CARS Lesson 3 — CARS 101
Below are some suggested strategies to help you stay on an even keel throughout the CARS section. If CARS is a very difficult section for you, these ideas and methods will help you establish basic efficacy and keep you out of trouble. If you are already very strong, internalizing these ideas will help make your best performances more reproducible. Many of the points will be discussed in greater detail in later lessons.
Starting the passage
Find your bearings
You usually have some kind of context when you start reading an essay in school or in everyday life. At the very least, you know whether it's going to be history, philosophy, literary criticism, etc. before you start reading. It's not that way with an MCAT passage. With an MCAT passage, there is no context. You get oriented with an MCAT passage while you're simultaneously trying to read the first paragraph with comprehension. This is part of the challenge. The early life of Leonardo da Vinci? Furniture making in colonial America? The ethical responsibilities of educators? Think of the departments of a university or the sections of a library. Put the passage in context. Where does it fit in the world? It's important to be aware that you are not supposed to have your bearings when you start reading. It's easy to misattribute the lack of bearings at the beginning and think you are disoriented or in trouble. You're not disoriented. You're not in trouble. You just need to get situated. Give yourself a little extra time.
Take your time at the start
This is the MCAT. The prospect of running out of time is an issue for any section, and CARS is no exception. You need good flow and movement throughout the exam. However, spending a little extra time making sure you get a good start with a CARS passage will save time later. You'll get the time back. Sometimes the start of a passage is like opening a door and getting punched in the face. Get your footing. Give yourself permission. Later you will be reading more confidently. You will answer questions more quickly. Don't ever let a feeling of dread take hold of you if you have to go back and re-read the first three sentences. You're doing it right. Don't rush it at the start.
Tune in to the writer
No matter how abstract or obscure the subject matter, read on a human level. The writer and you are in a relationship. Speech is spoken and heard. Writing is written and read, but writing is a form of speech. Spoken language came before reading in your childhood. The human race evolved to use speech. Find the voice of the writer as if they were speaking to you. Bring your full ingrained capacity for understanding into play. Read on a human level. When you are in an everyday conversation, you comprehend meaning in a complex way that is hard-wired and pre-conscious. It doesn't involve just the plain meaning. You understand how the speaker feels naturally. It's a kind of telepathy we gain in our language acquisition. Start every passage with confident, open engagement and find the voice of the writer.
Flow and structure
With an MCAT passage, you start at the top of the first paragraph, and later in time you will reach the bottom of the last paragraph. The flow of language is sequential in time. This is where you find the writer's voice, where you learn what they really think, through the flow of the language in time. But a paragraph has a structure, and the passage as a whole has a structure. To see the structure involves a kind of simultaneous processing. Good reading involves immersion in the flow of the writing balanced with a kind of stepping back to appreciate the structure of the argument taking shape as you move forward.
What begins as a conscious process of noting the transitions in an argument becomes more intuitive through practice. Some arguments merely make a claim; justify the claim; and then re-emphasize the claim as a conclusion. Some authors give critical perspectives the opportunity to make their best counterarguments against the author's central claims, so there are transitions in the point of view and modulations of the voice to give their critics a chance to speak. Other arguments mutate and transform through a kind of self-reflection to a place that was unexpected. As you move paragraph to paragraph, you come to understand the structure of the passage as a whole. The ability to see the structure taking shape as you move through the essay is a foundation for reading critically and one of the most important capacities to develop in preparing for CARS.
Staying in sync
Every MCAT passage has places where you may stumble in the reading. It may be as simple as a "former" and a "latter" referring to two things you've lost track of. There may be a shift in the point of view of the argument only subtly signaled by the writer in the transition. A presentation of factual information may overload the working memory. Never panic when you stumble. It was intended, not by the writer (they're doing their best!), but by AAMC. Now you know why AAMC chose this passage. Slow down. Look at the whole paragraph. Back up a few sentences to where you had the thread. Ask the writer in your imagination, "What are you trying to say right here?" This actually works. You can help the writer articulate what they were trying to say. Your unconscious may understand intuitively what they were getting at, but if it doesn't come clear, fence it in with your best guess or as an open question. Often an open question will resolve in a few sentences because the author anticipated your question and elaborates. Never resign yourself. Stay in sync. Always come to an accommodation.
After the passage but before the questions
Look at the whole passage
Now that you've finished reading, you can finally see the passage as a whole. Before going on to the questions, move through the passage quickly from top to bottom. A quick glance at each paragraph is enough. Just answer the question, "What are the parts of this thing?" Take 20 or 30 seconds and walk through it. You'll get that time back in the questions. Suppose it's a passage on furniture making in colonial America. It might go something like this - Here's where he described the life for the seventeenth century colonists. He describes the workshops of colonial artisans. Some of the artisans were joiners and some were turners. There were baroque influences from Europe which led to the introduction of the William and Mary style. Some historians have differing opinions about the originality of the American contribution to this style, etc. Simple as that. There are usually five or six parts to a passage. Answering "What are the parts of this thing?" before moving on will freshen the memory of many details, and it will give you a firmer sense of the structure of the argument before you move on to the questions. Understanding the structure of the argument is the key to understanding the main idea.
Read the question stem carefully
Speed reading question stems will be punished in CARS practice. Learn to slow down and read them word for word. Take you time and read every word of the question stem. The question writer's art is on full display. As pure sensory input, nothing looks as much like a proposition as its exact opposite. The only difference is the word 'not' in the second one. Question stems challenge your focus, attention and mental discipline. If you misread the question stem, the question writer will follow up with a wrong answer that goes with your misreading. Part of the multiple choice test-writer's art as the intentional construction of failure pathways. Let the question be easy when they want to be easy, but understand what they are up to.
Answer the question stem by itself
This advice applies to the science sections and psych soc too, not only CARS. Sometimes the question stem is too ambiguous or open-ended for this, but wherever possible try to answer the question stem in your mind as if it were a short answer question before reading the answer choices. You don't have to finalize an answer. The point is to have a disciplined method of pausing a moment to think independently about the question stem before starting to read the answer choices. There was a moment when the test-writer was sitting at their desk with only the question stem too. They thought of the right answer first, and then they came up with their second best answer. Their second best answer is designed to act like a magnetic pull and anchor your thinking. If you wait until reading answer choices to start your thought process, you will give the second best answer the opportunity to dictate to you how you should be framing the question, but if you have your own thoughts, the second best answer will lose its power. Don't jump into the first answer that seems to mirror your thoughts. Sometimes a fatal flaw is built into an answer that looks right, but having thought independently prior to that point won't make you more susceptible. It will disarm this type of answer choice by making its flaw more transparent. Answer the question stem by itself, wherever possible, before reading the answer choices. Don't go into their answer choices like a babe in the woods.
Don't commit too soon
No matter how tempting the first decent answer sounds, practice withholding judgment and process all the answer choices before you commit. Give them all equal weight at first. Often it will be clear, and you quickly get to the answer and move on. However, with a subtle, difficult question, be satisfied to get down to the two best at first. Don't make the first decent sounding answer the 'king of the hill'. This may put the correct one in the position of having to fight an uphill battle. Get down to two answers, and then attack them both. One will have a weakness in its armor that you can find. Choose the least worst of the two. That's going to be the right answer.
Let a question be easy when it wants to be easy
In any section of the MCAT, about a third of the questions are just easy. If it looks easy, just make sure you read the question stem carefully. Make sure you have read all the answer choices. Then choose the best answer. You know it's the correct answer. It is the correct answer! Let them be easy when they want to be easy and move on.
The difficult questions
There is the another third of the questions which are genuinely subtle and difficult. You get down to two possible answer choices in a difficult question, and neither one seems to be all that great. Sometimes they both seem to be pretty decent. Which one do you choose? Practice closing your mind to what's seductive about each answer choice. Plug your ears against the Siren song. Don't think about what's right about each answer. Think about what's wrong. Go on the attack. There are many ways an answer may disqualify itself. Maybe the question stem mentioned 'in the passage'. You can always take 'in the passage' to the bank. Maybe there is a fallacy of logic in the answer choice. Maybe the answer reflects what a good person should think, not necessarily what the author wrote. When you go on the attack, the correct answer will be strangely impervious to attack. It will be like a smooth stone, but you can find a weakness in the other one. You might not love the one that seems impervious to attack. You might have phrased it differently. That's what it means to be the least worst. Now you see it. It was obvious all the time. That's the correct answer, the least worst.
Keep on the safe side of time
The degree to which time might become an issue for the CARS section varies quite a bit from person to person. Some people can finish comfortably without too much difficulty, while others may need practice to get to the point of comfortable pacing. Below is a simple method to stay out of trouble with time in the CARS section, as well as the other sections of the MCAT. We will have more to say about time management in the next CARS lesson in module 4.
The thirty minute unit of flow
Timing every passage will make it hard to focus. Instead of state of anxiety, you want to be in a state of flow throughout this exam. Flow is a mental state in which you have a feeling of energized focus, immersion and involvement. You can manage time and still keep your flow. A method that works for most people is to check in on progress only every thirty minutes. You divide the section into thirty minute increments. Thirty minutes is the unit of flow. This works for any section of the MCAT. You dive in and allow yourself to be completely immersed in reading the passages and answering the questions. When you come up for air after the first thirty minutes, make sure you have answered approximately twenty questions. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and meditate a little bit. You're moving well. You've answered twenty questions. You are on pace to finish the whole section with ten minutes to spare. Dive back in and check in later at sixty minutes when you should have about 40 questions answered. You're doing fine. This is Plan A.
Suppose you check in after the first thirty minutes and you've only answered fifteen questions. After all your practice, this should be rare, but it can happen. Maybe you forgot yourself and went a five minute fishing expedition for a single question. Relax. You've got this. You still need to close your eyes and meditate for a few seconds. Breathe deeply. It's going to be okay. You're just going to be using Plan B for the next thirty minute unit of flow. You don't need to change too much. You aren't going to start rushing the passages. That's a false economy. You actually got in trouble with the questions, most likely, and that's the place to get out of trouble. The next thirty minutes give yourself an extra half dozen get-out-of-jail free cards. When you feel you might be a little stuck on a difficult question, play one of these sooner than you normally would. You can make up a lot of time with only a few of these. You're in Plan B. Choose the least worst right away. Flag it. And move on. Do this five or six times. Maybe you get two or three correct instead of four, but, now, at sixty minutes you are back in sync with time. Maybe you're at 36 or 37 questions. It's true you won't have a lot of extra time at the end, but you've saved yourself from a much bigger problem. You are going to finish in time.
Putting it all together
Let's give ourselves 50 minutes to complete questions 36-65 from Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Question Pack, Vol. 1, the second five passages in the question pack. Remember to toggle 'Review Answer' to the 'OFF' position. Try out the core methods for CARS discussed in this lesson, and remember to tally your wrong answers as discussed in lesson 2 to make sure you're giving 'C' and 'D' as good a chance as 'A' and 'B' when you're answering the questions.