How to Prep for MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Passages

The Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section of the Medical College Admission Test, also known as the MCAT, is perhaps the trickiest to prepare for as you seek to apply to medical school.

Unlike the three other sections of the MCAT, this section assesses your ability to interpret novel information without applying background knowledge. The CARS section consists of passages that are generally 500 to 600 words long, each accompanied by several questions. The total number of questions on the CARS portion is 53.

How you might approach the questions that follow each passage depends largely on the subject and how it fits into the two overarching categories of passages on the test, social sciences or humanities. While there is no specific content to study, there are ways to better handle the passages and questions in each category.

Here are three steps that may help you boost your performance on the CARS section of the MCAT:

— Understand what subjects are covered in each passage category.

— Know how to spot the differences between the two categories of passages.

— Apply specific test-taking skills based on the kind of passage.

[Read: Why the MCAT Is Harder Than a Typical College Exam.]

Understand what subjects are covered in each passage category. The Association of American Medical Colleges maintains a webpage that provides an overview of types of CARS passages. Broadly, they can be divided into humanities and social sciences, each accounting for 50% of the content.

Humanities passages can range from academic commentaries on art or ethics to literary passages taken directly from their primary texts. Social sciences passages may come from texts on anthropology, history, linguistics, psychology, sociology or even geography.

It is important to maintain a distinction between the social sciences passages in the CARS section and the psychology and sociology questions found in the Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior section of the MCAT. The sociology questions ask test-takers to draw on prior knowledge to answer social science questions. Social science questions on the CARS portion, in contrast, refer only to the information contained within the associated passage.

Keeping in mind the subjects covered by each of these categories can help you identify what kind of passage you are dealing with and how you will approach its questions.

Know how to spot the differences between the two categories of passages. Aside from identifying the type of passage by its subject, you can tell social sciences from humanities passages based on qualities such as tone, diction and relative apparent subjectivity.

[Read: Sharpen Critical Analysis, Reasoning Skills for MCAT Success.]

For example, a humanities passage is more likely to be written in an argumentative tone, taking a definitive stance on a certain issue, while a social sciences passage might seem like it is written in an objective and “dry” manner.

Word choice can provide further clues as to the type of passage you’re reading. Look for words specific to the overall subject of the passage — such as words like “pirouette” in a passage about dance or “civilizations” in a passage concerning anthropology — and use those words to decide whether the passage is from the humanities or social sciences.

While it may take some practice to notice these more nuanced differences between the two types of passages, being able to pick out these details can help you decode passages whose meaning may at first seem complicated.

Apply specific test-taking skills based on the kind of passage. No matter what type of passage you are faced with, doing things like identifying the main idea of the text, understanding the author’s tone and quickly scanning the associated question stems before reading the passage can help you snag extra points. Using test-taking skills specific to the passage type may boost your score even further.

[Read: What Is a Good MCAT Score?]

For humanities passages, be sure to pay attention to how the author interrelates different ideas as supporting evidence for the main argument. Additionally, scan the passage to find a counterargument, if present, and note any evidence that seems contrary to the author’s point.

When reading social sciences passages, try to avoid getting caught up in the use of jargon. Use context clues to define words you’re not familiar with, and do not sweat it if you do not understand everything in the passage perfectly. Remember that you do not have to be an expert on the topic to answer the questions, so rely on your critical reading skills — not your ability to parse obscure words specific to the field — when approaching these passages.

Further, try to identify what field within the social sciences the passage concerns. Is it an archaeology passage? Is it about economics? Figuring out what kind of content you are reading beyond the fact that it is within the social sciences can help you narrow down answer choices later.

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How to Prep for MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Passages originally appeared on

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