Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) Passage-based questions, explained

Posted in: MCAT

February 20, 2019 | by Alexis

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills is arguably the most important section of the MCAT. It’s also the most difficult and the most frustrating. Be a more competitive candidate by preparing more, not less. Start by understanding what makes these questions so difficult.

Passage Types

The readings in this section are drawn from a variety of disciplines, including, but not limited to humanities (i.e. architecture, art, dance, ethics, literature, music, philosophy, popular culture, religion, theatre, studies of diverse cultures, etc.), and social sciences (i.e. anthropology, archaeology, economics, education, geography, history, linguistics, political science, population health, psychology, sociology, etc.)

The readings are often drawn from scholarly journals that feature convoluted academic jargon. Some passages are doctored by removing or re-arranging sentences from the source material to make them even more confusing. The answers are also ambiguous and full of nuance.


Skills tested in this section

  • Comprehension (30% of questions)
  • Reasoning within the text (30% of questions)
  • Reasoning beyond the text (40% of questions)

How to unravel a CARS passage

Make sure that you’re keeping an eye on the big picture; focus on the ideas and structure.

Make sure that you have a solid grasp of the structural elements of the passage, including the following:

  • Main idea: what is the author trying to say?
  • Purpose: why did the author write this?
  • Tone: how does the author feel about this?
  • Topic: what is the author writing about?
  • Structure: how does the author organize the passage?

Common CARS Distractors

The MCAT is a very predictable test. Certain patterns of reasoning appear over and over. These patterns often trick people the first time—or even the tenth time. But if you’re willing to put in a lot of hard work and many hours of practice, you’ll learn to spot, understand, and master these patterns.

Below is a list of distractors (recurrent wrong answer choices) that Prep101 instructors train students to watch out for in the CARS section.

  • Round-about – answers may be true and may concur with the passage, but fail to directly answer the question asked.
  • Beyond—answers include extra information beyond the score of the passage or question.
  • Contrary—answers contradict the passage whereas most correct answers support the idea in the passage.
  • Simpleton—answers restate something in the passage in simplistic terms whereas correct answers are usually vague, ambiguous, and sometimes debatable.
  • Reversal—answers describe a dynamic in the passage but has it working in the opposite direction (e.g. reverses cause and effect).
  • Unintelligible—answers are incomprehensible but tempting as it’s difficult to pinpoint why they’re wrong. (Don’t pick an answer that you don’t understand).
  • Extreme—answers are phrased in unqualified or excessive terms. (Be suspicious of generalizations, superlatives and value judgements).
  • Word trap—answers contain words and phrases you recall from the passage, but distort meanings.
  • Wrong viewpoint—answers describe a viewpoint in the passage, but not the one asked about in the question.
  • Narrow—answers are not wrong but touch on a minor element in the passage whereas the question asks about general themes.
  • Partial—answers are correct in one part, but wrong in another part. (Don’t rationalize a flawed answer).
  • Weak—answers are not wrong but inferior to another answer choice that does a better job of answering the question.

CARS Strategies

The best strategy to tame the CARS section is to prepare. Try to attempt at least one question every day.

MCAT Strategies

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