How to Ace the CARS Section of the MCAT

posted by Memm Team

For many test-takers, studying for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) can feel like a full-time job. Because studying for the test is so time-consuming, having a fine-tuned study strategy is essential. The MCAT is comprised of the following four sections:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/BioChem)
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of the MCAT is unlike any other. Beginning to study for CARS feels daunting for many people. Many test-takers are left scratching their heads when they set out to study for this section because it’s focused solely on skills rather than knowledge and memorization. Reviewing flashcards isn’t going to get you very far when you’re studying for CARS. Rather, you need a strategy that helps you improve your reading skills and answer passage-based questions efficiently. Continue reading to learn more about what is on this section and how you can prepare to ace CARS. 

What’s on the CARS Section of the MCAT?

Before you can do well on the CARS section of the MCAT, you need to understand how you’ll be assessed during this section. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) describes the CARS section of the MCAT as follows,

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section of the MCAT exam will be similar to many of the verbal reasoning tests you have taken in your academic career. It includes passages and questions that test your ability to understand what you read. You may find this section to be unique in several ways, though, because it has been developed specifically to measure the analysis and reasoning skills you will need to be successful in medical school. The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section achieves this goal by asking you to read and think about passages from a wide range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, followed by a series of questions that lead you through the process of comprehending, analyzing, and reasoning about the material you have read.

The AAMC

The CARS section accounts for 25% of the test, and you will be given 90 minutes to complete the 53 questions in the section. Possible scores on CARS range from 118-132. It’s made up of nine passages accompanied by five to seven questions each. 

This section is designed to:

  • test your comprehension, analysis, and reasoning skills by asking you to critically analyze information provided in passages; 
  • include content from ethics, philosophy, studies of diverse cultures, population health, and a wide range of social sciences and humanities disciplines; 
  • and provide all the information you need to answer questions in the passages and questions themselves. 

The content breakdown for CARS is as follows:

  • 50% humanities
  • 50% social sciences

Additionally, the questions in CARS are comprised of three different types of analysis and reasoning questions: 

  • Foundations of Comprehension: This includes understanding basic components of the text and inferring meaning from rhetorical devices, word choice, and text structure
  • Reasoning Within the Text: This includes integrating different components of the text to increase comprehension
  • Reasoning Beyond the Text: This includes applying or extrapolating ideas from the passage to new contexts and assessing the impact of introducing new factors, information, or conditions to ideas from the passage

If you’re not used to this type of abstract thinking required by CARS, you may struggle to achieve your desired score on this section. Those who didn’t take many humanities and social sciences courses during their undergraduate education may find this particularly difficult. Because this section is so abstract and does not require memorization, it can be difficult to know how to study or where to start. That’s why we’ve provided tips and tricks to help you study for CARS along with valuable resources as you study for this section of the MCAT. 

How to Study for the CARS Section of the MCAT 

Virtually everyone agrees that studying for CARS is completely different than studying for the rest of the MCAT. So, where do you start? First, let’s look at the disciplines the AAMC draws from when creating CARS questions:

  • Architecture 
  • Art 
  • Dance 
  • Ethics 
  • Literature 
  • Music 
  • Philosophy 
  • Popular Culture 
  • Religion 
  • Theater 
  • Studies of Diverse Cultures 
  • Anthropology 
  • Archaeology 
  • Economics 
  • Education 
  • Geography 
  • History 
  • Linguistics 
  • Political Science 
  • Population Health 
  • Psychology 
  • Sociology

If you majored in the arts or humanities during your undergrad, your eyes might light up at this list. These topics may seem very familiar. If you focused most of your undergrad on science classes, however, this list might incite some panic. Either way, remember that you don’t need to have any prior knowledge to ace this section, you simply may be more familiar with the topics if you majored in the arts or humanities. So, where do you begin? 

We recommend beginning to study for the MCAT as a whole three to six months before your test date. Within a couple of weeks of commencing, plan to take a practice MCAT test. This will give you a good baseline idea of where you stand. Once you know your baseline score for CARS, you can get a better idea of what you need to practice. Be sure to make note of the types of questions you got correct and incorrect. This can guide what types of practice questions you prioritize. 

Speaking of practice questions, practice is the name of the game for CARS. Because there is nothing to memorize, you need to spend the majority of your time doing practice questions. 

Not only do you need to practice answering questions, but you also need to practice reading in general. This means reading both for pleasure and to challenge your brain. When you read for pleasure, anything goes: magazines, books, simple articles, etc. When you read to challenge your brain, seek out publications like the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and other challenging texts. 

As you read and as you complete practice questions, here are some strategies to improve your reading and question answering abilities: 

  • Practice active reading: This might mean highlighting, taking notes, or summarizing each paragraph, for example. This will get your brain used to pulling out key facts quickly. 
  • Practice reading quickly: Your time is limited on the MCAT, so practice reading quickly when you read for pleasure and when you read to challenge yourself. This will train your brain to comprehend texts more quickly during the test. 
  • Practice reading slowly: Of course, you don’t want to do this on test day, but reading slowly every once in a while can help you pick up on nuance and the tone of the author, which is important for answering CARS questions correctly. 

Here are some reading and analysis strategies that apply specifically to reading and answering test questions, be it the real test or practice: 

  • Pull out key information: This is where your active reading practice comes into play. Whether it’s summarizing each paragraph in one sentence or highlighting important phrases, pulling out key information as you read can save you time when answering questions. 
  • Read the questions first: Before you read the passage, take a look at the questions. They’ll give you an idea of what to look for as you read. This can also help inform your active reading, saving you time. 
  • Find text evidence to support your answer: Every correct answer on CARS has textual evidence to support it. If you cannot find a piece of text from the passage that supports your answer, you may not have the right answer. 
  • Think of your answer before reading the choices: Some potential answers may be there to trick you, and some may even be correct, but not as correct as the true correct answer. Reading answers first may make you second guess yourself. 
  • Read between the lines: Many times, you need to think about what the author thinks or what they are implying. As you read, try to determine his or her tone and beliefs. 
  • Figure out what type of question you’re facing: Each question will either be foundations of comprehension, reasoning within the text, or reasoning beyond the text. If you can determine what type of question you’re looking at, you’ll be better able to determine what type of answer they’re looking for. 

According to the AAMC,

Passages for the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section—even those written in a conversational or opinionated style—are often multifaceted and focus on the relationships between ideas or theories. The questions associated with the passages will require you to assess the content, but you will also need to consider the authors’ intentions and tones and the words they used to express their points of view.

The AAMC

When you employ the reading and test-taking strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to doing exactly that. 

One of our biggest tips for preparing for CARS is to not put off studying for this section. Be it because the section seems scary or because you mistakenly believe preparation will take less time since it’s not knowledge-based, do not put off studying for this section. In reality, you need a lot of time to prepare for CARS, and the more time you spend preparing, the faster you’ll get at answering these analysis and reasoning-based questions.  

Once you’ve taken your baseline practice test, we recommend taking another practice test at least every two weeks. In between tests, read, read, read, and complete practice questions. When in doubt, use AAMC practice materials because they will be the most similar to the test. 

Resources for the CARS Section of the MCAT

When you’re studying for CARS, you’ll make the most of your time and money if you focus on resources that help you study high-yield information. Here are some of the best resources for the CARS section of the MCAT:

Remember to use AAMC materials liberally. While CARS may seem scary, it doesn’t have to be. Proper preparation will leave you feeling confident and ready when you begin this section on test day. 

How to Do Well on the CARS Section

The name of the game for CARS is practice. Practice reading, practice analyzing texts, and practice completing test questions. If you find that you’ve followed all of these tips and you are still struggling with CARS, an MCAT tutor may be your missing piece. He or she can look at where you might be struggling and help you master this section of the MCAT. 

Last edited on: October 04, 2021

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