Day 25 – How to Take a CARS Practice Test

So, we’ve done quite a bit over these last few weeks to build your CARS intuition in terms of pacing, how to read, breaking-down CARS passages, and the kinds of questions and answer choices you’ll face on test day. Some of what I’ve suggested has been good for practicing and training but isn’t the best for when you’re actually taking the actual MCAT on test day or when you are taking your practice exams.

Today, we’re going to review the key points in how to approach taking a full-length CARS practice test. You can download a summary tip sheet of this post here. I recommend printing it off and keeping it by you for your first few full-lengths so you can easily reference it to make sure you’re remembering all the tips we’ve given you. You shouldn’t even think about taking a full-length CARS practice test if your timing isn’t solid.


Do’s and Don’ts:

Here’s a list of the key strategy points for taking a full-length CARS practice test.

Take three breaths before every passage.

Do the passages in order. Do not read the questions before the passages.

Do not take notes on the passages or use the highlighting tool, except in the rarest of cases, such as to note a particular position, idea, or key term. Taking notes or highlighting distracts you from the flow of the passage and will break up your reading rate. Furthermore, you want to be developing your ability to understand the passage in a holistic way. If half of your ideas about the passage are written down, a quarter are highlighted in the passage, and the remaining quarter are in your head, you’ll literally be all over the place. Don’t do it. Wean yourself off note taking and passage highlighting. Only a few per passage max and in this case, less is certainly more.

– Mark hard questions! I mentioned this strategy early in the series, but I’ll mention it again here because it’s so important. The first time you have the thought, “Hey I’m spending a lot of time on this question” look at the clock and give yourself 30 more seconds. In those 30 seconds, eliminate any answer choices you can. After 30 seconds, mark the question, make a guess and say to yourself “I’ll come back once I get the easy ones.” Remember: the only question that will keep you out of medical school is the one you spend too much time on.

– When you have your pacing down, you should be spending only 3 to 4 minutes reading the passage. If you are taking much more time than that to read a passage, you need to do more individual passages, as your pacing isn’t where it should be to actually take a full CARS test. With this timing, you’ll have roughly a minute per question.

– Only voluntarily look at the clock 1 time! I know this is so hard for test takers, but it’s really the best way to do it. Look at the clock after you finish the 6th passage. You should have close to 35 minutes left. If you don’t, it’s time to speed up. Don’t wait until your last passage to try and make up for lost time. You’ll barely notice shaving off a minute from each of your three remaining passages, but try and take three minutes off your last passage, and you’ll probably miss at least half the questions. Look at the clock after you finish the 6th passage, you should have 35 minutes left.

– You should continue to push yourself on your practice tests and passages. Just because you’ve got your pacing down doesn’t mean you can rest. The best MCATers actually take the CARS slightly faster than the pace we’ve been training at. It’s easier to shave off those last few minutes, so that’s why I set the goals I do for you early on, but now that you’ve got those down, it’s time to push yourself. Your goal should be to try and finish your first pass of the CARS section by the 5-minute warning, giving yourself plenty of time to go back to the questions you marked.

– After you finish your first pass of the CARS section (hopefully by the 5-minute warning mark) before going back to your marked questions, click the review button and make sure you have an answer choice selected for every question. When I was taking my AAMC practice tests, on three different tests, I forgot to select an answer even though I had done the question. Don’t let this happen to you!

Emergency #1 – Nooo! I’ve got 4 or more passages left but less than 30 minutes!

Sometimes timing problems come up despite our best preparations. I know for me, despite doing many practice tests and working very hard to perfect my timing, on test day, I took probably 20% longer per passage than I usually did. I felt like I couldn’t trust myself because this was the real thing. I spent more time rereading and double checking than usual. Luckily, I had trained myself to do the CARS passages faster than I needed to, so even with my taking more time, my pacing was in the sweet spot. What happens though if you took too long on your first 4 or 5 passages and are now staring down 4 or 5 passages with not enough time left to finish.

The first step is to stop and take three deep breaths. Many students will realize their dire situation, panic, and then burn through 10 questions in 10 minutes without thinking before they settle down and finish the rest of the test. Right there in those 10 minutes, they’ve ruined their MCAT, because they likely missed 6 or 7 out of those 10 questions. Don’t do this. Calm yourself. Focus on your breath. This will take 10 or 15 seconds at most, but will be worth a great deal more if you prevent a major meltdown. It’s the best possible way to spend those first 10 or 15 seconds.

The second step is to pick up your pace now, not later. Many students will continue along with their normal pacing for the next two or three passages hoping their situation will miraculously change. They then get to the 8th passage and realize that nothing has changed and are then forced to speed through the last two. This doesn’t work either for the same reason that the 10 questions in 10 minutes panic doesn’t work. You cannot rush through that many questions and expect to do well. So what do you do? Well first, you’ve got to accept your situation. You’re behind on time. You’re going to miss more questions than you would have normally. You’re not going to be able to do the rest of the CARS section like you would have otherwise. You’re going to have to pick up the pace slightly, so your best bet is to pick up the pace on the passage in front of you. Push yourself now and catch up on time. Read only the first sentence of every paragraph and then move on to the questions. Answer these questions the best you can, marking all of them as you go. This will be the first passage you come back to if you have time at the end of the test, but even if you don’t have time, at least you gave yourself a fighting chance on these questions because of the rough outline you constructed by reading the first sentences of each passage. This is so much better than just randomly guessing, especially if you’ve developed some sense of the wrong answer pathologies we’ve already discussed.

On the next passage, read only the first and last sentences of each paragraph and then move on to the questions. You’re not going to feel like you know enough to answer the questions well, but you will probably still get somewhere around 60% to 70% correct which is a lot better than 30% or 40% of the 10 questions in the 10 minutes panic. Plus, you give yourself the possibility of coming back if you have time.

If you do this for your first two passages post-panic, you will likely be back on track for your last two or three passages. Still push yourself through these last few passages, but approach them like you would normal passages under normal timed conditions. Hopefully, you’ll finish early and have time to go back to one of the two rushed passages and pick up another couple of points, but even if you can’t, your timing crisis will likely only cost you 2 to 4 questions instead of 6 to 8, this can be the difference between scoring a 127 and a 124.

Finally, unless you’re answering the questions of the 9th passage (I said answering the questions, not reading the 9th passage), no matter what you’re doing or how close you are to answering the question in front of you or finishing the passage you’re currently reading, at the five minute warning, stop whatever you’re doing and go through the rest of the test and mark a guess for each answer choice. I’ve had students who got so absorbed in what they were doing after the 5-minute warning that they ended up leaving the last passage blank because they ran out of time. There is no excuse for this.

Emergency #2 – Acts of God:

So a ceiling tile falls and hits you on the head; you panic and vomit on your keyboard; you realize you aren’t wearing pants, or worse, that you haven’t worn pants since beginning your studying for the MCAT. If any of the above occur, it’s time to void. If on any section of the MCAT, you feel like you had a breakdown on 3 or 4 passages or had to out and out guess on a significant number of questions (8+) you really want to consider voiding. These kinds of catastrophic breakdowns make scoring even an average score very difficult to nearly impossible. If you have one of the above occur to you on test day, your chances of scoring in the 505+ range are very low. I know having to void your MCAT is discouraging, but it’s better to take the MCAT when you’re prepared than to put the extra pressure on yourself of having a bad score on the books. Don’t consider voiding until you complete a section. Then after you’ve gotten through the section and time has expired, stop and calm yourself down. Then decide whether or not you’re going to void based on your performance in that section. Don’t have a wait and see approach of “Well, maybe I’ll do better on the other sections.” It’s very difficult to evaluate how you’re doing on the MCAT while you’re taking the. The worst thing that could happen is that you bomb a section, feel like you did well on another section to make up for it and then decide not to void at the end of the test because you over estimated how well you did on your bombed section. Then scores are released, and you’re devastated at your low score. Don’t let this happen to you. Make the void decision immediately after the section you’re worried about.

This is the one thing I do not understand about many pre-meds who take the MCAT with the mentality that if they don’t do well, they can always take it again. There is a great deal wrong with this approach. First, nearly all admissions committees in the US take previous MCAT scores into account when evaluating your application. Old scores may not count for as much as new scores, but if you’ve got two applicants who each scored 512 and have similar applications, but one got a 500 on his first attempt, who do you think they’re going to pick for the last slot? Second, and this is by far more important, the MCAT is already an incredibly high stakes test. If you didn’t do well on your first time attempt, you will feel so much pressure because YOU HAVE to do well on your second. There really aren’t many third chances when it comes to the MCAT or med school admissions. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. Don’t sit for the MCAT if you’re not ready Don’t sit for the MCAT if you haven’t scored within 2 or 3 points of the lowest composite score you’d be happy with two weeks out from your test date. If you haven’t, it’s time to push the date back, look at which parts of your studying plan didn’t work, and then get back to the grind. It will be painful right now, but five years from now, you won’t even remember.

Think of a reschedule as a low 1st attempt. It didn’t work out, so you’ve got to start again, however, this time, you’ve got the advantage of all the studying you did up until that point. The moral of the story is “don’t rush taking the MCAT.”

There’s a great thread about not rushing to take the MCAT here on SDN. If your test day is approaching and you’re thinking about rescheduling or if you’re thinking of biting off a little bit too much while studying, I highly recommend you read the thread.

We’re almost done. Keep it up! Want a summary tip sheet of today’s post? Download it here! Don’t forget to do your five passages today! See you tomorrow!

Today’s Assignment: Do Five CARS Passages Consecutively, Under Timed Conditions

“Nothing tastes better than knowing there was nothing more you could have done.
Leave nothing on the table.”
– Anonymous

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