How To Improve Your Timing On The MCAT: 522 Scorer Guide

February 2, 2024

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Recently, one of our MedLife Mastery Community members wrote in to us and expressed their biggest frustration with the MCAT...

My biggest challenge is timing. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get it down and that is when my anxiety kicks in, and it all goes downhill from there. My biggest fear is that this will be the one obstacle that will keep me from going to medical school. I am hoping to increase by around 25 points.

Someone else wrote in and said...

I am a slow test taker so timing on the exam is what really stresses me. I have a very competitive GPA and resume but I fear that my MCAT score will hold me back in the admissions process. I need about a 10 point score increase.

Timing is one of the biggest frustrations of students writing the MCAT and we completely get it.

Nothing can be worse than not being able to finish passages or having to guess on answer choices that you intuitively know you can answer correctly.

After years of researching the MCAT prep strategies of top MCAT scorers, we've discovered the solutions to the 'MCAT timing' problem.

It takes a little practice, but you can get to the point where you finish the MCAT with extra time left over to double check all your flagged answers. 

So let's begin...

Meet Andrea: She Scored 522 On The MCAT As A Slow Test Taker

Meet Andrea Sandoval:

→ A self-described 'slow reader and slow thinker'

→ One of your mentors here at MedLife

→ ... and a 522 (99th percentile) MCAT scorer 🤯

"I'm going to be completely honest- I am that one person who always laughs at people's jokes in a group setting five seconds after everyone else.

Honestly, I think this is just because I'm such a slow thinker in like daily life.

So when I was first getting into MCAT studying, I had no idea how I was going to get through it.

Like if I couldn't even keep up with my friends' jokes, how was I going to do well on this super time-intensive exam?

My name is Andrea from MedLife Mastery and my MCAT journey was full of struggles. 

When I first started, it would take me 15 minutes to get through a passage.

When I  would actually go and take practice exams, I would not finish a single section, especially CARS. That was my worst section.

Even when I was doing practice passages, I was struggling because I could feel my eyes going much slower than they should be. 

Somehow, I ended up getting a 522 in the MCAT and this is because I picked up different strategies to help me get through the exam as a slow test taker."

MCAT Timing Struggles: The #1 Reason Your Timing on the MCAT Isn't Improving

The #1 problem is with MCAT timing issues is that students think that timing is the #1 problem! Read that again if you have to.

Inefficient timing on the MCAT is a byproduct of an inefficient approach in the way you're studying for the MCAT, in the way you're taking practicing exams, in the way you're reviewing practicing exams, and/or in the way you're thinking during the MCAT. 

For example, most students can't handle a 7 hour exam. So by the last 2 hours, their 'stamina' has declined, so they're reading and comprehending slower, and then they're wondering why they can't finish passages on time. 

Another example is when a student hasn't learned how to identify the main idea of a CARS passage and/or deconstruct the question stems and answer choices, and therefore, has to slowly analyze everything to make sense of it all.

Another example is when a student is finishing in perfect time during practice exams but hasn't really practiced in a strategic way that actually prepares them for the big test day, when nerves, tension, pressure are all against them.

There are countless examples we can give, but hopefully our point is clear by now...

If you want to improve your timing, improve the way you're preparing for the MCAT

When you start taking a more strategic approach to MCAT prep, not only will your timing improve, but your overall score will skyrocket. It's a self-feeding system. But you need to be practicing in the right way. 

In the rest of this post we're going to give you two great top scorers recommendations, along with Andrea's tips, for your MCAT timing. 

If you're interested, we highly recommend joining a Live MCAT Strategy Course cohort, or working with a tutor one-on-one.

When you apply the strategies you learn in the strategy course, you'll be improving the way you're preparing and practicing for the MCAT.

As a consequence of your MCAT prep becoming more efficient, you'll automatically see your timing improve!

With that said, let's move on to a quick top-scorer recommendation that answers the following question...

How Much Time Do Top Scorers Give Per Passage on the MCAT?

Not too long ago, we heard the question:

"How much time should I be giving myself per passage per question for the new MCAT?"

This is an important question and you'll definitely want to incorporate what we're about to tell you during your MCAT prep, if you want to take your MCAT performance and score to the next level.

Firstly keep in mind that the amount of time required to complete a given passage and its accompanying questions can vary, depending on the length and difficulty of the passage, the number of questions, and the difficulty of the questions.

With that being said, generally we advise 10 minutes for CARS, and 8 minutes for everything else.

That will give you enough time to go back and review for as much as 10 minutes.

When it comes to timing, we can't stress enough to always time yourself no matter what kind of prep you're doing.

Time your practice passages as well as your full length tests.

How much you know doesn't matter if you can't retrieve that information fast enough to answer the questions in the allotted amount of time.

When you first start studying and doing practice questions, chunk a few passages and questions together and give yourself a bit more time per question than you will have on the actual MCAT.

At this point, the most important thing is that you answer the questions correctly. Once you have your systems and strategies in place, slowly give yourself less and less time until eventually, you can even give yourself less time than you will have on the actual MCAT.

Remember, this doesn't mean rush! Rushing is counterproductive.

The goal is to stay effective, but fast. Not just fast.

What you are training for is to prevent yourself from getting into the habit of leisurely thinking through all the content you have learned every time you have to answer a question.

Timing yourself constantly will force you to get in the habit of thinking as efficiently as possible on test day.

522 Scorer Tip #1: Embrace Your Pacing!

Andrea Collin

"First of all, I just wanna start off by saying there's nothing wrong with being a slow test-taker. 

For all of my slow test takers out there, I just want to say that you should embrace your pacing because it's a virtue and a curse to process information slowly.

Being a slow test taker means that you process information more thoroughly- you take your time to look at what's presented to you.

At least this was the case for me.

I was dissecting every single answer choice and every single word in the questions. I would spend minutes on that same question thinking through the whole scenario.

This is a good thing, right? Like when you're taking the MCAT, you're supposed to pay attention to these little details and little words.

When I was going through this and looking at all these little details, I would actually get a lot of questions right. 

At the same time though, I took forever going through all the passages.

The irony of it is that the MCAT is such a long test. It's seven and a half hours long. Through every section, I would feel rushed the whole time. 

My slow test-taking had me fighting with the clock to get through all of the passages and with time at birth. But somehow, I was able to fix my timing.

I'm going to tell you exactly how I did it with just a few tips!"

522 Scorer Tip #2: Taking Care of Yourself

"The very first tip is to take care of your body

At first, I wasn't sleeping very well. I also didn't take enough snacks and I was always hungry.

During my MCAT prep, I learned that when I'm stressed, I like to hyper-focus on whatever I'm studying.

I also learned how important it is to nourish your body.

You need to make sure your needs are taken care of! 

So make sure you're hydrated, and that you have food and adequate sleep. If you're sleep-deprived, your brain is going to process the information a bit slower.

The same concept applies to food. If you're hungry, at least for me, I get hangry.

Make sure you pack enough snacks for your studying session and eat enough brain-fueling foods to help you recharge during your learning. 

Also, sometimes caffeine can really increase the adrenaline and make you go faster. While it’s not necessary, I did drink coffee when I was taking the MCAT. 

For some people, it works. I'm just putting it out there that if the caffeine helps you, you can use it to your benefit."

522 Scorer Tip #3: Become Comfortable with Pacing Passages

"Another strategy I used to help me improve my test-taking was to make myself comfortable with the pacing of the passages. 

The very first thing that I did was practice untimed passages. 

This is what I did with CARS, but you can do this with any section though. I did a couple of untimed CARS passages- about three to four per day.

I also took note of how long it took me to take these tests without timed pressure and it was around 16 minutes. 

After the next day or two, I would aim for 15 minutes and 30 seconds and I would time myself this time, but not with the stringent MCAT 8-10 minute timing.

I timed myself with just 30 seconds less than what it took me the day before.

After I trimmed my passage time to 15 minutes and 30 seconds, I would time myself and stop at 15 minutes, and so on.

I would keep deducting 30 seconds until I got to the eight to 10-minute mark that I needed for the test.

Through this, I was able to train my brain to keep the accuracy of my answers and maintain the timing for it. 

My brain was not used to reading so fast initially, but slowly I was able to get my brain used to that. At the end of this strategy, I only felt slightly rushed compared to the beginning where I felt extremely rushed.

This was a great improvement that really got me to the my 522 score that I accomplished on test day. 

If you'd like to learn more about specific test-taking strategies, the MedLife Mastery MCAT Strategy Course can help you speed up your thinking processes during the test, and just become more comfortable with test-taking strategies.

Also if my journey with slow test-taking resonates with you, I'd love to be your tutor, and I would be happy to give you more tips and tricks to overcome slow test-taking!"

522 Scorer Tip #4: Mastering Math Shortcuts

"Other small things that can help specifically for the timing issues using math shortcuts on the MCAT. 

You could also just Google “MCAT math shortcuts” 

There's a bunch of stuff that'll come up that'll help you get through those math questions faster."

Memorize Formulas

"Another tip is to make sure you have your math formulas memorized. Especially for the Chem/Phys sections. 

If you're spending time trying to think of the content rather than thinking of the question that's being asked, it'll make your test-taking slower.

So just make sure you have your formulas memorized, and your content's all good."

522 Scorer Tip #5: Practice in a Test-Taking Environment

"Another thing to help master your timing is to make sure that when you're practicing, try to prep in a test-taking environment

One time, I went to the library and it was very close to my test date. So I was like, “Okay, like I'm getting this timing down.” 

All of a sudden, a marching band started playing outside the library and I could not focus. I was just listening to the marching band like, “Oh, these are some cool beats.” 

It was pretty distracting, so you should definitely find a quiet space where you can focus and practice peacefully."

522 Scorer Final Tip: There's No Shame In Being A Slow Test Taker

"Ultimately, I want all of you to know that there's no shame in being a slow test taker. 

Slowness will not stop us.

I would still say I'm pretty slow in daily life, at least for test-taking. You're definitely able to overcome this with practice and training.

You’ve all got this and good luck with your test-taking. That’s all from me!

Thank you. :)"

More Top MCAT Scorer Recommended Steps To Take To Improve Your Timing

It’s almost guaranteed that in most MCAT sections, and especially in the CARS section, you’re going to come across a question that’s extremely difficult.

The average test-taker will immediately start to work on figuring it out, feeling like he or she is getting closer to the answer, and not realizing that they have spent way too much time on it

It’s an unconscious bias where the more you invest your energy and time into something, the harder it is to let it go.

The top scorer on the other hand, recognizes the longer time he or she spends on answering one question, the less time available to answer the other easier questions. 

Top scorers are able to make the judgment that’s in their strategic favour. 

So if chances are that you’re going to get this extremely hard question wrong no matter how much time you put into it, is it really worth it to put TOO much time into it? 

The average test-taker thinks they need to get every single question right including all the hard ones, whereas top scorers are just aiming to get all the easy questions right and most of the medium questions right.

Knowing this, here are some top-scorer recommended steps you can take to improve your timing...

First, a good rule of thumb is to remember that top scorers spend maximum 60 seconds on a particular CARS question, and that's what you should aim for as well.

Another rule you can apply on yourself is for every passage, give yourself permission to suspend one question until the end. Obviously, you’ll be doing this for a question you come across where it’s apparent that it’s really difficult. 

You definitely want to read through the question, read through all the answer choices, and even think of which answer choice would be your best guess. Then choose your best guess answer choice (because you never want to leave it blank), flag the question, and move on to the next question. 

Once you’re finished the passage, and IF you have time, then return back to the question. Remember you’re coming back to this when you’re finished the passage, not when you’re finished the section. If you come back when you’re finished the section, you won’t have a clear memory of what the passage was about.

You need to know how much time is available for you for each passage. How do you know how much time you need to give yourself per passage?

Well there’s a breakdown template that many 130+ scorers use based on how many questions are in the passage.

We’ve discussed this in detail in our CARS Strategy Course. We highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.

Lastly, remember it can take some time to get used to the principles of better timing on the MCAT.

Just make sure you learn ALL the timing strategies you can (so you can get used to them all at the same time, instead of one after the other). Then keep practicing using these strategies, and soon, you’ll be finishing sections at an optimal, efficient speed.

Our Support Doesn’t End Here

Conquering the MCAT as a slow reader and thinker is a journey filled with challenges and triumphs. As you embark on this path, remember that success is not solely defined by speed but by strategic and thoughtful approaches. 

As you navigate this demanding exam, may Andrea's story be a guiding light, illuminating the strategies to help you overcome your own MCAT challenges. 

At MedLife Mastery, we're here to support you every step of the way. 

We help students get accepted into medical school through services like our affordable application coaching and advising alongside our private MCAT tutoring options! You are not alone in your journey and we to support you. 

We’re rooting for you! 

You got this, 

The MedLife Mastery Team
Your MCAT Success Mentors

Your MCAT Success Mentors

About the Author

We're a team of future doctors passionate about giving back and mentoring other future doctors! All mentors on the team are top MCAT scorers and we all are committed to seeing you succeed in achieving your physician dreams ???? To help you achieve your goal MCAT score, we take turns hosting these Live MCAT Courses and are also available for 1:1 private tutoring!

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