MCAT CARS Section Guide: Format, Study Strategy, and FAQ

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We don’t have to tell you that the MCAT is challenging. But of all the different pieces of this monumental test, the MCAT CARS section is often the most difficult for medical students. It demands a whole new approach to studying, requiring continual practice and skill building in order to be successful.

The CARS section doesn’t require any prior memorization—it tests your ability to comprehend and analyze information in the moment. To prepare yourself, you need to build and hone the skills you will be tested on, which requires lots of practice.

Read our MCAT CARS section guide to learn how CARS fits within the MCAT format, how to prepare, Dos and Don’ts, and FAQs.

For insider advice on how to study for the other three sections of the MCAT, read our article: The Problem With Your MCAT Studying (& How to Fix It).

 

MCAT Format

The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is broken up into 4 sections, each worth 132 for a total perfect MCAT score of 528.

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (Bio/BioChem)
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (Chem/Phys)
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (Psych/Soc)
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)

No one section is more important than the next, but the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section is often singled out as being particularly challenging, as it assesses your reading comprehension and deduction skills instead of your knowledge of science.

In order to do well on the CARS section, you need to be able to quickly comprehend, analyze, and evaluate what you read. This part of the test was developed to measure your analytical and reasoning skills, which are key to success in medical school.

 

MCAT CARS Section

The MCAT CARS section is made up of 9 passages, typically between 500 and 600 words. Each passage has 5-7 questions for a total of 53 questions.

The section is divided into three categories of critical analysis and reasoning skills, which encompass a vast range of topics in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The three categories are Foundations of Comprehension, Reasoning Within the Text, and Reasoning Beyond the Text.

Foundations of Comprehension (30%)

The questions in the Foundations of Comprehension section test your understanding of the basic components of the text in the passage. What point or thesis is the author trying to prove? Whose perspective are they writing from? What is being implied but not explicitly stated? Read between the lines. You need to consider the author’s choice of words, rhetorical devices, and tone to infer the meaning or intent of the passage.

Reasoning Within the Text (30%)

The questions in the Reasoning Within the Text section challenge you to dig deeper and evaluate the strength and persuasiveness of the author’s arguments. Which pieces of evidence best support or detract from the author’s central thesis? Are there any implicit assumptions within the text? Is the conclusion the author comes to sensible, or are they biased?

Your answer is NOT based on your opinion. You should only use the information provided in the passage to objectively assess the arguments presented.

Reasoning Beyond the Text (40%)

The questions in the Reasoning Beyond the Text section ask you to take the information and ideas you deduced from the passage and apply them to different situations or contexts. The questions may also present you with new information that puts the author’s arguments in a different context. You will be asked to evaluate how this new information changes or challenges the author’s thesis.

 

MCAT CARS Strategy

1 | Practice Active/Critical Reading

Active reading is the process of actively engaging with what you read. It’s the opposite of passive reading, which is when we take in information without making a personal connection to it or questioning its merit. It’s what we do when we skim articles or sometimes when we read for pleasure.

Do you ever reach the bottom of a paragraph and realize you haven’t retained any of what you just read, so you have to restart at the beginning? (Definitely not something you want to do during the CARS section.)

Active reading means reading slowly, deeply, and carefully. It means questioning the arguments presented in the text rather than simply accepting them, rereading what is initially confusing, and interpreting the deeper meaning or implications of the text. It trains our minds to actively think about what the author is trying to get across and how they’re conveying it.

Practice active reading:

  • Deduce and extrapolate the key concepts, main ideas, and important details in a text
  • Connect the text to your own life, experiences, and knowledge
  • Ask questions that probe the deeper meaning and implications of the text

Active reading is a critical skill to hone before taking the MCAT.

2 | Improve Reading Speed and Comprehension

Being able to read quickly without sacrificing comprehension is a huge asset on the MCAT. The test is timed, which means you only have so much time to read a large passage, assess it, and answer questions about it correctly. The faster you can read and retain the passage, the more time you will have to answer the questions.

The more you read, the better you’ll become. Reading fast takes continual practice, including dedicating time specifically to improving your reading speed.

  • Determine which parts of the text require the most attention. Speed up in places where you have a full understanding and take more time in areas where new concepts are introduced. Often the first and last sentences of a paragraph hold a lot of significance.
  • Use a reading pacer, such as your hand, a pen, or a piece of paper, to help your eyes focus and flow from line to line.
  • Take advantage of your peripheral vision to jump from one chunk of text to the next. You don’t need to focus on each word individually. Your brain will fill in the details, and the more you practice this, the better you will get at scanning while you read. As you practice, make sure you don’t move so quickly that you begin to lose comprehension of the text.

Learn more about the process of reading and how to improve your reading speed for different types of texts in our article: How to Read Faster – Speed Reading Truth.

3 | Read Often and Build a Routine Around Reading

If you don’t read regularly, you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to CARS (and life!) To quote Tyrion Lannister, “a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”

Reading for pleasure offers a number of benefits, including helping students succeed academically. Pleasure reading aids comprehension, builds vocabulary, and increases our understanding of other human beings. This greater understanding of others helps us interpret human behavior and empathize with different opinions and viewpoints.

Start reading on a regular basis as soon as possible. This means reading beyond your assigned textbooks. Figure out what you like to read, whether it’s imaginative fantasy stories, realistic fiction, non-fiction, or the Harvard Business Review. It doesn’t matter so much what you choose to read as long as you do it often. Finding something you enjoy will help you look forward to reading.

Build reading into your daily schedule. The key is turning it into a part of your routine so that you form a habit. Even 20 minutes of reading a day will add up to quite a bit by the end of the year. 20 minutes of reading a day is about 10 hours a month or 120 hours a year. You could read (and learn) quite a lot in 120 hours. Reading at night will help you wind down before bed. It’s an ideal addition to your night routine.

Your reading experience is directly connected to your ability to comprehend what you read, which is a huge part of the CARS section. The more you read, and the sooner you start, the better advantage you’ll have going into the test.

Learn more about the importance of pleasure reading and why you should read regularly.

4 | Seek Out Challenging Material

We get it. You don’t read for pleasure, and you never have. The trouble is, now your MCAT is barreling toward you, and you’ve got to pick up the habit fast. While you can’t go back and change your previous habits (or lack thereof), you can start reading right now.

Seeking out challenging materials will help you fast track your abilities with a focus on comprehension. Reading complex texts will force you to pay close attention to the words and the meaning behind them. Begin by tackling literary journals, dense magazine publications, or classic literature.

Take the time to understand each sentence you read. Do you understand the author’s intent? Are you able to follow what’s going on? The more you practice, the better and faster you’ll get at fully comprehending what you read. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few suggestions.

Classic Literature:

  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Philosophy:

  • Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes
  • The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
  • Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant

Magazines:

5 | Consistently Complete Practice Passages

The most important thing you can do to prepare is regularly read CARS passages and answer practice questions. You should familiarize yourself with the format of CARS questions as soon as possible. Build a study schedule and routine around reading practice passages daily.

Put some pressure on yourself by running a timer while you practice. The CARS section contains 9 passages with a total time limit of 90 minutes. This means you have an average of 10 minutes to complete each passage and the associated questions. Give yourself more time at first and slowly lower your time limit until you’re able to answer a passage’s questions correctly within 8-9 minutes.

 

MCAT CARS Practice Passages

The Khan Academy offers dozens of free CARS practice questions. The interactive format provides practice passages and questions that give you a correct or incorrect response in real-time. If you’re stuck, you can ask for a hint to help you understand how to arrive at the correct answer.

Taking a practice exam through AAMC can also help you prepare, and it will give you a better idea of how you perform under pressure. The test format will ensure you can maintain speed and consistency over the full 90-minute testing period.

 

MCAT CARS Dos and Don’ts

Follow our list of Dos and Don’ts for success on test day. These common mistakes also apply to studying and practicing for your MCAT.

  • DO start practicing and building your CARS skills as soon as possible.
  • DO seek out challenging reading material to improve reading comprehension.
  • DO practice improving your reading speed while maintaining comprehension.
  • DO build a routine around reading every day.
  • DO read and answer practice passages regularly.
  • DO complete practice passages with a timer to assess your testing speed.
  • DO put yourself in the author’s shoes to better understand the context of the passage.
  • DO try to determine which type of question you are answering (Foundations of Comprehension, Reading Within the Text, or Reasoning Beyond the Text.)
  • DO keep track of how much time you spend on each question and how much time remains during your test.
  • DO take a moment to breathe and calm your nerves before you take the test and before each question.

 

  • DON’T neglect studying for CARS or put more time into studying for the other sections just because they’re knowledge-based.
  • DON’T put expectations on the passage or immediately think it’s trying to trick you.
  • DON’T jump around a bunch looking for the easiest passage during your test.

 

MCAT CARS FAQ

What’s a Good CARS Score?

The score range of CARS is 118-132 (curved scale). A good CARS score will vary from school to school, but generally, a score of 128 will put you in the 90th percentile.

What’s a Good MCAT Score?

A perfect MCAT score is 528. The average MCAT score of matriculants last year was 511.5, but you should aim for higher than the average score to give yourself the best chance of acceptance at your top school.

Averages vary from school to school, so be sure to research what’s expected for the schools you are applying to. For example, DO schools generally require a lower MCAT score for acceptance.

|| What MCAT Score Should You Aim For? ||

How Does CARS Compare to the Other MCAT Sections?

CARS is the only section of four that doesn’t test your prior scientific knowledge. No background knowledge at all is needed to answer the CARS questions, as all of your information comes from the passages.

Studying for CARS requires practice and skill building versus the other three knowledge-based sections.

Is the CARS Section More Important?

The CARS section is no more important than the other three sections. It is a quarter of your total MCAT score.

How Many CARS Passages Are on the MCAT?

There are 9 passages in the CARS section with 5-7 questions per passage. There are 53 CARS questions in total.

How Long is the CARS Section on the MCAT?

You have 90 minutes to complete the CARS section on the MCAT.

How Do You Study for CARS?

Since there’s nothing you need to memorize for the CARS section of the MCAT, practicing answering the passages is the best way to prepare. You need to build your critical thinking and reading comprehension with extensive practice and skill building. Don’t neglect readying yourself for this important piece of the MCAT. Start preparing for CARS early in your premed journey.

When Should I Begin Studying for the MCAT

We recommend you spend 2-3 months studying to prepare for the MCAT. Studying over a longer period of time increases your chances of forgetting information. To be efficient, dedicate a few months to studying before you take your test.

That being said, the CARS section of the MCAT is more difficult to study for. It tests your ability to comprehend and analyze text, which is a skill that’s built over time. If you know you want to attend medical school, you should begin reading regularly right away. This will help you tremendously on the CARS section of the MCAT, and it will give you an edge up in medical school.

Build reading into your everyday routine, even if it’s only for 20-30 minutes at a time. Practice increasing your reading speed and your ability to read critically.

How to Know If You’re Ready to Take the MCAT

Determining whether or not you are ready to take the MCAT is a personal decision. Assess your studying efforts thus far, objective data from your test scores, your application timeline, and your current mental state.

Delaying taking the MCAT solely to gain more study time can do more harm than good. Learn more in our article and YouTube video: Should You Delay Your MCAT? How to Know If You’re Ready.

 

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