Day 9 – How to Use Keywords

Today, we move on to a more advanced review technique: the keyword review. Over time, developing your ability to see keywords in CARS passages will allow you to intuitively follow the flow of the passage. You’ll see when arguments enter or exit. When the author decides to go in a different direction, or when a new contrasting idea is presented. This is one of the least fun skills to develop for the CARS, but it gives one of the biggest pay offs if you invest the time. You can download a keyword table PDF here. Print it off and keep it close by!

How to Use Keywords:

You’ve got to be careful with this topic. Two of the country’s biggest test prep companies have the use of keywords as one of the central components of their approaches to the CARS section. I have their two CARS books sitting in front of me, and each has a 30+ page chapter on keywords. Their strategies in this regard are less than helpful. They are charging you so much that they feel like they have to sell you a big thick book, so they fill up a chapter or two with keywords. Using keywords while you’re actually taking the test is a really bad idea. If you are consciously trying to remember keywords while you’re testing, you’re going to slow your pace and throw off your timing. The goal of this entire 30-day course is to build your CARS intuition, where you know instinctively how to take a CARS passage at the correct pace and you just see the right and wrong answers. We’re developing a feel or flow. Having an artificial, piecemeal strategy where you have to remember to do this or that is one of the worst ways to approach the CARS. Don’t do it.

Well… ok, then what do I do? Good question. Follow my recommendations throughout this guide and you’ll develop that intuition. You will. Trust me. I’ve helped many, many students develop this same skill. It just takes practice, time, and good instruction, and you have all three. Well… ok, but what about those keywords? Another good question!

Keywords offer you handholds to climb through your passage. To identify what is important and what isn’t. They allow you to see the twists and turns of the passage, to find the central argument and the author’s conclusions. And they show you how the author feels about this or that thing. They’re critical for achieving an ultra-high CARS score, but how you integrate them is just as important. If you simply try to memorize them, you’re going to be in trouble. From my years of experience training pre-meds how to read critically, I’ve come to believe in what I call the KeywordReview.

The Keyword Review:

The Keyword Review is actually quite simple. You read your passages and answer the questions just like you normally would. When doing passages, you don’t pay any particular attention to keywords, just read slowly and thoroughly and try to understand the passage as best you can within the correct timing constraints. The review comes in after you complete your passages.

There are three steps:

Step 1: Wait at least two hours between doing the passage and reviewing the passage. I usually recommend you start your study session with CARS practice, study your sciences, and then end your study session with reviewing your CARS passages.

Step 2: Below, I’m going to give you an exhaustive table of the most important keywords. Print off our handy keyword guide and keep it in front of you. You’ll also need a set of highlighters with each of the colors used in the keyword table. Now read through your passage again slowly, paying no attention to time. As you see keywords in the passage that are on your list, highlight them in the appropriate color in the passage. If you’re taking the passages online, print them off. It’s important to do the process physically.

Step 3: Immediately following Step 2, repeat Step 2. Especially early on, you’ll be surprised by how many keywords you miss. Be sure to reference the keyword table as you go through the passage. By doing this process repeatedly, eventually keywords will just pop out at you, and you won’t even have to look for them. Towards the end of this month, you’ll start to feel like Neo seeing the numbers and bits of data that make up the matrix. (Dear God, if this is a outdated reference… all is lost. Please don’t tell me you haven’t seen the Matrix!) Then proceed on to reviewing the questions.

Doing this process both trains you to see keywords, but also better prepares you to review your questions. You’ll cut down on the time it takes to review because most missed questions will be those forehead slapping “Should have had a V8®” moments. You’ll see instantly where you went wrong.


WARNING: Don’t even think about reviewing a practice passage or practice test until your timing is no longer an issue. If you are still struggling to get through your passages with enough time, you shouldn’t be reviewing practice passages, you should be doing more practice passages. Read over Days 3 & 5 for tips on how to get your timing down.


We’re going to briefly review each category of keywords and how you can use them. You can download a pdf version of these keyword table here. These are the highest yield keywords on the CARS. (Don’t get overwhelmed. They’re just a tool to help you review. Don’t memorize!)

Continuation – Continuation keywords tell you that more of the same is coming. The author is going to dig down and explain more about what she was just saying. There are three subcategories of continuation keywords. The first subcategory is the More of the Same group. These do exactly what you think they would. The author is continuing down the same line;she’s going to double down and keep going with, you guessed it, “more of the same.” The second subcategory is the Explanation keywords group. These are words the author might use to further explain and make clearer a difficult or complicated point. It’s saying the same thing, but just in more detail. And finally, the third are the Example keywords which just lead you into an example of what the author is saying. Examples are good for clearing up confusion, but if you’re clear on a point, don’t waste too much time on examples. They’ll be there for you if you need them.

Contrast – They do exactly what you’d expect, they indicate a change of course. They contrast one position with another. Of all the keywords on this list, these are the most important, because, for both argumentative and descriptive passages, the author is likely to contrast different positions or viewpoints, and this contrast is a great opportunity for a good question. Keep an eye out for these!

Conclusion – Conclusion keywords are pretty obvious, but don’t underestimate them. They will be incredibly useful when it comes to Main Idea questions as well as summarizing a point or position the author is making. The MCAT loves testing your understanding of the conclusions of a passage.

Opinion – This list could go on forever. There are a ton of words that could cue you in on the author’s opinion or valuation of a position. Think of these terms as adding color to a black and white objective passage. Could you imagine someone being unhappy or arguing with the author because of something he or she said? If so, it’s likely he or she introduced an opinion or argument into the passage. Argumentative passages are by definition opinion laden. Be on the lookout for these keywords that clue you in, as the MCAT has been known to throw in an Author Attitude question every once and awhile. Opinion keywords help you identify and understand the claims and arguments the author is making.


Timing – We talked about these in yesterday, so I won’t spend much time on them here, but remember, timing words allow you to track the development of a particular idea, concept, or field. You’ll want to use these to keep the different phases straight in your head. One of the easiest ways for the MCAT to come up with a wrong answer is to switch around phases of development or order. Having a picture of the structure of the progression of the passage will allow you to quickly identify when something is out of place or in the wrong context.

Comparison – Comparison words will be very common on the MCAT whenever more than one argument, position, or viewpoint is expressed in the passage. These allow you to quickly know who the key players are and which the author believes is strongest.

Modality – We talked about modality on Day 7 so we won’t go into too much detail here. Remember that modality allows you to judge the strength of the claim the author is making in his or her argument. Thus, it will also clue you in to the strength of support she will need for the argument to hold. Strong claims need strong support! If these feel a little uncomfortable, read over Day 7 again.

I know that was a lot for one day! Don’t get stressed out with all these keywords. This is a more advanced technique so don’t worry about it until you’ve got your timing down. Remember, only consciously use keywords when you’re reviewing your practice passages. Follow the steps above, and before you know it, you’ll be your own MCAT CARS Neo! You can download the Keywords PDF here.

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

“Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something new.”
– Morihei Ueshiba

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