CARS Lesson 1 — Let's Get Started
It's easy to neglect the CARS section in MCAT preparation. Some students take CARS for granted. Others feel intimidated by CARS, and this becomes a pattern of avoidance. No matter how you feel about CARS, it's crucial to begin early. To achieve your potential, start early and put in a few hours each week from the beginning to the end of MCAT preparation. Even if you have always done well on verbal reasoning exams, a sustained effort will make you more secure in achieving a good score on this challenging, competitive section.
Strengthening your reading skill takes time. There is an art to reading an essay closely. While you are reading a passage, you can already be answering the questions intuitively that the exam will ask you later. What does the author hope to accomplish? What devices does the author employ? What claims are made in their argument? Are the claims logically grounded or justified by evidence? What issues does the argument raise? What appeals does it make? Are the appeals emotional, normative or based on authority? What issues does the argument ignore or evade? How is it organized? How does the writer's style serve their argument? The art of close, critical reading is important for doctors. It's a learned behavior, which is why AAMC has this section, so that you can get better at it.
The author of the passage is not the only author. There is also the test-writer. Unlike the author of passage, the author of the test questions isn't working to communicate. They have a different agenda. Their goal is misdirection and sleight-of-hand. To understand their intentions and methods better, we will make ourselves apprentices in test-writing. What are the different types of questions you see? How are the answer choices designed? How is the 'best' answer created? What goes into the 'second best' answer?
The CARS section is a kind of performance. You need a core method you can count on for this performance. Let's learn how to clear passages and predict the questions before we reach them. We will learn how to pace ourselves and how to keep our cool when the exam is being difficult.
We check in with strategy, task management, and practice assignments in each module. Each module also includes a lesson. Some lessons focus on aspects of reading comprehension or rhetorical analysis. Other lessons focus on test-taking methods. Many lessons include discussions of AAMC practice passages to illustrate various points. Below are the lessons in the modules.
- Let's get started
- Reader response
- CARS 101
- Pacing yourself
- Blind review
- What's an argument?
- Types of CARS passages
- Types of CARS questions
- The test writer's perspective
- The main idea
- Implied premises and warrants
- Focus and flow
AAMC CARS Resources
After the introduction of Diagnostic Tool at AAMC, we believe there are finally enough real AAMC passages to supply a complete preparation. If you are retaking the MCAT, however, you are likely to need to supplement with some 3rd party materials for extra practice (some are very good; see below). Your genuine AAMC passages are precious. You want to be deliberate in how you make use of these. This is how we make use of them in this course.
MCAT Official Prep CARS Diagnostic Tool
The Diagnostic Tool includes approximately three CARS sections worth of passages (172 questions) along with a variety of learning-management and instructional tools. The passages in the Diagnostic Tool are of a more recent vintage than those in the Question Packs - It's easy to make too much of this difference, however. The Question Packs are very good!
We include Diagnostic Tool Step 1 as an assignment spread out over lessons 2 and 3 of this course. The remainder of the Diagnostic Tool consists of practice passages and tools to analyze your performance. We will hold these resources in reserve until later lessons when we can fully benefit during the lead up to full length practice. We will make use of CARS Question Pack Volumes 1 & 2 for passage practice during our earlier lessons.
CARS Question Packs Volumes 1 & 2
The new MCAT was introduced in 2015. For the launch of the Prep Hub, AAMC assembled the science and CARS Question Packs from passages that had been created for the previous MCAT, the "old MCAT". This is an especially meaningful distinction in the science Question Packs, because the personality of the MCAT really did fundamentally change in the sciences between the two exams. The passages in the physics, chemistry, and biology question packs are great practice resources, but they aren't new MCAT passages. The CARS Question Packs are different, however. The old Verbal Reasoning and the new CARS are almost identical.
The old Verbal Reasoning section would occasionally include a passage from a scientific domain such as geology, but these passages did not make it through the filter into the question packs. The change in question to passage ratio is more meaningful. You will find a more variable question to passage ratio in the question packs than in full length MCATs. You won't see a passage with seven questions on the new MCAT, although you will occasionally run into this in the question packs. This does affect per-passage timing. However, this distinction is not even close to being enough of a reason to choose a 3rd party passage over a question pack passage for practice. The question packs are from the same shop! The test-writing intention is the same. The figure of merit for a test-taker is the same. Aside from a slightly different feel in the pacing, they are exactly the same. In this course, we divide the passages of the question packs into six assignments which appear in lessons 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 & 8.
Official Guide Practice Questions, the Sample Test & Practice Exams 1-4
We will not begin working with full length MCATs until the second half of the course. Full length practice at the start of MCAT review is counter-productive. Although many test-prep companies do have their students take a full-length or half exam at the start, our strong opinion is that it creates a false perception of the exam, damaging self-efficacy. It imposes a gestalt on the science portions, especially, that can be difficult to overcome later. However, after a good amount of content review, a person is able to see the exam for what it is. You know what's in scope and out of scope in a passage, and you understand the intentions of the test-writers much better. For this reason, we wait until module 8 to begin serious work with science passages starting with the Official Guide and then Section Bank. At that point, most of physics, chemistry, and organic content review have been completed, and biochemistry and molecular biology are well primed. The exam is much more transparent.
With regard to CARS, by the time we begin full length practice, we will have completed the equivalent of approximately seven CARS sections worth of passages in the Diagnostic Tool and the Question Packs. When you take your first full-length, you will have a complete game to bring to the CARS section.
3rd Party CARS Passages
If you are retaking the MCAT, you will likely already have seen many of the CARS passages at Prep Hub. Even if you are taking the MCAT for the first - and hopefully last - time, a supply of extra passages can be useful for extra practice and for practice with pacing, especially. In other words, you might need more passages than those available at Prep Hub. Well-constructed CARS passages are available for free at Jack Westin and come with the reasonably priced membership options available at Testing Solution. In our opinion, the teams at both of these sites are very thoughtful passage-selectors and question-writers. However, neither site has the resources or the exact personality of AAMC's shop. Every passage at AAMC was created by the same people who make the exam. Every passage has been through a process of validation in real test conditions. You can't excuse yourself after missing an AAMC question by saying, "AAMC wouldn't ask it that way". They just did! After missing a question at Jack Westin or Testing Solution, on the other hand, you won't be able to keep from doing this sometimes, and sometimes you will be correct.
We can't provide a review of the full service options available at either site. Nevertheless, we admire the work in constructing CARS passages of both Jack Westin and Testing Solution very much, and we have received good reports from students about the quality of teaching at both sites. Their advice may not always agree with our advice, but they are obviously thoughtful and well-informed. We definitely recommend either site as a resource for extra CARS passages. Nevertheless, don't ever take the results from a single session of 3rd party CARS practice as diagnostic. Don't ever them get you down. We have seen a student miss four questions in a single passage at Jack Westin who earlier that week only missed four in an entire CARS section at AAMC. You can learn a lot about CARS at both sites. They are especially useful for per-passage pacing work where you don't want to burn up AAMC passages.
Welcome to the Course! Here's an Assignment!
There is an immersion mindset, and there is an analytical mindset. The analytical mind should arise as a mode of reflection from the flow of reading in an intuitive way, not something imposed from outside. If CARS is taken as a kind of puzzle-solving exercise full of test-prep tips and techniques, you can lose the voice of the writer. You can lose the real communication and sense of exploration in the passage. Before we start turning CARS into a more self-aware performance in upcoming lessons, establish a foundation in your natural reading style. If your primary and secondary school educations were at all typical, you have been taking reading comprehension tests your whole life, since elementary school. You know the drill. Read the passage. Answer the multiple choice questions. Move on to the next passage. Let's do this. The main assignment for CARS Lesson 1 is to visit Prep Hub at AAMC and complete the first 5 passages (35 questions) from Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Question Pack, Vol. 1 This is a shorter than a regular CARS section. On a full-length MCAT, the CARS section has 9 passages with 53 questions with 90 minutes to complete. Let's give ourselves 60 minutes to complete the first 35 questions of Question Pack, Vol. 1, a pace that is a bit more lenient than exam pace. Toggle 'Review Answer' to the 'OFF' position. It's almost always better to be in the testing zone with AAMC passages and save careful question review for afterwards. Have fun! Focus on enjoyment, flow, and immersion. This is the foundation to build from.