CARS Lesson 4 — Pacing Yourself
Don't let time push you around
Don't let time become your enemy in CARS. There are two ways this can happen. First, obviously, you can run out of time at the end of the section. This happens more often with CARS than with other section. You don't want to find yourself skimming the last two passages in the section and guessing on the last nine questions. With practice, you will not let this happen.
Furthermore, an oppressive anxiety can hover over you. This is the second way that time can get the better of you. Time can work itself into your mental space and get between you and your reading. If time pressure is a constant stressor, always cajoling you, it will make it hard for you to think straight. This pattern can become a self-reinforcing spiral. Learn to develop a sense of comfortable flow and movement. A few techniques can put time in its place so that your sympathetic nervous system doesn't feel the need to get involved.
Pace in the passage
Read at the pace of a conversation
Typically, a CARS passage will be approximately 600 words long. The average rate of speech in conversation is 150 wpm, so if you read at the pace of speech, you will clear a passage in approximately four minutes. This is just fine. Aim first for that baseline in practice. Comfortably read the passage at the pace of normal, conversational speech. Give yourself a few opportunities to slow down and process, a few instances to step back. Add the time after reading to look at the passage as a whole. If you are starting the questions in four and a half of five minutes in normal practice, you are going to be fine.
Some people read a little faster than this and hear the voice in the writing perfectly well, but if you push yourself to read much faster than normal speech, there is a good chance you will start to lose the sense of prosody in the writer's style. The prosody represents the patterns of stress and intonation in the language. Stylistically, prosody is central to the expressive dimension of meaning. The expressive dimension signals where the writer stands. Are they being ironic? Are they preparing for a shift in the point of view of the argument? You hear this subtly in the voice. Speed reading is counter-productive in CARS, and it's not really necessary. Read comfortably and slow down when you need to. Don't take all day, but don't rush either.
As a general rule, you are much more likely to get into trouble with time in the questions than in the reading. Additionally, there is a completely different relationship between the investment of time and the return on the investment between the two. Invest a little time to slow down or step back in a passage, and you will often get that time back later. You save time in the next paragraph because you kept the thread. You answer a question more quickly because you saw it coming. In the questions, however, it's a different story. It's easy to get transfixed in gambler's fallacy, like throwing good money after bad, and devote two or three minutes to a single question. Maybe you have marginally increased your chance of getting that question right, but there will be no return on the investment later in the test. It won't make the next thing easier. In the reading, though, aim for flow, immersion, and enjoyment and try not to worry too much. As long as you are moving comfortably, you are going to be okay.
When to slow down
Sometimes the start of a passage will make your head spin. Get your footing. Give yourself permission. Don't ever let anxiety take hold of you if you need go back and re-read the first three sentences. If you want to skim the first paragraph again, you are doing it right. Get your bearings at the start.
You might also want to slow down or step back a few places later in the passage. It depends on the reading challenge you've run into. Never feel upset. Now you know why AAMC chose the passage. Some passages have a strong emphasis on facts and information. You might run into a passage about the history of bronze metallurgy, for example, and read something like, "The Egyptians were the earliest known miners of copper. Their main source was the island of Cyprus, from which the word copper is derived. The Phoenicians were great seafarers with access to Cyprus, Arabia and other lands, to the tin of Britain, and to both these metals and zinc and lead from Spain. They became skilled workers in bronze and carried their craft to many other countries." Each sentence here is like putting two or three more things into a wagon. Move too fast and things will start falling out of the wagon. If that happens, slow down and gather everything up again. You know a question is coming from this. You've know why AAMC chose the passage. They want to see if you can rehearse information and manage your memory.
For some writers, the style may be what's difficult, or the abstraction or complexity in the ideas. This is why AAMC chose this other passage. The writer has an idiosyncratic style, or maybe they are struggling to articulate ideas that are difficult to articulate. Essays from the domains of modern philosophy or literary criticism can be this way. In this type of passage, whatever you do, don't put the writer up on Mt. Olympus. Read on a human level. They are trying to communicate. You might run into a sentence such as, 'It is not difference that dominates the world, but the obliteration of difference by mimetic reciprocity, which itself, being truly universal, shows the relativism of perpetual difference to be an illusion.' Slow down. The author is struggling to articulate something that's hard to say, and you need to help them. Imagine the writer is there with you. Ask them what they are trying to say. Always reach an accommodation. Manage the part you don't understand as an open question. What do you think they're trying to say? Put it to yourself in plain language. Most of the time you'll be closer than you think.
See the passage as a whole
It may be tempting to skip this step, but it will save you time in the questions. Before starting the questions, always take twenty or thirty seconds to move through the passage quickly from top to bottom. Just answer to yourself, "What are the parts of this thing?" This will refresh your memory of many details in the passage, and it will give you a firmer sense of the structure of the argument before you move on to the questions.
Pace in the questions
Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good
The art of letting a question go is the most important component of good time management in CARS. It's hard. There's a bit of a sick feeling. It's that way with even a 132. It doesn't take that long to read the question stem and evaluate the answers. If you think you have the best answer, or you think you've chosen the least worst, then you've done your job. Some of the questions are very subtle. Move on. You must have good movement. Your game is good. Finish on time and you will earn a good score.
Choose your answer. Flag it if you want to come back. Move on. If you have time at the end of the exam, you can come back to it. You can look at it then with fresh eyes. If it turns out that you don't have time at the end, however, then that's a very good reason you moved on.
Over and over again in our teaching, we have seen the pattern in practice testing where the person is forced to rush at the end where, earlier in the section, a half dozen questions took three minutes each. If you find yourself having done this in a section, look at the questions that took the most time. Look at how often the choice stayed the same. How rarely was the extra two minutes productive. Maybe one of the six you changed your answer and got it right, but it created a predicament that led to missing half of the last ten questions. Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good. Your game is good. Your score does not depend on a single question. A good score relies on comfortable, steady movement throughout the whole section.
It can be helpful to think of starting any section of the MCAT with a half dozen get-out-of-jail-free cards. If you feel yourself beginning to fixate on a particular question, play one of these. You have them for a reason. If you don't play a few of your get-out-of-jail-free cards, you are doing it wrong. When you play one, smile to yourself. You are doing it right!
Don't go fishing
It takes discipline, but it's a really good idea to avoid fishing expeditions in the passage for almost any question. If the question stem has a specific line reference, by all means, go look at it again. If the question stem contains the magic phrase 'in the passage', it might be a good idea to track it down if you can be quick, but only if you are sure exactly where you want to look. Otherwise, it's always preferable to answer without going back to the passage. People go back to the passage for emotional reasons, not for cognitive reasons. It takes too much time and almost never helps. Even if it helps, the time it takes will cause you to miss something else. You had a good read. You cleared the passage. Now stay clear of it if you can. Trust yourself.
Check in every 30 minutes
In our opinion, timing every passage makes it too hard to focus. Save that for a mode of practice. During extended practice, you want to be in a state of flow, a mental state in which you have a feeling of energized focus and immersion. You can manage time and still keep your flow. A method that works for most people is to check in on progress only every thirty minutes. You divide the section into thirty minute increments. Thirty minutes is the unit of flow. This works for any section of the MCAT. Dive in and allow yourself to be completely immersed in reading the passages and answering the questions. When you come up for air after the first thirty minutes, make sure you have answered approximately twenty questions. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and meditate a little bit. You're moving well. You've answered twenty questions. You are on pace to finish the whole section with ten minutes to spare. Dive back in and check in later at sixty minutes when you should have about 40 questions answered. You're doing fine. This is Plan A.
Suppose you check in after the first thirty minutes and you've only answered fifteen questions. It can happen. Even after months of practice, it's possible to forget to remember what you need to be doing under test conditions. Relax. You've got this. You still need to close your eyes and meditate for a few seconds. Breathe deeply. It's going to be okay. You're just going to be using Plan B for the next thirty minute unit of flow. You don't need to change too much. You aren't going to start rushing the passages. Most likely, you got in trouble with the questions, and that's the place to get out of trouble. The next thirty minutes give yourself an extra half dozen get-out-of-jail free cards. When you feel you might be a little stuck on a difficult question, play one of these sooner than you normally would. You can make up a lot of time with only a few of these. You're in Plan B. Choose the least worst right away. Flag it. And move on. Do this five or six times. Maybe you get two or three correct instead of four, but, now, at sixty minutes you are back in sync with time. Maybe you're at 36 or 37 questions. It's true you won't have a lot of extra time at the end, but you've saved yourself from a much bigger problem. You are going to finish just fine.
Sometimes a person will keep hitting the wall in practice with a particular section. It seems impossible to be able to ever finish that particular section on time. This is most common with CARS, but it can also be one of the other sections. You may have even tried starting that section in Plan B mode, but it still doesn't work. You can't seem to finish on time. Here is some tough medicine. If you make this iron rule, it will solve the problem. It always works. No matter what it takes, during the first fifteen minutes of the section, you must answer ten questions. You may not be happy for a few of those questions, but push yourself the first two passages and get it done. This will set you on good pace for the entire rest of the section. People almost always get in trouble with time in the first half of a section, not the second half. You can relax into the flow of the test and finish on time.
Every thirty minutes
Yerkes and Dodson observed that for a difficult, complex task such as the CARS section, the optimal performance for an individual will be facilitated by a a moderate-low arousal state. Cultivate a mindset that is calm and engaged for the test and teach yourself how to nurture this mindset through controlled breathing, muscle relaxation and mindfulness even when the exam is at its most challenging.
Reset yourself periodically. During your thirty minute breaks, when you come up for air and check your pacing, close your eyes and meditate for a full thirty seconds. You will get the time back after you start back on the next passages. You will get even more than the thirty seconds you spent, because it will be like you gained five IQ points. Clear your mind and imagine you are somewhere beautiful. There's a cool breeze. Relax all of your muscles and breathe in deeply. Relax each muscle. Everything is fine.
After a difficult passage
A golfer hooks the ball into the rough and then slices it into the lake. That didn't go so well. But now the golfer has the opportunity to use the walk to the next hole to clear their head. They know their game is good. They use that walk to the next hole to calm their breathing and meditate so they will see the next fairway clearly. If a passage on the exam gives you a hard time, don't rush headlong into the next one. That's how the exam rolls you. Close your eyes and breathe deeply for a few seconds. Do a four-four-four breath. Breathe in deeply for four seconds. Totally relax and hold it for four seconds. Breathe out slowly for four seconds. Regain your balance. You'll get that time back. Close your eyes and totally relax. When you start the next passage, you will see it clearly.
Some people need to practice to improve speed in the passages. If it's regularly taking you more than five minutes to clear a passage and get to the questions, practice to develop a pace that will get you there sooner. You need a regimin. Practice a few passages each week using the timer on your phone, one passage a time. Start the timer when you begin reading. Check it when you reach the first question. You want to get this number under five minutes (six minutes is okay sometimes, but you will need great movement that passage in the questions). Through a disciplined practice regimin, you can internalize the sense of movement you need and habituate to it. The passages at Jack Westin or Testing Solution are where to go for this work.
Interpreting Prep Hub data
Remember, also, that the AAMC Prep Hub will give you timing data. The system doesn't give you a discrete passage time, however, because the system doesn't register the time from the start of the passage to the start of the first question. It registers from the start of the passage to answering the first question, but you can take a minute off to get a pretty good idea. If you need work with pacing, definitely visit and revisit this data. Remediate and practice. If there is a problem with pacing, the most common pattern is that there were a dozen or so questions scattered through the section you couldn't let go of. The second most common pattern is that one passage became a monster. There was a need to accomodate its uncertainties, take your hits, and keep moving. The third most common problem is too long a time in the reading. Practice to internalize the sense of movement you need and learn to accept playing a get-out-of-jail-free card every now and then.
As an assignment for this lesson, perform the last 11 passages (questions 66-120) from Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Question Pack, Vol. 1. Remember to toggle 'Review Answer' to the 'OFF' position.. Unusual for the question packs, this section has a question to passage ratio more in-line with a typical CARS section. Actually, it's even lower here. Compared to a full-length CARS section, we have two additional passages (11 vs. 9) yet only two additional questions (55 vs. 53). Allow yourself 100 minutes to complete the exercise. You have ten extra minutes, but with two extra passages, this actually represents a small application of time pressure compared to a regular CARS section. Establish and maintain a good pace. Try out the advice we've been discussing this lesson. Also, remember to close your eyes and meditate for a little while every thirty minutes. It's so important to give your brain a little rest every now and then. This exercise is not only for practicing exam pace. It's also an endurance challenge. Exam day is a long day. Remember to tally your wrong answers after you've finished the exercise, as we talked about in lesson 2.