Three CARS strategies I don't recommend

by Gabe

After working on CARS with hundreds of students, I’ve found that there are some really common strategies that don’t seem to work that well.

I’m sure they work for somebody, but for most people they often seem to be counterproductive.

Sidenote: this is also the danger in trying to copy your CARS strategy from those posts on reddit with titles like “I got a 132 in CARS and here’s how you can too!”. A lot of the time, people who get super high CARS scores can get away with using really bizarre strategies because they just have very, very good reading comprehension skills. They score well in spite of their strategy, not because of it.

That’s also why I don’t just try to get you to copy my CARS approach for yourself. Everything I tell you is tested on students. Some of it matches what I do, but some of it doesn’t!

#1 — Triaging the passages

The thought behind triaging the passages is that you should save the hardest passages for last on the CARS section and do the easier ones first. That means you’d spend a few minutes at the start of the section going through all the passages and deciding which ones to do now, and which ones to do later.

This is a great idea in theory, but it doesn’t turn out so well in practice.

Primarily because: you can’t tell which passages are the most difficult when you first look at them.

Sometimes you get a really tough reading with easy questions, and sometimes you get an easy reading with crazy difficult questions.

Haven’t you ever been lulled into a false sense of security by an easy reading only to be whacked in the face by the most difficult questions the AAMC could come up with?

Or vice versa…you might get a passage on the philosophical analysis of Lacanian themes in mid-20th century abstract art, and you’re thinking “Remind me why this section determines my med school chances?” but then it turns out the questions are relatively simple and you do fine.

So, point being: you can try to triage the passages, but it doesn’t generally turn out that well. Usually you end up wasting a few minutes at the beginning of the section without it helping you much overall.

#2 — Previewing the questions

Previewing the questions means reading the questions before you start reading the passage. 

So why is this bad?

Okay, first of all, be honest with yourself…

If you preview the questions, how much do you really remember from them?

For me, the answer would be very little! If you haven’t read the passage yet, then the questions don’t mean a whole lot. So you tend to just remember little shreds of information.

In general, what you’ll remember is just a detail or two. For example, you might remember that there was a question asking you what the author meant by “deconstructionism”. So you get to paragraph 3 and the author says “deconstructionism” and you go “Hey, here’s the word! Better pay attention!

And sure…maybe it helps you for that one question. But on the negative side, it means you’re focusing too much on that one detail when you’re reading. And your number one goal in reading a CARS passage is to get the main idea without getting too caught up in the details. When your brain is triggered by that one word, you’ll be too focused on that detail and not focused enough on the main idea. It’s not a huge effect, but it will make a difference.

Add onto that the fact that previewing the questions takes up a good amount of time, and it starts to look like a pretty unappealing strategy.

To summarize:

  • It eats up valuable time
  • You don’t remember much
  • What you do remember will be small details, which distract you from getting the main idea

#3 — Highlighting details

If you highlight on CARS passages, think about how you do it.

Do you highlight a lot of details, like individual words, names, or dates? Are you using your highlighting mostly to flag things you think you might want to refer back to for the questions?

If so, I think you’re not using highlighting in the most effective way.

I said this for the last point, but it’s important so I’ll say it again: Your number one goal when reading a CARS passage is to get the main idea without getting too caught up in the details.

Highlighting a lot of details works against this goal. It pulls your focus away from the main idea. It might make it a bit easier for those detail questions where you have to refer back to the passage, but in general it’s going to hurt you because you won’t be as effective in getting the main idea.

Here’s how I recommend you highlight instead:

  1. Don’t highlight while you’re still reading a paragraph, since at that point you don’t know yet what’s important
  2. After you finish reading the paragraph, highlight just one key point from the paragraph. (Sometimes two points are okay if it’s a longer paragraph).
  3. The piece you highlight should be a complete thought (i.e. not just one or two words). But it also shouldn’t be anything crazy long. Roughly one sentence is usually the right length.

Essentially this means that you should use highlighting as an outlining tool, not a reference tool.

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