Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (or CARS) section of the MCAT is occasionally placed on the backburner by prospective medical students who are focused on learning (and relearning) the information necessary for success on the science-based portions of the test. What some individuals realize too close to their exam date, however, is that the CARS section is anything but a buffer score for results in “more difficult” sections of the MCAT.
Instead, your CARS score represents prowess in a particular set of skills deemed essential for future physicians. You cannot study for CARS in a day, or even in a week. Mastery of this 90-minute, 53-question portion requires targeted preparation over several months. Whether you view the CARS section with trepidation or relative excitement, consider using these three tips to help you achieve your best CARS score:
1. Begin your preparation early, and practice often
Delaying your CARS review until the week before your test date very nearly ensures that you will not achieve your best score. Even if you are or were a humanities major, chances are that the specific reasoning required for success on the CARS section will challenge the kinds of critical thinking with which you are already familiar. Avoid the problem of realizing too late that you must cultivate new reasoning skills by completing a timed diagnostic CARS section three months before your exam date. Then, take periodic practice sections (also timed) over the next three months. Monitor your progress on these sample test portions, and identify the types of questions that give you the most pause.
2. Focus on the larger picture
The CARS portion of the MCAT is less concerned with your ability to recall minute details of a given passage than it is with whether you are able to understand the broader arguments and tone of the overall selection. To achieve this aim, practice focusing on the larger picture. After reading each passage—and before you begin to answer questions—ask yourself two key items: “What is the author’s main idea?” and “What is the author’s tone?” If you are able to answer both of these questions confidently, you will be well-positioned to begin choosing correct responses.
3. Review incorrect answers, and look for patterns
The adage to “Learn from your mistakes” applies to all sections of the MCAT, but it is especially true on the CARS portion. On other sections, you might chalk a wrong answer up to failing to remember a fact. On the CARS portion, incorrect answers are often due to improperly understanding the passage or its associated questions, timing inefficiencies, or faulty critical reasoning. After any set of questions that you answer and review, revisit your wrong answers and the questions with which you had difficulty. Ask yourself why you found the question difficult, or why you selected the incorrect answer. Then, identify one or two strategies that may help you succeed on a similar problem in the future. If you find that you are answering similar questions wrong over an entire test or over several weeks, deliberately seek out such items during your untimed practice, and work on fixing your misunderstandings of the problem type.
Cassie Kosarek, MD is a professional tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Bryn Mawr College and was a member of the Class of 2021 at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.