The MCAT: A Deep Dive and Breakdown of the CARS Portion
Many MCAT test-takers have a background in the sciences and find that the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) portion of the exam is particularly challenging. On top of the very anxiety-inducing time pressure of the CARS section, the texts that examinees are required to read often come from genres with which students are not familiar, such as literary criticism, art history, and philosophy.
To ensure that candidates have the opportunity to achieve their target score, we have included the skills and subjects that many have a particularly difficult time with.
The Three Skills to Exhibit on the CARS Section
According to the AAMC, there are three primary skills students need to demonstrate on the CARS section:
- Foundations of Reading Comprehension (approx, 30% of questions)
- Understanding the basic components of the text
- Inferring meaning or intent from immediate sentence context
- Reasoning within the Text (approx. 30% of questions)
- Integrating distant components of the text to infer an author’s message, intent, purpose, belief, position, bias, or assumptions
- Recognizing and evaluating arguments and their structural elements (claims, evidence, support, or relations)
- Reasoning beyond the Text (approx. 40% of questions)
- Applying or extrapolating ideas from the passage to new contexts
- Assessing the impact of incorporating new factors, information, or conditions on ideas from the passage
Half of the passages fall broadly under the category of social sciences, while the other half fall broadly under the category of humanities. These passages are excerpted (and sometimes edited) from books, academic journals, and magazines. The social sciences passages are generally more factual in tone, while the humanities passages tend to be more abstract and opinionated.
Social science passages typically come from one of the following disciplines (not an exhaustive list):
- Political Science
- Population Health
- Studies of Diverse Cultures
Humanities passages typically come from one of the following disciplines (not an exhaustive list):
- Popular Culture
- Studies of Diverse Cultures
How is the Exam Displayed?
The interface of the MCAT is such that the left-hand side of the screen will contain the passage; the right-hand side of the screen will contain the questions (presented one at a time). There are buttons at the bottom of the screen that allow you to navigate backward and forwards; you also have the ability to highlight text, strikeout answers, and flag questions for later review. There are keyboard shortcuts for several of these tools as well (these will be explained in the tutorial that you have to read before starting your exam).
The CARS section contains a variety of different question types:
- Information retrieval
- Vocabulary in context
- Main Idea
- Primary Purpose
Familiarity With Various Question Types
In order to do well on the CARS section, it is important to be extremely familiar with each of these question types and to understand what each one requires you to do with the information presented in the passages. Some question types, such as information retrieval and inference, will involve specific parts of the passage and will require you to read carefully in order to make sure your chosen answer is fully supported by something in the text. Other question types, such as main idea and primary purpose, will require you to think more globally about how the passage as a whole comes together. Finally, the more complex questions, such as strengthen/weaken and analogy, require you to make deductions and/or apply new information or hypotheticals to the text (reading for reasoning rather than reading for information).
Tips for Efficiently Tackling the CARS Section
Here are a few general tips that will help you to improve your CARS score:
- Do a lot of practice passages under timed conditions
- Read complex passages from a variety of disciplines every week (think The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, academic journals, etc.)
- Practice active reading and take control of the passages (highlight keywords and phrases, take notes on your noteboard, summarize the main idea and key themes of each paragraph or chunk of text)
Finally, here are a few specific tips for navigating the CARS section more effectively:
- Most students aren’t able to complete all of the passages within the time limit, so always do the easier passages first (you can use the interface to move between passages). Reading the first few sentences will usually give you a good idea of how complex a passage will be; easier passages tend to be concrete and specific, while harder passages tend to be abstract and use advanced vocabulary. You can also do a quick scan of the questions. Are there a lot of specific questions, or are there a lot of questions involving complex and hypothetical reasoning? Looking at the following two introductory paragraphs, which one would you rather do?
“In the present essay, I understand philosophy as an “immanent practice,” which is found in the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. This practice is contrary to a philosophy that aims at something transcendental – beyond or above life. “[T]hought is creation, not will to truth,” writes Deleuze.”
“On 13 August 2009, I deactivated my Facebook social networking account. The world remained on its axis but Facebook’s slightly sinister prediction that my friends would miss me turned out to be correct. A torrent of emails and text messages arrived in the days following, asking where I had gone. Many asked me to justify why I left, some out of curiosity and some out of shock.”
Which of these questions would you rather do?
“Assume that in addition to packaging regulations, the Australian government simultaneously spent millions of dollars on an anti-smoking media campaign? If true, how would this affect the arguments expressed in the passage?”
“According to the passage, which of the following cultural factors has been shown to affect antenatal depression and anxiety in Western populations?”
- Always preview the questions before you read the passage. This will help you to anticipate some of the main themes that the author will discuss. You can also use your noteboard to indicate where information from the questions is located when you read it (e.g. Question 4 asks about “current healthcare policy” and you see “contemporary public health policy” in paragraph 3 - note it on your noteboard!)
- Move through the passage in about 3-4 minutes. You aren’t trying to memorize or absorb every single detail in these texts; you only need to get the big picture and figure out roughly where things are located. If you are approaching the test in a smart way, you will always be going back to the passage to re-read relevant information as you’re answering the questions. You don’t need to memorize the specifics upfront.
- When you’re answering the questions, use the process of elimination aggressively. It’s usually a lot easier to find a reason to eliminate an answer than it is to choose an answer.
Bottom line: the most important thing you can do to get better at reading on the CARS section is to practice. Since there’s no specific content you can memorize for this section, it’s all about recognizing patterns and improving your own accuracy and pacing. These things take time, but they’re doable.
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