• Michael Dworkin, MD

How to pace yourself during the USMLE

Updated: Jul 31, 2018

Want to know a quick and easy trick to improve your pacing on the USMLE exams? Read on!


Timing is an important component of a successful examination. If you finish each section 15 minutes early or have ever run out of time during a section, practice the following strategy to improve your timing on all USMLE/NBME/UWorld practice exams.


General pace of USMLE exams

Each question on should take about 1.5 minutes to do. Therefore every 10 questions, 15 minutes should have transpired.



Timing strategy for sections with 40 questions and 60 minutes per section

Glance at the time remaining at question numbers 10, 20, and 30. There should be 45, 30, and 15 minutes remaining respectively at each of those question numbers. For example, if at question 30 you have 20 minutes left, you can afford to slow down a little bit. Write this time table down during every online practice exam and during your real exam.



Timing strategy for sections with 50 questions and 75 minutes per section

Glance at the time remaining timer at question numbers 10, 20, 30, 40. There should be 60, 45, 30, and 15 minutes remaining respectively at each of those question numbers. For example, if at question 10 you have 58 minutes left, try to go a little faster.



What about marking questions?

Marking and returning to questions should be done sparingly. The best questions to mark are 1) questions you have not had enough time to process or that you think you would take many minutes to complete or 2) questions where you’re stuck and can’t seem to remember what you’re trying to remember.


Questions meeting the first criteria are high yield to mark because they slow you down and take time away from other questions. The prime example of this kind of question is a lengthy biostats question that requires a detailed calculation. If you’re not comfortable with this, mark it, choose a random answer, and come back to it at the end if you have time.


Questions meeting the second criteria are good to mark because you might be able to remember the information after you’ve completed the rest of the section.


Questions you’re unsure of despite having understood the stem and provided your best guess are low yield to return to later as it is unlikely that your assessment of the question will change.



What about breaks in between sections?

Take a 5-7 minute break between each of your exam sections. Make sure to have a small snack, drink some water or coffee, and go to the bathroom between each exam section.