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MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section (CARS) tips (including tips for slow and “bad” readers!)

Why CARS is different from other MCAT sections

The CARS section is different from every other section on the MCAT. It is the only section that is entirely skill-based. There are no facts to memorize and no content to learn.

This is obvious. This is so obvious that you’re probably wondering, “Why is he telling me this?” Well, because that means you learn CARS the same way you learned the other sections. 

Instead, you need to focus on the process of CARS: the step-by-step method of solving CARS questions.

Speaking of which, let’s go through that now.

The CARS Process

The CARS process is based on a simple idea: you’ll never be tested on the entire passage.

Instead, you will be asked specific questions about specific parts of the passage. The process is designed to figure out which parts of the passage are being asked about, understand those parts, and then pick the correct answer choice.

This process works great for everyone, but especially for slow or “bad” readers, as it means you never have to read or understand the whole passage. It’ll save you a ton of time and mental work.

Here are the steps to the process.

Step 1: For each passage, you need to create a mental* summary of each paragraph.

The easiest way to create a summary is to focus on the first and last sentence of each paragraph. If you’re a slow reader, you only read the first and last sentence of each paragraph.

The goal here is to get a basic idea of what the passage is about and how it’s structured. If we need details, we’ll get them later.

Note*: I emphasized mental because you should be keeping everything in your head as much as possible. I type everything in this post to help you out, but, on the real MCAT, writing takes way too much time.

Step 2. Once we’ve created a summary of each paragraph, we analyze the first question to see if we need to read more.

If we need to, we’ll use the question to tell us which additional details we need to read in the passage. Otherwise, we’ll just use our prior understanding of the passage to start thinking about the answer to the question, and skip straight to step 4.

3. If we need to read additional parts of the passage, we skim the passage to find the appropriate parts.

Then we read that part of the passage carefully, and make sure we understand it.

Step 4. We analyze the answer choices.

We read each answer choice carefully, and pick the one that’s closest to what we already identified as correct in step 2.

If we need to, we’ll use the answer choices to tell us what additional information we need to read in the passage. It’s best to cross out as many answer choices as possible before doing so, though, as checking each answer choice in the passage is time-consuming.

Improving on CARS

If you get a question wrong in CARS, that means you messed up on one of these steps. Go back and analyze the question to see where you got it wrong, then put it in your MCAT error log.

The process in action

I’m about to show you the process in action on an original CARS passage, taken from my CARS guide.

I’ve put the original text and questions as quotes, with my commentary unquoted. Follow along!

Summarizing the passage

I’ll be summarizing here just by looking at the first and last sentence of each paragraph. This is Step 1 in the process: getting a basic idea of what the passage is about and how it’s structured.

Goethe admonishes the artist to create in forms of beauty, not to talk about beauty, and it is certain that no man ever became a poet from the study of an “art of poetry.” Language is abstract, and art is concrete, the understanding is slow and emotion is swift, the reason may be convinced, but the senses cannot be persuaded. There is no disputing about tastes: de gustibus non disputandum

Goethe says artists should create beauty, not talk about it, as you can’t be a poet from studying poetry. Taste cannot be argued about.

Nevertheless, we know that taste can be cultivated, and that understanding not only makes the taste more discriminating but also multiplies the sources of aesthetic pleasure. Artists as well as amateurs and philosophers have ever sought to further such understanding. Take the sculptor or the painter, whose primary means of expression are forms and colors. He assumes the secondary function of teacher when he places at the disposal of his “school” the results of his studies in technique or theory. Similarly, the philosophical lover of art delights to speculate on the constituents of beauty, and the critic boldly formulates the laws upon the basis of which he judges and classifies. Both therefore contribute to the further cultivation of taste.

Nevertheless, taste can be cultivated, and can make aesthetic pleasure more refined. Some things can contribute to the cultivation of taste.

So the practice of arts must be complemented by the commentary of theory in order to progress. The revival of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries provide excellent examples of this. The men of the Renaissance, having before them not merely numerous examples of Greek sculpture and the epics of Homer and Virgil, but also Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Horace’s “Art of Poetry,” and seeing in these products of antiquity the height of human achievement, could therefore attempt in various ways to apply the canons of ancient taste to the settlement of contemporary problems. Could it be a coincidence that, concurrently, we find in Italy and, following the Italians, in France, England, and Germany, many writers on aesthetics emancipating themselves from the constraint of ancient, “authoritative” axioms? Hardly. 

So, the practice of arts should be complemented by theory. This is borne out by historical examples.

In the absence of theory, all of the fine arts are simply regarded as arts of imitation, and left bereft of illumination. A painting is thought of as a dumb poem. A poem is considered a speaking picture, and, repeating a misunderstood phrase of Horace, men confidently say, “Like picture, like poetry.” Artists without theory assimilate the arts. Few of their observations penetrate beneath the surface, except maybe to compare across disciplines. Without theory, artists calculated proportions and devised elaborate rules of technical procedure, writers of poetics discussed diction and rhetorical figures, but there was nothing more. Even in treatises on painting and poetry, the most that any artist could get were the three “parts” theory, passed down from ancient thinkers and never elaborated upon. Intelligence and industry seemed only competent enough to follow the paths that the ancients had trod, but not to vie with them. There was formalism, true, but nothing deeper. The critics of that time frequently insisted that the end of art is to arouse emotion. What they missed, though, was that pleasure is a not just a personal reaction, but a learned reaction. If these critics had asked what it is that pleases us in a work of art, or what there is in us that makes us sensitive to aesthetic pleasure, they could have approached the sort of theory that eventually drove art forward. Unfortunately for them, they did not, and there was no real advancement until such critical questions were asked and ancient dismissals of such questions disregarded.

In the absence of theory, all fine arts are just imitation. Unfortunately for [the critics], they did not [approach the sort of theory that eventually drove art forward], and there was no real advancement.

Explaining how to answer the questions

Next, I’ll be showing how my process works on the questions themselves with steps 2-4. First I’ll analyze the questions, then I’ll go back to the passage if necessary, and then I’ll come up with my answer.

Question 1

Analyzing question 1

  1. According to the passage, taste is:

We know from the last sentence of paragraph 1 that taste can’t be argued about. We also know from the second paragraph that taste can be cultivated.

I don’t think I’ll need to go back to the passage.

Analyzing the answer choices to question 1

a) individual

This makes sense with our intuition (taste tends to be individual), and it would also work as to why you can’t argue about taste.

b) universal

Nope, that’s the opposite.

c) inexplicable

This seems too strong, especially as we know taste can be cultivated. If it can be cultivated, it can likely be explained, as least somewhat.

d) arguable

No, it’s the opposite of arguable.

The correct answer choice


Question 2

Analyzing question 2

  1. Suppose that writers in the fifteenth and sixteenth century had been content to follow tradition rather than attempt to develop theories of their own. Information presented in the passage would predict which of the following choices labeled I-III?

So, in order to figure this out, I need to look at where this is mentioned. I know paragraph 3 is where historical examples are mentioned in general, so I’ll look for more information there.

Analyzing the passage that question 2 asks about

In paragraph 3, I get, “The revival of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries provide excellent examples of this.” I’m guessing if I look at the sentence before for context, I’ll understand what “this” is.

I see, “So the practice of arts must be complemented by the commentary of theory in order to progress.” So, for these writers, if they didn’t develop new theories, there would have been no progress.

Analyzing question 2’s answer choices

I. The practice of arts would have stagnated during that era.

Yup, it wouldn’t progress.

II. Taste would never have become cultivated.

This is too strong. Never would have become cultivated is doubtful. It just wouldn’t have been cultivated then.

III. The Renaissance artists could have done no more than simply assimilate art.

Huh. I know from that same paragraph that these are Renaissance artists, but I do not know what “assimilate” means in this context. I’m going to have to scan for the word “assimilate”.

I find it in the next paragraph, which says, “Artists without theory assimilate the arts.”

So yup, both I and II seems good.

a) I only

b) II only

c) I and III only

d) I and II only

The correct answer choice


Question 3

Analyzing question 3

What best represents the author’s explanation as to why ancient critics were misguided when they claimed “the end of art is to arouse emotion”?

Well, obviously, we need to go to the part of the passage that discusses this!

Analyzing the passage asked about in question 3

In the last paragraph, we see, “The critics of that time frequently insisted that the end of art is to arouse emotion.” 

To get our explanation, we can just look at the context, which is the sentence before and the sentence after. 

The sentence after is the more informative one: “What they missed, though, was that pleasure is not just a personal reaction, but a learned reaction.”

So, they were misguided because they didn’t get pleasure could be learned.

Analyzing question 3’s answer choices

a) In doing so, ancient critics oversimplified a complex issue.

No, that doesn’t seem right. It’s not an oversimplification.

b) While ancient critics were correct in this idea, this is a deceptively complex task.

Nothing about this task being complex.

c) The end of art is not to arouse emotion, but to cultivate taste.

No, this is just a misreading of the passage.

d) The idea of “arousing emotion” ignores the possibility of appealing to more cultivated sensibilities.

This is pretty much exactly what the passage says.

The correct answer choice


Where to get more CARS guidance

That’s it for my abbreviated CARS strategy guide. If you want a video showing this process action, check out the video below!

If you’re interested in a full CARS guide, with a bunch more fully worked-out examples, click here.

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