Here’s How to Develop Your MCAT CARS Skills

Session 161

What’s the difference between CARS and MCAT sections? CARS is 100% skill, not prior knowledge. Today, we talk about note-taking, reading, and analysis for CARS.

Phil from Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep) joins us today for another interesting topic around MCAT.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[01:40] The Biggest Mistakes Students Make with the CARS Section

'The CARS section for many people is really painful, especially for ESL students. It's just different.'Click To Tweet

The biggest mistake Phil sees that students are making when it comes to the CARS section of the MCAT is they don’t realize it’s different. When you think of the MCAT, it’s really two exams: the sciences (the other three sections) and the CARS section.

If you try to use the same strategies that make you successful in the sciences, it can end up hurting you when you apply these to CARS.

The big thing is to recognize that it’s not trying to test what you know. The five hours you’re spending on the exam is all about trying to prove what you know, equations and all. You’re trying to prove that you’re a smart person.

But CARS doesn’t care about that. If you’re trying to prove that you’re smart, then you’d be failing in this area.

In a CARS passage, when you try to bring stuff that you already know, it’s screwing you up. Because the questions and what the author is trying to get at don’t really care about what you know. It’s all about what the author is saying.

'You have to be especially careful if the MCAT writers are writing about a topic that not only thatClick To Tweet

When they talk about something like Darwin, evolution, disease, or healthcare, you have to be really careful. People have these ingrown ideas and these things are so deep that you can’t pull them out.

For instance, you have this notion that you shouldn’t murder somebody or that you shouldn’t be racist. These are so ingrained in you, but if the CARS passage doesn’t say that, you can’t think it. You have to not bring in your own outside knowledge.

[Related podcast: The MCAT CARS Podcast]

[05:25] The Motivation of the MCAT Writers

MCAT writers are not trying to test what you know. They’re trying to test how well you can understand someone else’s point of view. That’s a really important thing.

A lot of doctors know a lot of stuff and they maybe aren’t the best doctors in the world because they don’t pay attention to the patients. They don’t understand what’s going on in the mind of the patient.

But a great physician needs to latch on. For instance, a cancer patient already has a lot of stuff on his plate. So you need to check and make sure that he understands. You have to understand somebody else’s perspective.

[Related episode: 6 Tips For Improving Patient Communication]

[08:00] Which Should You Focus On?

Phil reveals that the way he reads CARS is different than how he reads anything else. Normally, you’re just trying to understand something, the details, and the ins and outs.

With CARS, he doesn’t really care about what’s going on in the CARS passage. Instead, he cares about the different viewpoints and how the author feels.

If there are contrasting viewpoints, then he tries to latch on to those. Because they’re trying to test whether you understand what’s going on between people.

'Contrast and opinion are king.'Click To Tweet

There are some ways that authors can word stuff that puts some distance between them and somebody else. Adjectives and verbs can be really important. 

For example, there’s a difference between saying “My brother says the sky is red.” and “My brother knows the sky is red.” The second tells that you’re on board with it and the other one is you trying to get some distance.

Additionally, there are some passages that have one or two keywords. Adverbs are huge. What Phil does is he hunts aggressively for these in the passage. He likens himself as the SEAL team trying to go in and extract the president from some sort of scenario. They have an objective. They get in and get out.

So a lot of those details don’t matter to him. It doesn’t matter what the color of the sky is. What matters is whether the author and the brother both agree on something. And this is way more important.

This is one of the big things different about the reading section with CARS versus other exams. The latter would be like “Where’s Waldo” questions. No one is not smart enough to find Waldo.

With CARS, you’ve got to be able to catch opinions and contrast. You’ve got to be constantly hunting for those things.

[Related episode: MCAT CARS Passage Skills—Times Article Breakdown]

[12:45] Dissecting Each Paragraph

Each time somebody has got a viewpoint, be actively looking for whether the author agrees or disagrees. Sometimes, when somebody claims or knows, this is a huge alarm bell.

There are times that you may look for the author’s opinion and it ends up they didn’t have any. A lot of times, there are a couple of different people with contrasting views and then the questions are going to be about those people.

'The ones that get really tricky is trying to figure out how the author feels about something. That's something a little harder to pull out unless you know you're looking for that.'Click To Tweet

[13:45] Highlighting vs. Notetaking

Both highlighting and notetaking can be successful in Phil’s opinion. Notetaking does take a little bit longer and so some students don’t like to do that.

The notes you take don’t have to make sense to anybody else. They don’t even need to make sense to you tomorrow. They need to make sense to you for 10 minutes. The idea is that you need to be doing something active to keep you hunting for something. 

'You want to make sure that you're getting good at pulling out the right information.'Click To Tweet

If you have 3-5 months of preparation, Phil recommends notetaking initially. Then you can take a step back at the end and check which things you thought were important and match them up.

Some students say they can just do this in their head and then make sure to check what they think but they really don’t.

'CARS is 100% skill. And that's what differentiates it from the other sections.'Click To Tweet

For the first month, don’t pay attention to time. Just pay attention to whether or not you’re catching the right things or not. Then adjust that. As you do this more and more, you will get faster. Just do it right because you will pick up speed as you go.

[19:14] Reviewing Notes

'All students when they're reviewing just focus on the questions because that's where the points are. But if obviously misunderstood the passage, you're going to miss questions.'Click To Tweet

If you miss a question in Bio, it might be because you didn’t know something. Or if you missed something in Physics, it might be that you didn’t know the equation or had math errors.

But in CARS, it’s never something you didn’t know. It’s never data interpretation or math errors. If you missed a question, it’s only one in four possible problems. 

The first is timing. Second, you missed something from the passage or misunderstood it. The third is not having a good strategy for that sort of question.

And lastly, it could be a certain type of wrong answer that tends to pull you in. A lot of people fall for really extreme answers or one that is out of scope. Or it could be something that is in the passage but doesn’t answer the question.

[21:55] Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep)

If you’re looking for an MCAT course, check out my review of Next Step’s MCAT course over at

If you’re looking for anything to help you prepare for the MCAT, check out Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep) and use the promo code MCATPOD to save some money.


Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep) (promo code MCATPOD)

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