How to Improve Your MCAT CARS Score [11 Essential Tips]

Pre-med students dread the MCAT CARS section on the exam. Many students believe CARS is the most difficult section of the exam. It’s no surprise then why pre-meds seek out information to find out how to improve their MCAT CARS score.

But why is the MCAT CARS section the most difficult for students?

It seems that because CARS is the only section that requires zero prior knowledge it should be the easiest. But maybe because we are all type A’s, the thought of not being able to memorize everything on the subject scares us.

In a way, the MCAT CARS section is a wild card.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. If you prepare the right way and really learn how to tackle CARS passages, you can almost guarantee a high score. Doing well on the CARS section is about learning the technique instead of the material.

Follow the tips below to improve your MCAT CARS score!

MCAT CARS Tip #1: Finding the Main Idea of Each Paragraph

When you read through CARS passages, you need to start thinking about each paragraph as its own unit.

main ideas

Think of the separate paragraphs as mini-essays. They are all self-contained, having information regarding a specific topic that supports the overall argument of the passage. Each paragraph will have an intro sentence, a body, and a conclusion. Each paragraph is pivotal to building the structure of the thesis or main argument.

The key to doing well in CARS is to quickly figure out the main idea of each paragraph. Once you discover the main argument/idea, you should write it down on your scratch paper.

Make sure you only write down a few words that encompass the idea, you want to be very brief.

After you have read the entire passage you will essentially have an outline that walks you through the author’s thought/argument process. This will greatly enhance your understanding of the passage so you can easily answer the questions.

At first finding, the main idea of each paragraph will take more time than you realistically have. But with practice, you will become much faster. Eventually, it’s possible to simply rely on your memory instead of writing things down.

MCAT CARS Tip  #2: Coming up With the Overall Thesis

After you have found the main idea of each paragraph, understanding the overall thesis is important for figuring out the argument the author is trying to make.

While it’s important that you wrote down the main idea for each paragraph, you need to understand how they fit together. Most of the questions will require an understanding of the overall argument to answer them correctly.  

After reading the passage, take your outline and in one sentence explain the passage’s entire argument.

Once again, the more you practice the faster you will become at coming up with the thesis. You will have to develop the skills to piece together each individual paragraph’s main point to create the overall argument structure.

MCAT CARS Tip  #3: What is the Authors Tone and Opinion


It is important that we figure out how the Author “feels” when reading a passage.

This can be very challenging because, for the most part, this is subjective. How do we determine the author’s bias toward a subject matter? This is especially difficult for a science major whose main goal is to focus on the facts without involving personal biases.

But the MCAT wants you to use reason to figure out the author’s stance on a particular matter. This is why it is so important to figure out the main idea of each paragraph and the overall thesis.

When you figure out the author’s thought process for reaching a particular conclusion, this will help you understand his or her tone. Are they criticizing something or are they sympathizing? Are they upbeat or defeated? Are they trying to convince you something is right or wrong?

To practice being able to determine the “tone” of an article, start reading more opinionated pieces from things like the New York Times or something similar. While reading, determine what the author’s mood and opinion of the matter are, and see the kind of verbiage he or she uses to display that.

MCAT CARS Tip #4: Enter with a Blank Slate

It’s important to enter into the MCAT CARS section with a “blank slate.” What does this mean though?

Having a “blank slate” means entering into the exam without any biases, preconceptions, or opinions. Now, I understand this is easier said than done, but it’s crucial.

The CARS section will present articles that can contain themes that are considered “hot topics” in today’s world. Chances are will read something you disagree with. It’s also possible you may read something that really gets your blood boiling. You need to fight that.

Focus on the facts presented in the passage. Put yourself in the mindset of the author. What do they believe? Because if you answer a question with your own belief in your head (Even if it’s right!) you will miss it. 

I’m sure the AAMC is very purposeful about this. They want to know that you will be a physician that won’t let his or her opinion about the beliefs of a patient get in the way of proper treatment.

Once again, determining the author’s “tone” is important. Focus on thinking like the author and you will understand the argument they are trying to make.

The “blank slate” doesn’t only apply to opinions and biases. It applies to knowledge in general. Just because you know something is true (Because you studied it at school) doesn’t mean it’s going to be true in the MCAT CARS section.

The only “truth” in the CARS section is what you read in the passage. That means if the passage contradicts something you know to be true in the real world, you go with what the passage says.

MCAT CARS Tip #5: Time Management is Key

Top scorers spend 9 minutes per passage on the MCAT CARS section.

time management

The CARS section contains 53 questions and you have 90 minutes. There are a total of 9 passages with a mixture of 5, 6, or 7 questions. Technically it will take you longer to do 7 questions vs 5, so you could give yourself more time to the 7 question passages and less to the 5.

Regardless, you want to shoot for an average of 9 minutes per passage. This will leave you a 9-minute cushion just in case you go over with some harder passages.

MCAT CARS Tip #6: Don’t fixate on Hard Questions

Sometimes you may end up doing a perfect job outlining the passage and understanding the main argument but one of the questions is still giving you a really hard time.

There is no surprise there, the MCAT is hard and likes to trick people.

Don’t fixate too long on these questions. You want to stick as close as possible to that 9 minutes per passage average. You can miss a couple of questions and still get a really good score. It is better to guess and have more time to answer the easier questions.

What you can do is flag the question and return to it. It’s possible that answering a different question triggers a light bulb in your head. Or maybe you answer the other questions super quickly giving you more time to devote to the hard one.

Make sure you are watching that time. If you are spending more than a minute and a half without any clue of the answer, it is time to move on.

MCAT CARS Tip #7: Read the Questions First

This tip really depends on the test taker. Personally, I found that reading the questions first helped, but I know other students who would rather just start reading the passage.

Try both ways and see what works for you.

The largest benefit of reading the questions on the CARS section first is that you have an idea of what to look out for. While reading the questions I recommend using the highlighting tool on buzz words. Whether that is a name, a year, an argument, or a specific word from the passage that the questions refers too.

Doing this will engage your mind to look out for those keywords while reading the passages. You can then focus on highlighting that part of the passage or incorporating that keyword to the main idea of that paragraph. Sometimes, you can even answer a question before you finish reading the passage!

The only con to this tip, and probably the reason why some pre-meds don’t like doing this, is that this takes up valuable time. You really need to practice doing this quickly so that you can keep to that 9 minutes per passage average.

MCAT CARS Tip #8: Learn How to Identify the Traps!

The MCAT loves to trick students, especially in the CARS section. Most of the time you will have no problem eliminating 2 answer choices but the last two will give you trouble.

Very often pre-meds choose the answer that sounds right but it has one detail that contradicts the passage.

This is the trap.

A lot of the time the MCAT wants you to go for this answer that feels right because it usually involves some kind of “outside knowledge.” But remember, you need to enter into the MCAT with a blank slate! You need to go off of the information in the passage and not your memory.

Once again, properly outlining the passage is key. You need to be able to quickly reference the passage in order to avoid these traps. Most of the time the correct answer will sound off but it will be consistent with the information in the passage.

Be careful about the traps! Your first instinct when an answer sounds right is to question it. Is it actually consistent with the passage? You will find that the right answer often feels wrong, goes against what you know to be true, and sounds crazy. But the key is that it is consistent with what the author said.

Don’t worry, with plenty of practice you will get better at identifying these traps and answering questions purely based on the material in the passage. Eventually, your brain will automatically detect the too-good-too-be-true answers and you will be less susceptible to missing questions due to the traps.

MCAT CARS Tip #9: Do not Leave Questions Blank

This seems to be an obvious tip but none-the-less pre-meds still miss questions because they leave a few blank.

It’s sad really, such a waste. The MCAT marks every unanswered question as wrong so there is no benefit to not guessing if you are out of time or the question is too hard.

Part of the problem is time management. If you do not leave yourself a cushion at the end you may not even have enough time to go back and finish guessing the unanswered questions.

Ideally, after doing a ton of CARS practice you will have mastered time management and you shouldn’t run out of time on the exam. But it does happen and damage control needs to be done.

Give yourself at least 5 minutes in the end to do a final review. It may seem tempting to keep answering questions till the last minute, but trust me, a minute is not enough.

The MCAT test application is not perfect. You will find that it takes more time than you anticipated to click through the questions in order to put in an answer for each one you left blank.

MCAT CARS Tip #10: Practice EVERY Day

By this point you know how I feel about doing practice problems. You need to do a ton of practice passages, especially for CARS.

You should start studying for the CARS section on day one of your MCAT studies. Right off the bat, I would try to do 3 passages a day. Although I believe doing practice questions in every section of the MCAT is important, I can’t stress enough how important it is to do CARS practice.

MCAT stress

This is why I urge you to practice CARS every single day.

Practicing MCAT CARS passages will put you into the mindset of understanding what the MCAT is looking for. Every week you will further sharpen your skills necessary to ace the CARS section.

There is a specific language to the CARS section that’s almost like an art. Practice, practice, practice and you will master this art!

With that being said, you want to make sure you have enough material to practice. Although the AAMC’s material is arguably the best for practice, it is not enough. You will need some 3rd party sources.

I wrote a post that covers the BEST CARS books and resources out there. These books will give you more than enough practice material to do multiple CARS passages every single day.

MCAT CARS Tip #11: Read More

In addition to reading opinion pieces to practice discovering the “tone” of an author, reading in general will help you for the MCAT.

This is simply to improve your reading speed.

Those MCAT CARS passages can be pretty long, and 9 minutes per passage is tough to keep up with. You will need to read those passages at a faster than average rate.

I personally struggled at this because honestly, I am a slow reader. Most likely this is because I don’t read enough. That’s why before the MCAT I read as much as I could in my free time. I know this is tough because when you are in the midst of studying the MCAT you probably don’t have time to pick up a book.

But if you are not planning on taking the MCAT for a while, consider picking up some good novels. I wrote a post on the top books every pre-med should read. Maybe now is the time to read some of these exciting books about physicians.

Bonus MCAT CARS Tip: Avoid Extreme and Strong Answers

This is a tip I found relevant to most standardized tests. What do I mean by “Extreme and Strong Answers?”

I’m talking about answer choices that are so confident that they leave no room for error. Answer choices which include words like “All” or “None.”

For example, in a made-up article trying to prove that State University X was full of frat house partiers, an answer choice to the question “What is the authors main point?” stating that “ALL of the students from State University X were partiers” would be incorrect because even though the author is insinuating that practically everyone from this school rages every night, the passage doesn’t technically prove every single student does that.

Maybe there are some nerdy pre-med students on a scholarship.

The point I’m trying to make is that answer choices that seem to take a true concept to an extreme are tricks and should be eliminated.

How to Read Difficult MCAT CARS Passages

Sometimes you are going to get some very difficult MCAT CARS Passages. I’m talking about those passages that are just so painful to read. The very philosophical ones. Students describe it as having to focus very intensely on these passages just to understand the sentence.

These kinds of passages can be so confusing that it can make you wonder whether or not you actually read it!

How do you tackle these CARS passages? Here are the steps.

#1 Stay calm

Take a deep breath and stay calm. The MCAT is a standardized test so everyone will be struggling with the same passage. Also, sometimes the hardest passages have the easiest questions.

Stay Calm

#2 Be Prepared to Allocate More Time to this Passage

Earlier I said you should spend 9 minutes per CARS passage. Remember, this is an average. You will want to devote extra time to the hard passages so you can read them more carefully.

#3 Outline Like your Life Depended on it

Earlier I provided two important tips, you want to provide a brief description of the main idea of each paragraph and you want to come up with the overall thesis.

You don’t want to neglect these habits on difficult passages! In fact, you should really focus even harder on coming up with the main points for each paragraph.

Tackle each paragraph of the passage as its own unit. Really focus on why the author is including that paragraph in the article. Because I promise you there is a reason. If you catch yourself reading a paragraph and not understanding what the heck is going on, slow down and focus. Forget that the rest of the passage exists and pinpoint what the author is trying to say for that paragraph.

#4 K.I.S.S.

Keep it simple stupid. A common acronym and way of thinking used in business but also applicable in many other aspects of life.

In a nutshell, keep it simple stupid means to stop overthinking and analyzing. Systems work best when they are kept as simple as possible without overcomplicating things.

Incorporate this into your CARS reading, especially with the most difficult passages.

When passages become super philosophical or just mind-numbing in general, just remember that the MCAT doesn’t expect you to have a doctorate in humanities. In fact, you really need no previous experience.

When you are really struggling to understand what an author is trying to say, maybe you are overthinking it and trying to infer something from their wording. Instead of trying to read between the lines, focus on reading the passage literally and that may be what is required to come up with the main idea.

#5 If All Else Fails, Move On

If you are spending way too much time on the passage, you may have to move on. Don’t jeopardize the entire CARS section for one passage.

You can miss questions and still get a competitive score. The MCAT is standardized after all. Missing half of the questions on a hard passage is much better than missing half the questions on 3 other passages you didn’t have time to properly complete.

#6 Thoroughly Review Difficult Passages

After you do a session of MCAT CARS practice passages, you need to make sure you are being extra thorough when reviewing a difficult passage.

Spend all the time you need to really understand exactly what the author’s points are and their overall argument. Obviously, you won’t have this kind of time on the actual MCAT, however, the idea is that you want to practice really understanding the nuts and bolts of the CARS section.

And the best time is to do this when you are reviewing problems, not on the actual MCAT test!

If you spend a long time deciphering exactly how you should have understood the passage, you will have built better tools for future CARS passages.

How to Review MCAT CARS Passages


Properly reviewing CARS passages is essential to doing better in this section. You need to analyze what you are doing wrong and you need to develop a better understanding of how CARS passages are written.

Before you read the answers to the questions you got wrong, you want to essentially “retake the passage.”

Approach the passage like you would have on the test, except don’t time yourself. Make sure you do a proper outline of the passage by really understanding and writing down the main point of each paragraph and coming up with a thesis regarding the entire argument of the passage.

You will probably re-read some of the easier passages quickly because you properly outlined them during the practice session, but someone of the harder ones will require true scrutiny.

Once you have done this, go over the questions you struggled with and the ones you missed. Before reading the given explanations, figure out for yourself why you got it wrong and why the correct answer is correct.

This is how you learn, simply reading the test administrator’s explanation won’t help you that much.

Next, you want to keep a log of your mistakes.

You can be flexible with how you log questions, but try to include the following categories:

  1. Question type that you missed.
    • This varies per company but some of the most common question types include:
      • Direct recall from the passage.
      • New Information questions. The question will provide you with new information and you have to figure out the answer based on evidence from the passage.
      • The main idea of the passage. This is where knowing that thesis will help you out.
      • Roman Numeral questions.
      • Except/least questions.
      • Inference questions. Basically, taking information from the passage and inferring meaning from them based on the author’s main argument.
  2. Why you missed the question. Was it a lack of time? Didn’t understand the passage? Did you get tricked by the question? You didn’t really know the main idea of the passage?
  3. What type of passage was it? Philosophical? Factual? History? Art?

The idea of keeping a log is to see your trends in missing questions. What kind of passages do you struggle with the most? What kind of questions do you struggle with? Is time usually an issue? Are you properly outlining the passage and coming up with the main idea?

After this, you are done with reviewing the passage and you can go on to the next. Make sure you are serious about improving. Practicing is super important but properly reviewing the passage is equally important.

There is no “Perfect” Way to Study for the MCAT CARS Section

There isn’t “one way” to approach an MCAT CARS passage. I have offered you a lot of tips in this article but the key is to discover what works best for you.

Every MCAT prep course, tutor, and book will have the “best way to tackle CARS passages” and they tend to be different. Don’t get fixated on approaching an MCAT passage one way because a review course told you to do it that way.

Really the only thing that is consistent between everyone’s opinions is that practice is key.

My suggestion to you is to do a little bit of trial and error. I’m not saying to go in blind, take my advice and tips with you. But see what really works best for you. For instance, you may decide that reading the questions before the passage is super beneficial, but another student might find it a complete waste of time.

There is no “perfect way” to approach CARS. But for you, there is going to be a “best way.” Follow these 11 tips and discover which helps you the most.  

Ultimately Practice Makes Perfect

Practice makes perfect

If you only take one piece of advice from this article, it better be to do as much practice as possible. Trust me, I’ve done plenty of MCAT courses and have used plenty of MCAT books. The thing that ultimately gave me a competitive score is doing practice passage after practice passage.

Once again, you can access the BEST CARS practice material in this article I have written. These are resources I have personally used and have found to be the best after a lot of research.

Pretty much any MCAT prep company will tell you that practicing CARS passages is essential to doing well. More than any other section.

The more practice problems you do (From reputable sources) the better understanding you will have of the MCAT CARS style of testing. In the beginning, you will spend too much time reading without really understanding the passage. After a bunch of practice questions, you will not only read faster but you will also comprehend faster. You won’t fall for the traps and ultimately your score will increase.


If you want a quick summary, here are the key points you should take from this article on how to improve your MCAT CARS score.

Enter into the exam with a clean slate, free from all biases and preconceptions. You don’t want to be implementing your own ideas and opinions into the answer choices for the passage!

When you first read the passage, you want to approach each paragraph as its own unit. Figure out the point that the author is trying to make in that paragraph. Why did he or she include it? How does it provide structure for the overall argument?

After you have an outline containing a brief explanation of the main points, come up with a thesis or overall argument that the author is demonstrating in the passage.

While reading, determine the author’s tone but remain indifferent so that you don’t impose your own beliefs. Remember, the answer doesn’t have to be logically correct, in only needs to be consistent with the content in the passage.

Hone your skills by practicing plenty of CARS passages. You won’t be able to improve without constant practice. This is SUPER important.

Make sure you are committed to doing a proper review of the passages you practice. This is just as important as actually sitting down and doing the practice problems. Don’t cheat yourself here. A proper review will take you longer than actually doing the passage!

If you take these tips seriously and implement them in your MCAT CARS prep I am confident you will see improvement.

You got this!

Have any questions? Or maybe some more advice? Please leave a comment below!

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