Sample MCAT CARS Practice Questions & Answers - Approaching Difficult MCAT CARS Passages: Sample Passage, Followup Questions + Expert Response

Anyone who has some experience with the MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS or formerly known as the Verbal Reasoning [VR]) section will have come across a difficult passage. These are the passages where after reading it you think to yourself “What did I just read? What was that about? Huh?” These are the passages where you catch yourself reading the same lines over and over without really gaining extra comprehension.

Whilst some others may advise you to skip these passages so you can focus your time and energy on the other ones, for anyone hoping to score 129+ on their CARS section, skipping an entire passage is hardly an option (to score above 129 with skipping an entire passage, you have to only get 2-3 other questions wrong in the entire section, meaning you must have at least 6-7 perfect passages!). Check out our what is a good MCAT score blog post to see why you don't want to skip this section.

In this blog we're going to cover:

1. How To Approach Passages
2. An Example MCAT CARS Passage
3. Sample MCAT CARS Questions
4. Answers

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How then might you approach these passages?

At BeMo, we have developed an approach to these difficult passages – both for how to approach them on the test and how to study for them and in a previous blog we talked about how to Ace the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section (CARS) of the MCAT in Three Steps. But we're going to do a sample difficult passage along with follow up questions and answers today. Firstly, should you encounter a difficult passage on the test, don’t panic! Read the passage like you would a badly written novel or newspaper article – in other words, don’t worry about understanding specific words or phrases, instead read for the general gist/understanding of the passage. Take the passage one paragraph at a time, pausing for a moment after each paragraph and ask yourself what that paragraph was about. Then, try to link each of the paragraphs together at the end into a global understanding of the entire passage.

If a paragraph gives you some difficulty when you first approach it, don’t worry! Write down some key words from the passage and move on. Having a general context for the rest of the passage will often help you understand its separate paragraphs better.

To study for these kinds of passages, the best thing to do is to practice! Take a look at our ultimate guide to preparing for the MCAT, as well as our  “Ace the Critical Analysis and Reasoning section of the MCAT” blog post for some excellent reading material. Go through some of these difficult and often unfamiliar reading materials and practice summarizing individual paragraphs and sections. It is helpful to get feedback on your summaries for these passages that our Expert Consultants at BeMo would be happy to provide you with.

Give it a try! Below is a difficult passage with question types that are typical for the MCAT CARS section. Generally, you should spend no more than 10-12 minutes on each individual passage in the CARS section. That being said, it is entirely reasonable to spend more time on difficult passages (as you will most likely spend less time on easier passages).

You’ll get the most of this exercise if you do it as you would the real MCAT. Find a quiet but not silent place (e.g. coffee shop, common room in a library) to do this passage. Don’t look at the answers until you have answered all the questions and are ready to submit (i.e. they are your final answers). Remember, if you make a “silly mistake” in practice, chances are you will make them on the real MCAT as well!


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Example MCAT CARS Passage

Heralded as the father of existentialism, Kierkegaard’s debut work of influence Either/Or presents the categorical existence of two spheres, the aesthetic and the ethical. The hedonistic, distractible stage of aesthetic living is governed by circumstances of moment, where one fleeting event – such as the smile of a pretty girl – leads to the next and so too does the motif for the aesthetic’s fantasy. The ethical sphere is entered when the nature and judgments of one’s choices are considered. Individual agency, whilst present before, truly manifests in bearing the responsibility of one’s good or bad choices.

For Kierkegaard, the ethical sphere was intimately connected with the religious sphere explored in his subsequent works. Whilst the ethical has a commitment with morality, the religious is a covenant with God. It is based on faith; Christianity is seen as truth, although Kierkegaard admits it to be paradoxical and oppositional to logic. It is through conscious choice that movement from the ethical sphere to the religious occurs – with a leap of faith. Despite a seeming progression implied in Kierkegaard’s works, the spheres are not independent entities exclusive of each other. One who lives primarily in the religious sphere, for example, will still have aspects of her being enjoying fleeting moments of beauty and have morality govern her choices.

Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is denounced by his successor, Sartre, who rejects the notion of divine orchestration, tarring such leaps as bad faith. Moreover, Sartre vehemently argues for the oppressive nature of social constructs and collectivist forces that usher the individual into rejecting his or her innate freedom for that of the greater good. It is this narrowing and limiting of choice that Sartre defined as bad faith. In a manner, any and all external influences that cause one to live in an inauthentic fashion – such as the social scripts followed on a first date, in a restaurant – are judged to be guilty and worthy of re-examination.

The core of Sartre’s philosophies hinge upon the oft quoted adage, “existence proceeds essence.” It is man who first and foremost is before he defines the parameters of that existence through conscious and deliberate choice. It is therefore of no consequence the station, nature, and parameters surrounding one’s birth when considering the nature of one’s being. Essence is defined through choice. But how can one make such a choice when the options are seemingly limitless and each has unbeknownst consequences? Indeed, it is so daunting an experience that Sartre dubbed this Existential Angst.

In an elegant application of existential philosophy, a former concentration camp prisoner, Frankl, posits that regardless of how harsh, cruel, and inhumane the external environment may be, one’s inner state and reaction is defined by agency. He defines this internal state and motivation as one’s attitude in relation to outside circumstance. Of paramount importance for Frankl is finding and making meaning of the circumstances in one’s life. The application of his philosophy in action is what gives Frankl’s narrative its power. Where Kierkegaard and Sartre’s philosophies were also deeply personal and practical, they were nonetheless born out of academia. Frankl’s insightful analysis and presentation of the prisoner’s internal state was a lived experience, lending it to be more accessible for the layperson.

Sample MCAT CARS Questions

1. What is Existential Angst (paragraph 4)?

a. The feelings one has when confronted with choice

b. The state of desperation when contemplating that existence proceeds essence

c. The task of making seemingly limitless choices

d. The anxiety and regret associated with having made a choice

2. The author would most agree with which of the following statements:

a. Existentialism is a philosophy about agency and choice, best introduced through reading passages such as this one

b. Frankl’s philosophy is better than Kierkegaard and Sartre’s

c. Kierkegaard and Sartre’s philosophies were impractical when compared to Frankl’s philosophy

d. Applying the principles of existentialism to everyday life is better than just talking about it

3. Which of the following best describes the main goal of the passage?

a. To compare the different philosophies of Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Frankl

b. To show a progression of existential philosophy

c. To demonstrate how existentialism has changed with time

d. To offer an introduction to existential philosophy

4. According to the passage’s depiction of Kierkegaard, which of the following policies would he most support?

a. That students should have the choice to attend either a secular or religious school

b. That Existentialism should be taught in schools

c. That World Religions should be taught in schools

d. That public funding should be provided for religious school boards

5. Which of the following statements is least supported by the passage?

a. Sartre believed men and women were equals

b. Sartre supported laws to prevent discrimination

c. Sartre believed that a poor man could become rich if he worked hard enough

d. Sartre was denounced by the church

Answers

1. What is Existential Angst (paragraph 4)?

a. The feelings one has when confronted with choice

b. The state of desperation when contemplating that existence proceeds essence

c. The task of making seemingly limitless choices

d. The anxiety and regret associated with having made a choice

This is a comprehension question. It is best approached through going to the text and having a clear understanding and definition for the term in question. Existential Angst is described in the passage as the “daunting experience” of making a choice when “options are seemingly limitless.” Important here are two things:

1. That it is an experience (i.e. a state, an emotion, a feeling) and

2. That it is the emotion felt when having to make a choice (i.e. the process of choosing).

A: This is correct as it has both parts: the experience (feelings) felt when confronted (having to make) a choice

B: The first part of this answer is correct, as a state of desperation is definitely a feeling. However, the second part of this answer is not relevant, as Sartre never linked Existential Angst to his adage that was “existence proceeds essence”

C: The first part of this answer is incorrect as Existential Angst is about the experience when confronted with choice, not the task of making choices

D: This answer stem is incorrect as it is in the past tense. It relates the anxiety and regret (both which would be legitimate feelings for Existential Angst) to choices that have already been made, not choices that are currently available.

2. The author would most agree with which of the following statements:

a. Existentialism is a philosophy about agency and choice, best introduced through reading passages such as this one

b. Frankl’s philosophy is better than Kierkegaard and Sartre’s

c. Kierkegaard and Sartre’s philosophies were impractical when compared to Frankl’s philosophy

d. Applying the principles of existentialism to everyday life is better than just talking about it

This is a “Reasoning Beyond the Text” question. It is best approached through process of elimination. Note that the tone of the last paragraph is immensely positive when compared the rather neutral tone for the rest of the passage. Also, although this last paragraph seems to focus on Frankl’s philosophy, upon further scrutiny the positivity associated with the paragraph is actually for the APPLICATION of Frankl’s philosophy. This question is best approached using your understanding of the thesis (main goal) of the passage and process of elimination.

A: The first part of this answer characterizing Existentialism is correct. However, the author states that part of Frankl’s philosophies effectiveness is that it is a “lived experience” and more accessible this way. This implies that Existentialism is best taught through real life experiences rather than reading.

B: Although it may seem that the author is stating that Frankl’s philosophies are better with the positive tone in the last paragraph, it is rather the APPLICATION of Frankl’s philosophies that the author is praising, not his philosophies itself.

C: This is an attractive answer choice, as the author seems to imply that because Kierkegaard and Sartre’s philosophies were born out of academia, they’re therefore less practical. However, the author does not actually compare the practicality of each of the respective philosophies, instead saying that Frankl’s philosophy is merely more accessible (i.e. easier to understand) as it is presented as a lived experience rather than in academia, presumably as a textbook or lecture. The author does not comment on the practicality of Frankl’s philosophy itself.

D: The entirety of the last paragraph is lavish with praise regarding the application of existential philosophy in Frankl’s case. It is implied therefore that the author has a highly positive view of applications of existential philosophy.

3. Which of the following best describes the main goal of the passage?

a. To compare the different philosophies of Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Frankl

b. To show a progression of existential philosophy

c. To demonstrate how existentialism has changed with time

d. To offer an introduction to existential philosophy

This is a comprehension question directly asking for the main goal of the passage (i.e. what is this passage about?) This is best answered using your formulation of the thesis (main goal) of the passage and using process of elimination.

A: Although the author certainly discusses the philosophies of Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Frankl, he does not compare (i.e. drawing relationships between them, showing pros/cons, analyzing, etc.) them. Rather, the author just offers a brief overview of each of their philosophy.

B: There is a direct progression from Kierkegaard to Sartre (Kierkegaard’s “successor” Paragraph 3) and an implied one in the last paragraph with Frankl as the author introduces Frankl as having applied existentialist principles, presumably introduced by Kierkegaard and Sartre.

C: Although the passage illustrates how various separate existentialist philosophies have developed, it does not make explicit a time component. Furthermore, the passage does not presume to offer a full overview of existentialism but rather traces a distinct progression for a few philosophers (choice B).

D: Again, the passage is not offering an overview of Existentialism as a whole as would be expected in an introduction. It focuses on three distinct philosophers and traces the author’s take on a progression of existential thought.

4. According to the passage’s depiction of Kierkegaard, which of the following policies would he most support?

a. That students should have the choice to attend either a secular or religious school

b. That Existentialism should be taught in schools

c. That World Religions should be taught in schools

d. That public funding should be provided for religious school boards

This is a “Reasoning Beyond the Text” question. The passages description of Kierkegaard is that he is concerned with individual agency and choice but only insofar as one’s relation to God. It is directly stated, “Christianity is seen as truth” (paragraph 2). This question is best approached using process of elimination.

A: The author’s depiction of Kierkegaard does emphasize agency and choice (the students choice), he nevertheless saw Christianity as truth. There is also an implicit progression or growth noted from the aesthetic, to the ethical, and ultimately the religious sphere. Therefore, Kierkegaard would most have supported that all students attend Christian (or religious) school where they would’ve become familiar with this truth.

B: According to the passage, Kierkegaard did not state that existentialism should be taught or even spread. Rather, it is merely an explanation and analysis for the way people are and might live.

C: Although Kierkegaard would certainly have supported teaching Christianity in schools, he would not have supported the teaching of World Religions or any other religions.

D: By providing funding for religious schools, they would be more accessible to more people. This includes Christian school boards that Kierkegaard would have supported for all students to attend, as he believed Christianity was truth.

5. Which of the following statements is least supported by the passage?

a. Sartre believed men and women were equals

b. Sartre supported laws to prevent discrimination

c. Sartre believed that a poor man could become rich if he worked hard enough

d. Sartre was denounced by the Church

This is a “Reasoning Beyond the Text” question. The passage describes Sartre as an a atheistic philosopher who was primarily concerned above all else with choice and freedom of choice: “It is this narrowing and limiting of choice that Sartre defined as bad faith… any and all external influences that cause one to live in an inauthentic fashion… are judged to be guilty” (paragraph 3). Be careful here as this question asks for the LEAST supported (i.e. the choice that has the biggest leap in logic or lowest amount of evidence). The process of elimination here works well.

A: This is supported by the passage as Sartre is said to believe that it is “of no consequence the station, nature, and parameters surrounding one’s birth” (paragraph 4). This would imply that anything surrounding one’s birth (such as one’s sex) is not important and therefore equal.

B: Although Sartre may have believed that the nature of birth is of no consequence; he nevertheless strongly disagreed with social constructs and anything that limits choice (such as this law would).

C: This is a direct application of Sartre’s philosophy as he believed that one’s choices (such as hard work) were more important than the situation one was born into.

D: This can be inferred from the strong denunciation of faith and religion that Sartre expressed as “bad faith.” It is logical to assume that the Church would have been in disagreement with Sartre.

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About the Author

Dr. Perry Guo, is a family physician.

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