MCAT Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills Section: What You Need to Know

As many of you know, AAMC has changed the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). One of the changes is in regard to what was previously the MCAT Verbal section. Now it’s called the Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills (CARS) section. What is different about this section now and what’s that mean for you? We’re going to give you an overview.

This section of the MCAT is now much longer than it was before. The CARS section is 30 minutes or 50% longer that what was previously called the MCAT Verbal section. Formerly it was only an hour; now it’s 90 minutes.

Another major change to this section is that the vocabulary is much more sophisticated. One of the things we do in our courses is give our students very sophisticated vocabulary lists. Why? Because knowing the basic language the MCAT uses is absolutely fundamental in being able to understand what the passages say.

In addition to that there are going to be especially diverse and intricate writing styles. This means you’re going to have to know a lot about how writers write. You need to know the different forms of essays; what’s the difference between an expository essay, a descriptive essay, a narrative essay, and a argumentative essay. The Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills section requires you to know how essays and language actually work, and how writers use them.

The subject matter of the passages is also different: it’s more sophisticated. A full 50% of the essays are going to be in the humanities. You’re going to be reading passages on architecture, dance, music, literature, philosophy, poetry, etc - subjects that you might not be that familiar with. The other 50% of CARS passages are going to deal with social sciences, topics like anthropology, sociology, linguistics, archaeology, etc.

This doesn’t mean that you have to have a deep knowledge and understanding of the humanities to read a humanities essay well, or any topic to read an essay about that topic. But what you do need to have is a real in-depth knowledge of how writers write and the tools that they use in creating arguments and essays.

There are pros and cons to this. The negatives are your current lack of knowledge about these things and that can be stressful. But on the positive side, it’s totally manageable. There’s no question that you can still really excel on the Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills section, even if you’re unfamiliar with all of the passage topics.

The key is to master the fundamentals of how writers write and how they create arguments and essays, just like you’ve mastered the fundamentals of chemistry or physics. There’s no short-cuts or test-taking techniques, but there is no doubt that you can excel at this if you are willing to do the work and know precisely what to work on.

These fundamentals include a few different areas. The first is rhetoric. You have to understand the tools writers use, how writers think, how they organize material, how they analyze things, and how they put arguments together. You also need to know and understand the author’s strategy. Why did he pick this particular form of essay in order to convince you about something? Why do they use metaphores and analogies? How do you interpret these figures of speech? How do choices of words influence the ‘tone’ of an essay and give us insight into an author’s position on an issue?

The second thing you need to know is how to pick out key ideas. How do you separate what’s really significant from what’s only an example or illustration? How do you determine what a key idea is, what’s really driving the argument and structure of the essay? How do you interpret the relationship of the parts to the whole? How do example paragraphs prove or weaken a particular argument? How does the essay as a whole fit together? You’ve got to be able to distinguish effective from ineffective arguments, key ideas from superfluous information. Is the argument the author makes convincing? Are the examples clear? Do they make sense? Do they fit together? You’ve got to know whether there are multiple points of view or a single point of view. Is the author really taking a position on an issue himself or is he just presenting other points of view without coming to a personal conclusion? And finally you’ve got to figure out whether or not the essay as a whole is logical and convincing. Did the author do what he intended to do?

Grammar is another part of the fundamentals that is critical for you to know. It is key to analyzing key sentences, questions, and ideas. It allows you to take a very long, convoluted sentence of fifty or sixty words and reduce it to a very clear statement of five or six words. A real knowledge of grammar allows you to have clarity of meaning in reading an essay while others are getting lost in a forest of words. It allows you to cut through the underbrush and get to the meaning.

Additionally, there’s reflective intelligence. Once you’ve mastered grammar and rhetoric, this is what allows students to score in the top 20% and even higher. You have to develop your ability to see what the relationship of ideas are within a particular paragraph and within the essay as a whole. What are those key ideas and how do they relate to each other and how do they affect each other? How do they give you the ability to make predictions and to see what the author is implying but not directly stating.

Remember, what the MCAT Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills section is testing is comprehension, analysis, and reasoning skills. And you need all of these areas - rhetoric, grammar, knowing the relationship of ideas, reflective intelligence, and how language functions - in order to comprehend, analyze, and reason.

Now that you understand how the MCAT Verbal section has changed since it became the Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills section, the next step is understanding each individual aspect of the section. In future posts we’ll go into more detail on each of these and show you the tools you need in order to get a score that will get you not just into medical school but get you into multiple medical schools.