MCAT

CARS for the MCAT

WRITTEN BY
Medistudents Team
June 28, 2022

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) is one of four sections that make up the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)’s Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Using a range of passages and related questions, the CARS section tests your ability to comprehend what you have read.

This guide provides information on what the CARS section entails – the format, what’s tested, and what questions and passages are used – as well as strategies you can use within the exam and scoring information.

For a detailed guide to all sections of the MCAT, from the MCAT syllabus and how to prepare, to test dates and test day schedules, visit our MCAT Guide. You can also find all the information you need for registering and preparing for the exam in our MCAT Checklist blog.

What is CARS?

The CARS section is a comprehension and reasoning based exam consisting of passages of information and associated questions.

AAMC – who develop and administer the exam – state that the CARS section of the MCAT will be similar to many other reasoning exams that you’ve taken within your academic career. However, it focuses specifically on assessing analysis and reasoning skills needed to be successful in medical school.

The format of the CARS section is as follows:

  • Time: 90 minutes
  • Total number of questions: 53
  • Format of questions: 9 passage-based sets of questions, with 5-7 questions per passage

This allows you an average of ten minutes per passage, to read the text, gather any evidence you need from it, and answer the five to seven related questions.

What is tested in CARS?

The CARS section aims to assess your ability to critically analyze passages of information using comprehension, analysis and reasoning skills.

All of the information needed to answer the questions will be provided in the passage and the question itself. Therefore, no specific content knowledge is required, unlike the other sections of the MCAT.

Rather the CARS section aims to assess your ability to:

  • Comprehend the passage
  • Demonstrate understanding of the relationships between ideas and theories
  • Consider the authors’ intentions, tones and how they choose to express their point of view

It is broken down into the following skills:

  • Skill 1: Foundations of Comprehension
  • Skill 2: Reasoning Within the Text
  • Skill 3: Reasoning Beyond the Text

The section below provides more information about the questions relating to each of these skills.

What questions are on the MCAT CARS section?

The MCAT CARS test includes the following sections:

Foundations of Comprehension (30%*)

  • Based on two sets of analysis skills:
    • Understanding the basic components of the text
    • Making assumptions based on the author’s inferences, use of language and word choice, and the text structure
  • Information will be provided in the passage through the use of explanations, illustrative examples and definitions of specialized terms
  • Questions may ask you to:
    • Provide a general overview of the passage
    • Identify the main point or theme of the passage
    • Identify sections of the passage where the author digresses from the theme of the passage
    • Explain sections of the passage, such as paradoxes, a word or phrase.
    • Identify points of view

You can find more information on the AMMC’s website here.

Reasoning Within the Text (30%*)

You can find more information on the AMMC’s website here.

Reasoning Beyond the Text (40%*)

You can find more information on the AMMC’s website here.

*Note: the percentage is an approximate value for each section.

What passages are on the MCAT CARS section?

The passages included in the CARS section are taken from the types of books, journals and magazines that college students are likely to read. Some of the topics may be familiar to you, some will not.

They cover content from a wide range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities (approximately 50% coverage of each), including ethics, philosophy, studies of diverse cultures and population health. You can find a further breakdown of the disciplines that may be included here.

The passages consist of multiple paragraphs, but are relatively short extracts, usually between 500 and 600 words. However, they will be complex, and often thought-provoking pieces of writing, with sophisticated vocabulary and writing styles.

Is CARS on the MCAT difficult?

As the CARS section requires no specific content knowledge – meaning there is no specific content knowledge you can revise in advance – it is often perceived as a particularly challenging section of the MCAT. It can seem more difficult to study for and feel more unknown than the other sections. However, the key skills – comprehension, analysis and reasoning – can be practiced. You could simply use generic comprehension tasks to achieve this. However, with quality, focused revision using dedicated MCAT question banks, you’ll not only practice the key skills required for the exam, you’ll also become familiar with the types of passages and questions you’ll encounter. This will subsequently ensure you feel more confident and able to tackle the CARS section.

What is a good MCAT CARS score?

There is no fixed score which can be considered a ‘good’ MCAT CARS score. What may be considered a good score for you will depend on factors such as the medical school you are applying to and their MCAT expectations. Therefore, rather than fixating on a set ‘good’ score, you may find it more useful to focus on what score is required for your chosen medical school, and aim to score higher than this.

That being said, as a general guide, scoring anything above the 50th percentile will be a competitive score. You’ll receive your percentile score along with a score for each section and an overall score for the MCAT.

To gain more understanding of the MCAT scoring system, including the MCAT score range and the MCAT percentiles, visit our ‘What is a Good MCAT Score?’ blog.

MCAT CARS Strategies

The CARS section of the MCAT relies on your ability to understand complex passages of information and apply comprehension, analysis and reasoning skills. Therefore, practice of engaging with challenging texts and answering related comprehension questions is crucial to ensure you perform well during the exam. This will allow you to develop:

  • Confidence in reading and understanding unfamiliar and challenging texts
  • Familiarity with the types of MCAT questions you will encounter
  • Speed when reading the text and identifying what the question is asking

There are some common strategies generally suggested for the MCAT CARS. However, these can also often be conflicting approaches, as they are recommendations based on personal experience and preference. Furthermore, what works for one person may not necessarily work for you, and therefore, rather than subscribe to one given way of approaching the exam, it can be useful to explore different strategies during your preparation. Some common strategies are:

  • Gather as much information as possible before reading the questions. Using this approach you read the passage thoroughly first, making a note of the key message, themes, the author’s intention, etc. as you go, before then reading the questions. You may find it useful to practice with no time limit when first using this strategy.
  • Scan read the passage first before digging deeper. By scan reading the passage first you can gain a general understanding of the information. Once you have then read the questions you can focus on looking at sections in detail to find the information you require. This approach can save time on the initial read and therefore allow more time to focus on the questions.
  • Read the questions first. By reading the questions first you can note down key information or sections to pay attention to, and use this to guide your reading of the text, focusing specifically on what’s required for the questions.

As the CARS section is divided further into key skills (Foundations of Comprehension; Reasoning Within the Text; Reasoning Beyond the Text), it’s useful to consider what strategies may help you with the different question types. The following are suggestions of things to consider when approaching the different questions:

Foundations of Comprehension questions

For questions which ask you to infer meanings – for example: those implied by the author but not stated directly; the meaning of words or expressions; or the author’s intention – consider the following:

  • Rhetorical devices used by the author
  • Word choices
  • Structure of the text – the AAMC’s website provides further information about basic structure and how it relates to the general purpose of the text
  • Tone – this can often give a clue as to the purpose of the passage; for example, does it aim to persuade, instruct, inform or entertain?
  • The context around the specific word or phrase
  • The use of connotative language or figures of speech – what assumption can you make about the author’s intention as a result of this?
  • The beginning and ending of the passage – often this will give you a clue of the general theme, message or purpose of the passage

Reasoning within the Text and Reasoning Beyond the Text questions

These types of questions are not asking for your personal opinion or prior knowledge. Remember:

  • Any conclusion you draw should come from the information provided even if you disagree with it
  • The content of the passage and the question is the only information you should use. You should disregard any additional information or existing knowledge you may have outside of the scope of this

To infer the author’s beliefs, attitudes or bias, consider:

  • The tone of the passage
  • The use of language or imagery
  • The author’s choice of sources and to what extent these are used to present points of view
  • The author’s expressed point of view

You can find more tips for evaluating arguments and inferring bias on the AAMC’s website here.

The CARS is a unique and challenging section of the MCAT, but with effective revision using a high quality MCAT CARS question bank, you can ensure you enter the exam feeling confident and prepared.

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