The MCAT makeover

The Medical College Admissions Test, affectionately called the MCAT (pronounced em-cat) for premeds around the country, is set to undergo a whole new makeover in 2015. In the last update in 2007, the Association of American Medical Colleges – the AAMC – decided to stop killing trees and converted it to a computer based format. It also shortened the duration of the test from the excruciating 8 hours to an exhausting 5 hours. Shortly afterward, the AAMC appointed a committee called MR5 in 2008 to solicit feedback from around the nation to plan the next major overhaul of the test. The committee has released a set of preliminary recommendations that are open for comment and feedback, most of which will very likely be implemented in the 2015 version. Here’s the highlights:

  • The current science sections (Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences) will be reorganized into two new sections – Molecular, Cellular and Organismal Properties of Living Systems and Physical, Chemical and Biochemical Properties of Living Systems sections.
  • The Writing Section will be eliminated.
  • A new Behavioral and Social Sciences Principles section will be added.

The reorganization of the science sections comes from the recommendations in the 2009 Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians Report by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In this report the HHMI recommended evaluating both medical students as well as premedical students on competencies in basic sciences, instead of coursework requirements. For premedical students, this means that instead of the age old requirements of 2 semesters each of introductory biology, physics, general and organic chemistry, they will now be required to demonstrate meeting these competencies through their college coursework (example understanding the role of genetics in disease epidemiology, how structure of biomolecules affects physiological function etc). The new MCAT will accordingly test the applicants’ competencies in these various areas.

Most premeds, unless they have a physics/math/engineering background, usually dread the physical sciences section, which tests physics and general chemistry. While that section is being replaced by a fancier sounding ‘Physical, Chemical and Biochemical Properties of Living Systems’, premeds will still need to learn those concepts of classical mechanics, electromagnetism, chemical equilibrium, molecular interaction etc. I suspect the questions will be worded differently – for instance, given a capacitance and charge (or current), instead of asking them about the voltage across two metal plates, they’ll be asked about the voltage changes across an ion channel in a neuron.

The other changes pertain to the non-science portion of the exam. The verbal reasoning section will probably stay with minimal changes. The writing section was intended to assess the ability of future docs for coherent persuasive writing. For the MCAT test taker it was the lowest yield section. Consequently, most test prep classes and books would advise you to spend the least amount of time preparing for this section. Unlike the other three sections, which were assigned a numerical score, this one received a letter grade from ‘J’ through ‘T’. The commercial test prep classes had a formulaic structure, which if followed by a premed with decent writing skills, easily yielded a ‘Q’ or above. A bad score (below an ‘N’) told the medical schools about the applicant’s language difficulties, maybe resulting from them being a non-native English speaker. Beyond that it was probably the least informative section for them. It comes as no surprise that it is being nixed completely.

The biggest change comes in the way of the new ‘Behavioral and Social Sciences Principles’ section. Just like the Verbal Reasoning section, this section will not require any specific course content to answer the questions. According to a recent opinion article in the NEJM, the idea is to encourage a liberal arts premedical education. Because people aren’t saline bags to be fixed with this or that drug, but a complex part of wider environmental, behavioral, and cultural forces, doctors can’t just be science-fact-spewing-nerds. That article also brings up an interesting point that undergraduate colleges can’t be solely responsible for producing altruistic, professional, ethical, empathetic, and compassionate physicians. Medical schools need to do their part by increasing emphasis on the development of these qualities in their curriculum.

If this MCAT revision removes the rigid med school course requirements of introductory sciences, it will be a win for premeds, especially the non-traditional students. I knew of people in graduate programs, applying to medical schools, who had to waste their time taking those 101 science classes, despite having taken advanced med school or grad school coursework in those areas, simply because they didn’t fulfill the letter of law laid out by medical schools. Hopefully the revamped physical sciences section will also eliminate the perennial premed frustration of “why do I have to solve random problems about tension and forces in strings and pulleys” when those questions are recast into problems about forces required for healthy muscular movement.

The MCAT 3.0 (1962-77) had an “understanding modern society” section that was removed in the next iteration to reduce cultural bias. Typically people who did their K-12 education overseas find the Verbal Reasoning section more challenging, maybe due to the different education style and content. The new Behavioral and Social Sciences section may put those applicants at a slight disadvantage. But perhaps it’ll get students to freak out less about majoring in a traditional premed area like Biololgy and get them to explore their interests, be they psychology, philosophy, history, literature, religion, engineering, or chemistry. After all, isn’t that the whole point of college anyway?

Image credit: Alberto G

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Comments
One Response to “The MCAT makeover”
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  • Legalese

    The purpose of this blog is to share interesting bits from around the web and beyond. All opinions expressed on this site are my own, unless credited to someone else. The images and artwork have also been created by me, unless credited to the sources. Oh! And please don't hold me liable for your actions resulting from any information on this site. As with everything else on the internet, read with the requisite amount of skepticism.
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