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Dominating the PCAT – It’s A Matter of Time

  • by Sam
  • Jan 01, 2017
  • PCAT Blog

One of the most common issues for students who are struggling to improve their scores is timing. This can be a serious issue: how can you do well on the test if you still have 10 questions left and only 1 minute to go?

There are some strategies that can help when it comes to test day, but they vary based on which section you working through.


This particular section is all about time.  You have 30 minutes to write an essay suggesting a solution to a problem.  On the upside, there is only one essay to write, so you won’t find yourself having to skip questions if you run out of time.  It is vitally important that every test taker use the maximum time here.

Since everyone’s writing skills are different, one person may expect to write 4 paragraphs, another may write 8.  The only way to make sure that you use your time accordingly in this section is to practice.  By the time you sit down to take your test, you should have written 4-10 essays under timed conditions so that you know where your boundaries are going to be. The more practice you get for this section, the easier it will be for you to write an effective essay within the time constraints.

Biological and Chemical Processes:

In these sections, there are both discrete and passage based questions; because of this, there are some more advanced strategies to make use of your time.  The key takeaway here is that these questions are worth the same amount of “points.”  You can assume that passage based questions will take longer to accomplish; you must first read through the passage before you can attempt to answer the related questions.  Students that are pressed for time should attempt to answer all the discrete questions first and then go back to the passages.  Rather than running out of time and leaving those questions unanswered, you will be able to knock out the quicker questions and focus your attention on the questions that require more of your time.

Another strategy that can sometimes work for these sections is this:  see if you can answer any passage questions without reading the passage.  For every passage, there will be questions that require you to “dig around” in the passage to try and find the answer.  There are other questions that require less “digging”, we’ll call them “pseudo-discretes.”  These are questions that are on the same topic as the passage but require you to have outside knowledge to answer. Reading the passage doesn’t always help with these questions, and if you are running out of time, they can be a lifesaver.

Critical Reading:

This section doesn’t have any discrete questions to speed things up; every question is associated with passage. Your speed in this section is dependent on your personal strategy for the passages. Some students find it faster to read through the passage carefully and then answer the questions from memory. Other students move more quickly by skimming the passage and referring back to it when needed.

Many students are often tempted to read all the questions before reading through the passage, making it easier to find the answers. While this is a viable strategy for this section, it won’t help with timing.  In order to use this strategy, you will need to click through all of the questions twice: once to get a feel for them and again to answer them. The time spent clicking through the questions a second time will end up being lost. On top of this, it’s nearly impossible to remember all the questions for the passage. You will often need to look through the questions a third time or go back through the passage to find the answer.

Quantitative Reasoning:

This section is where many students will really feel the pressure of the time constraints.  With less than a minute for each question, even students with math degrees may find themselves struggling against the clock. The best advice is to be aware of the questions that are going to take more your time.  Word problems, systems of equations, and calculus problems tend to take a bit longer.  Unit conversions, simple algebra, and logarithm questions tend to be a bit quicker (if you know what you are doing with them!).

It is a good idea to sit down with a stopwatch and work through an entire QR section of the PCAT, checking to see how long each question takes you.  Any question that takes longer than 2 minutes, you may have been better off skipping. This way you won’t leave questions unanswered that are faster and simpler to solve.

Are you ready for test day?

One of the most efficient ways to practice your timing and your overall PCAT skills is taking practice tests. Can you think of a better way to prepare yourself for the actual exam? Next Step offers a free full-length PCAT practice exam as well as a 5 exam bundle. Our exams were built for the new 2016 format and allow students to take a practice PCAT in test-like conditions. You will be scored just as you would on the real exam; in addition, we provide our students with a performance breakdown as well as full answers and explanations for each question on the exam so you understand what you did wrong and why.

If you’re struggling with your timing or find you content knowledge lacking, you can always get outside help. You don’t have to go through this alone if you don’t want to. If you’re interested in one-on-one PCAT tutoring, take a look at our PCAT page or set up a free consultation here. One of our Academic Managers will reach out to you and set up a time to discuss your PCAT prep and see if our services would be a good fit.


Phil Hawkins, Senior PCAT Instructor

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