The CARS section of the MCAT is known for being challenging, so let’s talk about it! Here’s everything you need to know about what the MCAT CARS is and how to ace it.
The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of the MCAT is widely known as the most challenging exam section. In the AAMC report on how students fared in each section, CARS had an average score of nearly a full point below the other three.
Here we’ll cover everything you need to know about the CARS section. We’ll review the basics, provide a few sample questions, and discuss how to go about your answers.
Considering the CARS section is one of four on the test, it will account for roughly 25% of your total score, which is why it’s essential you have some reliable CARS strategies to ace the MCAT.
You will be given a score on the CARS section that ranges from 118-132. There are nine CARS passages, each with five to six accompanying questions. But, how much time will you have to complete the CARS section of the MCAT? For 53 questions, you’ll have 90 minutes. These are the main skills the CARS section tests:
Approximately half of the passage content will be related to humanities, whereas the other half relates to social sciences. These percentages are approximate and can vary by test.
Now that you have a better idea of how the CARS scoring works on the MCAT, you may be wondering what specific skills you’ll be tested on. The CARS section tests your ability to process what you read. CARS questions are unique; they test how you analyze and process information.
The point of testing your ability to analyze information and think critically is to understand how you’d handle a med school curriculum. All the information you need to answer the question will be in the provided passages. It’s up to you to dissect it and gather the relevant information.
The format of CARS questions should be familiar to you, though the questions may be more complex than you’re used to!
The CARS section consists of three types of questions, each testing a different skill related to the way you analyze text. The first skill is the “foundations of comprehension,” which covers everything we’ve discussed about understanding text and pulling relevant information from it.
The second skill, “reasoning within the text,” tests your understanding of the author’s meaning or intent. Questions designed to test this skill ask you to use critical thinking to detect bias, paradoxes, and contradictions that may be inferred.
The third and final skill, “reasoning beyond the text passage types,” tests your ability to choose which of the other two skills should be used to answer a question.
Does it make more sense to answer this question with information pulled from the passage (skill 1)? Or should you answer by establishing an overarching theme/reading between the lines (skill 2)? That is what the third skill is all about. To achieve the best CARS score on the MCAT, it’s essential you master all three of these skills!
The CARS passages are typically between 500 and 600 words and cover diverse topics.
The humanities passages you might see on the CARS will involve the intricacies of human thoughts, creativity, and expression, asking you to analyze complex passages that are typically centered around literature, history, ethics, or similar topics.
You can also expect to see passages relating to sociology, psychology, and anthropology. These topics will challenge you to critically evaluate passages examining social interactions, group dynamics, and other aspects of human culture.
These CARS strategies help you effectively prepare for the section to maximize your score.
With only 90 minutes to read passages and answer questions, you’ll need to work fairly quickly to finish the section in time. However, it’s best to lay a strong foundation before worrying about speed.
When you start practicing, focus on understanding the text, the main ideas, and the evidence provided before rushing for the answer. Speed will come after understanding!
One of the best ways to study for the CARS section is to practice reading like texts in your downtime. While reading, ensure you’re taking an active approach – remember that you’re reading with a purpose to understand, not just for pleasure.
Perhaps one of the best CARS tips is to highlight important data and details to help you answer questions after reading. Don’t be discouraged if your pages are mostly highlighted the first few times you try this. With practice, you’ll be more proficient and selective in highlighting, helping you find important information faster.
Breaking up passages can help you better understand the text. As you’re reading each paragraph, try to write one short sentence that sums up the main idea of what you read. Consider the who, what, why, and how; for example, who wanted what, and why did they want it? How did they achieve it? These sentences don’t need to be very long.
When you’re practicing, it can be helpful to ask yourself clarifying questions as you work through the text. For example, these questions may help you better understand the text:
Asking questions as you read helps you practice active reading. You can even try explaining and summarizing what you’ve read aloud or to another person.
While these strategies make great jumping-off points, how you study for this section of the MCAT is up to you, your learning style, and how you build and hone skills.
Here we’ve included three sample CARS questions from the AAMC, including an explanation of each answer.
“The Wealth of Nations (1776) popularized “the invisible hand,” the idea that an individual who intends only personal gain is, as it were, led by an invisible hand to promote the public interest. Adam Smith did not assert that this principle was invariably true, but it contributed to a tendency of thought that has since remained dominant, preventing action based on rational analysis: the assumption that decisions reached individually will collectively be the best decisions for society as a whole. If this assumption is correct, it justifies the continuance of the U.S. policy of laissez-faire in many issues affecting business, the environment, and the family. If it is not correct, U.S. citizens need to re-examine their individual freedoms to see which are defensible.
The rebuttal to the invisible hand theory could be called “the tragedy of the commons.” Picture a pasture open to all. It can be expected that each herder will try to keep as many cattle as possible on this commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably well for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both human and beast far below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning–that is, the day on which the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
As a rational being, each herder seeks to maximize personal gain. More or less consciously, the individual asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” Since the herder would receive all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive component of this utility is nearly +1. The negative component is a function of the overgrazing caused by an additional animal. Since the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herders, the negative utility for any particular decision-maker is some fraction of -1.
Adding the component utilities, the rational herder concludes that the only sensible course is to add another animal to his or her herd—and another, and another. . . . This conclusion is reached by every rational herder who shares the commons. All are locked into a system that compels each to increase his or her gain without limit in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all rush, each pursuing the right to use a public resource. The problem is that a commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low population density. As the human population has increased, the commons concept has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.
The social arrangements that would produce responsibility in this scenario create coercion. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, agreed to by a majority of those affected. Compulsory taxes are acceptable because a system of voluntary contributions would favor the conscienceless. A society institutes and (grumblingly) supports taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horror of the commons.
Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal freedom. But what does “freedom” mean? Those subject to the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin. Once they acknowledge the logic of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. We must now recognize the necessity of abandoning the commons assumption in our reproduction. Failure to do so will bring ruin on us all.”
Question 1. According to the passage, the decisive factor in determining whether someone’s actions should be subject to coercion is whether the actions:
A) are determined solely by self-interest.
B) affect collectively held resources.
C) degrade the natural environment.
D) are commonly considered immoral.
B) affect collectively held resources.
Rationale: Let’s go through each answer to determine why B is the correct response. First, we have option A, which suggests the passage argues that all actions determined by self-interest should be regulated.
The passage's message clearly states, “only those actions in which the gain of one represents a loss to all and voluntary restraint is unlikely.” So, we can rule out option A.
Option B is the correct answer. The decisive factor in determining whether someone’s actions should be subject to coercion is whether it affects collectively held resources. The passage implies coercion may be necessary to “produce responsibility” in situations of collectively held resources (to which the parable of the commons applies).
Option C suggests that the author prefers the “U.S. policy of laissez-faire in many issues affecting business, the environment, and the family” rather than coercion, which is incorrect.
Although degradation of the natural environment is an issue that affects “the public interest,” the example doesn’t serve as a relevant criterion for all arguments surrounding the need for coercion.
Option D is incorrect because it brings up the issue of personal morality, which isn't the passage’s focus. The passage intends to question the “assumption that decisions reached individually will collectively be the best decisions for society as a whole.” The passage discusses economic philosophy, and morality is a separate issue.
Question 2. The passage argument suggests that national parks might benefit from:
I. the restriction of recreational use by means of fees.
II. the selling of the facilities to private investors.
III. the opening of additional facilities to the public.
A) I only
B) III only
C) I and II only
D) II and III only
A) I only
Rationale: Because parks are a public resource that everyone has the right to use, population increase means increasing pressure on the terrain and ecosystems of national parks. The land would benefit from “The restriction of recreational use by means of fees” to regulate the pressure. So, A is the correct response.
Answer B is incorrect because option III would expose more natural resources to the same issue facing the commons. The passage states that the solution to the overuse problem is to abandon the commons as a concept rather than enlarge the area.
Option II (answers C and D) are incorrect due to a lack of context. The reader isn’t made aware of the intentions of the private investors, who could easily purchase the commons to “maximize personal gain.” Therefore, we can’t draw conclusions about the effect of privatization from this passage alone.
Question 3: Some communities with expanding populations have for centuries successfully managed commonly held land. An appropriate clarification of the passage would be the stipulation that the author’s argument applies only to:
A) the future.
B) unregulated resources.
C) conditions of social instability.
D) resources that are not managed locally.
B) unregulated resources.
Rationale: Here, we need to pay close attention to the tense used within the passage. Option A is incorrect because the past perfect tense of “the commons concept has had to be abandoned” means the abandonment has already occurred and doesn’t refer to the future.
Option B is the correct answer because the author directly correlated the tragedy of the commons with the issue of unregulated resources. There are communities that have managed and preserved common land despite an increasing population, although infringing on “somebody’s personal freedom,” through coercion is a probable side-effect.
To include these cases, the author may qualify the statement “as the human population increased, the commons concept has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another” with the specification that it only applies to unregulated resources.
Option C is incorrect because the passage doesn’t imply social stability is essential to the successful management of common land. The passage also doesn’t imply that unstable communities are subject to “the inherent logic of the commons,” even though the question suggests social stability.
The final option (D) mentions the management of local resources, which isn’t specified in the text. The author is critical of assumptions about public resources commonly used in defense of “the U.S. policy of laissez-faire.”
The key problem addressed in the passage is a failure to manage publicly held resources effectively, regardless of if they’re local or national.
Here we’ll review frequently asked questions about the CARS section.
The CARS section stands for Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.
The CARS section tests reading comprehension skills and critical thinking. The section is difficult for students because it presents them with prompts very different from what they’ve seen in their academic careers thus far.
To study for the CARS section, focus on reading complex texts and translating what you’ve learned. You can also use practice questions, which can be found on the AAMC website.
The CARS section takes 90 minutes to complete and contains 53 passage-related questions.
The CARS section will contain nine passages.
According to an AAMC data report, the average CARS score is on the MCAT 124.7, with a standard deviation of 2.9.
A score of 126 puts you in the 72nd percentile, meaning you scored at or higher than 72% of test-takers. Compared to the average, this is a good score – however, your definition of a good MCAT score depends on your goals and the schools you’re applying to.
Like all MCAT sections, the CARS portion is important – after all, your section score will influence your composite score. For this reason, it’s crucial to try your best in every MCAT section, including CARS.
The best way to improve your CARS score and be prepared for test day is through consistent practice and learning how to be an active reader.
As you go through the passage, highlight the important parts and try to filter out unnecessary context. Learn how to quickly spot the main purpose of each paragraph, the proof, and the argument being made so you can better answer the questions.
To practice for the MCAT CARS section, review practice questions, read complex texts, and try to explain them. The section’s purpose is to test your ability to analyze and translate information, which you’ll need to do daily in medical school and beyond.
If you’re studying for the MCAT or retaking the test, consider setting up a consultation with an experienced MCAT tutor. The MCAT is challenging, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ve got this!