PCAT You = 1 vs. The Clock = 0

This forum made possible through the generous support of SDN members, donors, and sponsors. Thank you.


Next Step Test Prep Tutor
7+ Year Member
Apr 29, 2014
Reaction score
Mastering the PCAT is all about 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?

Fortunately we have a few strategies up our sleeve that can help when it comes to test day, but they vary based on which section you working through.

Time management is critical on the Writing Section. You have 30 minutes to write an essay recommending one or more solutions 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. Take advantage of the maximum time allowed for the Writing essay to edit and polish your essay until it shines.

Since everyone’s writing skills are different, one person may expect to write 4 paragraphs, while another may write 8. Longer essays are not necessarily stronger essays! 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 you can use to manage 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 answer: you must first read through the passage before you can attempt to answer the associated questions. If you're running out of time, prioritize discrete questions over passage-based ones towards the end of these sections. But no matter what, never leave a question blank! There's no penalty for incorrect answers, but there is a 25% chance you could randomly guess the correct answer.

When you return to passage-based questions, 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 associated with a passage but really only require content 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. Ironically, this strategy can actually be more time-consuming! May students don't feel the need to prepare for the Critical Reading section, but the more you practice, the more savvy a test-take you will become on this section - and hopefully save valuable time on Test Day.

Quantitative Reasoning:
This section is where many students will really feel the pressure of the time constraints. With less than a minute per question, even students with math degrees may find themselves struggling against the clock. The best advice is to be aware of time-consuming question types. 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.

A final note here: you might be surprised to find that some "intimidating" problem types, such as calculus questions, really aren't very scary or difficult to solve once you get the hang of it! And getting these questions right will definitely give you an advantage on test day.

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.

Members don't see this ad.