Anyone who has taken or studied for the MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)—or any other critical reading test—will tell you that these tests can be incredibly challenging. Why is that true, given that people studying for the MCAT CARS are typically good students? There are several reasons why. Part of the challenge is the subject matter in the passages. Many individuals have not read extensively outside of their disciplines–especially in the humanities and social sciences. Another challenge is that many people today aren’t used to reading material that is written much above the high school level, even college students. Thus, many readers are uneasy with complex sentence structures and elaborate or abstract language. In addition, analyzing and reasoning from material in a new discipline or in a style that is unfamiliar to you is difficult. It can require extra thought for anyone. However, these and other reading challenges don’t need to be roadblocks to your success when you take the MCAT or any other test that involves critical reading. Critical reading, analysis, and reasoning are skills that can be learned and practiced. This article is designed to help you understand the skills you’ll need to read effectively and approach testing for the MCAT CARS and other critical reading tests.
Learning, reading, and MCAT CARS
Before you start your study, it’s important to understand the foundations of how you learn anything. Take a moment and think about those things that you do well, whether it is playing an instrument, riding a bike, or doing math problems. You didn’t magically become proficient in any of these areas. You learned by watching and understanding basic parts of the task, practicing relevant skills and subskills, and progressively building from “easy” material to more complicated and challenging material. Learning to read and analyze language is no different than any other skill that you have learned. Research tells us that analytical reading is a complex task that requires explicit training and instruction (e.g. Glasswell, K., Judd, L., Mostert, W. & Mayn, L., 2016). Unfortunately, we often take language skills for granted and assume that if we can read well at one level or in one genre, we can read every text with ease. That’s just not the case. Just as being a great high school athlete doesn’t necessarily make one eligible for the pros and being an exceptional pianist doesn’t always make one a great drummer, being a proficient reader and analyst in one discipline or being a good reader of some college textbooks doesn’t immediately translate into the ability to read critically and effectively in all genres and at all levels. Learning to read and analyze a variety of passages takes guidance, time and practice. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to find the right prep tools for success when you’re planning to take the MCAT or other pre-professional training tests. You need tools that will expose you to a variety of texts and allow you to progressively and systematically improve your skills.
Glasswell, Judd, Mostert & Mayn (2016) summarize the best research in the areas of reading comprehension and reasoning in their book Powerful Practices in Reading Comprehension. Citing Dymock & Nicholson (2010) and Dorsey Hammond & Nessel (2011), they argue that readers need to consciously think about their reading and develop skills and strategies through practice. In terms of preparation for the MCAT CARS, the first step in practice means being prepared to read across multiple disciplines. On the MCAT, 50% of the passages are drawn from the social sciences (e.g. Anthropology, Archaeology, Economics, Education, Geography, History, Linguistics, Political Science, Population Health, Psychology, Sociology, and Studies of Diverse Cultures) and 50% of the passages are drawn from the humanities (e.g. Architecture, Art, Dance, Ethics, Literature, Music, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Religion, Theater, and Studies of Diverse Cultures) (c.f. AAMC, 2017). To find readings similar to those on the MCAT CARS, you should survey periodicals like Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, The Economist, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review, and The Paris Review. These sources offer a broad range of readings in a variety of disciplines. In addition, these periodicals will provide you with somewhat longer and more challenging articles than those found in many popular periodicals and newspapers.
As you feel more comfortable reading these periodical articles, you may also want to visit your local library and choose to read anthologies of readings or books from any of the disciplines cited above. Take time to select a variety of texts including difficult contemporary, older, and “classical” texts. If you want to ensure that you feel comfortable reading passages from a computer screen (like those on the MCAT), you can access any number of books, periodicals, and journal articles through free, online open source and public domain sites like Project Gutenberg, Open Library, Open Textbook Library, MPDI Journals (e.g. Humanities), Authorama, or PLOS (e.g. Psychology).
Once you feel that you’re ready to test your skills, the next step is to put yourself into test prep situations that push you to apply your reading skills to questions about those passages.
Reading in the testing situation
In the testing situation, there are strategies that can help you read better. Research indicates that skilled readers use a specific set of strategies to help them make sense of texts and reason based on their reading. These strategies include activating your prior knowledge, engaging with and overtly questioning what you read, using the text’s structure and rhetorical clues to predict and analyze passages, using mental images to interpret ideas, and summarizing textual information to elucidate and consolidate meaning (e.g. Harvey & Goudvis 2007; National Reading Panel, 2000).
How do you implement these strategies? Actively read. In general, you will need to read a passage at least three times. Each time you read, you should be thinking carefully and asking yourself questions that will improve your reading skills.
On the first reading, read to understand the content and purpose of the passage. Most of the passages in MCAT CARS are part of a larger text or written as a part of a larger cultural conversation. During your first reading don’t attempt to understand every symbol, metaphor, or argument in the passage. Rather, you should read for the subject, the themes, and the context of the work. Ask yourself, how is this passage structured? What kind of writing is this (e.g. expository, persuasive, creative fiction)? What is the goal of the author or of this style of writing? How does the structure of this passage impact its meaning? The answers to these questions will provide you with a mental framework for what to expect as you read. If the work is fiction, this will cue you to look for things like character motives, rising and falling action, and symbols used in the narrative. If you are reading an expository text, you will be looking for explanations and descriptions. And if you are reading a persuasive text, you will be looking for arguments and counterarguments.
The first reading also allows you to review what you already know about the subject or the context of the writing. You may ask yourself: What do I know about this topic, this author, or this genre and how will my knowledge help me to better understand this passage? What is the general gist of the passage and how does that relate to larger ideas and questions? What general questions come to mind as I read this? How does this passage challenge my expectations about the topic or the genre in which I am reading? What mental images immediately come to mind? What do I know about the historical context for this passage and how can that help me understand the ideas?
As you finish the first reading, take a few moments to think about the work as you would a conversation with the author. Who is this person, what is this person like, and what is the tone of the conversation? Is the passage a friendly statement, an answer in an argument, or an informational commentary?
On the next reading, move from understanding the larger passage to trying to understand the internal structure of the passage. As you read each paragraph, ask yourself, “What is the author saying in this section and why?” After looking at the main ideas in each paragraph, ask yourself how each of the paragraphs relates to one another. If you find words or concepts that are new to you highlight them and make note of what they might mean in context. Take notes as you go along. If you aren’t sure why one idea follows another idea, look for transitional words, key ideas, or repeated literary devices that help to reveal the relationships between ideas. Ask yourself questions like: “Why did the author use that word?” or “What does that example really tell me?” If there is information or there are images that don’t seem to make sense, ask yourself what is missing or how the author might explain the holes that you see. Put the ideas and the arguments for each paragraph into your own words and consider how you might make the same argument. Repeat this process as many times as required to give you a sense of why each paragraph or concept is included in the passage.
Finally, read the passage one last time from beginning to end. Make mental note of the primary purpose or thesis of the passage, the structure of the argument, and the kinds of evidence used to establish the purpose or prove the thesis. As much as possible, try to visualize the context of the work, the way the parts of the passage work together, and what the reading “means” to you. Then, mentally paraphrase the passage for yourself before you approach the questions.
At first, these strategies may seem cumbersome, and your reading may be slow; but with practice, the thought processes involved in reading will become very natural and automatic—like any other skill that you have mastered. As your reading skills improve, so will your ability to answer questions about the reading, to reason within the text, and to extend reasoning beyond the text. These are the abilities you need to be successful on the MCAT CARS and other critical reading tests.
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Association of American Medical Colleges (2017). Critical analysis and reasoning skills section: Passage types. Retrieved from https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/article/mcat-2015-cars-passage-types.
Glasswell, K., Judd, L., Mostert, W. & Mayn, L. (2016). Powerful practices for reading improvement. Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.
Harvey, S. & Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work: teaching comprehension for understanding and engagement (2nd Ed.) Portland, MN: Stenhouse Publishers.
National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf