The real skill of CARS

by Gabe Ladd

Imagine this: you’re an ER doctor and a patient comes in complaining of severe chest pain.

Now you have to decide — is this person having a heart attack? Are we going to admit them to the coronary care unit?

There’s a lot of info you can look at. Family history, the patient’s age, cholesterol, hypertension, etc.

But ultimately, you won’t know for sure whether the patient is having a heart attack. And yet you still have to make a decision.

In order to deal with these types of situations you have to be good at:

…confidently making a decision
…under pressure
…with limited information

And what I want to suggest is that these are the same skills that the AAMC is trying to test with the CARS section.

Students often come to me with the impression that doing well on CARS is all about reading the passages until you understand them perfectly and then thinking about the questions until you’re totally confident on the answers.

In other words, they’re looking for 100% certainty before choosing their answers. But I don’t know any high-scorers who operate this way.

Instead most CARS high-scorers aim to get a decent understanding of the passage, trying to just get the gist of it. Then for the questions, their goal is to make a confident guess.

Students who aren’t scoring well in CARS (yet) will say things like: “This answer sounds good, but I’m not sure if this is right. So I’m not going to pick it.”

On the other hand, students who are scoring well in CARS will say things like: “I’m not 100% sure, but this answer sounds good to me. So I AM going to pick it.”

See the difference?

The high-scorer is able to confidently make a decision in spite of having very limited information.

The low-scorer will get stuck on the question, spend too much time, and overthink it (often leading to them getting it wrong).

So you need to change your mindset.

Don’t approach CARS like you need to know all the answers. Instead approach it as an exercise that lets you practice the skill of: confidently making decisions with limited information in high pressure scenarios.

I’m suggesting this because I know CARS can feel pretty silly a lot of the time. Why do you have to read all these boring, obscure passages to become a doctor? What’s the relevance of answering weird questions about Picasso’s artistic development?

If instead you approach it as practice for decision making, then I think it can feel a little less pointless.