MCAT2015 Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Tips

by Speed Reading Expert, Richard L. Feldman, Ph.D. (Columbia University)

Which Practice Materials Should You Use for the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Section?

The MCAT2015 is a computer-based exam but I suggest you start your practice using print materials. Specifically, purchase The Official Guide to the MCAT® Exam (MCAT2015), Fourth Edition, along with its online access to MCAT2015 questions. The Official Guide to the MCAT® Exam won’t provide enough practice, however, since there are only 30 Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) questions in the book. To make matters worse, there aren’t a lot of high quality practice materials available yet because the first administration of MCAT2015 is this month, April 2015, and exam publisher AAMC has yet to release full-length practice exams.

I suggest you supplement your CARS practice materials with print copies of the Verbal Reasoning (VR) sections from old MCATs (tests administered before April 2015). Here’s why VR sections from old MCATs are great for practice: they are almost identical to CARS sections in terms of passage length (about 600 words) and number of questions per passage (5-7). There are some minor difference between the VR and CARS sections, but these differences won’t reduce the effectiveness of your training. Some of the differences are:

  • Passage Content: The CARS section includes 50% social science passages and 50% humanities passages; the VR section also includes natural science passages.
  • Timing: The CARS section is a little more generous with the amount of time it allows to complete the section compared to the VR section. Specifically, the CARS section gives you 90 minutes to complete 9 reading passages and its 53 questions – that translates to 10 minutes per passage with its 7-9 questions. By contrast, the VR section is stingy with time, allowing only 8 ½ minutes to complete each passage and its 7-9 questions.
By the way, I normally steer MCAT prep students away from third party publishers of MCAT practice exams. That’s because these materials aren’t field-tested. However, if you are unable to get your hands on VR sections from old MCATs, you might be forced to turn to these publishers to supplement your CARS practice materials. I expect AAMC will make full-length practice exams available in late 2015.

First Phase of Practice: Use Passages in Print

In the early stages of practice, work on one reading passage at a time together with its set of 5-7 questions. Do this for several days adhering to the timing guidelines discussed below. Gradually increase the number of passages and questions you practice in one sitting, always working under timed conditions (10 minutes per passage and set of questions). Eventually, complete 9 passages including questions in 90 minutes, the time permitted for the actual computer-based MCAT2015 CARS section.

I. Reading the Passage

  • Allow about 3 ½ minutes to read an entire passage. Since each reading passage is about 600 words in length, that means your reading speed should be about 170 words per minute. Use a countdown timer to ensure you are within the time limit. You’ll get a sense of the main idea and important details during this 3 ½ minutes of reading.
  • Use a pencil as a pacer while reading the passage to improve your reading speed and concentration. Naturally, you won’t be able to use a pencil as a pacer once you switch your practice to computer-based passages later in the training, but for the early phase of practice, the pacer will gradually improve your reading speed as well as your concentration
  • Don’t do these: highlighting, circling words, writing notes, or any other time wasters
  • Don’t try to skim the passage first; it doesn’t work well on the CARS section.

II. Answering the Questions for the Passage

  • Allow about 6 ½ minutes to answer each set of questions, again using a countdown timer to ensure you are within the time limit. There are 5 – 7 questions per passage.
  • First answer the questions in the set that don’t require you to refer back to the passage.
  • Save questions in the set for last that require you to return to the passage in order to answer them.
  • Answer all questions since there is no guessing penalty.
  • Don’t plan to return to a set of questions; complete the entire set and move on to the next reading passage.
  • Codes: Cross out incorrect answer choices to save time later. You’ll be able to do the same on the computer-based answer choices as well.

III. General Strategies for the MCAT2015 Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Section

  • Spend 10 minutes per reading passage which includes reading the passage and answering the questions. Do not allow additional time. Use a countdown timer.
  • Pace yourself: If you run out of time while you are still answering questions, fill in the remaining answers by guessing.
  • Answer all questions because there is no guessing penalty on the MCAT.
  • Don’t try to be perfect: Students seeking admission to U.S. medical schools are expected to get the answers to some questions wrong for each reading passage.

Second Phase of Practice: Use Computer-based Passages

After days or weeks of practice using the print version of the CARS reading passages (and perhaps VR passages) including answering the questions, you will improve your pacing, accuracy and confidence. Eventually, you will want to practice using computer-based passages and questions so that you get comfortable with the unique aspects of taking the computer-based CARS section of the MCAT2015. There is a special “look and feel” of the exam that you can only experience by doing some practice on the computer-based test. For example, you will want to practice electronically striking through incorrect choices.

Remember the online access to MCAT2015 questions that I recommended you purchase in the first paragraph of this article? Now’s the time to practice using this online access material.

I don’t recommend the highlighting and note-taking functions available on the computer-based CARS section; they take time away from thinking about the points in the passage as well as from the ability to carefully consider answer choices.

Keep in mind that on the day of the exam, you will have an electronic countdown clock displayed on your computer screen; you won’t be permitted to use your own timer, watch or any other electronic device such as a cell phone.

I’ve been teaching speed reading courses in New York City for twenty-five years. I can increase your reading speed and comprehension for the MCAT2017 Exam.

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