We cover how to handle not getting the score you wanted in the CARS section of the MCAT. The CARS section seems to have some of the biggest swings, from full-length exams to real tests. Hopefully, this episode will give you a little bit of insight.
Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
[02:40] Why People are Doing Poorly in CARS
A lot of students who are scoring lower than they wanted can easily get devastated. Alex shared the same experience when he got a CARS score that was lower than his full-length exam section score. He felt victimized.
We look at Table A-16 from the AAMC, which shows “MCAT scores and GPAs for applicants and particular matriculants” for 2018-2019, 2019-2020, 2020-2021, and 2021-2022. CARS has the lowest of all with 125.9 for the three columns and then 125.7. So there are people who aren’t getting better in CARS.
Many students studying for the MCAT see score improvement with the types of strategies that they’ve already trained. Or they’ve been used to using it back in undergrad or grad course college courses. Those types of strategies are often much more effective in Bio/Biochem and Psych/Soc than they are in Chem/Phys and CARS.
CARS is the peak example because it’s unlike any other course they’ve done before. It’s unlike almost any other strategy that they’ve deployed before, and they don’t know how to improve at all. And the reason they’re not improving is that the strategies are different and they’re not what you’ve been doing so far.
[05:43] How to Get Better at CARS
CARS is scary, especially for a lot of ESL students because there’s a lot of inner dialogue going on. Whether they’re not a native English speaker or they don’t know what the word means or what the idiom is, this just slows them down.
“Timing is always an issue for the CARS section… it’s probably the worst section, timing-wise.”
If you’re in this situation, it can be really frustrating because you feel there’s nothing you can learn. And with many things MCAT, right, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and reflect.
CARS requires looking through your practice. Look through how the whole arc of your prep went when you were preparing for the MCAT. Then ask yourself, what are the underlying skills that you need to work on and improve?
[08:13] Mastering Your Chain of Skills
CARS requires us to chain a bunch of skills together. For instance, there’s reading and there’s reading quickly. You may also have to get a sense of the overall flow of the author’s argument, opinions, and evidence they may introduce. There’s keeping new words that we’ve never seen before, separate and distinct from one another. And then taking all of that and applying it to questions.
“How high your CARS score is only as high as the weakest link in your skill chain.”
Moreover, questions can be divided into many different types. Sometimes, you have to integrate it with new information in the question stem. And sometimes, it’s just restricting it to what we’re seeing in the passage, and also not letting our personal biases drag in.
Those are a lot of skills that CARS requires us to use in sequence. And if one of them is much weaker than the other, that can potentially almost hide the fact that you’re strong in all of those other skills. And that’s because it, alone, will pull your CARS score down dramatically.
And so, it’s really worth taking a pause so you take an assay of those skills, and figure out what your limiting factors are. Was it that you didn’t understand the passage when you read it? Or maybe you understood it but you couldn’t understand it within the allotted time. Or maybe you understood the passages really well but then you got a bunch of questions wrong. Figure out whether you missed reading the question in some way. Or maybe, you just didn’t really understand the passage at all.
Hence, take that assay to assess your relevant skills and then break them down. There might be 15 skills in that chain. And many students are actually just weak in one, two, or three. And if they could just focus on those, their CARS score will suddenly jump by five points.
[11:29] What Kinds of Articles to Read
If you’re someone who reads the CARS passage and you mostly get the meaning. Or you know you could get the meaning here, but you just need more time, then Alex recommends just doing lots of CARS passages untimed. For this student, CARS is at the periphery of their existing skill level. So they need to take the time to understand what the CARS passage is saying.
That way, they can break it down and think about what they would highlight and what key arguments they need to map.
As you do that for a bunch of passages untimed, you’ll find that it comes easier and easier every time. You’ll become more familiar with how the author tends to frame their arguments or even what kinds of questions might get asked from a CARS passage.
Once you’ve done that, you can gradually switch to timed tests but without a time limit. For example, you find that taking all the time that you need takes you 16 minutes a passage. Of course, on the test, you ideally want to shoot for about nine and a half (including the passage and the questions for each passage on average.) So you can very gradually taper from there.
“If your struggle is reading comprehension or fitting in that comprehension within the time limit, then working to improve within the amount of time you’ll have on test day is often counterproductive.”
At the end of the day, the way to improve in the CARS section is to just get better and better, and get faster and faster. Don’t kill yourself that you’re not reading it at nine minutes a passage and you’re doing it at 20. You will eventually get there as long as you practice. You’ll also be able to figure out the shortcuts and workarounds as you go along.
Give yourself that grace and get out of that inner dialogue that you have going on, whether you’re too slow or you’re doing terribly because all that’s doing is slowing you down.
[16:06] Give CARS the Respect It Deserves
One of the things that can trip people up is you are expected to know nothing about a topic. So if you come across a passage that’s on a topic area that you have never seen before in your life, the MCAT doesn’t expect you.
There are concepts that are being thrown in to see how well you can juggle new concepts. They do this in a way that doesn’t require you to know anything about things like abstract expressionism.
The other thing Alex wants to point out is that it’s a very different way of learning than what many of us have done for years and years.
“Getting better at CARS requires us to get better at reading… getting better at reading is really hard, but it is possible.”
Especially in CARS, more so than any other section, give it the respect it deserves. Reading skills can come more so than memorizing theories of personality. It takes a little bit of practice every day for a long time. It’s very hard to cram and to meaningfully improve because the human mind is just not set up to change how it reads that easily.
Ultimately, if you improve your reading comprehension skills, that will improve your score in the other sections too.