How I Tackled the CARS Section: A Step-by-Step Guide to MCAT CARS

Apr 13, 2020
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Hey guys! I hope you’re all doing well and staying safe. I have been seeing a lot of questions about how to make progress in CARS and decided to make this post that can hopefully help you guys tackle the MCAT CARS section with a strategy that may actually help increase your scores.

Background:

I took the MCAT a year ago and during my preparation I realized that there weren’t any good strategies to approach CARS. In an effort to figure out how I could improve my score I realized that we usually apply a simple approach of reading the passage and answering the question to go through the CARS section and essentially go in with the mindset that there is no strategy we can use to improve our score. That is wrong and I hope to share with you a strategy that shows you why it is. CARS is just like any other section and with the right approach, we can balance time and accuracy on this long and often difficult section.

Why is CARS Hard?

In order to understand why the strategy works, we have to understand what makes CARS hard. CARS is difficult because we believe that we need to make a trade-off: either we go really fast to get through all the passages, thus compromising comprehension and accuracy, or we go slow enough to understand the passages and retain information that can actually help us answer the questions, however, that happens at the compromise of time. The strategy I came up with aims to strike a balance between the two.

The Actual Strategy:
  1. CARS passages are not subjective in nature, rather they are objective. That is the first mistake a lot of students make in their approach. We tend to think that CARS passages can be interpreted in a myriad of ways and that means questions appear to have more than one right answer amongst the answers choices. We need to dispel this myth and the best way to do so is to remember that AAMC would not be able to create passages that were subjective to interpret. CARS passages follow the same format that essays do. In high school, we were taught that essays could be structured in a 5 paragraph format with the introduction paragraph with a thesis at the end of the paragraph followed by three body paragraphs and a final conclusion paragraph. CARS passages roughly follow the same format and it is our job to identify how the CARS passages present the information that fits into this framework. This is the part that gets better with practice.
  2. Now, this strategy is based on the fact that most questions are presented in chronological order. Meaning, as you go through the questions, usually the earlier questions ask about the beginning of the passage and the later questions ask about the end of the passage, unless they are main idea questions. We will take advantage of this as we go through the passage to answer questions.
  3. First, start reading the introduction paragraph. Focus carefully on the introduction paragraph because this will give you the main idea and there will be some form of thesis in the passage. After you are done reading the first paragraph, jump to the questions. Try to answer the first question. If it is a main idea question, flag it for review and then move on to the second question. If you can answer it, go ahead and answer it. If you can’t, you move on to the body paragraphs.
  4. Since reading the CARS passages is lengthy and tiring, it is difficult to maintain focus for the length of the passage. That is why I recommend carefully reading the introduction paragraph and conclusion paragraph only and reading the body paragraphs for supporting or alternative arguments only. That means, when you read the body paragraph, focus on the first sentence and look for transitional keywords such as “therefore”, “however”, “also”, etc to help understand if the author is supporting his main idea or providing a counter argument. When you finish reading a body paragraph, jump to the questions and pick up at the question you last read and try to answer it. Continue this process of reading a body paragraph and jumping to the questions to answer them and flagging the main idea questions to answer at the end of the passage.
  5. Once you arrive at the conclusion paragraph, it is important to read with focus. This paragraph will tie the main idea together and also make the author’s point very clear if not already done so in the introduction paragraph. After reading the conclusion paragraph, you can go to answer the remaining questions. By the time you get to the end of the passage you will have answered almost half the questions. The remaining questions would mostly be main idea questions that you can now answer since you read the introduction and conclusion paragraphs carefully and answered the other questions as well.
Important Points:
  1. This strategy works with practice. Over time, you will be able to recognize how the passages fit into the framework we were taught early in high school and be able to answer questions using that mental framework.
  2. I do not recommend taking notes as you read a CARS passage because our goal is to answer questions not summarize the passages. Taking notes ends up being a waste of time and not that helpful.
  3. Do not highlight as well because that has been shown to be inefficient in retaining information, similar to taking notes.
  4. Use AAMC question packs to practice for CARS because they are the most representative of the actual passages. In addition to the AAMC question packs and full lengths exams, I thought Jack Westin passages were helpful earlier in my preparation to practice this strategy.
A lot of students think that CARS is one of the sections that students cannot do much to prepare for so they go into the exam with no strategy. The MCAT requires a lot of content knowledge for the other sections but strategy makes a difference in how you apply your content knowledge to get questions right. The same applies to CARS. There is no content you can do to prepare beforehand but practice using a strategy is the best way you can go into the CARS section with a game plan. Also, I know I recommended things like not taking notes but if that is what works for you, by all means go ahead and do so. Change this strategy as it works for you. I came up with this strategy by taking pieces from different strategies I learned about to create one that works for me. You should feel free to change this strategy so that it is adapted to your approach and personality.

I made a YouTube video talking about this strategy and also have made YouTube videos on strategies to approach other MCAT sections.

CARS Strategy YouTube Video:
 
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Thanks for sharing this! Love FOAMed!

I would just add on that it was helpful for me (someone with ADD/ADHD) to actually close my eyes for 8 seconds between passages and try to let the last passage wash away. I have heard from students that often they can carry the anxiety of the previous passage onto the next one, so this helped me and may help you!

David D, MD - USMLE and MCAT Tutor
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