The CARS section of the MCAT for many is the most daunting one of all, despite being the only section on the exam that does not require any formal knowledge or content. This may be due to a test taker’s bad experience with the critical reading/verbal section of the SAT/ACT in the past, not being a native English speaker, or being a Canadian medical school applicant where the CARS section is more heavily weighted than the rest. Nevertheless, solid performance on CARS will demonstrate that you are academically well-rounded and have the ability to engage in rhetorical reasoning.
It is important to enter the CARS section with a tabula rasa (blank slate) to avoid allowing your internal biases and preconceptions influence your ability to choose the correct answer. If you ever find yourself choosing an answer choice in part because you personally agree with it, rather than having hard evidence from the passage to back it up, you are probably making a mistake. Instead, you should make it your job to determine what the author’s agenda is. Just like you do when you watch a newscast or read an article online, ask yourself, “What is the author trying to achieve by writing this.” This will help you determine what the main idea of the passage is – a central piece to performing well on the CARS section.
Try to engage in an argument with the author and the passage. Play the devil’s advocate. Look for logical flaws in the author’s argument and see if he/she supports all of the claims that are made with evidence or examples. This will keep you focused and engaged throughout the entire section – an issue some people tend to have especially when it comes to passages on philosophy and art.
After reading each paragraph, ask yourself why the author included it. What was the purpose of that sentence or phrase? Does it improve his/her argument? Try to quickly summarize each paragraph in your head as you move on. This will allow you to keep track of the overall argument and determine whether the author is maintaining the same viewpoint or is evolving it into a newer, more nuanced one. Realize that the authors of the passages will rarely (if ever) have an extreme viewpoint that resides on one part of a spectrum – this would leave them open to easy attacks. Rather, most passages take a middle-of-the-road approach, where the author will take some moderate stance, acknowledge the opposing arguments, and attempt to refute them.
As a cardinal rule, never choose an answer choice that contradicts the main idea in any way (unless of course the question expressly asks you to do so). Furthermore, if you are ever stuck between two answer choices (which happens fairly often) pick the one you think the author (not you!) would agree with the most. If you are having trouble formulating the complete main idea, look at what is going on towards the end of the passage. Usually, the author’s true agenda comes out then.
Above all, remain cool and confident. Try to have fun!
To see it in practice, watch some of our videos below on approaching an AAMC CARS passage and questions.