PCAT Timing Strategies

For complete PCAT success, you must answer as many questions correctly as possible in the time allotted. Knowing the content and question strategies is important but not enough; you also must hone your time-management skills so you have the opportunity to use those strategies on as many questions as possible. It’s one thing to answer a Critical Reading question correctly; it’s quite another to answer all 48 of them correctly in only 50 minutes. The same applies for the other sections; it’s a completely different experience to move from handling an individual passage or problem at leisure to handling a full section under timed conditions. Time is a factor that affects every test taker, and the good news is that you can quickly improve your scores by adhering to the following basic principles.

The Four Basic Principles of Test Timing

On some tests, if a question seems particularly difficult, you can spend significantly more time on it because you are given more points for correctly answering hard questions. This is not true on the PCAT. Every PCAT question, no matter how difficult, is worth a single raw point, and there’s no partial credit. Because you have so many questions to answer in very little time, you can seriously hurt your score by spending five minutes earning one point for a hard question and then not having time to get several quick points from easier questions later in the section.
Given this combination—limited time and all questions equal in weight—you must manage the test sections to ensure you earn as many points possible as quickly and easily as you can.
  • 1. Feel free to skip around

    One of the most valuable strategies to help you finish sections in time is recognizing and dealing with the questions and passages that are easier and more familiar to you first. That means temporarily skipping those that promise to be more difficult and time-consuming. You can always come back to these at the end, and, if you run out of time, you’re much better off having spent time on the questions that will definitely earn you points rather than those you might have gotten incorrect anyway. Because there’s no guessing penalty, always fill in an answer to every question on the test whether you have time to fully attempt it or not.
    This strategy is difficult for many test takers; most students are conditioned to do things in order, but doing so just doesn’t pay off on the PCAT. Don’t let your ego sabotage your score by wasting time on questions you can’t do. Sometimes it isn’t easy to give up on a tough, time-consuming question, but often it’s better simply to move on. The computer won’t be impressed if you get the toughest question right. If you dig in your heels on a tough question, refusing to move on until you’ve cracked it, you’re letting your ego get in the way of your test score. A test section is too short to waste on lost causes. There’s no point of honor at stake here, but there are PCAT points at stake.
    Try skipping questions when you practice to see how it feels. On the official test, you can skip around within a section but not among sections. Remember: If you do the test in the exact order given, you’re letting the test makers control you. Be mindful of the clock and don’t get bogged down with the tough questions.

  • 2. Seek out questions you can answer correctly

    Being able to identify which questions will be most difficult for you personally is essential to making decisions about which ones to skip. Unlike items on some other standardized tests, questions and passages on the PCAT are not presented in order of difficulty. In fact, the test makers scatter the easy and difficult questions throughout the section, in effect rewarding those who actually get to the end. Don’t lose sight of what you’re being tested for along with your reading and thinking skills: efficiency and cleverness. If general chemistry questions are your area of expertise, head straight for them when you first begin the Chemical Processes section and save the organic chemistry and biochemistry questions until the end of that section.
    When evaluating difficulty of a question, consider factors such as length of question stem and answer choices, type of question, type of answer choices provided (e.g., numbers, expressions, terms, or sentences), vocabulary used, content area being tested, etc. Also consider how long a question will take you; even if you know exactly how to perform a calculation, if it involves multiple steps and will take you several minutes, you may want to skip that question initially. If you do decide you can’t do a question or realize you won’t get to it, guess! Fill in an answer—any answer—for every question.
    There’s no penalty if you’re wrong, but you score a point if you’re right. Note that no answer choice is any more commonly correct on the PCAT than any other, so avoid looking for big-picture patterns and instead make educated guesses based on logic and elimination.
    Ideally, you’ll be able to determine if a question is easier or more difficult and time-consuming within the first five seconds. If you only realize a question is difficult after spending two minutes working on it, you’ve already lost time there and forfeited much of the advantage of skipping around.

  • 3. Use the process of elimination judiciously

    There are two ways to get all the answers right on the PCAT: You either know all the right answers, or you know all the wrong answers. Because there are three times as many wrong answers, you’ll likely be able to eliminate some, if not all, of them. Therefore, if you don’t know the right answer, eliminate as many wrong answers as you can. By doing so, you either get to the correct response or increase your chances of guessing the correct response. You start out with a 25 percent chance of picking the right answer, and with each eliminated answer your odds go up. Eliminate one choice, and you have a 33.3 percent chance of picking the right answer; eliminate two choices, and you have a 50 percent chance. Remember to look for wrong-answer traps when eliminating. Some answers are designed to tempt you by distorting the correct answer and therefore can be quickly eliminated.
    However, note that using the process of elimination can be slow. If you attempt to use the process of elimination on every question, you undoubtedly will run out of time before getting to all the questions. Evaluating four choices is much more time consuming than directly homing in on the correct answer and picking it without worrying about why all the wrong choices are incorrect. The process of elimination can be a powerful tool, but save it as a backup for when tackling the question directly with Stop-Think-Predict-Match has not yielded the correct answer.

  • 4. Keep track of time

    While working on a section, maintain a general sense of your timing without constantly looking at the clock. For most multiple choice sections, you must average approximately 35 seconds per question in order to finish in time (the exception is Quantitative Reasoning, during which you have closer to 55 seconds per question—but this still is not much time, considering all the math you will need to complete). These are averages, though; you will be able to answer some basic questions in 15 seconds, whereas other questions, such as those that involve lengthy calculations, may take over 60 seconds. Especially because of such discrepancies, constantly looking at the countdown timer after every question can be unnecessarily stressful and potentially misleading. You may have just tackled a particularly difficult question for which taking more time was perfectly acceptable, so trying to stick too closely to the average for every question would be counterproductive. Nevertheless, to ensure you finish each section, you still shouldn’t spend a wildly disproportionate amount of time on any one question or group of questions.
    A good strategy, therefore, is to look at the clock every five or ten minutes with a specific goal, such as “I should have finished the first 16 discrete questions when the countdown timer shows 30 minutes left in the Chemical Processes section” (meaning 10 minutes has elapsed). Having specific guidelines in mind helps avoid spending time calculating how much time is left out of the total, which can use up valuable testing time.
    When planning out your time, leave at least 30 seconds at the end of each section to review any questions you intended to come back to later and make quick educated guesses for questions you left blank (if any). The last thing you want to happen is for time to elapse for a particular section before you’ve gotten to half the questions. Therefore, it’s essential that you pace yourself, keeping in mind the general guidelines for how long to spend on any individual question or passage. With practice, you will develop an innate sense of how long you have to complete each question so you know when you’re exceeding the limit and should start to move faster.

Section-Specific Pacing

As described previously, keep in mind that the times per question or passage are only averages; some questions are bound to take less time, whereas others will take more. Try to stay balanced. Every question is of equal worth, so don’t get hung up on any one. Think about it: If a question is so hard that it takes you a long time to answer it, chances are you may get it wrong anyway. In that case, you’d have nothing to show for your extra time but a lower score.

Critical Reading

Allow yourself approximately eight minutes per passage set, which includes reading a passage and answering the associated questions. On average, give yourself 3–4 minutes to read a passage and then 4–5 minutes to answer the eight corresponding questions. Some longer passages may take more time to read, but limit yourself to four minutes as a maximum so you have time to answer the questions, which are what actually contribute to your overall score.
Additionally, do the easiest passages first. This may mean avoiding topics that are extremely unfamiliar or passages that seem to include a lot of challenging vocabulary. For passage-based questions, choose an answer based only on the information given. Be careful not to overthink the question by inserting too much of your own logic. Passages might generate their own data. Your answer choices must be consistent with the information in the passage, even if that means an answer choice is inconsistent with the science of ideal, theoretical situations.

Biological Processes and Chemical Processes

The Biological Processes and Chemical Processes sections contain mixtures of discrete and passage-based questions, but the timing guidelines are the same throughout. Spend approximately two minutes reading each passage and 35 seconds on each question, whether associated with a passage or discrete. Note that this is significantly less time per passage than in Critical Reading, but the passages will be shorter, and there is less information you need to glean from each passage. Following the timing guidelines in these sections is essential since spending too much time on any one passage or question will quickly cause you to run out of time in the section.
Just like with Critical Reading, complete the easiest and fastest passages and questions first. This may mean heading straight for the discrete questions since they do not require the additional time of reading a passage. Note that, unlike in Critical Reading, outside information is useful and often required for science questions, but the correct answers still will not conflict with the passages.
Know also that you may not need a deep understanding of all the details of topic to be able to answer a question. Much of the information from the passage and even question stem may be extraneous. Don’t let yourself get slowed down by all of the facts; instead, paraphrase what is important so you can quickly begin earning points.

Quantitative Reasoning

You have about 55 seconds for each Quantitative Reasoning question, which may initially seem luxurious compared with the other sections. However, the amount of math and other scratch work required for these questions necessitates spending longer on each, meaning that this section is just as restrictive on time as the others. Some questions will take more time and some less. Again, the rule is to do your best work first.