MCAT Question of the Day: What’s the best MCAT CARS Strategy for getting more questions right?

One of the questions that we hear most often from students is “How do I get more answers right on MCAT CARS practice passages and in the exam itself?”

That’s a critical question because your score depends totally on how many questions you answer correctly in the time allotted.

Now when you look at the methods described in most MCAT CARS practice books, they give you a lot of tips and tricks on how to answer questions. And when you learn these tips and tricks and use them on practice passages, the first thing you notice is that they don’t work very well. You’re still getting a lot of wrong answers.

And why is that? Well, it’s because these methods are anecdotal rather than scientific. Think of it this way. When a patient comes to see you with a serious medical condition, are you going to use tips and tricks to treat her.  No, You're going to use your basic knowledge of medicine combined with your reasoning ability to do a proper diagnosis and treatment.

The same is true in CARS. You have to have basic knowledge of how language works and the reasoning ability to use it properly. Like any other area of science, you need a clear analytical method of understanding what’s in front of you.

Now the method I’m going to describe to you is not my method, and it’s not the Cambridge Learning Center’s method. It’s the standard scientific approach that’s taught in any university department that deals with texts or what you would refer to as passages. It’s even used to program artificial intelligence.

So let’s talk about this method. It’s made up of 3 parts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

  • Grammar

  • Rhetoric

  • Logic

What’s grammar? Grammar is the study of individual types of words, the jobs they do and how they relate to each other.

Rhetoric is how language is used to convey ideas.

Logic is understanding how those ideas relate to each other.

Let’s take a look at some questions to see how this works. In doing this, let’s keep some general principles in mind:

  • 90% of getting the right answer is fully understanding the question. Most students read a question and assume they understand, but that’s often not the case. They don’t fully understand what the question says, and what the question is asking you to do

In order to fully understand a question,

  • First: Read it to get familiar with the language

  • Second: After you read the question, Disaggregate it. Break it down into grammatical units and reflect on the meaning of each unit;

  • Third: Understand what the strategy of the question is. What is the behavior that the question asks you to engage in? What are you supposed to do with those pieces of the puzzle;

  • Fourth: Match the constituent elements of the question, or the key idea referred to, to the constituent elements of the correct answer.

This is the basic scientific method that works all of the time once you learn to use it properly. Let’s use it on a passage from Examkrackers, the second edition, pages 38 and 39.

Let’s take a look at question 14:

14. Which of the following claims is NOT explicitly presented in the passage as an example of an “undeniably” human figure?

  • Roman Emperor Justinian
  • English kings
  • Moses
  • I Only
  • II Only
  • III Only
  • I and II Only

So the first thing we’re going to do is read the question to ourselves just to get familiar with the language. So just stop here for a minute and read the question just to get familiar with it as a first step.

But we’re not going to stop there. What we’re going to do after the initial reading is to disaggregate the question, break it into grammatical units, and then really reflect on the meaning of each unit. So let’s do that now. Let’s take each constituent element and really think about what each means. We can even paraphrase it to make sure we really understand it:

Which of the following claims  = One of the answers below

Is not explicitly presented in the passage as an example of   = Isn’t mentioned as an example of

An undeniably human figure    = A clearly identified human figure

Notice that we have 3 constituent elements:

One of the answers below
Isn’t mentioned as an example of
A clearly identified human figure

Now for those of you who have studied some grammar and rhetoric you know that when an author is using 2 emphatic adjectives; the tone demands attention. Notice in the last constituent element you have

A clearly identified human figure

Not just any human figure, but a clearly identified human figure. The tone of these adjectives tells us they are key to getting the right answer.

Now that we understand the constituent elements of the question, the pieces of ideas or information, the pieces of the puzzle, let’s ask ourselves:

What is the Strategy of the Question?

What does the question want me to do with these pieces?

Notice, it’s not about the shape or category of the question:

  • Support

  • Weaken

  • Inference etc.

Those are just categories.

What’s important is what is the behavior the questions asks you to engage in?

So what’s this question asking me to do with the constituent elements?

Find the answers below that Isn’t mentioned as an example of A clearly identified human figure

So once we really understand the constituent elements in the question and understand the strategy of the question, we’re ready for the fourth step:

Match the constituent elements of the the question, or the key idea referred to, to the constituent elements of the correct answer.

Now let’s take a look at where this appears in the text. It’s in the 2nd paragraph:

The pronouncement of ancient law was often attributed to a divine lawgiver, or else a messenger with a visible connection to the divine or supernatural. Their commandments and prohibitions were transformed into a binding “law” by an external authority, “the lawgiver”, or, more precisely, the ancient community’s shared belief in the lawgiver’s intrinsic power, omniscience, or justice. Examples of the supernatural-authoritative lawgiver abound; the Bible (direct word of God), Moses (messenger of God), Christ (son of God, miracle worker), Athena (goddess, masculine woman, supernatural birth, messenger of Zeus) and the seer Tiresias (venerable, blind, visionary, hermaphrodite) are just a few examples. Sometimes, of course, the lawgivers were undeniably human figures, such as Roman Emperor Justinian, the English Kings, or even the town “elders.” Yet even then, devices were constructed for them to forge a public link with the divine; Roman Emperors typically acted as High Pontiff in talking auguries, while rulers had prophets, priests, and the “divine right of kings,” and even old men had “benches of polished stone in the sacred circle” on which to sit in borrowed glory. Thus, ancient low with its fundamental reliance on external authority, had little need to justify its content internally.

Using analytical tools from rhetoric and grammar, we can identify the 2 key idea sentences referred to and the details supporting them. Student who learn rhetoric and grammar have already done this quickly as they read the passage. Here are the key idea sentences and the relevant language in those sentences:

Now notice that knowing where the key ideas are will quickly show you where the sought after detail is. Right after the second key idea sentence you have examples undeniably human figures, the Roman Emperor Justinian and English Kings.

But we’re not looking for undeniably human figures. We’re looking for what is ‘not’ an undeniably human figure. That means that in this paragraph there’s only one other place to go, to the other key idea. And what do we find there as an example? Answer C, Moses

Notice how we got the right answer. We used a scientific method based on linguistics and cognitive psychology to really analyze precisely what the question said and and what it was asking for to determine where and how to find the answer.

What was that method?

  • In order to fully understand a question,

    • First: Read it to get familiar with the language

    • Second: After you read the question, Disaggregate it. Break it down into grammatical units and reflect on the meaning of each unit;

    • Third: Understand what the strategy of the question is.

      • What is the behavior that the question asks you to engage in?

      • What are you supposed to do with those pieces of the puzzle?

    • Fourth: Match the constituent elements of the the question, or the key idea referred to, to the constituent elements of the correct answer.

What does this method require? A knowledge of grammar and rhetoric. Not the hardest subjects in the world, but you really need them to navigate passages and questions.

Let’s look at another question from the same passage, question 18:

18. The author’s assertion that “even old men had ‘benches of polished stone in the sacred circle’ on which to sit in borrowed glory”, supports which of the following conclusions?

  • A. These elders required a bench in a sacred place befitting their divine authority.
  • B. The benches alone would have imparted a divine connection to these human figures.
  • C. The circle ‘became’ sacred in the presence of these divine elders.
  • D. These undeniably human figures gleaned external authority from a divine location.

So now, what I’d like you to do is work on this question with me. So let’s follow the method we went over. First, I want you to read the question to yourself, just get familiar with the language. Stop here and take a moment to do that.

Now what I want you to do is take your time and break the question into pieces, the constituent elements. Just take one piece at a time, and when you take that piece, stop and really reflect on it. What does that piece of language really mean? Stop here and do that now. Take one piece at at time and really think what each means and then come back.

Ok, now let’s figure out what the strategy of the question is: what is the question asking you to do with those pieces of the puzzle, the constituent elements? See if you can figure that out. Stop here and come back when you’re done.

Let’s compare notes. I’ll show you what I did in my analysis of the constituent elements of the questionand see if any or all of it matches yours:

18. The author’s assertion that “even old men had ‘benches of polished stone in the sacred circle’ on which to sit in borrowed glory”, supports which of the following conclusions?

  • A. These elders required a bench in a sacred place befitting their divine authority.
  • B. The benches alone would have imparted a divine connection to these human figures.
  • C. The circle ‘became’ sacred in the presence of these divine elders.
  • D. These undeniably human figures gleaned external authority from a divine location.


Even old men
Old men

Benches of polished stone

Benches of polished stone

On which to sit

They sat on them


In borrowed glory

Something external gave them glory or spiritual authority

Now let’s see what the strategy of the question is. What does the question want us to do with these constituent elements?

Now this is what some of those practice books call a ‘support question’. But that isn’t very helpful. It’s just categorizing the question. It doesn’t tell us precisely what to do with the question. But rhetoric and grammar do.

Support Question:

  • One or more constituent elements in the right answer

  • Provides positive evidence

  • For one or more of the constituent elements in the question or the key idea refereed to

In this type of question, the so called ‘support question,’ one or more constituent elements in the question or key idea referred to provides positive evidence for one or more of the constituent elements in the right answer choice.

18. The author’s assertion that “even old men had ‘benches of polished stone in the sacred circle’ on which to sit in borrowed glory”, supports which of the following conclusions?

  • A. These elders required a bench in a sacred place befitting their divine authority.
  • B. The benches alone would have imparted a divine connection to these human figures.
  • C. The circle ‘became’ sacred in the presence of these divine elders.
  • D. These undeniably human figures gleaned external authority from a divine location.

Now let’s look at the answers

Now let’s look at answer A. Let’s look at the constituent elements


Elders required a bench in a sacred place

Nothing in the question 'requiring a bench’

Befitting their divine authority


Borrowed authority

Notice that there is nothing in the constituent elements of the question ‘requiring’ a bench. So that element has to be wrong. It doesn’t match and therefore disqualifies this answer. But as if that wasn’t enough, notice the third constituent element. According to the constituent elements in the question, these elders didn’t have their own authority; it was borrowed authority. Grammatically, notice how the adjective ‘borrowed’ modifies the word ‘authority and tells you that the authority was not their own.

Now let’s look at answer B and do the same kind of analysis, matching the constituent elements in the answer with the constituent elements in the question:

18. The author’s assertion that “even old men had ‘benches of polished stone in the sacred circle’ on which to sit in borrowed glory”, supports which of the following conclusions?

  • A. These elders required a bench in a sacred place befitting their divine authority.
  • B. The benches alone would have imparted a divine connection to these human figures.
  • C. The circle ‘became’ sacred in the presence of these divine elders.
  • D. These undeniably human figures gleaned external authority from a divine location.


The benches alone

Circle is sacred

Would have imparted


Aren’t sacred, can’t impart

A divine connection to the human figures


Now this is another place where grammar plays a key role in understanding why this answer is wrong. Notice that in the constituent elements of the question, the circle is sacred. So the benches alone couldn’t give or ‘impart’ a connection to the divine.

Now let’s take a look at answer C. Did the circle become sacred in the presence of these divine elders? Let’s take a look at the constituent elements of the question. These are not divine elders; they are described in the question simply as ‘old men’. And notice that they had to ‘borrow glory’. What does that tell you? They didn’t possess it so they had to borrow it from someplace else. So now you can see why C is wrong.

18. The author’s assertion that “even old men had ‘benches of polished stone in the sacred circle’ on which to sit in borrowed glory”, supports which of the following conclusions?

  • A. These elders required a bench in a sacred place befitting their divine authority.
  • B. The benches alone would have imparted a divine connection to these human figures.
  • C. The circle ‘became’ sacred in the presence of these divine elders.
  • D. These undeniably human figures gleaned external authority from a divine location.


The circle ‘became’ sacred

Borrowed glory

In the presence of these divine elders


Old men

That leaves us with D by process of elimination. But let’s understand why D is correct. Let’s look at the constituent elements of the answer and compare them to the constituent elements of the question

18. The author’s assertion that “even old men had ‘benches of polished stone in the sacred circle’ on which to sit in borrowed glory”, supports which of the following conclusions?

  • A. These elders required a bench in a sacred place befitting their divine authority.
  • B. The benches alone would have imparted a divine connection to these human figures.
  • C. The circle ‘became’ sacred in the presence of these divine elders.
  • D. These undeniably human figures gleaned external authority from a divine location.


Old men

Undeniably human figure

Had benches of polished stone

In the sacred circle


From a divine location

To sit in borrowed glory


Gleaned external authority

Notice how the constituent elements line up perfectly. Old men are ‘undeniably human figures,’  the sacred circle is a ‘divine location,’ and borrowed glory means the ‘gleaned’ or got it from an ‘external authority’.

Notice how this answer provides support for what is stated in the question. And how do we define support functionally?

Support Question:

  • One or more constituent elements in the right answer

  • Provides positive evidence

  • For one or more of the constituent elements in the question

From these two example questions, you can see how a linguistically based analytical method will get you the right answer every time you use it properly. There’s no magic here or tips or tricks, just scientifically based analysis using linguistics. It’s the same method they use to program artificial intelligence. The key is fully understanding the question. Again, how do we do that?

  • In order to fully understand a question,

    • First: Read it to get familiar with the language

    • Second: After you read the question, Disaggregate it. Break it down into grammatical units and reflect on the meaning of each unit;

    • Third: Understand what the strategy of the question is.

      • What is the behavior that the question asks you to engage in?

      • What are you supposed to do with those pieces of the puzzle?

    • Fourth: Match the constituent elements of the the question, or the key idea referred to, to the constituent elements of the correct answer.

Now you might think that this is hard to do and takes too much time, but the opposite is true, and this is where cognitive psychology comes into play.

First, it’s a lot easier to learn grammar, rhetoric, and logic than it is to learn organic chemistry. It just isn’t that hard. It takes some time but you can certainly master it.

Second, once you master it and start applying it to passages, over and over again, it becomes automatic, like a reflex. In cognitive psychology this is known as going from a System II Analysis to a System I Analysis. In System II you have to think about it. In System I your brain does it automatically. It’s been our experience in working with thousands of students (and all the research shows) that once you master this, you should be able to competently read a passage in about 4 and a half minutes and do the questions in about 3 and a half minutes. You can see what students actually say about this method here: http://www.cambridgelearningcenter.org/testimonials/

That’s a lot different that just reading a question and going for the answer that ‘feels right’. Having the analytical tools that work will give you the ability to get the right answers that you need. Remember, CARS is the last hurdle between you and medical school. Give it the attention that it needs.

We have free classes that you can attend to find out more about these methods and how to increase speed, pick out main and key ideas, deal with unfamiliar topics, and other issues as well. To sign up for a free class, just click the link below.

Best wishes as you prepare for the exam.