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Why CARS Is Not Your Typical MCAT Section

When I started prepping for the MCAT, the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section (typically abbreviated as CARS) of the MCAT was my weakest area. And in a way, it was my fault. Why? Because I tried to treat it the same as the other sections of the test. In reality, though, CARS is very different.

For a little bit of context as to why, let’s take a look at my experience in medical school. When I think back, what made medical school difficult was not the difficulty or trickiness of information to learn, but instead the enormous volume of that information. Here’s an actual day from my first week of med school:

This muscle is called “teres minor.” Easy enough…
Now memorize these other 60 muscles.
And which blood vessels oxygenate them.
And which nerves innervate them.
And both of the attachment points of each muscle.
And what actions they perform.
And you need to do all of that this morning. You’ve got embryology and histology this afternoon.

See what I mean?

In order to be a good doctor, you need to know a massive amount of information. Unsurprisingly, medical school admissions committees want to know that you can handle that. Enter the three science sections of the MCAT:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social and Biological Functions of Behavior
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

What if admissions committees could wave a magic wand and know what students could score on an MCAT and accept students based of that? They wouldn’t. MCAT prep is like boot camp! Surviving that avalanche of information allows you to be better prepared when you get to the even larger mountain known as medical school. The science sections of the MCAT are meant to test your knowledge and understanding of vast amounts of content and also to train you to deal with that much info cognitively. Of course, memorization isn’t enough – being able to reason critically and read is still vital to those sections. But your content knowledge can at least help you, and to some extent, you can use the fact that the science sections are meant to test knowledge to your advantage through brute force.

But what about CARS? CARS is a test of your ability to understand people.

Think about what makes a good doctor. Is it just knowledge? A strong ability to memorize? Not even close. I know some very intelligent doctors, who absolutely have that knowledge, that I can’t really categorize as “great.” To be great, you need to be able to empathize.

Take the following situation:

A mother comes into the clinic and says she doesn’t want to vaccinate her child. You can’t just yell at her; you need to understand why. There could be several reasons for her statement:

  1. The mother read something on Facebook and is worried for her child.
  2. The mother thinks vaccines don’t really work, and children often get sick anyway.
  3. The child has an autoimmune disease, and vaccinating could be fatal.
  4. The mother thinks the side effects of some vaccines are worse than the actual disease vaccinated against.

These situations are all completely different and require different actions on the physician’s part. You need to be able to read between the lines and understand the motives of the mother. This sounds simple, but the cost of missing something in the world of medicine is sometimes fatal.

The CARS section of the MCAT is the one part of the exam that requires ZERO knowledge. Every question has an answer that can be found in the passages. It’s basically an open-note test. Sound easy? It’s not. The passages can be incredibly complex, the questions are sometimes difficult to even understand, and you are constantly fighting the clock.

CARS is a test of skill! The key is to practice and constantly review where you went wrong. Did you miss questions because you ran out of time, or misunderstood the passage? Or maybe you never went back to the passage for detail-style questions, or got sucked in by an extreme answer choice? These are the questions you must ask yourself in order to do well in CARS. Just as in the hospital, the only way to treat properly is to diagnose properly. This isn’t a section you can suddenly decide to cram for and still expect to excel.

I didn’t properly review my CARS sections when I first began my MCAT prep, and it took me two months to figure out that this was my problem. Soon afterward, my CARS score jumped up 5 points and kept climbing. Sometimes all you need is a little change in perspective.

If you’re looking for MCAT prep to help increase your CARS score, our MCAT experts can help! Blueprint MCAT students see an average 15-point score increase and reach their goal scores through our live courses, self-paced courses, and private tutoring. Get started for free by creating a Blueprint MCAT account and get access to an MCAT study planner, full-length exams, a free trial of our Self-Paced Course, and the opportunity to work with Blue, the FIRST and ONLY AI MCAT Tutor for CARS!

Written by Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step) MCAT experts.
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