How Can I Improve My Reasoning Skills for the MCAT?

15 min


Pre-Clinical student in the library, studying to improve his reasoning skills for the MCAT.


Although the MCAT is notorious for its difficult science content, including chemistry and physics content, it also includes one deceptively challenging section — the Critical Analysis and Reasoning section (CARS). CARS does not just test your ability to analyze text and reason about passages or concepts within that text, as the name suggests. Rather, it presents a variety of topics, some familiar and some novel. It challenges you to read carefully, integrate prior knowledge with new information, and synthesize ideas to arrive at the best solutions to what may seem like highly subjective questions. Do not underestimate this section. Here we explain how you can improve your reasoning skills for the MCAT, particularly as they relate to CARS.


What is CARS and How Does It Relate to Medicine?


Physicians work with people as their patients. Therefore, medical school includes in the curriculum dedicated training in communication skills. This training is designed to enhance skills in visual, written, verbal, and even nonverbal communication and comprehension. These skills are important for developing a rapport with patients. They can help doctors in expressing empathy and understanding, and engage in effective patient counseling.


Good communication skills are also the foundation of clinical reasoning. These can help highly attuned physicians pick up on important, but subtle, clues about a symptom or underlying disease. Even specialties that experience minimal patient contact, such as pathology and radiology, involve extensive interactions with colleagues, including consults to different areas of medicine. Good communication is an essential trait for all physicians regardless of the specialty or environment of practice.


CARS simultaneously tests fundamental reading comprehension skills as well as your ability to reason about conflicting information and interpret evidence in new contexts. These are all essential components of the clinical and diagnostic reasoning process.


How Does CARS Test Reasoning Skills?


CARS consists of three primary types of questions. Each of these is designed to test a different aspect of your reasoning and analytic skills. First is foundations of comprehension. This question type essentially asks you to report either an idea or claim expressed within the text, or a piece of evidence that supports that idea or claim. A claim may be as simple as something the author said. It may also be more complex, such as a discrepancy between conflicting statements appearing in different parts of the passage. Regardless, this question type usually asks you something found explicitly in the text.


The next question type is reasoning within the text. This generally requires you to identify an idea or claim in the text and then evaluate a particular feature of it. For example, you might be asked to evaluate the type (e.g., anecdotal vs. scientific) or quality of evidence the author used to support their claim.


Lastly, there is the reasoning beyond the text question type. These questions are more heavily based on inference or inductive reasoning. You may be asked to generalize conclusions from the passage in order to predict what the author, or another proponent of their ideas, would believe or do in a new scenario. This question type tends to be more difficult than the previous two because making robust inferences or generalizations is extremely difficult. This is a very common challenge in the diagnostic step of medicine!


Strategies for Approaching the Primary Question Types


Foundations of comprehension questions tend to require the most straightforward approach. Often times simply reading the passage carefully and knowing what to highlight based on keywords will be sufficient. Harder questions may require you to infer meaning from a rhetorical device or specific word choice (think unusual word, or uncommon usage of a typical word), and then pick the answer choice that contains the most reasonable inference. Read closely, pay attention to anything that sticks out (trust your instinct), and highlight appropriately. This means choosing select words and phrases, not entire sentences or paragraphs.


Reasoning within the text questions represent somewhat of a middle ground between foundations of comprehension and reasoning beyond the text. That is, the questions are still grounded in the core information of the passage itself, but they typically require you to connect disparate ideas. This is where re-reading parts of the passage comes in handy because you might be asked to summarize an author’s overall opinion on a matter for which both sides of the argument were presented and discussed. You might be asked to determine whether the author is for or against something, and perhaps the passage ends with a bit of sarcasm which, if you miss based on prior context, would lead you to make the wrong conclusion. Context and integrating different sources of information are key for this question type.


Reasoning beyond the text questions are, in essence, tests of your mental flexibility. That is, they see how well you can apply information across different contexts by identifying commonalities and logical consistencies. These questions are challenging because a solid understanding of the text is necessary, but not sufficient on its own. 


Ways to Improve Your Reasoning Skills


The good news is that everyone, regardless of educational or other background, already possesses all of the reasoning skills tested in CARS—albeit to varying degrees. Simply by communicating with others and participating in higher education, you are (perhaps unconsciously) learning to understand others’ arguments, evaluate evidence for or against those arguments, and draw your own conclusions or inferences accordingly. However, rarely is it done in such a formal and condensed format. This is part of what makes CARS difficult for some people to practice. There are, however, tried and true ways of honing these skills.


Get Comfortable Reading Long Passages


First and most basic is to simply read more. In this day and age, we are often used to reading a greater number of short snippets. CARS draws on skills that come from reading prose more in the style of books and short stories. Remember that CARS is not testing specific facts or concepts. Thus you should not attempt to read social science or humanities content to prepare in the hopes of enhancing your knowledge base. You will not know what the passages will be about. In fact, if you approach each passage with an open mind and assume as little prior specific knowledge as possible, you will be better equipped to absorb the author’s tone and intended messages. Reading any type of book will do just fine.


Consistently Complete CARS Practice Questions


Next, and perhaps most importantly, you should practice CARS consistently. At least as often—if not more often—than every other section. The science sections tend to benefit from spaced repetition, in which you separate learning sessions in order to better consolidate knowledge into long-term memory and integrate it with other topics. However, because CARS is not about memorizing or learning new facts, this method is less effective. Instead, it is like practicing a sport or an instrument. You want to be so comfortable searching for keywords and rhetorical devices, etc. that it feels like muscle memory. The more often you practice, the more efficient you will also be in your reading and deciphering of what exactly the questions are asking you.


Experiment and Find What Reasoning Skills Method Works Best For You


Lastly, an underappreciated form of preparation is to experiment and figure out what specific strategies work for you. For example, there are differing opinions on the value of “jumping around” or glancing at question stems first vs. reading the entire passage before looking at questions. The fact of the matter is that this suggestion may make sense for some, but not for others.

For exceptionally fast readers, it might make sense to finish the passage first, then read the question and refer back to the passage as needed. On the other hand, slower readers might end up spending most of their time on the section reading and thus miss out on valuable thinking time. The only way to know for sure which method works best for you is to try different variations on low-stakes practice questions and determine (a) what felt best and (b) what yielded the best results. Hopefully, these are aligned, but if not, you can still figure out your optimal balance.




CARS is the most unique section on the MCAT. For some, it is also the most challenging or frustrating. The good news is that this section relies the least on memorization and prior knowledge. Instead, it tests your ability to use everyday skills in communication in critical thinking. You can, and should, practice for this section often. That being said, your preparatory strategy should differ from that used for the other sections. You should read (books/short stories) for pleasure, practice (a lot!), and experiment with different test-taking strategies regarding reading passages and approaching questions.

As with any study strategy, tutoring should be an additional arrow in your quiver that you use to maximize your strengths and capabilities so that you crush this section along with the rest of the MCAT. For additional help improving your reasoning skills, and more, consider enlisting the help of a 1-on-1 tutor! Schedule your complimentary consultation today!

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