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How to Warp USMLE Time If You’re Falling Behind on Test Day

If you can magically stop time like Hiro — well, you can stop reading now.

For the rest of us, falling behind on a question block during the USMLE is an incredibly frightening predicament.

Nothing is worse than the panic caused when realizing that you have 10 questions and only five minutes left. While most of us can’t stop time, we can start practicing some strategies to help if we do find ourselves falling behind.

Check Your Time Early and Often

The sooner you notice that you are falling behind, the sooner you can start speeding up your test taking strategy. I encourage my students to quickly check the time every five to ten questions. Remember, you should be spending an average of 65-70 seconds per question. If you notice that you’re five questions in and have already used eight minutes of your time, you can start making little changes to improve your speed as opposed to rushing through questions at the end.

Know When to Move On

We’ve all been there — stuck agonizing over a difficult question. While it is important to try to reason your way to a best answer, it’s also important to recognize what you don’t know, accept it, and move on.

If you’re starting to fall behind, try shaving time on questions by quickly moving on from what you don’t know. If you are completely lost, try to work through the answer choices and rule out what you can via the process of elimination. At that point, go with your gut feeling and pick an answer. If you feel like it’s a question that you could get right if you had more time, mark it and come back if you do end up making some time up. If not, move on and realize that there will be other opportunities to improve your score. (More on testing and question breakdown strategies here.)

Likewise, spend less time double- and triple-checking answer choices that you are very certain on. It’s more likely that you’ll end up talking yourself out of the right answer anyway, and this is time better spent on more complex questions. Trust your gut and remember that you put yourself in the position to do well.

Always Answer Every Question

Before you move on, pick an answer. Even if you aren’t certain, it’s better to pick an answer choice than to risk not having the time to come back to a question at the end. Your quickest guess is still better than leaving a question blank.

Know When It’s Crunch Time

So you have eight minutes and 10 questions left — what do you do? Rather than trying to rushing through each question, keep taking each question one at a time albeit with a little more urgency.

In this situation, too many students start rushing through each question setting themselves up to miss all ten when they could have focused on the problem at hand and improved their performance on those questions. Make sure you continue reading each question stem just have a lower threshold for recognizing that you need to move on. It’s not ideal, but as long as you leave yourself one minute at the end to choose an answer for any questions that you haven’t gotten too, you’ll be able to better focus on questions that you could get right and still have time to answer each one.


It’s easier said than done, but don’t panic. One poorly timed block won’t ruin your test, but it can cause you to spiral out of control. If you did have timing issues with a particular block, make sure to take a five or ten minute break after to cool off and refocus. Try to think about what went wrong and how you might improve without dwelling on the past. Focus on what’s ahead and come back for the rest of the test prepared to implement changes to improve your speed.

Most importantly  focus on implementing these strategies now on your NBMEs and timed blocks in your question bank. Like anything, practice makes perfect and you can put yourself in position to handle anything that may come up on your test.