by Andrew Dombrowski
The MCAT is a strictly-timed test; on the CARS section, you must complete 9 passages containing 53 questions in 90 minutes, meaning that you have an average of 10 minutes per passage or about 100 seconds per question. This timing is quite tight, and many students have trouble completing the section on time. So, if you are one of those students, what do you do next?
Often, students’ first reaction to this problem is to simply go faster. However, by itself, this can backfire, because going faster can cause you to make more mistakes, which can result in a negative cycle that can damage your self-confidence. Instead, in this blog post, we’ll suggest some techniques to help deal with timing issues in CARS in a more concrete way. Please note, though, that these techniques are best implemented well before Test Day. Improvement on CARS is definitely possible, but time, practice, and reflection are necessary to get the best results possible.
Use the timer as a diagnostic technique
Often, students either take a practice session untimed, and simply take as long as necessary to do the best job possible, or take it timed and rush to finish in 90 minutes. Neither of the above techniques are wrong, but they can sometimes be a missed opportunity to get the most information possible about where your time is going. Consider taking one or two practice sections “untimed” in the formal sense, but while using a timer to assess where you’re spending your time. Some questions to try to answer include:
- How long, on average, does it take you to do a passage? The difference between 11 minutes and 13 minutes, for example, could be huge in terms of the implications for your study process. This will give you a sense of how much time you need to save.
- How even is your timing across passages? Do some passages take you much longer than others? Can you identify any common aspects of such passages, such as topic areas that tend to be challenging?
Make changes to your reading process gradually
Your reading and critical thinking muscles are like your physical muscles. You can’t reasonably go from being sedentary to running 10K races or lifting multiples of your body weight, and similarly, you can’t just make yourself a speedreader through an act of instantaneous willpower. Focus on making small changes to your reading process, like reading about 5% faster than your comfort zone, and assess how those changes impact your performance.
Work on reading for main ideas
When you review passages, go back and notice which sentences contained the key information about the author’s ideas that you needed to answer questions in the passage. You’ll eventually develop a sense of which sentences are likely to be important and which sentences are likely to be filler, and that will help you speed up. Note, though, that you’ll need some time for improvements based on this technique to manifest.
Be as interested as you can be
This can be challenging, especially for passages on subjects that you find to be dry or obscure. However, there is a degree to which you can “fake it ‘til you make it” with this. For instance, pretend that you’re reading an essay that a good friend of yours wrote. Try to find any connection that you can latch onto. If you can find some way to be interested in a passage, that will help you focus on the main ideas more efficiently and minimize time that you may lose by getting distracted.
Do the best you can with the passages that you do have time for
In other words, don’t focus only on improving your timing. Rigorously review all of your practice passages to understand your mistakes, appreciate the logic of the passages and the questions, and learn how best to apply the information from the passage to answer the questions correctly. A very useful question to ask yourself while reviewing CARS passages is to figure out why all of the wrong answer choices are wrong. The point here, though, is that you want to get the most out of the passages that you do have time to do successfully—and interestingly, in the long-term, this aspect of practicing may even help you with your timing by improving your efficiency.
Remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and that the key to improvement is patient, forward-focused analysis and reflection. Hang in there, keep working on how to improve your process, and you’ll see improvements!