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CARS Strategy: I Always Run Out of Time; What Should I Do?

Worried about getting a low CARS score on the MCAT? The MCAT has a strict time limit on each section. For the CARS section, you must complete 9 passages containing 53 questions in 90 minutes—that’s an average of 10 minutes per passage or about 100 seconds per question! This timing is tight, and many students have trouble completing the section. So, if you are one of those students, what do you do next?

Often, students’ first reaction is to simply go faster. However, by itself, this can backfire because going faster may cause you to make more mistakes. Instead, we suggest these techniques to help with timing issues in the MCAT CARS section. These techniques are best implemented well before Test Day. Improvement on your MCAT CARS score is definitely possible, but not two minutes before your test—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 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 is wrong, but they can sometimes be a missed opportunity to get the most information possible about where your time is going. One CARS strategy is to consider taking one or two practice MCAT 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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; similarly, you can’t just make yourself a speed-reader 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 CARS passage. You’ll eventually develop a sense of which sentences are likely important and which sentences are likely 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 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 CARS passage, that will help you focus on the main ideas more efficiently and minimize the 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 method of practicing may even help you with your timing by improving your efficiency.

Start With Some Free MCAT Resources

Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a 24/7 study buddy to help anytime you get stuck on a CARS question? Now you can! Everyone who has a Blueprint MCAT account (even the free account!) can work with Blue, the FIRST and ONLY AI MCAT Tutor for CARS. Blue will work 1:1 with you to walk through any CARS passage to help you not only understand the answer, but also develop strategies you can use on more CARS questions again and again!


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! And if you need a boost, start with our free MCAT resources, including a study planner you can customize with your resources and days off and practice test with analytics on your strengths and weaknesses. 

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