Day 12 – CARS Question Types: Passage Detail

Today, we’re taking up one of the most familiar question types, the passage detail question. Many students assume that these questions are some of the easiest on the CARS, and while in many cases they are relatively easy to answer, they can also be the source of a lot of wasted time which can have a major impact on your section score. We’ll show you how to handle these questions to make sure you get them correct while not wasting too much time. Make sure to do your two passages today!

The Passage Detail Question:

Whereas main ideaquestions ask you to see the big picture, passage detail questions ask you to zoom in and test your comprehension of a particular idea or argument laid out by the author. They are fairly common on the MCAT CARS, but not as common as you might expect when using other companies’ prep materials. Unfortunately, companies like Exam Krackers and Kaplan, in particular, are known for having a higher than AAMC percentage of passage detail questions. This is really a disadvantage if you are only using their materials to prepare, as it isn’t simulating the actual CARS experience that you’ll face on test day. Thus, practicing with accurate CARS prep materials i.e. reading passages and answering questions on CARS simulated tests is critically important. Kaplan is much worse than Exam Krackers, to the point that I wouldn’t recommend using their materials at all. Exam Krackers is much better but still is deficient in this regard, while still producing reasonably good tests. You’re fine to use them early on when you’re still getting your timing down, but as you get closer to your test date, you’re going to want to start using more accurate CARS prep materials.

There are two keys to answering a passage detail question correctly:

1) Identifying what you need to know to answer the question

2) Knowing where to look in the passage for the information you need

You will get better identifying what you need to know to answer the question as you continue doing practice passages. Eventually, your MCAT CARS intuition will grow so strong that often it will just be obvious to you. As to knowing where to look in the passage, this too will come with practice. You won’t have much difficulty if you remember to read for structure and not detail on your first pass. I’m not talking about skimming; I’m talking about understanding the landscape of the passage. What is the author doing in paragraph one? And in two? What is last paragraph about? If you have an idea about where the author discusses the mating patterns of early human societies, it’s not important if you completely understood what the author was getting at on your first read through of the passage. If a question comes up about it, you’ll know where to go.


Passage Detail questions are some of the most dangerous on the MCAT CARS section because unlike many questions on the CARS, you know that the answer to the question is right in front of you. If you just keep looking, you’ll eventually find it, the thinking goes. Sadly, so many students fall into this trap and waste five, six, even seven minutes on one question. Even if you do get that question right, you’ve probably just cost yourself two or three questions elsewhere on the test. If you do this two or three times on the test, you’ve just ruined your CARS score. It can have a huge impact. So remember, if you run into a hard question:

1) The first time you think to yourself, “I’m spending a lot of time on this question” look at the clock and give yourself 30 more seconds.

2) Eliminate any answer choices you can.

3) After 30 seconds, guess, mark the question for review, and say to yourself “I’ll come back to this once I get the easy ones.”

If you do this, you will have time at the end of the test to come back, and more often than not, giving yourself a little time to clear your head, you’ll see the question anew and what you were missing the first time.

Please, please, get in the habit of doing this on questions that are hard for you. Timing is the number one key to the CARS section, and until you have that down, a 127+ score simply isn’t within reach. Trust me on this one. If timing is still a problem for you, which is to say if you have to rush to finish and you don’t have any time left at the end, do not go back to the passage after you finishing reading it. Don’t do it. The reason you aren’t finishing in time is because you’re spending too much time going back. I guarantee that if you do this, you will finish on time. You might see a small decline in your score, but often this is temporary and as you acclimate to moving quicker and letting go, your score will increase. In fact, many students who do this are surprised to find that they actually see an improvement because they aren’t losing out on the easy questions because of time pressure. This is one of the very hardest changes to make, especially when you aren’t close to your goal CARS score. But you may actually see your score go down if you “try too hard.” If you increase the amount of time you spend going back to the passage, your score may even go down. If you can get comfortable with the idea, that you can miss many of the hardest questions on the CARS and still do very well, you will find it easier to stop going back to the passage.

Examples of Passage Detail Question Stems:

The author states that Picasso believed that:

According to the passage, the American Revolutionary War was fought in order to:

The passage suggests which of the following concerning the impact of educational reforms enacted by Reagan?

The author believes all of the following EXCEPT:

Based on the discussion in paragraph three, Rodin’s approach to sculpture was widely regards as:

Which of the following claims does the author NOT make in the passage?

Which of the following assertions most closely resembles the author’s beliefs concerning the role of the Federal Reserve in the modern US economy?

Tips for Passage Detail Questions:

– Read for structure, not detail on your first reading of the passage.

– Don’t go back to the passage if you’re still having trouble finishing on time. Eliminate the answer choices you can, guess, mark it, and come back later.

– Only go back to look for a detail if you know where it is located in the passage. If you’re just going to do a general review of the passage in the hopes of finding something that will help you answer the question, eliminate the answer choices you can, guess, mark it, and leave it until you’ve finished the rest of the questions in that passage set. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found the answer to a difficult question while answering another question in the set. Leave the hard ones for the end of the passage, after you’ve spent 5 to 7 more minutes answering the other questions in the set and thinking about the passage. Leave the hardest questions for the end, and they will often seem to answer themselves!

– Pick the word you look for when going back to the passage carefully. Don’t pick a word that is generic because it will come up multiple times in the passage, ultimately wasting a lot of your time. If we’re looking for an answer concerning General Lee’s strategy at Gettysburg, looking for Lee or Gettysburg is probably going to be too generic; however, the word strategy is likely to be connected to the information that you’re looking for. You’ll get better at this with practice.

– Don’t be intimidated by the out of nowhere answer choice. The MCAT will sometimes give you an answer choice that is never referenced in the passage but would seem to be a good answer to the question. Answers to passage detail questions have to be in the passage. Thus, the out of nowhere answer choice has to be wrong. They include it to scare you, so you’ll think you missed something and go back and spend another three or four minutes re-reading the passage. Don’t do it. Trust yourself. If you don’t remember it being in there, if you find yourself saying, “Hey, where did that come from?” eliminate that answer choice!

Ok, that’s it for today. Great job! I know going through the question types isn’t the sexiest thing in the world, but it will help you over the long term with your score. How are your daily passages going? Is your timing improving?

Today’s Assignment: Do Two CARS Passages Individually, Under Timed Conditions

“The best revenge is massive success.”
– Frank Sinatra

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