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How to Dissect a CARS Passage

I know how to read. You know how to read. So why is the CARS section of the MCAT so difficult?

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Section is about much more than comprehending the words on the screen; the AAMC wants to see that you can think critically and logically about arguments, which necessitates understanding evidence, tone, and inferences. Fortunately, this is a skill you can learn and improve with practice.

Today, we will tackle the first step to CARS domination: breaking down and interpreting a CARS passage.

How to Breakdown a CARS Passage

The CARS Section is 90 minutes long, with 53 questions and nine passages, so you should spend no more than 10 minutes per passage (about five minutes to read and five minutes for questions).

It is important to note that CARS requires no outside knowledge, meaning you should only use the facts you extract from the passage and leave external information and opinions at the door. An active, careful reading is essential for all three skills the CARS section tests, from passage comprehension (skill one) to reasoning beyond the text (skill three). 

Follow the steps below as you read to maximize your CARS question accuracy!

1. Summarize the Main Idea of Each Paragraph (Before Moving to the Next!)

Have you ever found yourself at the end of a CARS passage and realized you have no idea what it was about? Yeah, me too.

As you read each paragraph, take a moment to determine the main idea before moving on to the next.

This process will be awkward at first, but over time, it will become second nature to summarize the key points and stay engaged with the words on the page.

Knowing each paragraph’s main idea will also make answering questions much easier, as it will help you identify which paragraph to refer back to when answering CARS questions. Understanding the main idea is also essential to comprehend and connect more complex elements of the test, such as inferences and arguments. 

Still, it can be hard to identify the main idea, which is why Blueprint MCAT students turn to our AI MCAT tutor, Blue, for help!


2. Pay Attention to Transition Words

I want you to imagine transition words (e.g., moreover, therefore, yet, besides, finally, etc.) as links between ideas. If you can identify transition words, you can follow the passage logic and better understand how the argument is built. Transition words often act as signposts to indicate that new evidence,  examples, or counterarguments.

3. Identify Tone Words

In some passages, the tone is extreme, and it is clear that the author is overjoyed, angry, or disappointed. In other passages, the tone is subtle or perhaps neutral. Identifying the passage’s tone can help you parse the author’s argument and understand their purpose for writing the text.

I find it helpful to visualize the tone as a scale, from -3 to +3, with -3 being SUPER negative and +3 being SUPER positive.

Try to map the tone on this scale as you read. Some questions explicitly ask about tone, but there will also be questions where the author’s tone is one of many considerations in choosing the right answer.

Taking the time to articulate how the author feels about the topic will pay dividends when you get to the questions! 

4. Determine the Argument and Argument Structure

Identifying passage arguments is key to success on the CARS section of the MCAT. Arguments tie the evidence and examples to the author’s tone and opinions and explain the passage’s overall purpose.

In general, arguments can be organized in two ways: top-down or bottom-up.

In a top-down passage, the author introduces an argument at the beginning, and the rest of the passage provides evidence and examples to support it.

On the other hand, a bottom-up passage builds evidence and examples throughout the text and synthesizes the claim at the end of the passage.

As you read, practice meta-narration (actively recognizing elements of the text as you read them) to help identify the argument structure. You’ll find that this also overlaps with the main idea of each paragraph. With time and practice, you’ll become efficient at tracking main ideas and how they tie into the overall argument! 

5. Build a Mental (or Even Physical!) Passage Model

From sentence one until the end, you should construct a mental map of the CARS passage using highlights and main idea summaries. Creating this kind of map or model requires active reading and meta-narration.

It also means you must strategically identify transition words and in-text claims to return to as needed. This will save time when answering questions and ensure you understand the overall structure of the passage.

For your first attempts at mental mapping, keep physical notes to reinforce the steps and guide your answers. Try using a highlighter to identify transition, tone, and keywords, and determine the pattern of highlighting and notes that is most beneficial for you.

For some, mapping easily transitions to a purely mental exercise or one aided by tools in the test interface, while others require a physical map on test day. That’s completely okay!

Remember that you get a marker and booklet for the MCAT, so you’ll have options. If you learn to map successfully, you can easily refer to the appropriate passage section when answering a CARS question. In fact, with your handy analysis of passage content on hand, you may not need to refer back at all for some questions!

As you can see, these steps are not linear. Instead, these strategies work together to help you understand any unique CARS passage that might pop up on your MCAT.

And, as always, the best way to grow and improve your CARS skills is to practice, practice, practice! Our CARS study buddy, Blue, is an AI-generated MCAT tutor who can help you understand your CARS strengths and weaknesses and point out key information from passages you might have missed. Create a free Blueprint MCAT account now to try him out for free!

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