Setting My Testing Tempo

by Lorien E. Menhennett

I took my first MCAT practice test yesterday. I knew I wasn’t going to make my ultimate goal on the first try, but I did have a score in mind that I wanted to hit. I didn’t make it. I had a moment (maybe two, or perhaps even a few) of panic: If I couldn’t hit that lower target, how in the world was I going to get to my much higher goal? A dear friend, my MCAT “counselor,” set me straight. He reminded me that this was my first try. That you don’t achieve a lofty goal on your first try. Life doesn’t work that way – it takes practice. And more practice.

As I was a classical pianist for 10 years, he gave me a musical analogy. He asked how many times I would practice a composition while readying it for a performance or competition. “More times than I like to think about,” I told him. “This is the same,” he responded.

I know my friend is right. But it’s hard to overcome the fear that besets me when I even think about the exam, much less attempt it, given its high stakes. I feel like my whole future rides on it. So during my practice exam, even though I didn’t feel panicky, clearly I was – I finished two sections (verbal and biological sciences) with significant time remaining, indicating that I was rushing.

What I need, my MCAT counselor told me, is a tempo for each section. Again, thinking like a musician. Play every section with precision, but each at its own necessary pace. For physical sciences, I need a faster tempo, because it takes me a little longer to process the questions and I need to come up with my answers more quickly so that I finish the section. For biological sciences – and even more so for verbal – I need a consciously slower pace, so that I don’t rush. Because on those, I process the questions much more quickly, but I have a tendency to feel the need to speed through things and then make silly mistakes. Hence, here are my MCAT “tempos”:

Physical Sciences: Presto (“very fast,” 168-177 BPM)
Biological Sciences: Adagio (“slow and stately,” 55-65 BPM)
Verbal Reasoning: Largo (“broadly,” 45-50 BPM)

Next time around, I will more consciously put these tempos into practice. That, and hone my focus. Focus on the question in front of me. Not think about the previous question nor the next question. Just THAT question. Tempo and focus – those are my goals for my next practice exam, rather than a particular score. The score will come. With practice.