How To Master Timing for the MCAT
You’ve worked your way through all the content required for the MCAT. You’ve started learning how the AAMC wants you to think on test day. Maybe you’ve even gone through our FREE MCAT prep course! But despite all of these accomplishments, you still can’t get a handle on the timing for some or all of the sections on the MCAT. We are here to help! While we can’t fix timing issues overnight, here are 4 tricks to help with time management for the MCAT.
For the CARS section, you will be given 90 minutes to complete 53 questions and 95 minutes to complete 59 questions for the other three science sections (this is changed if you are taking the COVID-length MCAT). On test-day, a timer will be counting down in the upper right-hand corner to show you how much time you have remaining. This can be both a blessing and a curse. For some of us, it aids in adjusting our test-taking speed in real-time. But for most of us, the timer just adds unnecessary stress. Stress can even slow us down by paralyzing some students in fear! Therefore, it becomes critical to use the timer as a valuable resource, without it becoming a distraction.
A good sweet spot is to look at the timer at three critical points during the test and forget it for the rest. For the science sections, optimal pacing can be broken down to completing 20 questions every 30 minutes. This can be translated to test day by glancing at the clock after you have completed 20, 40, and 59 questions. After 20 questions, you should see that you have 1 hour and 5 minutes left. After 40 you should see 35 minutes left. For CARS, there are 9 passages and so you should complete 3 passages every 30 minutes. If you have more or less time at these waypoints, this will dictate your pacing for the rest of the section.
COVID adjustments: Just practice with the same pace! Try to complete 20 science questions or 3 CARS passages in 30 minutes.
Too little time?
If you find yourself falling behind the ideal testing pace, there are a few things that you can do. The bottom line is that you ultimately need to find a strategy that works best for you. Will you read the passages faster? Answer questions relying more on your gut instincts? Skip an entire passage to focus on the others instead (not recommended if trying to score 510+)? Try all of these methods out in practice sessions and choose the one that feels the most natural for you. No matter how far behind you are… still take the time to read the question stems slowly. The questions themselves are the most important piece of each passage and understanding them properly will yield the most points possible in a time crunch.
Too much time?
Less than 5 minutes of extra time? Spend these extra seconds focusing on 1 or 2 problems that you needed extra time on. Don’t try to skim through all of your flagged questions.
5 minutes of extra time? Try to skim through all of your flagged questions and focus on the few hardest questions for you. In general, it makes much more sense to spend an extra 30 seconds in the initial read of the question while your brain has been synthesizing the information at hand. Don’t just flag every hard question to come back to later. Splitting up the time will force you to restart your thought processes and it limits your effectiveness (although occasionally your brain will gain new insights subconsciously in the while working through other problems).
10-15 minutes of extra time? Use this time to double-check every. single. question. Don’t take the time to redo every problem, just check to make sure each choice answered the right question. Your primary job is to catch dumb mistakes like missing negative modifiers in the question stems (NOT/LEAST/WEAKENS etc).
20-25 minutes of extra time? Run through every question again while also pausing to re-solve difficult and flagged questions. Perhaps you would benefit from reading passages and questions more carefully when working through them for the first time.
30+ minutes of extra time? This usually only applies to quick test-takers on the Behavioral Sciences section. If you usually finish with TONS of time to spare, you need to slooooooow yourself down. We know that you’re tired. We know that you’ve been sitting for 7 hours and just want to see your MCAT score. But practice test-taking conditions. Take the extra time to double-check every answer the first time. Read slowly and read every word of the passage. Try to finish with only 20 minutes to spare. This will bump your score up by at least a point or two.
To practice timing, consider doing blocks of 20 science questions in 30 minutes. Do 40 questions in an hour. Practice your pacing with practice questions. Most students read the passage too quickly in order to get to the questions, but then spend too much time on the questions because they didn’t understand the passage! Break that cycle by reading slowly and then gradually speed up. Practice the controlled rush. Practice endurance as well by doing 12 CARS passages in 2 hours. Do 80 science questions in 2 hours. From there, a normal MCAT section should feel familiar.
If you are still struggling with timing, don’t be hesitant to reach out to us for private tutoring options. All of our tutors went through the same struggles that you are experiencing. We would be happy to share our expertise! If you have any questions about timing, shoot me a message using the link at the bottom of my tutoring page! I scored a perfect 528 and I would be happy to share any knowledge that I have!
Theo Bennett scored a perfect score (528) on the MCAT and has been accepted at Harvard, UPenn, Columbia, UCLA, and other top 10 medical schools across the country. You can learn more and sign up to work with him one-on-one here.
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