Whether you’re just beginning to prepare for the MCAT, already immersed in studying, or considering a retake, you’ve probably questioned what CARS strategy would work best for you. While there are quite a few ways to approach a CARS passage, the most common strategies are note-taking, highlighting, and skimming. Of course, every student is different, and you may already know that one or more of these tactics doesn’t fit your MCAT style.
But for those still having trouble finding their CARS groove, here’s our breakdown of these three strategies:
The first of our three techniques comes in different variations. Some students take notes after every paragraph, writing down a few words to sum up the author’s points. Other students only write down their thoughts at the very end of the passage. Either way, note-taking tends to be especially helpful for students who typically read quickly or have trouble remembering information after it is read. If you use this strategy, however, make sure to check your accuracy after finishing each passage – did the notes you wrote down actually help you answer questions? Did you isolate the key points, or did you spend valuable time taking notes that weren’t relevant? Note also that this strategy is more time-consuming than the others, so if you always run out of time on the CARS section, you may want to try out an alternative.
Possibly the most commonly used of these strategies, highlighting takes advantage of the on-screen highlighter tool provided during the MCAT exam. Highlighting has many advantages – it can help students retain information they read, and it draws the eye back to important parts of the passage when returning to it to answer questions. Highlighting is best used for key points like names, contrasts, and strong opinions. Be careful, though – if you tend to highlight entire sentences or even more, you probably need to revise your strategy. Excessive highlighting – apart from turning the entire passage yellow – makes it far more difficult to pick out the especially important points later. On the other hand, if you tried note-taking and found that it used up too much of your time, highlighting (sparingly) could be just the strategy you need to use instead.
As its name implies, this strategy involves reading the passage quickly, generally in two minutes or less. This leaves as much time as possible to answer the questions. As one might expect, this strategy is used most often by students who are running out of time, with perhaps only five or six minutes remaining to complete an entire passage. However, some students prefer this approach all of the time. If you’re a student who favors the “read the questions first” strategy in the science sections (a strategy that has its own pros and cons), skimming in CARS may be right for you. Be careful, though – if you skim the passage too rapidly, you may find yourself having to go back to reread much of it to answer the questions. Try to gauge how much information you can actually retain from skimming – if you generally miss key points or misjudge the author’s argument, you may need to return to fully reading the passage first. And note this: skimming can certainly be paired with highlighting, to help keep track of the author’s main points even when reading quickly.
Go ahead and try out these strategies, both in a timed and untimed environment. See which one feels best for you, and (importantly) which one actually yields the best results. Don’t hesitate to combine strategies or even do something different – as long as you practice to feel comfortable and natural on Test Day. If you’d like to see how these strategies can work on actual practice passages, we have several pre-med webinars discussing the subject. You can see past webinar recordings here or check out a schedule of our upcoming webinars here.