The MCAT CARS (Critical Analysis and Reasoning) section is the most important section on the test.
This is not an extremely popular opinion, but it’s true. We’ve helped students significantly improve low MCAT scores just by focusing on CARS.
In this post, we’ll go over what the MCAT CARS section is, why it’s so important, and how you can start preparing for it.
Table of Contents
- What’s Tested On MCAT CARS
- Question Categories
- How To Prepare For MCAT CARS With Practice & Studying
- How To Prepare By Creating The Right Mentality
- Time To Get To Work
What’s Tested On MCAT CARS
The MCAT is a massive test separated into four sections that are designed to test your knowledge on multiple topics.
When many aspiring medical students are preparing for this test, they focus heavily on topics that are directly related to their field. As a result, they will spend most of their time studying for the first three sections.
Far too many students tackle the MCAT without adequate preparation for the final section, called CARS.
It’s not hard to see why. On paper, it appears to be the shortest section. With 53 questions and a time limit of 90 minutes, it appears to be a smaller section compared to the others.
However, CARS is far more important than most students think.
CARS stands for Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. The section is built to challenge your critical analysis skills.
Many upcoming test-takers make the mistake of thinking that CARS is nothing more than a glorified reading comprehension quiz.
While it does require a lot of those same skills, it’s more complex than any other reading test you’ve taken before. The passages are difficult to understand and cover topics that are typically vague or up for interpretation.
The issue with the CARS section is that it’s often the antithesis of what premed students are used to. You’ve spent years focusing on cold-hard facts and complicated formulas that are not up for debate.
The CARS section is focused more on ambiguity and interpretation.
It’s an important part of the MCAT and can give admissions panels a better idea of how you analyze information that’s presented in front of you. In fact, many admissions panels weigh this section more heavily than the others!
Understanding how to prepare for the CARS section is critical.
It’s not about cramming facts in your head. Instead, you must understand how to read difficult passages and get the most information out of them as possible.
In total, the CARS section is made up of nine passages. These passages cover complex topics related to humanities and social sciences.
This means you might encounter text covering literature, art, politics, and more.
Usually, the MCAT presents you with passages of varying difficulties. You’ll see different writing styles and author languages. Thus, the written examples will vary across the board in terms of complexity and how core ideas are presented.
Your job as a test-taker is to read these passages and answer a series of questions. There are five to seven questions per passage.
That might not seem like much, but those questions are not going to be easy.
The MCAT CARS section is comprised of questions that fall into three general categories. These include Foundations of Comprehension, Reasoning Within the Text, and Reasoning Beyond the Text.
Foundations Of Comprehension
Questions that fall into the Foundations of Comprehension category are going to seem the most familiar. They’re closely related to the types of questions on every other reading comprehension test you’ve taken thus far in your education career.
As you can guess, these are relatively basic questions that are designed to see if you understood the core components of the passage.
For the most part, each one of these questions is focused on a single idea. You might see questions related to the main point, individual phrases, literary elements, and more.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the MCAT if the questions were cut and dry (it’s a hard test).
The test challenges your comprehension skills in several ways. Some questions may have a very narrow scale while others might refer to over-arching elements related to the text as a whole. Many questions also point to things not found within the text or focus on phrases with multiple meanings.
Approximately 30 percent of the questions in the CARS section will be found in the Foundations of Reading Comprehension category.
Reasoning Within The Text
Questions that are part of the Reasoning Within the Text category are a lot more complicated.
They make up about 30 percent of the questions in the CARS section and are typically more challenging for test-takers than the previous category.
These questions are focused on literary analysis. They’re meant to see if you can analyze complex information quickly and efficiently.
Most of the questions are not going to have black and white answers.
For example, you might come across questions that force you to identify the relationship between two seemingly different ideas. Or, you might be asked to infer something that’s not explicitly stated within the text.
The idea behind these questions is to force you into analyzing the core arguments made within the text. You’ll have to understand unstated assumptions, identify any evidence related to the argument, and more.
You might even have to use evidence in the text to undermine the argument!
It all depends on the contents of the passage. Either way, these questions are going to force you to analyze the text efficiently.
You can’t skim over the work or read while distracted. To be successful on this category of CARS, you must be able to understand what the passage is trying to say.
Reasoning Beyond The Text
These types of questions are, without a doubt, the most challenging.
Reasoning Beyond the Text questions are exactly what they sound like. They’re about using the information you’ve learned in the passage to analyze situations outside of the text.
For example, the passage may be related to an important political issue. While the original author may have written the text to support the argument of that issue, questions in this category might force you to look at things from a different angle.
The test may present you with new information that you need to use to challenge or support the original idea. Alternatively, many questions are designed to apply what the original passage says in a different context.
These questions can vary across the board. The idea behind this is that doctors have to analyze new information all the time and apply it to their patients.
These questions are meant to show that you’re capable of using that information to form new ideas that either support or undermine what you originally read.
It’s a complicated question category and unfortunately, you’re going to encounter these types of questions more than the others. They make up about 40 percent of the question on the CARS section.
How To Prepare For MCAT CARS With Practice & Studying
Preparing for the CARS section is no easy feat, but studying for this section is critical.
It’s not about cramming or trying to read as many passages or practice questions as possible. It’s about learning how to read and comprehend the material efficiently.
Remember, you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here.
One mistake many students make is trying to learn new tricks and or silver bullet techniques for mastering the CARS section. That’s a mistake.
Stick with what works and trust the experts.
The key to being successful in this section is improving your ability to understand what you’re reading and how to apply the information.
Here are some ways that you can effectively prepare for the MCAT CARS sections.
1. Improve Your Reading Skills
The most obvious step you’ll need to take is to improve your reading and comprehension abilities. This is something that will take time.
In most cases, you’ll need about two months to see a noticeable improvement.
Take some time to read relevant and challenging material each day. You can find plenty of practice tests, passages, and questions online. Use those to your advantage to familiarize yourself with humanities-related topics.
Remember, the CARS section doesn’t delve into the natural sciences. So, you can theoretically improve your skills by reading any piece of material you find.
If you need a break, pick up an art magazine or read through opinion pieces. The goal here is to improve your reading speed while also forcing you to comprehend topics that you might not be familiar with.
2. Understand The Fundamentals Of Rhetoric
Rhetoric refers to the way that language is used in humanities pieces, and you’ll quickly find that anything outside of the realm of science can be vague. Natural-science topics are focused on the facts while humanities pieces are geared toward opinions.
Understanding how to identify the author’s rhetoric can make a huge difference. There are tons of textbooks and guides to help you here.
But ultimately, it all comes down to seeing some examples.
When you’re reading passages, practice figuring out the author’s tone and stance as quickly as possible.
Are they for the core argument or against it? Are they trying to present the idea in a relaxed tone or is the content more serious in nature?
This will require using context clues to figure out. Once you master this skill, you automatically have a leg up.
You can use your knowledge of rhetoric to quickly find the main idea, identify evidence the author provides, and more. This will come in very handy on the MCAT CARS.
3. Brush Up On Your Grammar And Vocabulary Skills
There’s no denying that grammar and vocabulary plays an important role in reading comprehension. Obviously, having a large vocabulary is going to make a huge difference.
It can make understanding phrases much easier, which will ultimately assist you when you’re trying to apply the core ideas outside of the text.
As you can imagine, improving in this area will make CARS a lot more manageable.
Good grammar allows you to quickly identify important images and also helps you infer what the author is trying to say. Grammar is the language of critical reading after all.
Humanities pieces are notoriously superfluous. Understanding how to sift through the filler and focus on the most important details can make all the difference.
4. Improve Your Reflective Intelligence
Reflective intelligence is your ability to see how each part of the passage relates to the main idea and what they imply.
Again, this is something that’s going to come with time. You need to read a lot of material from a wide range of authors to truly understand.
Developing your reflective intelligence is important not just for CARS, but also for your career in the future.
When you’re reading a passage, you have to be able to separate incidental information from significant information. Then, you must see the relationship between the two to understand what the author is trying to say.
The same thing is done by a physician looking at a patient’s chart. It’s what they do to make judgment calls for treatment, so this skill is an important one to develop.
How To Prepare By Creating The Right Mentality
The CARS section can be a big point of stress for students. It’s a difficult section with a small window of time to complete. You’ll often see students stressing until the very last second to pass every question.
The first thing you should do to prepare yourself mentally is to go into the test confidently. You know how to read and you’ve studied intensely to ensure that you can comprehend passages effectively.
Stressing out during the test is only going to do you more harm.
Every minute counts during the MCAT CARS. If you’re stressing out while you’re trying to read a complicated literary passage, you’re not going to understand it fully.
This will force you to go back and read it again, wasting more time than you need.
Take your time, breath, and read each passage from start to finish. Don’t skip around and skim for the main idea. Focus on the text and do your best to understand what is being said.
The Importance Of Changing Your Approach
Before you even attempt the CARS section, you can set yourself up by changing the way you view it.
As we mentioned earlier, it’s an often-overlooked section that many students fail to adequately prepare for. Viewing it as the most important section can be a game-changer.
In fact, the CARS section has a noticeable multiplier effect for the MCAT.
Students who do well on the CARS section often do better on the other sections, too. And it’s not because they know more about science topics, it’s because they have better reading comprehension skills!
When you have good reading comprehension skills, you have a better understanding of the questions and answers.
On average, students with a good score on the CARS section will have a 1 or 2 point boost in all other sections. That can push you over the top and put you in the upper percentile ranges!
Plus, preparing for the MCAT as a whole will be much easier.
Think about it: better reading comprehension skills will allow you to have a deeper understanding of the material. You can read those textbooks and prep materials more efficiently and absorb the information you need.
Looking at the CARS section as an opportunity rather than a hindrance can make all the difference. When you prepare yourself for this section efficiently, every other part of the MCAT will fall into place.
You can set yourself apart from others who focused more on the science sections while setting yourself up for success.
Time To Get To Work
Now that you understand the value of preparing for the CARS section on the MCAT, it’s time for you to get to work.
With so many different types of questions out there, the process of getting started can seem a little intimidating. But it’s not as bad as you might think.
In fact, preparing for CARS can actually be a lot of fun! It’s a different kind of studying that can provide some variety while positively influencing your performance in other areas of the test.