MCAT Time Management: Strategies for Successful Pacing

MCAT Time Management - image by Magoosh While focusing on Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) content review is important, there’s one key to a high score that students often miss: MCAT time management. You don’t want to rush through the test and get a bunch of questions wrong! At the same time, you don’t want to go so slowly that you don’t have time to answer all the questions. Students should strive for a pace that will allow them to answer as many questions with as high accuracy as possible. This sounds easy but is actually quite difficult in practice. In this post, we’ll look at strategies for MCAT pacing and how you can make the most of your time!

Mastering MCAT Time Management

To understand how you should manage your time on the MCAT, there are a few key pieces of information you’ll need to know. Not only will you need to know how many questions and passages are on the exam, but you’ll need to divide that up according to how long the passages are to know how much time you should spend on each MCAT passage/question. Not to worry—here’s my advice for mastering MCAT pacing!

1. Understand Timing on the MCAT

The MCAT contains four sections: three 95-minute sections on the sciences (Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, and Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior) and one 90-minute section on critical analysis and reasoning skills (CARS). Students have about a minute and a half to answer each question. Yup—the MCAT is long!

Furthermore, all of the sections also include passages that students need to read to answer the questions so there is definitely a time pressure on the MCAT. Students that don’t pace properly end up having to rush or guess on many questions. While you don’t have to answer every question correctly to get a good MCAT score, there are still pacing strategies that students can utilize to increase their scores.

SectionNumber of QuestionsTime Allotted
Test-Day Certification--4 minutes
Tutorial (optional)--10 minutes
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems5995 minutes
Break (optional)--10 minutes
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills5390 minutes
Mid-Exam Break (optional)--30 minutes
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems5995 minutes
Break (optional)--10 minutes
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior5995 minutes
Void Question--3 minutes
Satisfaction Survey (optional)--5 minutes
Total Content Time2306 hours & 15 minutes
Total Seated Time230approx. 7 hours & 30 minutes

Table from AAMC PDF

2. Follow MCAT Time Management Strategies

So what can you do to manage your time on test day? A few tips can help you make the most of the limited time you’re given.

  • Do the freestanding questions first. On the science sections, there are passage-based questions and freestanding questions (questions not associated with a passage). Freestanding questions are typically easier and take less time to complete than passage-based questions. As all questions on the MCAT are worth the same amount of points, students can choose to do all of the freestanding questions first. For students that struggle to finish the test, this can be a great option.
  • Read the question stems before the passages. It will take you a few seconds, but it will help you quickly identify which questions will be easier for you and which questions will take you more time to answer. This is crucial for the next two tips!
  • Do the easier questions and passages first. The passages and questions on the MCAT vary in difficulty. In addition, pre-medical students often have their own strengths and weaknesses so they find certain passages harder and others easier. For example, a student that is very strong in chemistry can strategize by completing all of the chemistry passages first and then focus on the rest of the passages. On top of helping with pacing, this approach can give students a great confidence boost!
  • Cut your losses on difficult questions. It can be really hard to move on when you want to answer 100% of the questions correctly. Working hand in hand with the previous tip, get the low-hanging fruit first; don’t let yourself get caught up aiming for perfection. (NB: you should definitely answer the harder questions when they come up in practice questions–just not always on the actual test!) The truth is, most people will come across at least one or two problems where they just end up banging their head against a wall on the MCAT. Save time by leaving these to circle back to at the end, if you have the time.

3. Keep Track of Your MCAT Pacing

Even once you have MCAT time management mastered, though, you’ll still need to track your MCAT pacing on test day very carefully. To pace yourself for the MCAT, you’ll need to keep an eye on the time and remember how long each section lasts: 90-95 minutes. Then, follow these guidelines:

  • Watch the clock. When you take the exam, there is a timer that counts down how much time you have remaining for the section. You always want to know where you are and how many minutes are left in the section.
  • Establish checkpoints for yourself. While taking full-length MCAT practice tests in preparation for the actual exam, you should establish checkpoints for yourself.
  • Review how much of the allotted time you have left after passages 3, 5, and 8. Here are some sample checkpoints for a 95-minute science section:

    Passage 3: ~1 hour remaining
    Passage 5: ~42-43 minutes remaining
    Passage 8: ~15-16 minutes remaining

  • Adapt your pacing accordingly. If you notice that you have less time than allotted at the checkpoint, then you know to speed up your pacing. In contrast, students that find that they have too much time should slow down to improve their accuracy.

A Final Word

MCAT time management doesn’t come naturally to anyone. In the end, it comes down to using these techniques enough in long-term practice, including MCAT pacing techniques, that they become second nature by test day. Start incorporating these tips into your MCAT prep course or self-study sessions today to master them in time for the test (but don’t forget to work in some MCAT study breaks into your study time for peak low-stress learning!). Good luck!

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  • Burton

    Burton is an MCAT blogger. He was an undergraduate at Harvard, where he majored in History before switching gears to pursue a career in medicine. He did a post-baccalaureate and is currently a fourth-year medical student at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He is applying for a combined residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. Outside of things medical, he's a huge sports fan and loves football, basketball, and baseball.

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