For many pre-med students, CARS is the biggest obstacle to medical school admissions and too often ends up being the lowest of their MCAT scores. What’s most frustrating about this, is that these students have spent years of hard, tireless work building up a resume with high GPA’s in some of the most difficult subjects offered by any university, and often spent the little free time they have doing research, getting clinical experience, and volunteering in different service capacities. They didn’t have the time to learn how to read humanities passages or take courses in increasing reading speed and comprehension. Sometimes, it feels like CARS is an impenetrable brick wall standing between them and the opportunities they really deserve.
What’s worse is the disproportionate multiplier effect that the CARS score has in relation to an applicant’s other MCAT scores. Research has shown that students who do well in CARS score higher in the other sections of the test without knowing any more science or social science than other test takers! Why? Simply because they can understand the content of the other sections in a deeper and clearer way, can process the information faster, and have a clearer understanding of the questions and answers. This results in a higher score of at least 1 point in each of the other sections.
This is a critical factor. When you look at the overall MCAT percentiles, a score of 502 (57th percentile) is pretty unimpressive. Increasing your CARS score to a 127 and the average resulting increase in the other sections translates into a 508 (77th percentile). Being in the top 25% of the MCAT score range is critical. With so many medical schools being flooded with otherwise competent candidates, they are often forced to use cut off points in their consideration of applicants. It’s the difference between being in the pool of considered candidates versus not being even considered. What is even more important, is that other factors being equal, being in the 77th percentile can generate multiple admissions, giving students a range of choices for the best school for them, which ill in turn have an impact on where is student is “matched” for residency training.
It seems unfair, but ask any admissions officer from a US medical school and they will tell you that the CARS Exam is the “most heavily weighted” section of the test, and in Canada, many medical schools look “only” at the CARS score on the MCAT. So how do you break through that barrier of average MCAT scores to the higher echelon that will not only assure admission but also make you a candidate for multiple admissions? What do you need to have a really effective MCAT CARS strategy?
It takes two factors:
- First, completely reconceptualizing how you think about the CARS exam; and
- Second, completely reconceptualizing how you prepare for the CARS exam.
How to think about the CARS Exam
First, realize for all the reasons cited above that the CARS exam is the single most important part of the exam that you will be preparing for. Of course, the other sections are important, but just raising your CARS score to a 127 or better with the resulting increases in your other scores, takes you from the mediocre MCAT score range to the world of outstanding MCAT percentiles. It’s can be the difference between maybe just squeaking into some medical school, as opposed to having multiple admissions, choosing where you want to go, and having a better residency match.
Second, realize that increasing just 2 or 3 points in CARS will not only improve your overall MCAT score, it will also make make studying for the other sections easier and more efficient. The research clearly shows that when you increase your verbal cognition ability, your brain responds to other subjects in a different way: not only will you absorb the other material faster, but you will also have better recall. You will do more in less time, allowing you to absorb and retain more knowledge in the same period of time that you were studying before.
Third, don’t look at CARS as a problem. Look at it as an opportunity to really distinguish yourself. If you mastered physics and organic chemistry, you can certainly master the fundamentals of critical analysis and reasoning skills.This is something that any smart liberal arts student can do, and the courses you’ve taken are a lot more demanding than the ones that they’ve encountered.
How to Prepare for the CARS Exam
There’s a very good reason that CARS is so challenging for pre-med students: they are preparing the wrong way. This is not an opinion; it’s scientific fact. Experts in linguistics, rhetoric, and logic, any of the people that have to use critical analysis and reasoning skills at the core of their work will tell you the same thing. The linguistic experts at MIT, the logicians at Stanford, and the rhetoricians at the University of Chicago use the same principles in doing what is called “close reading” in the humanities.
In order to do close reading, you have to know the structure of different kinds of essays. This requires that you know the fundamentals of Rhetoric. Rhetoric will teach you about the four different kinds of essays and how the Main Idea is found in different places. One of the biggest problems that science students have is finding this and figuring out what the essay is all about, where the author is going. Rhetoric will also teach you how to pick out the other Key Ideas. Unlike science where details are important, in reading passages, especially humanities passages, being able to distinguish what is important from what is incidental is critical to understanding an essay.
Rhetoric will also teach you the special way that language is used in humanities essays. Unlike science or social science passages, some of the language in humanities essays has to be read not for “what it says,” but for what it “suggests” and this is very different from the literal meaning of the language. This is one of the main causes of confusion for science students when they read passages that have “unfamiliar topics”. Knowing what are called “Rhetorical Devices” and how they are used eliminates this problem.
In addition to knowing Rhetoric in preparing for the exam, knowing grammar, and knowing it well, is crucial. Why? Just as math is the language of physics, grammar is the language of critical reading. You can’t do sophisticated physics without knowing high level math. The same is true in the relationship between grammar and the CARS Exam. You’ve seen sentences in humanities passages that go on for 6 or 7 or even 8 lines, sometimes a whole paragraph! A deep knowledge of grammar gives you the ability to separate what is significant in the sentence from what is incidental, and literally reduce those 6-8 lines to a six or seven word sentence that you can clearly understand.
Think about it. Rhetoric and Grammar will give you the tools to completely understand any CARS passage. Mastering these areas of knowledge will give you the tools you need to comprehend any passage.
Having mastered the tools of critical reading, you will be able to develop what is known as Reflective Intelligence, the ability to see how each part of the essay relates to the main idea and what these relationships suggest or imply. This is a big part of the test. Why? Because it’s the same reasoning process that physicians use in making a differential diagnosis. When you’re reading a CARS passage, you’re using Grammar and Rhetoric to separate what is significant from what is incidental, just like a physician looks at all of a patient’s data to determine what is significant and what is incidental. Then he sees what the relationship is between these things and makes a prediction (a diagnosis) just as you make a prediction of what language suggests or implies in the CARS Exam.
Rhetoric, Grammar, Reflective Intelligence, these are your tools, but in order to master them effectively, you have to make sure that you study them in the right environment, and how you create that environment is critical. Studying for CARS, just like learning to practice medicine, is different from studying undergraduate science and takes different methods. These are:
- Get the right materials: Don’t just rely on test prep practice books. “Tips” and “Test Taking Techniques” don’t work. That’s not how you learned chemistry or physics. Learn the principles.
- Get a good grammar book, like Warriner’s Grammar, A Complete Course. It’s out of print but every library has it. Focus on chapters 19 through 22. Focus on the definitions, do the exercises, and master them.
- Get a basic rhetoric text. A good one is The Trivium, but make sure you get the edition published by Wooden Books. There are a lot of other editions with that title. Learn the terms and know them well, particularly on figurative language (similes, metaphors, and analogies), points of view, and tone.
- After you master the basics, stick with the most reliable practice passages like those found in Kaplan, Princeton Review, and AAMC. There are plenty of online pdf’s. But make sure you master the basics first.
- Don’t Study Alone: In the first two years of medical school, you’ll be studying medical sciences and it will be a lot like undergraduate school, but in the last two years and in your residency you’ll be going on rounds with an Attending Physician who will be asking you questions and you will be interacting with your peers in making diagnoses. It’s the interactive process that facilitates this kind of learning. The same is true in preparing for the CARS Exam; you need to interact with others to really embed the necessary concepts so that your analytical tools can become reflexes that you use without having to think about how you use them all the time, just like a doctor uses a stethoscope.
- Get Help: You can’t do this on your own. It’s like a smart English major saying that he’ll get some practice books and teach himself the science sections of the MCAT Exam. There are three ways you can do this:
- Take courses at your university:
- Take an upper level essay writing course that deals with all the different forms of essays and includes a grammar review.
- Take a full year of rhetoric.
- Take at least a semester of logic
- Get a tutor who has mastered critical reading, preferably a graduate student in literature, rhetoric, or philosophy.
- Take a course like ours that covers all of these areas.
You’ve worked really hard for a very long time to get where you are. Don’t let the CARS Exam stand in your way. If you have a grade point average good enough to get into medical school, you certainly have the intelligence to master the CARS Exam, but you have to be really methodical about it and work hard just as you were methodical and worked hard in your science courses.
You can do this, but you’ve got to do it right.
Until next time, work hard, do well.