Jul 31, 2019
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  1. Medical Student
Hello everyone.

My experience browsing on SDN and r/MCAT forums has established a common sentiment among test takers that CARS is one of the most difficult sections to strategize and progressively improve score-wise. While I don't excel enough on the B/B and C/P sections to comfortably provide a guide on improving scores, I consistently scored in the 99th percentile range on both practice exams and test day in the CARS section and would like to post a little bit about what works for me so that it hopefully can assist some of you in this beast of an exam. While this isn't so much as step by step guide on how to ace the CARS section, I'm hopeful that the specific approach I take to both preparing for this section and answering passages can be of some use.

CARS "Review":

A major difference between CARS and the other sections starts before we can even begin doing practice problems, and that difference is in the form of how we do content review for CARS. What's unfortunate is that unlike the three other sections which can be studied to the point of comfort in a set period of time, reading comprehension is a skill that cannot be easily be made up for in preparation for a single exam without trying new study methods that aren't typically used in courses outside of the humanities. While focusing on 'MCAT-like' passages and specific question types can be beneficial, to truly excel in this section you must be able to properly analyze an essay. One of the best study material for this section is available for the price $0 granted that you have access to an internet connection.

Read read read.
Take literature courses.
Read essays.
Read read read some more.

Gettysburg Address, I've Been To The Mountaintop, and Letter from Birmingham Jail are among plenty of classic essays with loaded language and literary mechanisms that are excellent to analyze yourself and compare with resources online by other literary scholars if needed to sharpen your essay skills. The reason I picked these specific essays is because there is rarely a sentence in these speeches isn't there for a specific reason. One of the most important skills in essay analysis is acknowledging that each specific word and ordering is there for a specific reason; the more comfortable you can get with identifying common literary devices and frameworks of essay construction, the more easily you'll be able to recognize what parts of the essay the author wants you to focus on and what specific message the author is trying to convey.

Don't settle for simply reading the essay either; break down the essay. What is the introduction? What is the conclusion? What is the thesis? For which arguments did the author provide concrete examples and supporting evidence? What is the author explicitly stating? What is the author implicitly stating? Who is the audience? What is the time period? What is the author trying to convince us of?

I think CARS is one of the sections where it is never too soon to start studying as your main method of studying is reading. Argumentative essays, poetry, art review; go outside of your comfort zone. While you don't have to necessarily enjoy the piece, it is important that you become comfortable with reading different types of genres and topics so that test day you aren't bamboozled by Van Gogh pieces that would have otherwise been more straight forward if you took a deep breath and dissected the essay piece by piece as you have done before.

How I approach the CARS section on test day:
The beauty of the CARS section is that in its apparent randomness, once you truly grasp proper essay analysis skills, each passage has a consistent framework that you will be able to deconstruct and utilize to maximize your score.

If you can write an essay, you can break one down, too. Each passage is going to have the introduction, body, and conclusion. Each passage is going to have the author explicitly stating something and implicitly stating something, and each passage is going to have a hidden message that they are trying to convince the reader of. I try to determine the framework of the essay on my first read and find specific literary devices that the author is using to try to get me to focus on a certain portion of the passage.
In order to avoid the risk of becoming disinterested in a certain essay topic and potentially lowering my score, I always play this mental mind game when I start the CARS section that each passage is someone trying to argue with me about something. I've always been one that enjoyed to debate so it made me extra attentive in finding out what flaws and strengths my 'opponent' is using in their argument so I can come up with a counter.I take my time and read the essay/'argument' slowly so that I can determine the essence of the piece and the big picture as a whole

A common mistake I find is people that like to highlight, answer questions, highlight, and approach essay analysis in fragments. The issues this brings is that you lose the carefully constructed framework by compartmentalizing it and it might prove difficult to determine what an essay is actually saying when you are approached by an art passage or a topic that you frankly have no interest in. Another problem this brings is that certain question types on the MCAT are designed to trick you into selecting answer choices that seem valid when the essay is broken down in pieces rather than as a whole passage, which I'll get to in this next section:

Common question types/tips:
"What is the author/passage's main idea?"
As mentioned beforehand, this is a potentially tricky question if you are the type of person that like to split essays in various pieces without remembering to tie it all back together. Sometimes the essay goes off on an apparent tangent with examples about topics that is derailing from the topic it was previously about, or maybe the entire passage is a metaphor for something else entirely; these reasons are why it's important to view the essay as one big piece and understand the message of the argument on the first read rather than trying to understand it in smaller, broken down pieces to get the 'big picture' message.

"What is the author implying?"
Do you recognize any of the answer choices verbatim from the passage? You can immediately slash them off as the correct answers. This question type is one of the most common 'trick' questions as all it takes is glancing over the 'implicit' in the statement. This is where it's important to take into account the explicit message the author presents and the implicit message I mentioned earlier.

"But, except,…"
Pay special attention to these when you come upon them on a passage. Often times it is preceded by a statement that might make it seem like the author might agree with a counter argument, but the following statement will nullify it.


Just got off a 12 hour shift so bit tired of writing for today so this is gonna be a big work in progress but I wanted to have at least something posted now to help those studying; I'll be coming back to update this later on with more relevant tips and information.

Please feel free to message me or reply with any questions you want me to answer or any tips you would like to share with others!
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Jul 12, 2019
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  1. Medical Student
Another CARS 99th percenter here and I totally second everything @Icebird says! I would definitely recommend taking some literature/non-scientific reading-heavy courses before the MCAT; one of the reasons I believe I was able to do so well on CARS is because of the diversity of classes I took throughout undergrad, many of which included significant reading and writing components. IMO, CARS "study" books are not very helpful (I used the Kaplan 7-book set and don't believe I ever once looked through the CARS book) because it's very hard for a book to "teach" you the analytic skills needed to do well on the test--actually reading and analyzing literature is a much more valuable use of your time (and much more interesting!)
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