How Should I Time Myself on the MCAT? 5 Essential Tips

Posted by Eden on 12/16/16 5:44 PM

timing.jpgHigh on many students’ list of MCAT worries is running out of time. While time-management is an essential skill that you will need to master by exam day, it doesn’t need to be a big source of anxiety. Here are some tips for finishing your MCAT exam with time to spare!

1. Ask yourself whether content, rather than timing, is the issue.

For many students, what initially appears to be a timing issue is actually a content issue. If you are struggling with timing early on in your test prep this is likely the case. In fact, when you are first prepping for the test it might be a good idea not to worry about timing at all. Once you know your  science content down pat  you can rule out content knowledge as a cause for the timing issue. At this point If you are still struggling to finish sections on time, read on...

2. Slow down!

It may initially seem like the best way to avoid running out of time is to read passages and questions more quickly. In fact, the opposite is often the case! Flying through passages and questions is going to increase the chance that you will make a careless mistake (that you may lose time correcting), or that you will need to read the same passage or question a second time (which will really slow you down). Once you have the content down, the MCAT is a lot like a science reading comprehension test. Reading each passage carefully and thoroughly the first time will spare you having to go back and reference the passage multiple times because your comprehension was poor.

3. Outline

Passage based questions make up a majority of the MCAT. There are lots of ways to handle the passage (you might even some good approaches in previous blog posts). Outlining is one time-saving approach that has worked really well for me and many other students. Outlining is useful because it helps you hold yourself honest to rule number two (slow down!). I have found that it can also help students stay calm and focused--it is easy to let your mind wander while reading passages (as they read, students often start worrying about the next section or what their score will be)  but this wastes valuable time. Outlining as you go will force you to stay checked in and ensure that you keep using those important reading comprehension skills. Your outline should be short and sweet (3-7 words, or even better--abbreviations). For example:

P1 (paragraph 1): Enzymes cat. (catalyze) rxns

P2 (paragraph 2): Lactase = lactose brkdwn (breakdown)

Your outline is also important for timing because it gives you a guide to the passage you just read. If I were to come across a question on lactose breakdown I would know to reference paragraph 2 instead of skimming the entire passage!

4. Be comfortable bailing on slow questions. 

Every MCAT student has come across a question that totally stumps them. Maybe it requires a complex calculation, or it covers subject matter that you aren’t as comfortable with. That is totally normal. What is really important is knowing when to bail when a question is taking too much time. This will vary for different students, but in general if you are stuck on a question for more than a minute and a half to two minutes pick an answer, mark the question, and let yourself move on. This is harder than it sounds, especially for those questions that you know you can do with just a couple more minutes of effort. While it can be tempting to stay and struggle through a tough question, it is important to remember that your goal is to maximize points in a fixed amount of time, not to get every question right. If it turns out that you have extra time, you can always come back to those questions!

5. Answer every question! 

In the event that you do run out of time on a section, make sure to still answer every single question. If you come across a question that stumps you, be sure to mark it but still select an answer choice in case you don’t have time to come back to it. Even if you aren’t able to finish a section, leave yourself a few minutes at the end to go through and select an answer choice for every unanswered question. You have a 25% chance of getting each question right (remember there is no penalty for guessing on the MCAT) and a 0% chance if you leave the question blank!

Following these tips will help you move through each section more efficiently and leave you more time to review your answers (or to take a much deserved breather!) Make sure to follow these guidelines every time you practice so that they are second nature on test day. Good luck!

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Want more study tips on the MCAT from one of our New York or Cambridge MCAT tutors?  Read additional blog posts below!

Two Study Habits That Will Boost Your MCAT Score

How to Select Your MCAT Test Prep Resources

Planning Your MCAT Study Schedule