By Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising
I promised another post on the MCAT, so here it is: The MCAT, Part Deux. This sequel brings back the same cast of characters from Part I, namely anxious pre-meds and a beleaguered advisor fighting all odds as they train for the ultimate test, the most important moment in their lives, when forces of good and evil collide—(OK, so maybe I got that from a Hollywood movie trailer). Today, that “ultimate” test is morphing into something both new and a little mysterious. The Writing Sample has already been dropped from the MCAT, and a completely optional, non-scored Trial Section was added in January, questioning your familiarity with biochemistry, psychology, and/or sociology along with the traditional subjects of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. The Trial Section will be in place for this year and next as questions are tested and subject matter edited. Coming soon to a computer terminal near you, in 2015 actually, the New MCAT will rise up to its full height and might, a formidable dragon of a standardized test, including new sections and a longer time allotment (from the current 4.5 hours to about 6.5 hours). “Slaying” it will require the patience and focus of a saint, fearlessness in the face of the unknown, peak physical stamina, and a sharpened intellect applied in broader swipes and strokes.
Many agree that it is time for a change. The MCAT has not been significantly revised since 1991; the new test will be only the fifth version of a standardized entrance exam created in 1928. The four new sections will be integrated and interdisciplinary: Biological & Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, Psychological, Social, & Biological Foundations of Behavior, and Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills. The mere titles of these sections seem daunting, as long and convoluted as they are. Advising the first-year students on how to prepare, since they will be the first class uniformly battling with MCAT 2015, has already been a challenge. So far I have upgraded biochemistry from a recommended pre-med course to a required one. I have also suggested that students take our introductory psychology and sociology courses (PSY 100 or 101; SOC 100) as a way to gain exposure to some of the fundamental concepts tested in the behavioral science section, but I have done so rather casually, since it is not yet clear whether these intro courses, at F&M or anywhere else, will be the only way to prepare for this part of the test. As 2015 gets closer, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is developing educational tools to prepare for the Psych/Soc section outside of college coursework, but no one yet knows if these materials will be sufficient. Folks at the AAMC do seem to understand that pre-meds are already under a tremendous burden to complete the prerequisites, for med school and for the MCAT, while flourishing in their majors, their minors, and everything else they want to do in college. Pre-health advisors and others have also pointed out to them that introductory social science courses are taught very differently across undergraduate institutions, more so than introductory natural science courses, which is a complicating factor.
While I’ll address more of the complications surrounding MCAT 2015 in the months to come—and hopefully suggest some ways of overcoming them—, the best weapons to have in your sheath as we move forward are adaptability and an open mind. And it’s not only the MCAT that will ask this of you. I just referred to the “prerequisites, for med school and for the MCAT,” as if they were two different things, because it does look increasingly like the required courses for admission are changing at a very different pace than the revisions to the MCAT. Biochemistry may continue to be a mere “suggestion” made by many Admissions deans, for instance—and the same with “a background in behavioral science”—but if the MCAT is testing these subjects starting in 2015, then in reality they are much more than suggestions. No matter when or if Admissions deans make the change, if it’s on the test it’s a requirement. An advising colleague of mine recently compared this discrepancy to two trains on parallel tracks headed to the same destination at varying speeds. “Med school admissions requirements are the Local, the MCAT is the Express,” he said wisely.
Over the summer I will be enhancing our Health Professions Advising website to include a section on preparing for MCAT 2015, spotlighting some of the resources that are coming out from various quarters. Your first stop should be the MCAT main page at the AAMC. You’ll want to pay particular attention to the 2nd edition of the MCAT 2015 Preview Guide, which deciphers the new sections of the test and their structure around foundational concepts, including sample questions. There is also a basic overview video, hosted by two rather stiff young doctors, and a thoughtful letter from Darrell G. Kirch, MD, AAMC President and CEO, discussing how the new MCAT fits in with the need for a more holistic approach to the education of tomorrow’s doctors. The AAMC is also partnering with Khan Academy and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop video lessons and other resources for pre-med students to use in preparing for the new exam. I attended a session on these MCAT resources at my recent advisors’ conference and was quite impressed with the breadth and innovation of the AAMC’s thinking when it comes to helping you get ready for 2015.
So, all is not lost. We will not be vanquished by MCAT 2015 just as we will not let Organic Chemistry or anything else stand in our way, right? Right? I will continue to inform you of the materials available to you (consider these resources your armor, if you like) and hopefully you will carry on with the same energy and fortitude you had when you first stepped onto the pre-med path.
En garde, MCAT. You’ve met your match.