Passage Timing

As we go through this course we will learn a ton of tools to help us improve our comprehension. Often times we will need to slow down to learn these techniques. However, CARS requires excellent timing and of all of the sections, this is the one I see students struggle with the most. Therefore it is important we begin building timing skills from the very start of the course. Since we are focused on comprehension for these first couple of days we will also begin by focusing on our passage timing.

To start off our discussion of passage timing let’s discuss the two most common reasons people spend too much time on the passage.

  1. Rereading
  2. Extensive note-taking


The most common time sink when it comes to reading the passages is rereading. The language and the sentence structure of CARS passages can be really challenging but the passage doesn’t usually hinge on a single sentence. Typically students get stuck on these couple of sentences and spend up to several minutes trying to decipher that single line. Author’s are repetitive and will usually expand on their ideas or repeat themselves throughout the passage. Since we are reading for structure we will “read past” the sentence we didn’t understand and see if we can understand the meaning of the paragraph as a whole from the other sentence around it.

Let’s look at an excerpt from the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

Friedrich Nietzsche

“All passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag down their victim with the weight of stupidity—and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they “spiritualize” themselves. Formerly, in view of the element of stupidity in passion, war was declared on passion itself, its destruction was plotted; all the old moral monsters are agreed on this: il faut tuer les passions. The most famous formula for this is to be found in the New Testament, in that Sermon on the Mount, where, incidentally, things are by no means looked at from a height. There it is said, for example, with particular reference to sexuality: “If thy eye offend thee, pluck it out.” Fortunately, no Christian acts in accordance with this precept. Destroying the passions and cravings, merely as a preventive measure against their stupidity and the unpleasant consequences of this stupidity—today this itself strikes us as merely another acute form of stupidity. We no longer admire dentists who “pluck out” teeth so that they will not hurt anymore.”

—Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Duncan Large. Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

The first half of this paragraph is fairly dense and a bit difficult to understand. He talks about passions and when they spiritualize themselves and how war was declared on the passions because they can lead people to do stupid things. However, he describes these ideas in a convoluted manner. It’s easy to get caught up reading each line multiple times hoping it will “click”. Instead, if we keep reading he clearly states what he is trying to argue with all of this in the second to last sentence.

There he states, “Destroying the passions and cravings, merely as a preventive measure against their stupidity and the unpleasant consequences of this stupidity—today this itself strikes us as merely another acute form of stupidity.”

Basically, he thinks that the war on passion is in and of itself stupid. The previous discussion of the New Testament was actually just an example of this. Same thing with the discussion of the moral monsters and dentists. So what is the takeaway from all of this? Focus on “reading past” the sentence you didn’t understand then pause at the end of the paragraph and spend 10-30 seconds thinking about the sentence that captures the purpose of the paragraph. See if it explains the sentence you got stuck on. If not keep moving on, chances are that a single sentence isn’t going to make or break the passage.

This skill of “reading past” becomes important for several different question types. For questions, the skill is transformed into reading for context. Basically, what around a specific idea or phrase describes what the question is asking about. While we will dive into this skill in far more depth later it is important to understand the similarity between the two because ultimately we need to transform our comprehension skills into question-answering skills.

Give this question a try with this idea in mind

Extensive Note-taking

Another place I see students lose time is in note-taking and honestly, it doesn’t really need to be that extensive for us to lose a lot of time. Take the last excerpt for example. I timed myself reading the section, taking notes on it, and highlighting the sentence that captures the paragraph. The excerpt is 177 words and it took me 29 seconds to read it. That is a little faster than the average adult reading speed of 300 words/minute but not much.

Here is what I wrote,

P1: N thinks killing passions = stupid

Those 6 words (I’m including the = sign) took me 20 seconds to write and I knew exactly what I wanted to write down and already had P1 written down on my page. If I pause to do that for each paragraph and for the main idea I would spend around 1 minute and 40 seconds per 4-paragraph passage. Highlighting on the other hand took me about 9 seconds for the whole phrase. This means it would take me about 36 (9 seconds x 4 paragraphs) seconds to highlight what I was planning on writing down anyways. Over the course of 9 passages, the time savings is huge, by CARS standards, roughly 9 minutes and 36 seconds.

Reading Speed366 words/minute
Handwriting Speed18 words/minute
Highlighting speed7.5 phrases/minute

If you are writing more than this per paragraph you can probably save even more time. So we will focus on honing our highlighting skills. First, make sure to get comfortable with the highlighting and strikeout shortcuts since we will use both of those skills fairly frequently. For highlighting the shortcut is alt+h and for strikeout alt+s. The more comfortable you are with the shortcuts the faster your highlighting and strikeout skills will become.


  • Choose three passages from any resources practice the big picture strategy as you are going through focus on “reading past” and practice the highlighting and strikeout shortcuts.