Managing time in the science sections

There are two ways that time can become your enemy during the MCAT. First, obviously, you might run out of time and not be able to finish a section, but the fear of running out of time itself can work itself into your mental space and short-circuit your ability to think straight. This becomes a self-reinforcing spiral. Learn to manage the pace of the exam. Know when to slow down and when to move on. Develop comfortable flow and movement. A few rules and techniques can help you stay on the safe side with time.

We have already extensively discussed managing the pace of the CARS section in earlier modules. Much of our advice for CARS applies equally well to the science (and psychology) sections. We will use the opportunity of this discussion to reiterate some of the strategies we recommended before. There are time management methods to apply in every section, and there are also particular challenges unique to each section which call for particular methods. In this discussion, we will offer both kinds of advice. Let's work to get a time-management strategy in place before Full Length Sample Test coming up in module 15.

Pace in the passages
  • When to slow down

    Give yourself permission to move slowly at the start of a passage. You have just been dropped into a world. Find your footing. Give the world of the passage some time to disclose itself and become intelligible. Maybe it's a complicated molecular biology scenario. There are a half a dozen players. Feedback and crosstalk is described in four (intentionally) dense sentences. Give the entities under discussion time to make their introductions to you. Repeat their full names as the passage switches to their acronyms. Move things from working memory into long-term memory. Rehearse them. You might even go totally nuts and read the first paragraph twice. This is a good idea for some passages. You might step back and see the whole first paragraph as a simultaneous structure. Give yourself a little time to form a clear picture of the world you have stepped into. It doesn't take as long as you may think.

    This is important to understand about this exam. Some investments of time in the passages really are investments. They pay you back later, but it's never that way with the questions. The time you spend is only going to be for that question. Take a little time to find your footing at the start. This pays you back when you reach the research portion of the passage and you understand the rationale of the experiments. You'll be moving much faster. The research will unroll like a carpet. You'll move faster in the questions because you won't be taking time to figure out what you have already understood.

    People get this exactly backwards. They get knocked around at the start. Feel the fear creeping up, and keep pressing forward quickly in the hopes that things will get better later in the passage. Maybe things will make more sense when they get to the research data. They rush at the start and then try to figure out what's going on from the bar graphs and tables. When they get to the data, it doesn't help. How much better it would have been had they been a little more patient at the beginning. Now they would be able to ask the right questions of the research data, such as 'What are the manipulated variables?' or 'Do the results conform to my expectations?' It's a mistake thinking you are going to fix fundamental comprehension when you get to the research portion of a passage.

    There may be other places in the passages when you might want to slow down or step back. It depends on what you run into. But watch out. There is quicksand in the science passages! This is something unique about them. Maybe it's an organic chemistry bench-top synthesis scheme with a dozen reactions. Maybe it's a data table with twenty rows and a half dozen columns. You don't have to arrive at an explanation for every single data point. If the synthesis scheme were only four or five reactions, you could clear it. But a dozen reactions? Scan those quickly. Accomodate those in a general way, and wait for them to ask you something specific about a specific step. There's no way to clear a dozen reactions without getting into big trouble with time.

    As you move through a passage, your science knowledge makes the world of the passage intelligible. Always try to reach an accommodation with a passage element, even if the accommodation is an open question. An open question is okay as long as you are managing it in a self-aware manner. You've fenced it off as an indeterminacy. You will start to see that being able to do this is part of the test. You might think you're in trouble, but you're not. How you handle floating signifiers, out-of-scope complexities, and noisy data is a big figure of merit for this test. Bring as much of the passage to the light as you can.

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 any section of the MCAT. 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 it's a very good thing 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.

    Don't fixate on a quantitative problem

    The quantitative problems in the physical sciences section create their own unique issues with time. If you make a math mistake, you might not have an answer that matches any of the choices. How do you move on? You might have started with Newton's laws and kinematics when work & energy would have been faster. Now you've invested a half page of computations and don't seem any nearer the end. It can be hard to let it go. One question doesn't matter on this test! Don't spend good money after bad. You don't have to be perfect. Play a get-out-of-jail-free card. Make your best guess and move on.

    We have seen this many times in the practice tests. Too great an attachment with even just one or two quantitative problems is the number one reason people run out of time in the physical sciences section. Let the question go if you've been at it more than a minute. You can come back to it at the end. Your unconscious mind will have been working the problem. When you come back later, the problem will unfold for you.

  • Get-out-of-jail-free cards

    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!

  • Moving between the questions and the passage

    In discussing CARS, we talked about how it's a good idea to avoid fishing expeditions in a CARS passages. This is true for almost any question in the CARS section. However, the situation is different with science passages. In the science sections, you need a comfortable way of navigating between the questions and passages. This is especially true for the subset of questions where the passage functions for all practical purposes as a repository of given information. The question could just as easily be a stand-alone question, but the given information is in the passage.

    The fluorescent label in the in-situ hybridization assay has an emission wavelength. Later you run into a question asking you to determine the photon energy. The passage has a table where one of several columns contains gas-phase liquid chromatography data. Later you're being asked which sample is the most volatile. A good reading strategy is to practice seeing these questions coming while you're reading. "They gave me a photon frequency here. I guess I'll be multiplying that by Planck's constant in the near future". It's good to know that even the most difficult passages will always have a couple of questions like this, which are no different than stand-alone questions. If the passage is opaque to you (it happens), you're not in nearly the trouble you might think you are. There are going to be a few straightforward questions that aren't about the difficult theme of the passage but just take some element in the passage as a piece of given information and use it as the jumping off point for a basic question.

    So you do need to go back to the passage fairly often to answer questions in the science sections - to retrieve a piece of information, to make an interpretation of a graph, to examine a molecular structure. There are many reasons. Even though at times you do need go back to the passage, however, just like in CARS, you want to avoid going on fishing expeditions. Hurrying the passages and then going on fishing expeditions to answer conceptual questions is a pattern to watch out for in practice. If this is happening, try putting a little more care into reading the passages the next time around. Almost certainly, you will find a somewhat more careful, deliberate way of reading is more time efficient in the long run. You you can't take all day in the passage, but you should take the time to clear it properly. You will move much more easily in the questions. There is an optimization curve. Work to find the balance in your practice.

Check in every 30 minutes
  • Plan A

    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.

  • Plan B

    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.

  • Tough medicine

    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. 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.

Recentering yourself
  • 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

    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.

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