CARS Lesson 7  —  Types of CARS passages
Kinds of arguments

The more you understand the craft of the essay writer, the more you can help them close the circle in communication. Understanding the structure of argumentation is useful, and it's useful for us to discuss the types of arguments you will run into. Part of being a local in any city is to have an idea of what to expect. Although a few may defy easy categorization, the passages you will encounter in the CARS section of the MCAT will include arguments of fact, arguments of definition, arguments of evaluation and proposals. Each of these types of argument have different general characteristics which we will discuss in this lesson.


Factual arguments seek to demonstrate whether something is or is not the case in the world. This type of argument typically seeks to settle a controversy or challenge established beliefs. What is the true economic impact of an environmental regulation? Does music education really help build math skill in children? How did Indus civilization avoid the militarization seen in other ancient agrarian civilizations? Disagreements about factual matters often aren't as easy to resolve as one would think. Facts and information need to be interpreted. Evidence may be confounding. It may be that there isn't that much evidence in the first place.

The writer in a factual arguments will often set the stage with a series of observations. This will be followed by the introduction of a hypothesis and counter-arguments. The type of evidence brought forward in a factual argument will typically be 'hard' evidence rather than constructs of logic or reason. Here are some questions to ask of the passage.

  • What is the issue at stake?
  • Is there a controversy? What are the different points of view?
  • Where does the author stand? What is their hypothesis
  • How do they refine, condition, or qualify their claim?
  • How good is their evidence? Is the evidence warranted?
  • Is the organization of the argument effective?

An additional challenge with this type of MCAT passage is to organize the details while you are reading. As details pile on, it's okay to slow down rehearse information or step back and look at how information is organized. The workshops in the countryside used linseed oil and beeswax but the city workshops sometimes used shellac or oil varnish . . . You generally don't need to memorize everything, but you do need to keep the information mentally organized. For practice of these reading skills, Charles Mann's 1491 and Brad DeLong's The Melting Away of North Atlantic Social Democracy are both good examples of arguments of fact from our collection of supplementary reading.


Before we can think clearly about an issue, we have to understand exactly what the terms mean. An argument of definition attempts to clarify a definition of a controversial term or concept. Definition arguments try to establish whether someone or something belongs to a certain category. These are issues you can't solve with a dictionary. Is the snail darter an endangered species? Is there such a thing as a just war? What is human intelligence?

Some definitions are formal definitions. These definitions assign class membership by specific criteria. A bird is a warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate distinguished by the possession of feathers, wings, and a beak. That's a formal definition. In contrast, an operational definition helps us grasp something that can't be directly measured. Operational definitions define in terms of procedures that reliably produce a differentiated outcome. Many definitions in the fields of medicine and psychology are operational definitions. An operational definition identifies the thing by its measurable activity or what conditions create it. Lastly, definition by example seeks to assign a definition based on similarity to a list of other class members.

Arguments of definition often begin with the claim of asserting that something is or is not a member of a class. Situation comedies do not qualify as art . . . If you're getting paid, then you're not a volunteer . . . Racism can exist in an organization whose individual members are not racist. To establish the basis for the claim, the argument usually will then formulate a general definition. Art is defined as . . . A volunteer is . . . Racism is . . . In the Toulmin framework, the general definition serves as grounds for the claim, and the substance of the argument is to show that the claim is warranted.

Some of the most challenging passages you may run into on the exam are arguments of definition from the domains of modern thought. Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism and Michel Foucault's Madness, the absence of an Ĺ“uvre are two examples of this genre.


An argument of evaluation makes a judgement about quality. The evidence in support of an argument of evaluation may be hard evidence, such as statistics or survey results, or it may be qualitative evidence that relies on subjective criteria. An argument of evaluation may not only be about making a judgement about quality. The focus of the argument may be to explore the criteria for judgment. See Pauline Kael's Circles and Squares.

Here are some questions to ask of the passage while reading an argument of evaluation.

  • What is the author's claim?
  • Is there a controversy? What are the different points of view?
  • What are the author's criteria of evaluation?
  • What type of evidence does the author present?

An arguments of evaluation will often generate a CARS question involving 'reasoning beyond the text'. Almost every passage of this type is followed by a question asking you to apply the author's criteria of evaluation to something not mentioned in the passage. Try this out with David Foster Wallace's Shipping Out.


A proposal is an argument calling for a change in policy or practice. Proposals aim to be persuasive, so they are focused on the audience and the future. Proposals begin by first establishing that a problem exists. Whenever a passage starts out with a vivid picture showing a problem affecting people, start looking for the central claim of the argument, which will be the merit of the author's proposal. George Orwell's famous essay, Politics and the English Language, demonstrates the basic form of this type of argument. Typical components of proposal arguments are as follows.

  • Claim of the existence of problem or need that is not currently being addressed.
  • Warranted evidence for the problem.
  • A second claim proposing a solution - the set of actions to take in the future.
  • Warranted evidence for the feasibility and effectiveness of the solution.
  • Acknowledgement of counter-arguments and counter-proposals.

Because the author in this type of argument will be trying to make a strong claim of both the problem and the solution, proposal arguments are very generative for questions that call on you to make inferences towards the author's point of view that extend beyond the text. Questions regarding the scope the author's claims and the extent to which the claims are warranted by the evidence are also very common, as well as questions that ask you to determine the most effective evidence for a counter-argument from the answer choices. When reading a proposal argument, it's a good idea to take the position of someone who will be difficult to persuade to encourage you to read these arguments critically.

Let's practice

Assignment: Perform the 2nd 7 passages (questions 44-80) from Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Question Pack, Vol. 2. Remember to toggle 'Review Answer' to the 'OFF' position. Give yourself 65 minutes for the timed portion of the exercise. Before scoring the passages, perform a blind review!

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