Strategy for the MCAT’s Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section
The writers of the MCAT assert that its critical analysis and reasoning section, also known as CARS, tests three skills – comprehension, reasoning “within the text,” and reasoning “beyond the text.” Comprehension questions may ask, for example, about the overall theme of the passage or the meaning of particular words in context. Reasoning questions, by contrast, challenge the test-taker to analyze and evaluate the author’s argument and even extrapolate the author’s ideas into new contexts. Wedged in between the chemistry/physics and biology/biochemistry sections, CARS forces test-takers to adeptly switch from scientific reasoning to critical reasoning and then back again.
Reasoning skills now comprise about 70% of the CARS section, with the remaining 30% devoted to comprehension questions. This ratio is vastly different from the composition of other standardized tests and college exams. The typical teacher follows Bloom’s Taxonomy when developing test questions. This framework, developed by Benjamin Bloom, posits that there is a continuum between simple “remember” questions to complex “create” questions (see figure below). Whereas most tests focus predominantly on the bottom two categories of Bloom’s Taxonomy – on comprehension – CARS is disproportionately skewed towards the top four categories of the pyramid. This reversal explains why answering 53 CARS questions is so mentally exhausting for most people.
To excel at CARS, one must develop a strategy to maintain momentum in spite of mental fatigue. After helping over 20 students prepare for the MCAT, I have seen that passage mapping is essential to keeping up the pace during CARS. Passage mapping is the strategy of taking brief notes – about two or three words per paragraph – to create a “roadmap” of the entire passage. Admittedly, it appears contradictory to claim that pausing one’s reading of the passage to take notes would actually improve pacing. The benefit of this method, however, is that students retain more information about the passage when they are forced to consolidate the passage into 10 – 15 words. Moreover, when actively thinking about the contents of a passage, students invariably consume the passage at a faster speed – like completing an entire Netflix season after becoming engaged in the first episode.
Inasmuch as the MCAT is a rite of passage, CARS is a particularly difficult threshold to cross in that students cannot fall back on their content mastery to succeed. Being aware of the types of questions and overall strategies to approach these passages are the first steps to conquering this section of the MCAT.