Day 5 – How to Approach the MCAT CARS Section – The Passage

Have you done your passage today? Do it! In two short days, we’ll be starting two-a-days, so enjoy the break while it lasts!

The Passage

Today, we’re going to start a mini-series on how to best read for the MCAT CARS section. This is one of the most important topics that we’ll cover in this entire series. Besides mastering the right pace, how a student approaches reading passages is the most critical skill to develop. As you learned yesterday in the, “Do’s and Don’ts” of MCAT CARS there is a lot of junk out there, so your best bet is to see if you can find the courage to let go of your preconceived notions about the CARS section and start with a clean slate. I have seen the approach I’m about to explain to you work for more students than I can count. It is simple and easy to do. It’s not fancy or complicated, and I won’t be charging you thousands of dollars for it. It’s got five steps, and if you do these repeatedly, they’ll become habitual within a week or two. But before I go into the Testing Solutions’ approach to reading CARS passages, I want to say one more thing about timing.

“The reason you are having trouble finishing the CARS section has nothing to do with your reading speed or how long you’re taking to read the passages.”

The time crunch almost every MCATer faces early on when starting to practice for the CARS section has nothing to do with reading passages. NOTHING! Let me explain:

There are 9 passages in the CARS section. Each passage is a maximum of 600 words. Thus,


9 X 600 words = 5,400 words


Now, the average reading speed for an adult is 200 words per minute. Thus,


5,400 words / 200 words per minute = 27 minutes

Just in case that hasn’t sunk in, I’ll say it again, it would take the average adult just 27 minutes to read all 9 of the passages on the CARS section. So if you’re an average reader (which you’re likely faster) you’d still have 63 minutes remaining to answer the 53 questions. If you’re having trouble finishing on time, it isn’t because of how you’re reading the passage. I’ll go into how to fix this problem below. Let’s take a look at the steps to passage reading success.

The Testing Solutions’ Approach to Reading CARS Passages:

Step 1: Stop before every passage (including the first one!), close your eyes, and take three deep, slow breaths. Count inside your head (oneeeeee) on the inhale through your nose, and then slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat and count twoooooo. And finally, repeat for threeee. Notice any sensations in your chest, stomach, or mouth as you breathe. Try to watch your breath. I know you might be rolling your eyes, but this clears your mental RAM and allows you to let go of the previous passage or the stress of starting a new one. Don’t be the person who springs into the first passage and “reads” the first two or three paragraphs without realizing what’s going on. You’ll have to start over, and you’ll be beating yourself up for the rest of the test for the wasted time. Take three deep, slow breaths before every passage (including the first one!).

Step 2: Do the passages in order. Don’t skip around. Some companies out there recommend a “Now or Later” approach in your preview, where you decide if you’re going to do the passage now or come back later. If you want to score in the 127 to 129 range (a competitive CARS score) you are going to have to do well on every passage. Don’t waste time trying to figure out whether it’s going to be an easy or hard passage for you. Often, CARS passages that are difficult to read have easy questions and easy passages have difficult questions. It is impossible to determine in 10 to 15 seconds whether you’re going to have a hard time with a passage or not. Buckle down and do the passages in order.

Step 3: Take 10 to 15 seconds and preview the passage. Your only goal is to realize the topic of the passage. Is it a history passage? Or one about philosophy? Where’s it going? What’s it about in the most general of terms. I’d recommend reading the first sentence of every paragraph if you can. So often, CARS passages start off seeming like they’re about one thing when two paragraphs down you realize they’re about something completely different. The surprise can be jarring and cause a loss of retention. Take 10 to 15 seconds to preview the passage!

Step 4: Read the passage slowly and thoroughly. DON’T SKIM! You need to understand what you’re reading, even if you have to spend a little extra time. On the other hand, don’t try to master every detail as 80% of what you read in the passage will not be referenced by the questions. As you read the passage, read for structure, not detail. The details will be there if you need them. As you read the passage, ask yourself continually these three questions:

1) Why did the author write this?

2) Where is the author likely to go?

3) Which kinds of questions might I expect?

Read actively. Engage with the material. Lie to yourself and tell yourself this passage is the most interesting thing you’ve ever read. Formulate the “Why” of “Why did the author take the time to write this.” Above all, Read the passage slowly and thoroughly, and DON’T SKIM…EVER!

Step 5: If you are not finishing with time to spare on your CARS practice tests (i.e. you haven’t mastered the CARS pacing yet), you cannot, and I repeat cannot go back to the passage after you finish reading it. Read through the passage once, slowly and thoroughly, and then you’re done with looking at the passage. Move on and answer the questions. The reason students have so much trouble with time on the CARS is because they spend three or four times the amount of time they should going back to the passage trying to “find” the answers. We’ll go over when and how to go back to the passage later, but know that the MCAT rarely asks hunt and find questions. They want you to be able to grasp the gist of the passage, not “word search” answers. Once your timing is under control and you’re regularly finishing, then you can start to go back to the passage sparingly, but not until then. If you’re not finishing the CARS section with time to spare, there’s no going back to the passage when answering questions until you’ve answered them all. Then go back to the ones you marked if you have time at the end.

A Short Review:

In shorter form:

Step 1: Take three deep, slow breaths before every passage (including the first one).

Step 2: Do the passages in order.

Step 3: Take 10 to 15 seconds to preview the passage

Step 4: Read the passage slowly and thoroughly. Don’t SKIM!

Step 5: If you haven’t mastered your pacing yet, don’t go back to the passage until you’ve answered all the questions once through!

Great job today! Start integrating these five steps into your daily passages from here on out. We’ll continue taking a look at how to approach CARS passages tomorrow. Until then!

Today’s Assignment: Do One CARS Passage, Under Timed Conditions

“I never dreamed about success. I worked for it.”
– Estee Lauder

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