How Vivienne went from a 127 to a 129 on CARS (with a 521 overall)

by Gabe Ladd

The following is a Q&A with Vivienne, a student from the Redwood MCAT CARS Mastery Course. Vivienne initially took the MCAT in 2018 and scored a 127 in CARS (82nd percentile). After finishing the course, she took the MCAT again in January 2019 and got a 129 on the CARS section (95th percentile). She also scored an extremely impressive 521 overall!

I think there are some really helpful pointers that she mentions in her responses. In particular I noticed that she:

  • Was very consistent in doing passages every day
  • Mentally prepped before the CARS section to help get in the right state of mind
  • Gave herself enough time on the readings to actually understand the passages
  • Didn’t get stuck on any one question

1. How did you study for CARS the first time around?

I didn’t dedicate as much time on CARS as I did for the other three sections the first time around. I read the ExamKracker’s CARS book and did several passages every three or four days. I ended up doing all of the passages from the official AAMC bundle (Qpacks Vol 1 and 2, three full lengths, sample exam, official guide, etc) and ExamKrackers. I highlighted dates and names I thought were important in addition to writing paragraph summaries. Thinking back, I read passages pretty quickly because time was a bit of an issue and because of this had trouble summarizing the main argument.

2. What was your study schedule like for your retake?

I studied from this past Oct to Jan while working full time (8 hrs/day) in a lab. Luckily I had a lot of freedom at work without much supervision and was able to go over ANKI cards and at least 5 CARS passages while at work. I always did my CARS passages in the mornings between 8:30-10 AM because it was harder to focus in the afternoon or at night. M-F I tried my best to do at least 5 CARS passages per day, and for the last 10 weeks leading up to my exam I did full lengths on Saturdays (9 CARS passages on those days).

3. What were the biggest changes you made to your CARS strategy?

I read passages more slowly and stopped highlighting completely. Instead, I focused more on writing succinct paragraph summaries and more importantly, using them while answering the questions. I realized that I rarely, if ever, used my paragraph summaries the first time prepping...I only used them to keep me focused while reading. Another helpful change was that I made it a habit to pause briefly after reading the 3rd or 4th paragraph and quickly rereading my paragraph summaries to remember the flow of the passage (“Okay the author is talking about X and Y and the main idea so far is Z). This thought process takes several seconds and helped me stay focused. After finishing all of my paragraph summaries, I would write “MI” at the bottom (for main idea), but instead of writing it out I mentally summarized the passage. Physically writing out “MI” made it a task for me to reinforce the big picture at the very end. Overall I ended up spending more time understanding the passage and less on the questions. This helped me refer back to the passage less often and saved me valuable time.

4. What resources did you find most helpful?

One official AAMC CARS passage in conjunction with the corresponding video from Redwood CARS + one to two UWorld CARS passages + three passages from ExamKrackers, Princeton Review, Khan Academy, or Jack Westin per day...for 3 months.

5. What helped you do well on the day of the test?

Ok, this advice may seem very specific but I truly believe these little details helped me score better the second time around. For the week leading up to the exam, I tried to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. I took melatonin to help me sleep if I really couldn’t (not the night before the exam though). Every test taker gets a number at the testing center and they check you in and admit you into the testing room based on your number. I’d recommend getting an earlier number so you’re not waiting around nervously and watching the clock go way beyond 8am while there’s still 6 more people ahead of you (as was the case my first time). For my retake, I was one of the first to get admitted into the testing room. Before starting the CARS section, I mentally told myself 1. Use my paragraph summaries, 2. MAIN IDEA, and 3. Read slowly. In addition to Gabe’s timing strategies, I made sure I was at least starting passage four when I had 1 hour left on the clock and passage seven when I had 30 min left. Having these checkpoints in my mind gave me reassurance that I was not going to run out of time. I also made sure I didn’t get stuck on any one question--if I couldn’t figure it out, I picked an answer, flagged it and moved on. In the end I had about 5 minutes left on the clock and was able to quickly go through any flagged questions. It's also important to go to the bathroom every break. Walking out of the test room and back in helped me get out of the zone and let go of previous sections. When starting CARS, do your best to dump the C/P section from your mind because not doing so can only distract you. Most importantly, regardless of how difficult the CARS section is on exam day, trust your practice and remember that it's all standardized.