Some students can score high on the MCAT CARS section with little effort. While others practice hundreds of passages and end up bombing the section. What distinguishes high scores from low ones is not how much you practice. It’s whether or not you have a good MCAT CARS strategy and whether or not you actually stick to that strategy on test day.
Without a good strategy for the CARS section, scoring well will be difficult – even if you do a lot of practice passages.
The key is to find a good strategy and to use it for each passage. Here are some MCAT CARS strategies that students use (keep in mind that not all MCAT CARS strategies are created equal, some are superior):
MCAR CARS Strategy: An Introduction
If you know someone who scored well on CARS, they had a strategy. Whether you know them in real life or read about their success on reddit or SDN, they must have had a strategy. If they claim they didn’t, they just didn’t realize they were using one.
Those who tell you they don’t have a strategy have built one through many years of reading. It’s a habit they have formed but are not aware of. Fortunately for them, their unconscious good habits correlates well with the MCAT’s style of thinking.
This strategy could have also been developed through an unconscious habit they acquired while practicing.
Regardless of the MCAT CARS strategy you use, I don’t recommend changing MCAT CARS strategies too often – especially during the exam. What I mean is don’t go from one habit to another. Stick to one habit or MCAT CARS strategy all the way throughout the exam, even if it’s not the best.
MCAT CARS Strategy One
The most common MCAT CARS strategy is to read the entire passage and answer each question in the order given. I recommend this strategy the most. The MCAT wants the test-taker to devote more time to the passage than the questions. This is the logical and obvious way to approach CARS but even if you were to do this, you would have to do it properly.
While reading, see if you can get the big picture of each paragraph.
What is going on?”
What does the author want me to get out of this paragraph?
If you can answer this question for each paragraph, you know enough to get a perfect score on CARS.
MCAT CARS passages are not as tough as you may think. Students just tend to overcomplicate the paragraphs by making connections or assumptions that don’t exist. Be as direct or explicit as possible when you answer this question – after reading the paragraphs. Be efficient in your summaries. Your answer should be 3-4 words long. And if you are not, practice a lot until you are. This is a skill and it takes time to master.
When it comes to answering questions, develop a step-by-step method that you can stick to on a consistent basis. For example, in the CARS Strategy Course, I teach students steps to use for every question. Step 1 should always be to summarize what the question is asking. If you don’t know what the question is asking, how could you find the best answer?
It’s a simple habit but a very important one. Steps like this should be followed every time you answer any CARS question. I know this sounds elementary but you wouldn’t believe how many students can’t do this. The anxiety of the exam can hinder you from thinking clearly and from sticking to a strategy. That’s why consistency is key while you practice.
MCAT CARS Strategy Two
Another common strategy for the MCAT CARS section is to read only the first and last paragraphs of each passage before heading to the questions. I do not recommend this strategy. If the MCAT didn’t want you to read the middle paragraphs, why would they include them? This strategy may seem like a good shortcut to finding the themes of the passage but the middle paragraphs are vital in this regard.
You can only find the themes of the passage by reading the entire passage. In addition, you could get questions about any particular paragraph. So by using this strategy you are gambling. Considering most questions on the MCAT CARS section are based upon the overall theme of the passage, you won’t be able to correctly answer a majority of the questions if you do not read the entire passage.
MCAT CARS Strategy Three
Another strategy students use is to read the questions first before reading the passage. This may seem like a smart thing to do since you know what to look for while you read. But this is probably the worst strategy out there. First of all, the questions on the MCAT are designed in a way to minimize a student’s chance of extracting information. They primarily ask application questions. And in many cases, they ask questions about ideas that are not even related to the passage. If you study the AAMC CARS Question Packs Volumes 1 and 2 you will notice this trend. By using this strategy you are wasting precious time. And potentially falling for traps the AAMC creates for students who are too detail oriented. The MCAT CARS section is a big picture test, not a detail oriented test. Sure, there are questions that ask you to revisit the passage, but they are rare.
MCAT CARS Strategy Four
The fourth common strategy is to devote all 90 minutes to reading and answering only 7 passages of the 9 passages given, trying your best to get all questions from those 7 correct. But then completely guessing on questions from the last two passages without even reading them within the last 20 seconds of the exam.
A friend of mine used this unorthodox strategy to attain a 9 on the old Verbal Reasoning section (a 126 on CARS). He took his sweet time to get everything right on 7 passages. But he would completely guess on two passages, not reading the passage or questions at all! I don’t recommend this strategy. Some of the 7 passages will have difficult questions that almost no one can get correct. You will be sacrificing a lot of easy questions from the the passages you do not do. But hey, this MCAT CARS strategy worked for him! He’s now a practicing ophthalmologist who graduated from UCSD’s medical school.
MCAT CARS Strategy Five
This leads to the fifth most common strategy: skipping around the 9 passages to do the easier ones first. This is done by reading the first couple lines of each passage to determine their difficulty. I personally think this is a decent strategy, but definitely not recommended. This is because the first couple of lines of each passage can only tell you so much about what you are about to read. Sometimes, the first line or two will be difficult to comprehend but the rest of the passage is easy.
This leads to the fifth most common strategy: skipping around the 9 passages to do the easier ones first.
I do think an advantage to this strategy is to find passages you feel comfortable about in terms of the topics. For instance, if you noticed the first passage is about art and the second passage is about the presidential election, you’ll probably have an easier time comprehending the second passage due to your familiarity or interest in the topic. Yet, that doesn’t justify moving around because you ultimately have to do the first passage at some point in order to get a 127 or higher. I’ve also noticed that the easier the read, the harder the questions. The boring or dense passages usually have the simplest questions! So by skipping these passages early on, you may be jeopardizing your score.
Master your MCAT CARS Strategy
These are all habits or in other words, MCAT CARS strategies. Again, some strategies are better than others. But as long as you stick to a strategy that allows you to get a majority of the questions right – stick to it all the way. You don’t have to find a full-proof strategy that works for every question. Just one that can get you a good enough score to get you into medical school (for US schools: 127 is ideal, for Canadian: 129).
Have a plan and execute it. Don’t just go into the exam with an “anything can go” mentality. If you happen to have bad habits, your strategy will not help you as much. This is when I suggest seeking guidance and potentially figuring out a new method to adopt.
However, it’s very tough for students to change their thinking pattern or strategy. This is due to bad habits acquired over many years. That’s why MCAT CARS is a difficult section to improve on and why being aware of your bad habits and learning a new MCAT CARS strategy can take you far. Not just far on this section or other parts of the exam but in all future examinations in your medical career.