How to Improve Your MCAT Timing | 25 Effective Tips

March 15, 2024
8 min read


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

Third-Year Medical Student, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed: 10/12/23

Still taking too long on the practice exams? This article gives you some strategies to improve your MCAT timing. 

Male student taking test

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) stands as a formidable obstacle on the path to medical school. This comprehensive exam assesses your knowledge of scientific concepts and critical thinking and problem-solving skills under immense pressure. 

One crucial aspect that often eludes test-takers is time management. As the minutes tick away during the MCAT, it becomes increasingly vital to strategize and optimize your approach. You need to ensure you can complete each section within the allocated time. 

In this article, we will delve into a collection of top strategies designed to improve your MCAT timing. By incorporating these techniques into your study routine and test-taking approach, you can increase your efficiency, maintain focus, and significantly enhance your chances of achieving a competitive score that reflects your true abilities.

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MCAT Timing Breakdown

The MCAT is a lengthy exam that consists of four sections

  1. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  2. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
  3. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  4. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior 

Each section is further divided into a set number of passages and questions, with a specific time limit for completion. Understanding the breakdown of timing for each section is crucial for effective time management.

The following table outlines a breakdown of the four sections of the MCAT, along with their assigned time and number of questions for each.

Section Time Assigned (Minutes) Number of Questions
Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems 95 59
Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills 90 53
Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems 95 59
Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior 95 59

Source: AAMC

By analyzing and familiarizing yourself with the MCAT timing breakdown for each section, you can allocate your time wisely, ensuring you have sufficient minutes for each passage and question without feeling rushed or compromising accuracy.

When Should You Start Improving Timing?

You should start working on improving your MCAT timing as soon as possible. It’s best to go into the MCAT as prepared as you can so that you’re not taken aback by how demanding it is. 

As soon as you decide to go to med school, start thinking about strategies on how to approach the MCAT. You can do this by taking timed practice tests and creating comprehensive study schedules. 

Strategies to Approach MCAT Science Sections 

The science sections of the MCAT can be very technical and sometimes confusing. Here are some science passage strategies to help you approach them.

Know the Structure

The general structure of an MCAT science passage looks like this: 

  • Introduction: The passage begins by providing context and background about the topic or experiment. It establishes the main idea of the passage.
  • Body: These paragraphs will outline the experiment methodology and provide significant details. Here, you may see tables, graphs, or charts. 
  • Conclusion: The passage will normally end by summarizing the main points and discussing potential future applications of the study. 

Understanding the passage structure can help you break it down more easily. If you’re familiar with the format of MCAT science questions, you’ll feel more confident. 

Pull Out Important Information

It’s a good idea to give the passage a quick skim so that you don’t get caught up in the complex details. Look for keywords from your content review and highlight them as you go along. Write down notes or questions in the margins that you may need to consider later. 

Don’t be overwhelmed by the little things. Focus on the big picture and pay attention to the main concepts that you notice.

Read the Questions First

Sometimes, it can be helpful to read the questions before the passage so that you can get an idea of what the question is about. That way, you may spend less precious time reading the passage itself. 

How to Improve Your Speed in the MCAT Science Sections

The science sections of the MCAT demand a high level of knowledge, critical thinking, and efficient time management. To excel in these sections, it is essential to improve your speed without sacrificing accuracy. Here are some effective strategies to enhance your speed in the MCAT science sections:

Tip One: Build a Strong Foundation

Before attempting to increase your speed, ensure you have a solid foundation of scientific knowledge. Review the key concepts, formulas, and theories covered in the MCAT science sections. This will help you approach questions with confidence and reduce the time spent trying to recall information.

Tip Two: Practice Regularly

Practice is key to improving your speed and efficiency. Engage in regular practice sessions with MCAT-style questions and passages. Familiarize yourself with the format, question types, and the level of complexity you can expect. 

As you practice more, you will develop a better understanding of the types of questions asked and learn to recognize patterns, ultimately saving time during the exam.

Tip Three: Implement Strategic Reading

Efficient reading is crucial to save time during the MCAT science sections. Train yourself to quickly skim through passages while identifying the main points and structure. Pay attention to topic sentences, paragraph transitions, and figures or tables that convey important information. 

Focus on understanding the purpose, experimental design, and conclusions of each passage rather than getting bogged down in every detail.

Tip Four: Utilize Passage Mapping

After reading a passage, take a few seconds to mentally map out its structure and key points. Identify the main ideas and any relationships between different concepts within the passage. This will help you navigate the questions more effectively, as you will have a clear mental framework to refer back to.

Tip Five: Master Time Allocation

Each science section of the MCAT has a specific time limit. Allocate your time wisely across the passages and questions to ensure you don't get stuck on difficult or time-consuming items. Aim to spend approximately 10-12 minutes per passage, leaving a few extra minutes for reviewing challenging questions at the end. 

Practice timing yourself during practice sessions to develop a sense of pacing.

Tip Six: Develop Efficient Problem-Solving Techniques

Enhance your problem-solving skills by learning and practicing different techniques. This includes identifying keywords, eliminating answer choices, and estimating when appropriate. Familiarize yourself with common MCAT question patterns and learn to identify distractors quickly.

Tip Seven: Prioritize and Skip Strategically

Not all questions carry the same weight in terms of difficulty and point value. Identify and prioritize questions that are likely to yield higher returns. If you encounter a particularly challenging question, don't dwell on it for too long. 

Make a strategic decision to skip it temporarily and return to it later if time allows. Remember to mark it for review to ensure you don't forget to revisit it.

By incorporating these strategies into your MCAT preparation, you can significantly improve your speed in the science sections. Remember, consistent practice, strategic thinking, and familiarity with the exam format are key to achieving success. 

With time and dedication, you can develop the necessary skills to tackle the MCAT science sections efficiently and increase your chances of achieving a competitive score.

Strategies On How to Approach MCAT CARS Section

Critical thinking and reading comprehension are not always as straightforward as they seem. The questions in the MCAT CARS section will likely be complex and tricky to fully understand. Here are some strategies to help you prepare.

Practice Explaining the Passage

The best way to understand something is to explain it to someone else. When you’re practicing for the MCAT, take some time to practice trying to explain the different CARS questions to someone who doesn’t have the knowledge that you do. 

You’ll find that through this process, you understand the passage better after explaining it than you would have otherwise. This makes you better equipped to comprehend these questions on the exam. 


It’s important to summarize the question so that you know exactly what it’s asking. Try to sum up the main idea in one sentence, considering the who, what, why, and how. 

Learning to summarize well will help keep you from getting bogged down by insignificant details. It’s also a good idea to practice using your highlighter efficiently and searching for keywords so that you can pick out the important information. 

Read & Keep Reading 

Read complex books and articles to get familiar with the cadence of MCAT questions. This will keep you from getting confused by terminology or phrasing that you don’t recognize. 

How to Improve Your Speed in the MCAT CARS Section

The MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section presents its own unique set of challenges. This section tests your ability to comprehend and analyze complex passages, evaluate arguments, and draw logical conclusions. To excel in the CARS section while managing your time effectively, consider implementing the following strategies:

Tip One: Enhance Reading Comprehension

Improving your MCAT reading comprehension skills is vital for success in the CARS section. Practice reading dense and challenging materials outside of the MCAT context to enhance your ability to grasp main ideas, identify supporting details, and understand the author's tone and purpose. This will help you read CARS passages more efficiently during the exam.

Tip Two: Skim the Passage Strategically

Quickly skim through the passage to get a sense of its structure, main ideas, and overall argument. Focus on the introductory and concluding paragraphs, as well as the topic sentences of each paragraph. This will give you a foundation for understanding the passage and allow you to locate specific information quickly when answering questions.

Tip Three: Take Effective Notes

As you read the passage, jot down brief notes or underline key points, arguments, and any relevant examples. This will help you summarize the passage in your own words and create a mental map of its content. Effective note-taking can save you time by providing a quick reference when answering questions.

Tip Four: Identify the Author's Perspective 

Understanding the author's perspective is crucial for answering CARS questions accurately. Pay attention to the author's tone, biases, and arguments throughout the passage. This will help you anticipate the author's response to potential questions and eliminate answer choices that don't align with their viewpoint.

Tip Five: Practice Active Reading

Engage with the passage actively by asking yourself questions and making predictions as you read. Formulate your own opinions and evaluate the strength of the author's arguments. This active reading approach will improve your comprehension and help you answer questions more efficiently.

Tip Six: Analyze Question Types

Familiarize yourself with the different question types commonly found in the CARS section, such as main idea, inference, author's tone, and structure questions. Understanding the unique requirements of each question type will allow you to approach them more effectively and save valuable time.

Tip Seven: Master Passage Mapping

Develop the skill of mentally mapping the structure of the passage, including the flow of ideas, relationships between paragraphs, and the author's overall argument. This will help you navigate the questions more efficiently, as you will have a clear understanding of where to find specific information within the passage.

Tip Eight: Time Management

The CARS section provides 90 minutes for 53 questions. Allocate your time wisely, aiming for approximately one to one-and-a-half minutes per question. If you encounter a particularly challenging question, make a note of it and move on to the next one. Remember to budget some time for reviewing flagged questions at the end.

By incorporating these MCAT time management strategies into your preparation for the CARS section, you can enhance your speed and accuracy. Remember, consistent practice and exposure to a wide range of reading materials will improve your reading comprehension abilities. 

With dedicated effort and a strategic approach, you can master the CARS section and maximize your overall MCAT score.

Overall Tips to Improve Your MCAT Timing

Time management is a critical aspect of achieving success on the MCAT. Properly allocating your time across the various sections can make a significant difference in your overall performance. To help you improve your MCAT timing, consider implementing the following tips.

Tip One: Create a Study Schedule

Develop a well-structured study schedule that includes dedicated time for each MCAT section. By adhering to a schedule, you can train your mind and body to work efficiently within the allotted time for each section.

Tip Two: Practice with Timed Conditions

Simulate real exam conditions during your practice sessions. Use a timer to mimic the time limits for each section, and challenge yourself to complete questions within the allocated time. This will help you develop a sense of pacing and build confidence in managing your time effectively.

Tip Three: Identify Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Recognize the areas in which you excel and the topics or question types that challenge you the most. By understanding your strengths and weaknesses, you can allocate your time accordingly. Prioritize the sections and question types that require more attention while optimizing your performance in areas where you excel.

Tip Four: Seek Help From a Tutor

A skilled MCAT tutor can significantly enhance your timing by offering tailored strategies and practice. They’ll teach time management techniques, highlight efficient ways to approach questions, and identify areas needing improvement. They can also help you decide whether you should void your MCAT score if your results are unsatisfactory. 

Tip Five: Use Strategic Guessing

If you encounter a question that you find particularly difficult or time-consuming, consider making an educated guess and flagging it for review. Avoid spending too much time on a single question, as it may eat into the time you need for other questions. 

By strategically guessing and returning to challenging questions later, you can ensure that you complete the rest of the section on time.

Tip Six: Manage Test Anxiety

Test-related anxiety can be a significant obstacle to effective time management. Implement relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or visualization, to calm your nerves before and during the exam. Maintaining a calm and focused mindset will allow you to utilize your time more efficiently.

Tip Seven: Practice Prioritization

Not all questions carry the same weight or difficulty level. Learn to quickly identify which questions are more manageable and carry higher point values. Prioritize those questions to ensure you secure those points. By strategizing and tackling the questions strategically, you can optimize your overall score within the given time frame.

Tip Eight: Review and Analyze Practice Tests

After completing practice tests, thoroughly review your performance, including your timing. Analyze the questions you struggled with and identify any patterns or common mistakes. Use this feedback to refine your approach and focus on areas that require improvement.

Tip Nine: Take Breaks

While time management is crucial, it's equally important to take short breaks during the exam to recharge your focus, prevent mental fatigue, and avoid burnout. Use these brief pauses to clear your mind, stretch, or have a quick snack. Returning to the exam with a refreshed mindset will help you maintain a consistent pace and accuracy.

Tip Ten: Stay Positive and Confident

Lastly, maintain a positive attitude and believe in your abilities. Approach the MCAT with confidence, knowing that you have prepared diligently. Positive thinking can enhance your focus, efficiency, and overall performance.

FAQs: MCAT Time Management

Here are a few commonly asked questions about improving your MCAT timing.

1. How Much Time Do I Have for Each MCAT Section?

The amount of time allotted for each MCAT section varies depending on the specific section. Three out of four MCAT sections provide 95 minutes to complete 59 questions. However, the CARS section provides 90 minutes to complete 53 questions. 

It's important to familiarize yourself with the time limits for each section to effectively manage your time and allocate it wisely across passages and questions.

2. How Much Time Do I Have for Each MCAT Question?

You should estimate spending about one to one-and-a-half minutes on each question for the MCAT. However, keep in mind that some questions may require more time than others, so you’ll need to manage your time wisely. 

3. How Can I Practice Improving My MCAT Timing?

To improve your MCAT timing, there are several effective practice methods you can employ, including: 

  • Practicing under timed conditions
  • Using practice materials 
  • Taking MCAT prep courses 

4. How Long Does the MCAT Take? 

The MCAT lasts for about 7 and a half hours. The total testing time allotted is 6 hours and 15 minutes, but each section is followed by a short break. 

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, improving your MCAT score is a challenging but achievable endeavor. By implementing the strategies discussed in this article, such as enhancing content knowledge, refining test-taking skills, and mastering time management, you can significantly enhance your performance on this critical exam.

Remember to establish a comprehensive study plan, practice regularly under timed conditions, and analyze your strengths and weaknesses to focus your efforts effectively. It's important to maintain a positive mindset, embrace the learning process, and persevere through the obstacles that may arise. 

With dedication, determination, and the application of proven strategies, you can confidently approach the MCAT and increase your chances of achieving a competitive score that paves the way for your future in the field of medicine.

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