The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Section
The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Section, Explained
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) is the most difficult of the MCAT sections. You can’t study for it in the usual way, with any of the usual techniques you’ve used in the past. There are no defined topics to read and memorize. There are no readings with which to familiarize yourself.
The passages in this section will provide you with information that you won’t expect, and that you’re not expected to know. It asks you to assimilate this information with your regular body of knowledge to answer questions.
It’s commonly described as the hardest, most dissatisfying section of the MCAT, and it’s applicants’ most-cited reason to retake the test. It is, however, the best predictor of your performance on board exams. Recent publications have shown a high correlation between scoring well on this section and to passing the Canadian Medical Board exams and becoming a doctor.
There are no set topics that you can study for to prepare for this section.
Questions and question styles
This section is 100% passage-based. You’ll be given 9 passages, and 53 associated passage-based questions. The passages in this section are 500-600 words in length, significantly longer than the passages in other sections.
You’ll be given 90 minutes to complete this section.
Time per question
You’ll have an average of 90 seconds per question.
What CARS tests
This section tests the following:
- Critical thinking
- Reading comprehension
- Time management
What to expect in CARS readings
The passages will be drawn from the following fields:
- Humanities (i.e. architecture, art, dance, ethics, literature, music, philosophy, popular culture, religion, theatre, studies of diverse cultures, etc.)
- Social sciences (i.e. anthropology, archaeology, economics, education, geography, history, linguistics, political science, population health, psychology, sociology, etc.)
The passages will be longer than in the science sections. They will be approximately 500-600 words, and jargon-heavy. All the information needed to answer the questions resides in these passages. Relying on outside information has been shown to decrease CARS scores.
The answers will be difficult to determine with any certainty. The questions and answer choices in this section maximize ambiguity and nuance – not the clarity and certainty that science students tend to be used to.
Time-related pressure and CARS-related pressure
Since the passages are longer and more difficult to read, you’ll face more severe time constraints. Most applicants struggle even just to finish the CARS section.
Since there are fewer questions in this section, applicants tend to feel more pressure to avoid mistakes. Note that even though this is arguably the most important section, perfection isn’t required. You can usually get one in four questions wrong, and still have a competitive score. If you only get one in five questions wrong, you can generally score within the 80% percentile.
Managing the Uncertainty
The CARS section is the most dissatisfying in terms of perceived performance. If you teach yourself not to expect the concrete certainty that you get with science questions, you will become more comfortable with the CARS section and your score will improve. You should remind yourself that even the best test-takers finish the CARS section with some frustration and insecurity concerning their performance.
How to prepare for this section
You should start studying for CARS early, and you should practice often. Try to attempt at least one CARS question every single day. Eventually, you’ll learn to identify patterns and strategies.
Prep101 focuses on the CARS section, and teaches technique and strategy to improve scores and to help alleviate fears. Go with the company that treats CARS with the respect that it deserves.