read
Passive reading, by comparison, is reading the text shallowly, without trying to understand its meaning. You are not thinking critically about the text, and you are more than likely just reading to get through it. While passive reading can sometimes be appropriate, it won’t help you increase your MCAT reading comprehension.
About MCAT CARS
CARS is designed to evaluate your ability to read, understand, and interpret complex texts. The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section (CARS) of the MCAT contains a series of passages with questions based on critical reasoning skills. Some schools pay special attention to your CARS performance, as this section is often regarded as the most challenging section of the MCAT. In fact, some schools consider only your CARS score, such as McMaster medical school. In addition to being the most important, it is also the hardest to study for, since you can’t really rely on your own knowledge, but rather on how well you can break down complex information.
What Does CARS Cover?
CARS passages cover subjects like politics, sociology, and philosophy, among other social sciences. Since it is not so common for medical school aspirants to have a solid background in the humanities, this section takes most test-takers out of their comfort zone and represents one reason why some premeds have to retake the MCAT.
Why Do Some Students Perform Poorly on MCAT CARS?
Inadequate preparation, lack of strategy, and consequently, a lack of confidence are the main three reasons why students fail the MCAT reading comprehension section. In order to ace the CARS, you will have to start your preparation at least 6 months in advance, reading complex texts and coming up with an MCAT CARS strategy to tackle each question, as well as good MCAT timing. If you want professional help with your CARS study, you can talk to a medical school admissions consultant.
Interested in some MCAT CARS passage analysis practice? Watch this video:
MCAT CARS Structure
This section of the MCAT exam contains a total of 9 passages based on social sciences and humanities. Unlike the MCAT science section, you won’t find topics like MCAT biology or MCAT chemistry. However, the CARS doesn’t require previous knowledge of any of these topics. In fact, applying outside knowledge to answer the questions can be counterproductive. All of the information needed to answer the questions is included in the passages.
The CARS passage content will also interchange as follows:
Each passage contains 5 to 7 questions, and you will have a total of 90 minutes to answer 53 of them, meaning that you should dedicate an average of 10 minutes per passage. The questions of this section fall into one of three possible categories based on the type of reasoning required:
Foundations of Reading Comprehension (30%)
These questions are usually focused on a single fact or idea and are designed to test whether or not you understood the basic components of the passage. They can ask about the central concept of the text, or about the meaning of a certain keyword.
Reasoning Within the Text (30%)
These questions require you to infer something from the passage or establish a connection between two ideas. Basically, given what the passage says, what unsaid facts would you consider to be true? These questions integrate different aspects of the text and require a deeper analysis.
Reasoning Beyond the Text (40%)
These are the most challenging questions, as they require you to make a connection between the passage and a concept that is not present in the text.
How to Increase MCAT Reading Comprehension
#1 Read Challenging Texts
CARS passages are quite complex; this is why many students wonder “how long is the MCAT?” In order to improve your MCAT reading comprehension, you will have to go through a long process involving lots of extensive reading, and there will be no shortcuts. Reading challenging texts that cover subjects that you are not used to reading about is the best way to prepare for the challenge that the CARS represents.
Ideally, you should incorporate the habit of reading actively to different kinds of texts.
#2 Use Answer Strategies
Having strong reading comprehension skills might not be enough if you don’t know how to put them into practice. In order to tackle the CARS section of the MCAT you will need to develop answer strategies. Certain guides, such as the BeMo’s Ultimate Guide to MCAT CARS can be really helpful as well. You can check out BeMo MCAT reviews if you’re unsure about the value of our services.
#3 Read Out Loud
Reading out loud is an excellent technique that offers several benefits, such as increasing your attention span and incorporating new vocabulary more effectively. By sharpening your focus, reading out loud results in much better reading comprehension. Reading out loud will also help you improve your memory; even if you whisper or mumble sentences under your breath, you are engaging with the text in a way that will allow you to absorb the information quickly and more effectively long-term.
Not sure where to start with your MCAT studying? This infographic will guide you through what key steps you need to focus on:
#4 Join a Book Club
Students often think that if they just do MCAT prep questions, their preparation is adequate. This isn’t the case, and you will need to consider other effective ways of preparing. If you never had the habit of reading for pleasure, joining a book club can be a great incentive. You will get the opportunity to discover new authors, or deepen your knowledge and understanding of literary classics. Additionally, sharing your reading with other people can be highly stimulating and make the whole experience more enjoyable. Typically, you can find book clubs at your local library, or you can look online to join a virtual club. Hearing how different people interpret the text will help you develop better reading comprehension strategies; also, if you’re having trouble trying to determine an author’s meaning or you aren’t confident in your interpretation, other readers can provide consensus, which will help you know if you’re on the right track.
#5 Discuss What You Read with Others
Sharing different perspectives is essential when it comes to getting the most out of a good read. Complex texts can hide concepts and ideas that might go under our radar when we read them for the first time. Discussing what you read with fellow students can help you gain interesting insight on certain topics, not to mention fellow students who are also going through the journey of preparing for the MCAT can recommend you good reading materials as well. To find communities to discuss reading material with, you can go to various online forums; however, be careful to avoid negative and unproductive spaces like MCAT reddit. Your local library, where you can also find book clubs, will often host events like author talks, writing workshops, or lectures that you can attend for free (or for a small fee). Being receptive to different perspectives will challenge your interpretation of the material and help you discover ways to sharpen your comprehension.
#6 Take Liberal Arts Courses
The topics commonly covered in liberal arts courses match those of the MCAT CARS. If you don’t have such a strong background in those subjects, a liberal arts course can be a game-changer, since you will likely have to deal with the same kind of texts that are going to be present in the exam. Learning from an authority, in this case a knowledgeable expert, is a great alternative to an MCAT coach or an MCAT CARS tutor. Typically, you can expect to learn the following from a liberal arts course, skills that are all important for you to perform on MCAT CARS:
- Use critical thinking and problem-solving to interpret text
- Learn how to comprehend the message, intent, and goal of the text
#7 Take Practice Tests
Preparing for the CARS section of the MCAT is particularly hard because, unlike the other sections in the text, there is no knowledge to rely on. There is no specific textbook for you to hold on to, you just need to practice extensively during the months previous to taking the exam. The best MCAT CARS practice consists of going through sample passages and practice questions over and over again applying the answer strategies and evaluating your own progress and performance.
Make sure to figure out which kind of questions and passages you find the most challenging, keep track of the time it takes you to answer each question, and take practice tests every few weeks to check how close you are to the score you want to achieve. The AAMC offers an official prep book for the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills that you might find especially useful. It is affordable and includes 120 passage-based questions from humanities and social science disciplines.
#8 Practice First Thing in the Morning
Even if you are not a morning person, the first few hours of the day represent the moment when you haven’t made any decisions yet. By the time you wake up, you still haven’t decided what you feel like doing, nothing has come up, and most importantly, you are not mentally exhausted. If you leave your study session for later, you will most likely end up postponing it or getting distracted. Starting your practice first thing in the morning will guarantee that you have no excuses and no interruptions.
#9 Put Text Into Your Own Words
Of course, one component of a good answer to the question “when should I take the MCAT?” is when you can confidently parse MCAT CARS practice passages. However, you are truly ready when you consistently score in the 90th percentile during practices. One way to improve your reading comprehension is to put the text you’re reading into your own words. You can either write it out on a piece of paper, do it in your head, or try explaining it to another person, perhaps a study partner. If you practice summarizing text and putting it into your own words, you will start to get better at capturing the thesis and main points of the passage. One exercise that you can try for this is to try to explain the passage or concepts within the passage to different age groups/knowledge levels: a child, a high school student, and a fellow medical school applicant.
#10 Underline Statements of Evidence
When you’re reading passages in your MCAT practice tests, you should highlight or underline statements of evidence. Specifically, you should look at how the author describes the relationship between variables, stated sources of information, data, etc. With evidence, you should also make sure you highlight or put a star next to the thesis or central argument. Breaking the passage down into these components will help you keep the central idea of the passage in mind as you answer questions.
Here is an example of part of a CARS passage and how you might highlight its main points:
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Resources to Improve Reading Comprehension
If you are looking for ideas, we have put together a list of interesting and complex reading materials that you could find useful:
- 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
- Vanity Fair
- The Economist
- Foreign Policy
- The New England Journal of Medicine (Scan their Issues List for Open Access Articles)
Amazing MCAT reading comprehension skills are not something you can obtain overnight. There are no shortcuts: preparing for the MCAT reading comprehension section will take you months of intensive practice. But there is no need to panic! As long as you follow an MCAT study schedule and stick to the habit of reading complex texts on a regular basis, you will notice a great improvement. The key to acing the MCAT CARS is reading diverse texts that you are not familiar with. Additionally, you will have to develop strategies and check your progress during the months prior to your MCAT test date. Hopefully, this article has provided you with useful insight and resources for you to tackle MCAT CARS confidently!
1. When should I start studying for the MCAT?
Wondering when to start studying for the MCAT? Given that there is no previous or external knowledge required for the MCAT CARS, you can start preparing for it as soon as possible. However, it is usually recommended to start studying at least 6 months in advance.
2. How is the CARS section structured?
The CARS section consists of 9 passages with 5 to 7 questions each. You will have a total of 90 minutes to complete this section, which means that you will be able to dedicate an average of 10 minutes to each question.
3. What topics are included in the CARS section?
All CARS passages are based on humanities and social science subjects, such as sociology, psychology, politics, literature, arts, and philosophy.
4. What can I do to improve my reading comprehension skills?
Reading comprehension skills can only be improved with months of extensive practice. It is important for you to diversify your readings, and get familiar with subjects that are challenging or unknown to you. You can even take courses and read all kinds of materials such as magazines, newspapers and literary classics.
5. What is the importance of reading comprehension?
Strong reading comprehension is an important skill for life in general, and particularly for a doctor. Being able to understand and interpret complex texts will provide you with better communication skills and make you more creative, empathetic, and insightful.
6. Do I need previous knowledge to answer CARS questions?
No, in fact, applying your own knowledge to answer a question can be counterproductive. All the information needed to answer the questions will be provided by the passage. Whatever is not explicit in the passage, you will have to infer with your critical skills, but you should not apply any kind of external information.
7. What kind of questions are included in the MCAT CARS?
All CARS questions will fall into one of three categories:
- Foundations of comprehension
- Reasoning within the text
- Reasoning beyond the text
8. How important is the CARS section of the MCAT?
Many medical schools pay special attention to your CARS score during the application review process, and some schools even focus only on it, regardless of your performance in the rest of the test. This section is the main reason why some students have to retake the MCAT.
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