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MCAT CARS Section: Everything You Need to Know

June 2, 2022
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CARS BasicsWhat’s in the CARS?Sample CARS MCAT QuestionsFAQs

”Jonathan

Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 6/2/22

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 the MCAT CARS section.

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section of the MCAT is widely known as the most challenging section of the exam. 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. So should you study for CARS? We’ve got some answers. 

Here we’ll cover everything you need to know about the CARS section on the MCAT. We’ll talk about basics, provide a few sample questions, and discuss how to go about your answers. For a complete MCAT study guide, consider setting up a free consultation with an experienced MCAT tutor.

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CARS Basics

To start, let’s cover the basics. We know CARS stands for Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, but what does that mean for you? The CARS section is meant to test your ability to process what you read. CARS questions are unique in the sense that they test the way you analyze and process information. 

The point of testing your ability to analyze information and think critically is to understand how you would handle it in medical school. It’s important to note that all the information you need to be able to answer the question will be in the passages you’ve been provided. It’s up to you to dissect it and pull out the relevant information.

The 3 Skills the CARS Section Tests

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 so far about understanding text and pulling relevant information from it.

The second skill, “reasoning within the text,” is meant to test 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 that I directly 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.

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What’s in the CARS?

The CARS section of the MCAT contains passages for reading analysis that are accompanied by questions. After reading the passage, it is up to you to answer the follow-up questions based on what you understood from the passage. 

The passages in the CARS section are typically between 500 and 600 words, and are on diverse topics such as: 

The format of CARS questions should be familiar to you at this point in your academic career, though the questions may be more complex than you are used to.

Format Example:

Lily has a white cat, and Dexter has a brown dog. When Lily goes out of town, Dexter has to watch her cat. When Dexter goes out of town, he brings his dog with him. Lily loves Dexter’s dog.

Questions:

  1. Who watches Dexter’s dog when he is out of town?
  1. Lily
  2. Dexter
  3. Nobody

     2.   Who watches Lily’s cat when she is out of town?

  1. Lily 
  2. Dexter 
  3. Nobody

As you can see in the format example above, all of the information needed to answer each question is stated in the question. Each question asks the reader to pull out information that they understood from the passage. If the reader answers incorrectly, it signifies that they did not properly understand the passage, which is what CARS is all about. 

Unfortunately, the questions in the CARS section of the MCAT won’t be as simple as our format example. Next, we’ll go over some examples or CARS questions on the MCAT.

Sample CARS MCAT Questions

Here we’ve included three sample CARS questions from the AAMC, including an explanation of each answer to give you an idea of what you’ll face in this section.

EX: “The Invisible Hand”

“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.

Answer

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. If you read the passage correctly, 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 the action affects collectively held resources. The passage implies coercion may be necessary to “produce responsibility” in situations of collectively held resources —i.e. to which the parable of the commons applies. That way, self-interest is still the main component that “compels each to increase his or her gain without limit in a world that is limited.” 

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 does not 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 is not the focus of the passage. 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

Answer:

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. (option I) So, A is the correct response. 

Answer B is incorrect because option III would simply expose more natural resources to the same issue facing the commons. The passage states that the solution to the problem of overuse is to abandon the commons as a concept rather than enlarging the area. 

Option II (answers C and D) is incorrect due to a lack of context. The reader is not made aware of the intentions of the private investors, who could easily purchase the commons to “maximize personal gain.” Therefore, we can not draw any 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.

Answer:

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 does not 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 properly managed and preserved common land despite an increasing population, although infringing on “somebody’s personal freedom,” through coercion is a probable side-effect. To be inclusive of 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 does not imply that social stability is essential to the successful management of common land. The passage also does not 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 is not specified in the text. The author is critical of assumptions about public resources that are 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 are local or national.

FAQs: MCAT CARS Section

Here we’ll go over some frequently asked questions about the CARS section of the MCAT.

1. What Does CARS Stand For on the MCAT?

The CARS section of the MCAT stands for Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.

2. Why is CARS Considered the Hardest Part of the MCAT?

The CARS section of the MCAT tests reading comprehension skills and critical thinking. The section is difficult for students because it presents them with prompts that are very different from what they’ve seen in their academic careers thus far. 

3. What Is the Best Way To Study For the CARS Section on the MCAT?

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

4. How Much Time Does the CARS Section Take on the MCAT?

The CARS section takes 90 minutes to complete and contains 53 passage-related questions.

5. What is the Average CARS Score?

According to a 2021 AAMC data report, students scored an average of 124.8 on the CARS section of the MCAT with a standard deviation of 3.1. 

Final Thoughts

The CARS section is all about reading comprehension. To practice for this section, go through practice questions or simply read complex texts and try to explain them to a partner. The entire purpose of the section is to test your ability to analyze and translate information, which you’ll need to do on a daily basis in medical school and beyond.

If you’re studying for the MCAT or retaking the test, consider setting up a consultation with an experienced medical school admissions consultant or tutor. The MCAT is challenging for everyone, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ve got this!

Good luck with your MCAT!

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