Day 8 – Passage Types: Descriptive

Yesterday, we wrapped up our discussion of argumentative passages on the CARS. Today we’ll turn our attention to the second major category of passages, the descriptive passage. These passages tend to be easier for most students as they are more familiar, something like reading a well-written Wikipedia article. Descriptive passages are kind of like climbing a mountain. If you learn to see the handholds, you can get up much quicker without falling for any traps along the way.

Also, today you step up. For the next week, I want you to do two passages a day. Make sure you continue to individually time each passage. If your first passage is a 5 question passage, give yourself 9 minutes. When time’s up, time’s up. Then move on to your second passage and do the same. By the time we’re done with our 30 days, you’re going to have your pacing down perfectly, and you’ll be well on your way to the CARS score you want!

The Descriptive Passage:

Descriptive passages are usually easy to spot. You’ll likely know by the time you finish your 10 to 15-second preview that you’ll be learning more about XYZ. It could be a survey of the developmental stages of the academic field of linguistics or the obstacles facing social workers in Cameroon. The author will be telling you facts, but will not have a particular claim he or she is advancing. A good way to sort out the differences between descriptive and argumentative passages is to think of the difference between someone telling you about the 21st-century economic obstacles China is facing and someone arguing about how to solve those economic problems. One is telling you something; the other is arguing for something.

Things to Watch Out for:

There are a few ways that the MCAT can make a descriptive passage more difficult. The first is to overload the passage with nuance and a large number of details. Some students will approach a detail heavy passage by taking notes or slowing down to a snail’s pace in the hopes of retaining all of the details. This is not a good strategy. The likelihood that you’ll master a 600-word detail heavy passage in 3 to 4 minutes is not high. You’ll end up reading for details twice: on your first time through, and second, when you get to the questions. On the MCAT CARS section, you always want to be reading for structure and the main idea of the passage, not for details. 80% of the details in the passage won’t ever be referenced in the questions, so why spend so much time memorizing them? Know the layout and landscape of the passage. Then, when a question comes up that requires a particular detail, you’ll know where to go for the answer. Don’t get bogged down in details.

A second way the MCAT CARS section makes a descriptive passage more difficult is by including a variety of opinions about a particular subject. This is the kind of survey passage where the author discusses different perspectives on a particular issue or cultural phenomenon. What makes these passages difficult is keeping the different perspectives straight in your head, making sure you understand each one and also keeping track of who thinks what. The MCAT loves the “What do Bill and Jill’s perspectives on the value and efficacy of after-school care programs share?” If you don’t understand Bill and Jill’s perspectives, or if you confuse Jill’s position with Bill’s, you’re sunk. A good way to approach these passages is to slow down when a new viewpoint is introduced. If a name is included, highlight the name so you know more or less where to come back to.

A third way that descriptive passages become more difficult is via the historical narrative arc where the author takes you through the different stages of development of a particular issue or field. The MCAT will then test you on the different stages, their similarities and differences, the particular order they came in, and what caused the development. Like with the different positions passage described previously, it’s easy to confuse different developmental stages, confuse their order, or miss the impetus that led to the next stage. Again, highlighting a few words allows you to break up the stages more clearly.

Watch the Flow:

This applies to all passages on the MCAT CARS section but is particularly important with descriptive passages. You’ll want to watch the flow of the passage. Are we continuing in the same direction? Is the author providing more detail to drive home this or that point? If you’re wading through example after example, speed through the section. But wait a second… this is new, this is different. We just turned to the right slightly. Changes like these are rich opportunities for questions. Whenever you have a sense of change of direction, be sure to flag it in your mind. What are the differences in this new direction in comparison to the old? What’s similar? What motivated the change? If you can master seeing the flow of a passage, you’ll get major points come test day.


We’re going to talk about how to use keywords to train yourself to see the flow of a passage tomorrow, but I want to give you a brief preview today and, in particular, take a look at the keywords that apply to descriptive passages. You don’t need to memorize these, but familiarize yourself with them. Tomorrow we’ll go into detail about how to leverage keywords to your advantage.

Continuation words tell you that more of the same is coming. We’re still heading in the same direction that we were before. These will be the areas where “Passage Detail” questions come from. If you feel like you understand what the author’s driving at, feel free to speed up on these sections. Change words tell you that the author’s taking you in a different direction. These are usually big opportunities to gain insight into the passage and the author’s thinking. Why did the change occur? What’s significant about it? Are there differences or similarities between the new and the old? Finally, timing words allow you to quickly compare and contrast different stages of development or evolution. First it was like this, then it became like that, and now everything’s change, and it’s like this. By keeping a close eye out for these types of words, you’ll begin to see the developmental flow of the passage without even having to think about it.

Great job today! We’re going to talk a little bit about how to review your practice passages tomorrow. Today, we up your daily passage count to two passages per day. Remember this will all be worth it in the end. When it gets tough, think about the moment when you look at your score report and see the number you want!

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

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed
is always to try just one more time.”
– Thomas A. Edison

Your MCAT Weakness Finder

Get Bigger Jumps in Score in Less Time Using Data