Getting their MCAT timing right is one of the biggest obstacles that students face during their MCAT prep. As you’re figuring out how to study for the MCAT, make sure you allocate some time for understanding and practicing time management strategies for each of the different MCAT sections. With adequate preparation and the right strategies, you’ll soon find yourself able to comfortably finish the exam in the given time.
In this article, we’ll go over the importance of MCAT timing for your MCAT test prep strategy, how much time you should spend on each session, general time-saving tips, as well as specific strategies to improve your MCAT timing for the different sections.
Want us to help you? Applicants and students, book a free strategy call here. Universities, businesses, or student organizations representative, book a free call here.
Listen to the blog!
Why is MCAT Timing Important?
If you’re an aspiring medical student, you probably already know how long the MCAT is and that it’s one of the toughest professional school entrance exams. It might seem paradoxical to believe that you could run out of time to complete a 7.5 hour long exam – but that’s how it often is with the MCAT! Though this exam does not include any long, written components, it does include many complex passage-based questions, and if you don’t develop the right strategies to tackle these, you could find yourself racing the clock again and again in your MCAT practice sessions. That’s why working on your MCAT timing is a critical aspect of your MCAT prep, along with knowing the foundational concepts for the MCAT and building your reasoning and critical analysis skills.
Timing Shouldn’t Be Your First Priority In Your Preparation
Having said that, we do want to make one thing clear: working on your timing should not be the first priority during MCAT prep. What’s the point of finishing the MCAT in time if you’re consistently getting over half the questions wrong? That would be an inefficient and counterintuitive strategy! You will need to learn concepts like how to review MCAT CARS and strategies for improving MCAT reading comprehension.
What Should Come First In My Preparation?
How hard is the MCAT? It’s very difficult, which means you’ll have to prioritize the right things in your preparation. The first thing you should do is complete your MCAT diagnostic test. This will help you decide what you need to work when you start studying. Just make sure you’ve finished your prerequisite coursework.
Your MCAT study schedule should focus on building a solid foundation of all the scientific knowledge and critical skills required for the MCAT. Before you make your schedule, consider MCAT test dates so that you can plan and organize your time more precisely. Familiarize yourself with the test format, how to identify different types of questions, and how to correctly reason through and find the answers. Once you have a clear schedule lined up, you can start personalizing your prep. For this, you should know your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re struggling with reading CARS passage, you might develop a CARS strategy for slow readers.
Want to see some of our top MCAT timing tips summarized? Check out this infographic:
When Should I Start to Worry About My MCAT timing?
Even if you find that in your initial MCAT diagnostic test and early practice tests, you’re taking a lot longer than the official exam time, don’t worry about it too much. You’ll find that your speed improves naturally over time with practice. In fact, we recommend that you don’t even bother timing yourself until you’re able to consistently identify the different question types and correctly answer questions. Once you’ve mastered the concepts and skills that the MCAT tests you on, you can then focus on learning strategies to improve your speed. In that way, you won’t end up learning any incorrect strategies that prioritize speed over accuracy.
Your timing is a correlated with a good MCAT score, which is why there’s so much emphasis on it. But to get an idea of the score you need to get into the school of your choice, you will have to do some research. Look at medical school acceptances rates and specifically at how each school interprets MCAT scores. Some will look at multiple scores, while others will only consider your most recent, for example.
What Sections are on the MCAT?
How long you should spend on each question depends on which section you’re completing and the question type you’re handling. You should spend about 9 minutes for each passage in the science sections and 10 minutes per passage for the MCAT CARS section. Of this time, spend about 5 minutes reading and the remaining time answering questions. That gives you an average of about 1 minute and 37 seconds for each passage-based question.
For the discrete questions, don’t spend more than a minute per question.
Strategies for Improving Passage Analysis in MCAT Science Sections
Because the MCAT largely consists of passages, you will need to have a good strategy for interpreting them. Highlighting, taking notes, or summarizing passages can be great ways to engage with the content. Going through the paragraph and finding key information will help you understand the author’s opinions or arguments better so that you can respond. For science questions, you might highlight a chemical formula, points on a diagram or graph, and certain findings from the figures mentioned in the passages. You might not need to refer back to the notes or highlights, but it’s still a great way to keep you focused on what’s important as you read the passages, which can be lengthy and require attention to detail. You should look specifically at keywords – things that jump out at you right away that can help you extract the most important information. If the passage discusses an experiment, the key terms you would highlight include variables, the hypothesis, the research question, etc.
The online MCAT contains some functions that allow you to highlight or strikethrough text. To highlight text, you can just click and drag the cursor over the text, releasing where you want the highlight to finish. To strikethrough answers, you can click over the text. Once you highlight part of the passage, you can press Alt+H to highlight it, or Alt+S is for strikethrough. You can also use Alt+F to flag questions while you work so you can return to them later.
#2: Contextualize the Information
This is an important part of interpretating questions with graphs or diagrams. Many science passages will include a graphic representation of data or the relationship between two variables, but not every question will refer to the graphs. If you’re having trouble interpreting a graph, and the question doesn’t ask you about it directly, then you don’t need to waste precious minutes and seconds trying to figure it out. Science passages are long and often include visuals that don’t often help you answer the question. You have to parse the information and highlight what’s important. However, graphs will sometimes make it easier for you to understand the crux of the passage, saving you time trying to read through all the information.
Want to know how to increase your MCAT score? Watch this video:
#3: What Should I Do If I Don’t Understand the Passage?
- Look for keywords. Sometimes, when you don’t understand a passage, you will have to break it down into its basic parts. Look for keywords that you recognize. Starting with the basic concepts can help you remember key information from your review so that you can continue to build enough an understanding of other key points in the passage to answer the question.
- Remain calm. If you come across passages that you don’t understand, remain calm. The MCAT contains many questions that are often difficult to interpret on a first reading. Try your best to extract key information and mark the question as more difficult before moving onto the next question. If you start to dwell on information that you simply can’t understand, you’re wasting time and energy that you could put toward answering another question.
- Go to the next question. If you aren’t confident in your ability to answer a certain question, sometimes the best thing you can do is to move on to the next one. Keep in mind that if you decide to skip, you should at least have a placeholder answer so that if you don’t have enough time at the end to go back, you’ll at least have something down.
- Eliminate wrong answers. There are a variety of ways you can approach eliminating wrong answers. For example, if you’re dealing with questions that show an experimental design with a graphic representation of the results, you can look at the units expressed in each of the answers and work backwards to get a better estimate of what the answer might be. You can also eliminate answers by looking at how they are similar or different. For example, if three questions involve the oxidation of two specific compounds, but the other concerns enzyme inhibition, you can make the case that this might be an important distinction and a clue for what the correct answer is. To use the process of elimination, you can start by looking at information you know confidently is incorrect; you can eliminate those answers immediately. Second, if an answer clearly doesn’t relate to information provided in the passage, this is an indication it’s not the right answer. The AAMC will often obfuscate just to make you think or confuse you; if information is obscure and doesn’t actually make sense, you can eliminate these answers as well.
#4: How Do I Save Time When Interpreting Graphs?
You must know how to read MCAT graphs in order to work efficiently through the MCAT. Visuals like graphs and tables are common components of the passages you will find on the MCAT. It’s important to know how to interpret these accordingly so that you can save time and understand how you can use them to determine the correct answer to science questions. Here are a few things to keep in mind when interpreting graphs:
- Start with the title and headings. The first place you should look when interpreting graphs is the title. Oftentimes, instead of a header, you might see something like “figure 1: effects of glycolytic inhibition on intracellular Na+ and K+.” Looking at this information puts the graph in context so that you can interpret it quickly and easily.
- Find the right information in the passage. Most of the time, if you start by trying to understand the graph without first reading the passage, it will be more difficult to understand what’s going on. If, however, you locate pertinent information needed to understand the graph, you can usually expedite the time it takes for you to review the graph and answer the question.
- Highlight the units. Make sure you take note of the units you’re working with. These will be important for eliminating answers and if you have to do any calculations. In the passage, you can also highlight the units used so that you can coordinate answers with what’s presented in the data.
Struggling to prepare for the MCAT Chemistry Section in particular? Take a look at these tips:
Strategies For Improving Your Speed in the MCAT Science Sections
The MCAT Biology, MCAT Chemistry, and MCAT Psychology sections test your knowledge of scientific concepts as well as your ability to analyze that knowledge, apply concepts to external data, and synthesize different data. It’s not enough to just rely on your rote memorization of key concepts to get you through these sections. The science passage-based questions require you to apply content you may already know but in an unexpected way. If you don’t know the right strategies to tackle different types of questions and identify the answers, you’ll find yourself struggling to finish these sections in time. Here are some section-specific strategies to help you improve your speed:
#1: Active Learning
The MCAT largely consists of passage-based questions, which require you to use your pre-existing knowledge with the information presented in the passage and apply your abilities to find the answer. The science sections also include discrete questions that test you on your ability to quickly recall background information. Even for these questions, instant recall, or mere rote memorization of key MCAT concepts, is not enough on its own. Instead, during your MCAT prep, focus on “active learning,” that is, trying to understand the concepts as well as committing them to memory. That way, you won’t waste time during the exam trying to understand concepts or connect the dots, and you can get right to finding the answer. To implement active learning, try repeating concepts in your own words, teaching them to a friend, drawing visuals, creating flashcards, and so on.
#2: Identify Question Types
In your practice sessions, make sure you learn strategies to identify the different question types and understand the most logically structured methods to find the answer as quickly as possible. Practice applying these strategies until they come to you naturally during your mock exams. These strategies help you save crucial time in science questions, which are often dense and highly technical.
There are essentially two types of questions in the science MCAT sections: passage-based questions that require you to return to the passage and find the answer and discrete questions for which you need to rely on your pre-existing knowledge. However, discrete questions could be included with passage-based questions, which is what causes confusion for students and is a major source of delay during the test. If you haven’t honed your ability to quickly identify which type of question you’re facing, you could easily waste precious minutes scouring the passage looking for an answer that simply isn’t there.
Want BeMo's help with your MCAT prep? Listen to one of our student success stories:
#3: Efficiently Reading the Passage and Questions
Consider the following rules to help you read passages more efficiently:
- In science passage-based questions, it’s important to read the question carefully, but without wasting time getting bogged down with too many details in the passage.
- Read the passage quickly and move on to the questions.
- If something in the passage is confusing, don’t waste time trying to figure it out right away. Come back to it later if it’s relevant for a question.
- A passage may have lots of confusing information and complex topics, but you don’t necessarily have time to understand all of them.
- Remember, you should be done with reading the passage in 5 minutes. Let the questions guide you about which parts of the passage to spend more time analyzing and dissecting.
- Highlight key phrases in the passage as you read it (your prior knowledge of science concepts should help you here): try to identify the main point of the passage and the key evidence presented, as well as the main point of each paragraph within the passage.
- Look for sentences that identify any of the following: objective of the experiment, experimental controls, hypothesis, variables, and results. When you’re practicing, you should get into the habit of structuring your reading process in this way, so that it’s easy, quick, and natural during the actual exam. The passages are often 4 or more paragraphs long with lots of information presented. By summarizing the information in your notes, you can avoid having to waste time re-reading it multiple times when you’re looking for the answers.
The Importance of a Good Speed Strategy
Remember that there’s such a thing as “decision fatigue” that might set in, especially for the last two sections. After having already spent hours answering difficult questions, when faced with yet another tricky one, your brain might freeze up, or alternatively, it might go into over-thinking mode. Either way, this could mean you simply can’t think of the answer. If this happens, just take a deep breath and flag the question for later. Remember, one incorrect answer isn’t going to ruin your MCAT score, but if you spend too much bogged down in one passage or one question, you could end up with very little time to spend on the remaining questions. Even if you randomly select any answer, you have a 25% chance of getting it right, and you can then focus on getting the right answers for the next passage.
Strategies for Improving Passage Analysis in the MCAT CARS Section
Unlike the other sections, MCAT CARS does not test the students’ pre-existing knowledge of any one area of study. Instead, you’re given information-dense passages and asked questions that require you to use your critical thinking, analysis, and reasoning skills. All the information to answer the question is provided in the passage itself, which often leads students to believe this is an easy section of the MCAT that does not require much preparation. That’s simply not true – you need several weeks, if not months, of preparation time to build the critical thinking skills required to tackle CARS questions. In fact, many students find this the most challenging section due to its unique requirements. One of the biggest challenges is figuring out the right MCAT CARS strategy to complete the questions in time – many students are confused by the question format or sudden influx of totally unfamiliar information in the passages, and this impacts their timing. Below are some section-specific strategies to help you improve your MCAT CARS score and speed.
How to Approach CARS Passages
Many students are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new, unfamiliar, and often confusingly worded information presented in the MCAT CARS passages. Thankfully, there are strategies you can use to navigate some of the difficult concepts you encounter in this section:
- Don’t get bogged down by the details. The key to navigating this obstacle is not to waste too much time getting bogged down by details such as confusing vocabulary, complex sentence structure, and unfamiliar concepts. Just remember the expectation here – you’re not supposed to be an expert on this topic! So, don’t worry if you don’t understand a specific word, phrase, or concept – just note the key overall theme or argument of the passage, as well as the key theme and evidence presented in each paragraph, and then move on to the questions. Don’t waste time trying to understand each and every difficult concept you see.
- Identify the main point. As you’re reading the passage, focus on identifying the main point the author is trying to make. Break the entire passage down into a single sentence or shorter and note that down. Additionally, highlight key “supporting sentences,” that is, sentences in which the author has voiced their point of view or presented important supporting evidence for the main theme of the passage.
- Identify the type of passage. Also, try to identify the type of passage: is it comparing and contrasting two themes, studies, ideas, opinions, etc.? Is it a list of points? Is it an extended metaphor? All these notes will be very useful for you when you return to the passage to find the answers to specific questions. Instead of having to re-read the complex passage in its entirety, you can refer to your notes to recap the key points.
Studying for MCAT CARS? Check out this video:
Strategies for individual questions
Unlike the other sections, MCAT CARS does not test the students’ pre-existing knowledge of any one area of study. Instead, you’re given information-dense passages and asked questions that require you to use your critical thinking, analysis, and reasoning skills. All the information to answer the question is provided in the passage itself, which often leads students to believe this is an easy section of the MCAT that does not require much preparation. That’s simply not true – you need several weeks, if not months, of preparation time to build the critical thinking skills required to tackle CARS questions. In fact, many students find this the most challenging section because of its unique requirements. One of the biggest challenges is figuring out the right MCAT CARS strategy to complete the questions in time – many students are confused by the question format or sudden influx of totally unfamiliar information in the passages, and this impacts their timing. Here, I lay out some section-specific strategies to help you improve your MCAT CARS score and speed.
Strategies for Improving Your Speed in the MCAT CARS Section
#1: Active Learning
While the MCAT CARS doesn’t require systematic study of any one subject area, you do need to spend a significant amount of time reading challenging passages and vocabulary in literary works, philosophical books, and humanities and social science articles and journals. The more you read, the more you’ll develop your ability to quickly parse complex information.
The key here is to focus on “active reading.” Engage with the material and treat it as you should be treating your MCAT CARS passages. For every paragraph, summarize the main points and understand what the author is saying and what the evidence is. Consistently doing this every day over a period of a few weeks can tremendously improve your ability to read through complex and unfamiliar passages and quickly find the key information. Without this ability, you might find yourself taking much longer than 5 minutes to read and understand each passage in the MCAT CARS section.
#2: Identify Question Types
Learning how to identify the different passage types and question types is crucial for MCAT CARS. Passages can be of two types: about 50% of CARS passages are related to humanities subjects, like literature, philosophy, ethics, art, and history, and 50% are social sciences, like psychology, sociology, economics, and politics. The questions for each passage can also be of different types:
Just like for the science sections, knowing the question type helps you identify the right approach for each question. For example, with a “foundations of comprehension” type question, you know you’re looking for some information stated in the passage. But for the “reasoning outside the text” question, you will need to use your critical thinking to understand the application of an idea presented in the passage and thus arrive at the answer. During your mock tests, make sure you practice identifying the question type and applying the relevant strategies to quickly answer each question.
Determining the type of question and reading passages effectively is a skill you must learn. However, people learn at different rates, and many will need to consider hiring an MCAT CARS tutor to help them develop this skill during preparation. If this is an area you’re consistently struggling with, you can also consider using an MCAT CARS prep course.
Are you interested in learning more strategies to help you ace the MCAT CARS section? Check this out:
Some General Time-Saving Tips for the MCAT
1. Practice In a Timed Environment
When you start doing practice MCAT tests, it’s natural to take longer than the recommended time, and your focus should be on mastering the content, not timing. But once you start feeling confident about the content, you should start slowly getting used to the timed environment. A good strategy is to complete practice tests in simulated test-like conditions where you time yourself. Make sure you practice with realistic MCAT-style passages with a high level of difficulty and a variety of questions. This will help you get into the habit of keeping an eye on the time while also working through tough questions with full focus. Don’t worry if you find this a little difficult at first – with enough practice sessions, this will become more natural and almost automatic. Make sure you come up with a good strategy to check your timing. You can opt to check the clock after every passage (i.e., after every 9.5 minutes approximately), or if you find this disruptive, then set timed milestones. For instance, you can include a time check every 30 minutes to ensure you’re on track.
2. Strategic Ordering
Before you begin answering questions in any section, spend a minute scanning each of the passages and ranking them by difficulty. For example, in MCAT science sections, you might rate questions about topics you’re most familiar with as the easiest. In general, questions with graphs and charts take a little longer to read and comprehend, so those might be considered more difficult. Then, start with the easiest passages and work your way through to the hardest. All questions are weighted the same in terms of scoring, so it makes sense to prioritize the ones you have the best chance of getting right. However, make sure you don’t spend more than a minute or two on this activity.
3. Figure Out Your Answer Before Looking at the Multiple Choice Options
No matter the question type – whether you’re facing discrete MCAT Biology questions or passage-based MCAT Chemistry questions – always try and come up with your own answer (in your own words) before looking at the answer options. This helps you cut through the confusion of options that may be trickily worded, eliminate incorrect options, and quickly identify the answer that most closely matches what you already thought of.
Armed with these time-saving strategies, you will definitely be able to tackle the punishing pace of the MCAT. And though there is a lot of stress associated with completing this exam, you should know that there are options for you to improve your score. If necessary, you can consider medical schools that don’t require the MCAT or one of the easiest medical schools to get into. This is not to discourage you from trying your best on the MCAT, but it’s a reminder that there’s always a way to strategize and optimize your chances of acceptance.
On the other hand, most medical students will need to face this exam, regardless of how challenging it is, and the strategies we propose in this article will certainly help to bring you one step closer to fulfilling your medical school dream!
1. How much time do I have to complete the different MCAT sections?
You have 90 minutes to complete the MCAT CARS section and 95 minutes for the MCAT Biology, MCAT Chemistry, and MCAT Psychology sections.
2. How many questions do I need to answer in the MCAT exam?
The MCAT has 230 questions. The MCAT Chemistry, Biology, and Psychology sections each have 10 passages with 4 to 6 questions per passage as well as 15 “discrete” questions that are unrelated to the passage, for a total of 59 total questions per section. The MCAT CARS section includes 9 passages with 5 to 7 questions per passage, with a total of 53 questions for this section.
3. How much time should I spend reading the MCAT passages and answering each MCAT question?
You should spend an average of 9.5 minutes per passage in the MCAT. For the MCAT science sections, you should spend about 9 minutes, and for the MCAT CARS section, you should spend no more than 10 minutes. Of this time, 5 minutes should be spent reading the passage, and the rest of the time should be devoted to the questions. The individual time allocated for specific passage-based questions can vary from between 1 to 2 minutes. For discrete questions, spend no more than a minute answering the question.
4. How can I improve my speed for the MCAT CARS section?
To improve your MCAT CARS speed, focus on “active reading” during your MCAT prep, so that you build the skills to quickly read through complex materials and summarize the key points. While practicing, make sure you get into the habit of identifying the key themes of each paragraph you read. Don’t waste too much time trying to understand every aspect of the passage, but make sure you read the questions carefully and let them guide you toward which part of the passage to analyze in more detail. If you get stuck on a difficult question, don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over the answer. Just identify the closest “right” answer and move on to the next question or passage.
5. How can I improve my speed for the MCAT science sections?
Make sure, during your MCAT prep, that you go beyond memorization to actively understand the scientific concepts you’re learning about. Most MCAT science questions ask you to not only recall information but also test your understanding of it. When reading the passage, make sure you highlight key phrases and make a note of critical information, such as the objective of the experiment, experimental controls, hypothesis, variables, and results. When looking at questions, let the question type guide you on the right strategy to find the answer. For discrete questions, don’t waste time re-reading any passage. For passage-based questions, return to the passage and your notes and identify the answer. Don’t waste too much time on any one question or passage. Instead, keep moving through the test, devoting roughly the same amount of time to each passage.
6. Is there any MCAT section I should spend more time on?
You won’t have the option to make this decision! MCAT sections are timed individually, which means you must complete and submit one section in the given time before being allowed to start the next section. You don’t have the option to return to a previous section once it’s submitted. Additionally, all questions are weighted the same when calculating the final score.
7. Is it a waste of time to take notes during the MCAT exam?
No! In fact, the AAMC provides note-taking materials during the MCAT, and we recommend you make full use of these materials. You should be highlighting the key phrases in each passage as you read it and also noting the key themes, hypothesis, evidence, and arguments in each paragraph. That will help you save a lot of time when answering questions, as you will have a handy “guide” to the most critical aspects of the passage.
8. Should I prioritize MCAT timing during my MCAT prep?
Although MCAT timing is important, we would recommend first working on building your knowledge base of scientific concepts and key skills and learning how to identify question types and answer questions. Once you find you are consistently getting 90% or more of the answers right during your practice sessions, then you can move on to actively timing yourself and learning time-saving strategies.
Have a question? Ask our admissions experts below and we'll answer your questions!
Anything we didn't cover? Have a question? Ask below or share your comments!