The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of the MCAT is challenging for many students. Even those who have immersed themselves in the humanities may find this portion of the test more difficult than they anticipate. Even for the most confident and facile readers the CARS section can pose hurdles; the passages can be dense. All premed students—whether those with science or humanities backgrounds—should prepare for CARS by becoming familiar with both its format and the types of questions posed.
For some students, CARS is especially challenging. It is also the section of the test which is hardest to improve; improving content knowledge on the other sections of the MCAT usually equates with score improvement. Since the CARS section has no real content, gains are harder to realize.
I have specific techniques that help students increase their score on the CARS section of the MCAT. There is one strategy, in particular, that helps students realize gains—and it is relatively easy to do. But it requires diligence and discipline. And it requires steady reading on a daily basis. To improve your CARS score try the following strategy:
1. Over a span of at least several months (two at a minimum) read the OpEd pages of major newspapers daily. OpEds are found on the back page of the major news section of newspapers and represent the opinion of writers not affiliated with that particular paper (usually). An example is the OpEd page of the New York Times. The Washington Post’s OpEd page is here and the Los Angeles Times is here. These can easily be accessed online at no cost.
2. Choose at least one OpEd to read each day and become accustomed to the writing style (usually dense prose). If possible, read two or more. Read these articles every day for at least a week.
3. After the first week or two, begin to set a time limit for the articles you read. The time limit might vary according to the length of the piece. The point is to speed up your reading and stress yourself slightly so that you’re forced to read fast. Become accustomed to this more fast-paced style of reading for at least several weeks. Continue to read OpEds every day.
4. After approximately one month of reading complex OpEd pieces, begin a new strategy. After reading each piece, take 1-2 minutes to write a brief summary (no more than a short paragraph) of the content. This will force you to read quickly and summarize the piece, getting the gist of the content fast (the same skill you must use on the CARS section of the MCAT).
5. Once you’ve spent about two months using this technique begin doing practice MCAT CARS passages (the source will depend on the materials you used previously, if you’re repeating—you should obviously use new materials for practice tests and not rehash old ones).
Past students have found this technique immensely helpful in improving their CARS score. Finally, this technique has other benefits: it allows you to read widely and learn about compelling news stories. It’s a win-win strategy!
–Liza Thompson, Expert Medical School Admissions Consulting