If you’re getting ready for the MCAT, no doubt you’ve heard that the MCAT has just undergone a major overhaul. So what does that mean for the famously difficult Verbal Reasoning section — now reincarnated as Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills, or CARS? Should you study for it exactly the same way as for the old VR? Is there anything new to be aware of? Information is still a bit sketchy at this point, but we’ve looked at every clue the AAMC has given out, and here’s what we know and what we recommend.
CARS is longer, but you get a little more time per question.
It’s now 9 passages and 53 questions. You have 90 minutes to complete it, giving you a little more time per question than the old minute-and-a-half-per-question average. Passages will be 500-600 words long.
It’s important to realize that not only is the CARS section longer, but it comes as part of an MCAT that is almost twice as long as the old MCAT. In other words, there’s more to do and there’s more likelihood that you’ll be fighting fatigue too. It’s more important than ever that you build up your stamina: give yourself marathon study sessions and work on maintaining your concentration-hour after hour.
The passage types have changed slightly.
For people who didn’t like all those natural science passages (the ones that always seemed to be written by Stephen J Gould), this will be good news: There are no more natural science passages. For people who felt the natural sciences were a welcome break from all that art history and sociology, the bad news is that CARS is going to be all Humanities and Sociology, and the list of specific topic areas includes things like Art, Dance, Religion, Theater, Archaeology and Studies of Diverse Cultures. So just as before, you need to get good at engaging with passages on a wide variety of topics — including topics you aren’t particularly interested in.
The skills they’re testing are the same as on the VR.
CARS is still testing your ability to understand the passage in some depth and to evaluate the argument(s) and evidence presented (the latter is now called Reasoning within the Text). The other kinds of questions come under the heading of Reasoning Beyond the Test. These require you to consider how the ideas presented in the passage would apply to new information not found in the passage, and how the argument put forth in the passage would be affected if new information were incorporated into it. Altogether, these cover the same four skill areas that were tested on the VR — the skills that were then called Comprehension, Evaluation, Application, and Incorporation.
The AAMC is giving mixed signals on whether the questions will feel the same as on the VR.
The basic skill set that CARS is testing is clearly the same as on the VR, which seems to suggest that CARS will essentially be “VR without natural sciences, and with more questions”. The only mystery is whether the questions will be easier or harder than on the VR, and whether they’ll have the same “feel.” That is difficult to predict at this point. In the materials that it has put out to describe the new CARS section, the AAMC has sometimes simply cut-and-pasted passages and questions from old VR sections, suggesting that there isn’t that much difference between the two.
On the one full-length practice test that is available now (mid-March 2015), the questions seemed a bit more straightforward than VR questions — the wrong answer choices were a little more obviously wrong than what we usually saw on the VR, and there was less hairsplitting required to sort out the answer choices. The questions didn’t seem to require quite as much “reading between the lines” as on the old VR. But that could mean simply that the one sample test wasn’t vetted and tweaked as thoroughly as a real test — it may have been put together to give users an idea of the test format, but it may not give a realistic picture of how tricky the real test will be. It seems unlikely that the AAMC would massively overhaul a section of the MCAT in order to make it easier. At the very least, that wouldn’t be the safe way to bet.
So how should you prep?
Our recommendation is that you assume that CARS is going to be at least as tricky as the VR, and prep with the expectation that you’ll need to be able to handle all kinds of curveballs in the passages and in the questions. If it turns out to be a little more straightforward, great — you’ll cruise through it, get a high score and possibly save a little more energy for the next section of the MCAT. If it’s actually harder than the VR, you’ll still be well-prepared if you’ve taken the prep seriously: correcting any weaknesses in your reading style or speed, learning to deal with hard passages and finding your way through all the tricks and traps that the writers load into the questions.
Given the uncertainties, it’s best to be fully prepared for whatever they may throw at you. As the first test prep company to offer a specialized VR intensive course, we have now retooled our course to take into account all the available information about CARS. We’re confident that it’s still the best prep available and that, whatever your score is now, we can help you to raise it.
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