The ProspectiveDoctor Podcast

Podcast Episode 18: CARS Strategies with Nick Zehner

Today’s guest is Nick Zehner, a Stanford medical student and the founder of Testing Solutions. Testing Solutions provides studying resources for the Critical Analysis and Reading Skills (CARS) section of the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). He took a unique path to becoming a medical student, first obtaining a master’s degree in religious philosophy.

Nick tells us about Testing Solutions, including why he created it and why it is helpful for students. Many students find the CARS section the most difficult section, so Nick gives advice on what to do in preparation for it. He even recommends resources besides his own. Nick also shares what his med school experience has been like in the context of going a non-traditional route and speaks about the mental challenges of preparing for CARS.

[1:18] Welcoming Nick Zehner to the show.

Nick was born in Indiana and grew up in a small town, also attending college there. He got into the Peace Corps (and got stationed in the Dominican Republic), ended up doing a master’s degree in religious philosophy, and then began medical school at Stanford. This should give hope to anyone who has taken or wants to take a non-traditional approach to medical school.

Currently, Nick is in Uganda for one year doing research on malaria. He thinks he eventually wants to go into internal medicine but is not completely sure yet.

[4:10] Testing Solutions.

When Nick was preparing for the MCAT, he felt that there was a paucity of strong CARS practice materials and guides. With his major in philosophy, Nick liked these kinds of skills, while also hearing from his pre-med student friends that the CARS section was the most difficult. It consists of skills that didn’t get honed and developed in traditional classrooms. Nick says that when he started developing his program, Testing Solutions, to help with this, he didn’t expect it to have the offering or reach that it has now.

Nick thinks that the biggest reason that the CARS section is particularly difficult because of the 90-minute time limit imposed upon it. He feels that most students would do quite well if they had an unlimited amount of time to complete the section. The second biggest reason is that students don’t spend enough time reading content that is from outside of sciences.

[10:27] Nick’s Advice for the CARS Section.

The number one thing is giving yourself enough time in advance of your test. Most students have a three-month dedicated study period, but Nick advocates for adding a fourth month at the beginning and using that to start thinking about CARS. This can be used to determine your strengths and weaknesses. If you can get started with CARS in the first month, then you have three more months to do practice passages and review. While there are things you can do to make quick jumps in your score, most students find that their improvement is gradual.

Another very important skill is letting go of the hardest questions. There are usually six or seven questions that are extremely difficult. There is a huge difference between people who spend one or two minutes on a difficult question, give it their best guess, and come back to it if they have time, and someone who is less experienced, spends six or seven minutes on it, and rushes through the rest of the test, thus leaving behind some easy marks.

Finally, Nick believes in stair-stepping the passages. It’s hard to do nine CARS passages in a row, so Nick recommends that his students start small and gradually work into large study sessions. Over time, students will build up more stamina.

[15:19] Studying resources for CARS.

Testing Solutions has 14 full-length practice tests along with a few extra passages, so their library now has 130 cars passages. Additionally, they will be publishing even more practice tests soon.

AAMC’s material is a must-read for any person taking an MCAT test. They should spend a lot of time studying it. However, the worst thing you could do is use your AAMC practice materials and make silly mistakes because then you’ve wasted the best material. Therefore, Nick recommends finding a company that you can trust and use their material to get started, shifting to AAMC once you have gotten more used to the type of thinking required for CARS.

Anybody can put up materials and sell them, so it can be hard to know who to trust. Nick recommends resources that have a history because objective opinions can easily be found online about them from other students, rather than just listening to someone trying to sell you something.

[19:00] How Med School is Going for Nick.

Nick thought that it was going to be hard, and he says that it is even harder than he thought. However, Nick says that it is even cooler than he thought it would be as well. He loves being able to meet with patients and apply what he is learning. It’s great to see things learned in a textbook, which can seem a bit abstract, affecting a real person’s life.

The biggest difference that Nick has noticed is that he thought he would have no time to focus on anything besides his studies. He recommends that if students have a choice in universities that they think hard about which one they want to spend a lot of time at. Nick found that Stanford really aligned with his values, pace of life, and variety of interests. He used to think that all med schools were the same.

When applying to schools, Nick found that he had better results at schools that were more in-line with his personality. He didn’t do too well regarding wait lists and rejects at schools that weren’t.

[25:25] Last Words for Students Tacking CARS.

There’s a lot of mental head games that go into this section, but the reality is that Nick hasn’t met or worked with a student yet that he didn’t think could get a good score. Students just need the right ingredients and time. There are no shortcuts. It might seem like a long journey, but before you know it, you’re done the MCAT and you’re on to applications. Don’t be discouraged and believe that you can do it.

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