Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

The Medical School Admission Test

  • 0

By Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising

  • mcat option5

It used to be that the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) was offered once in April and once in August.  Pre-health students who were applying in the summer were advised to take the April MCAT; a few might have finished their required courses in time to take it the August before, but by and large, that Saturday in April was the day, a nationwide event packed with expectation and anxiety.  I used to proctor the exam, reading instructions and monitoring the clock in the Chemistry auditorium at the university where I was a graduate student.  Test-takers showed up an hour before the hour before the hour before they’d been told to arrive; they were beyond nervous.  For the final registration process, they had to give their names—some of them froze when asked this question, which wasn’t a good sign—and their i.d.’s, usually handed over with notable shaking, not unlike the Cowardly Lion getting yelled at by the Wizard of Oz.  They were told six times to turn off their alarm watches but every time I had to confiscate one or two of these devices and leave them out in the hall, rather amazed that no one knew how to silence the beeps.  In the testing room there was always at least one person known as The Cougher (or sometimes The Sniffler), a pre-med way too sick to be there but determined to fight through, get into medical school, become a doctor, and, we hoped, heal thyself.  One time a young woman actually asked me during the break to take my shoes off since “they squeak when you walk up and down the aisle.”  I looked at her like she was nuts, but I did wear different shoes the next time.  I knew—we all knew—how important that Saturday in April was.

Now the MCAT is administered at commercial testing centers on more than twenty dates a year.  It still tests one’s knowledge of basic biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics, and there’s still a verbal reasoning section—although everything is soon to change (more on that later).  And it’s still mightily important.  MCAT scores are predicative of success in the medical school curriculum; if they didn’t hold that power we wouldn’t care so much.  For anyone preparing for the test, the current one or the new one being introduced, I do have some general advice:

  • Register early.  The Prometric Testing Centers fill up quickly, particularly in popular places.  Official MCAT materials suggest registering at least sixty days prior to the date you want, but I recommend registering within days of registration opening (that’s at least ninety days).
  • Take the MCAT as soon after you’ve completed the pre-med coursework as possible, when your knowledge of these subjects is fresh.   When applying in the summer, for instance, to go to medical school the following year, take it no later than June or early July (preferably March, April, or May).  It takes thirty days to score the test and you will hold up your application if you are a current applicant who took the MCAT later than early summer.  Feel free to talk to me about MCAT timing—it can really “make or break” an application.
  • Plan to take it once.  You may have taken your SAT several times, even once “for practice.”  This is not your SAT.  Many schools average multiple MCAT scores, so doing poorly on a “trial run” can really hurt you.  All schools see all scores, so even if scores are not averaged, your judgment may be questioned if they see a score that reflects little-to-no preparation.  Believe me, it’s not something you want to endure more than once anyway.
  • The most effective way to prepare for the test is to take as many timed, full-length practice tests as possible.  I recommend at least eight, hopefully a dozen.  This means you need to set aside large chunks of time, 5.5 hours each, leading up to the test date.  Much of a successful MCAT experience can be attributed to stamina; think of it as endurance training.  Commercial prep companies (Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.) can help you review the material and will administer a few practice tests, but in most cases you’re paying for access to as many practice tests as you have time to take.  Take advantage of these resources, take the time, and take the practice tests!
  • Scores are good at most schools for three years prior to matriculation, so if you’re among the majority of applicants who take a year off before going to med school, sitting for the test during the summer after junior year is still perfectly fine; your scores will not expire.  The test is offered in the months of January, March, April, May, June, July, August, and September.
  • Go right to the source for specific MCAT questions, especially about registration.  MCAT elves are waiting to help you at (202) 828-0690.
  • By all means take care of yourself during the days leading up to the big day.  Get sleep!  On the night before the test it may be necessary to stay in a hotel; your roommate doesn’t have as much invested in your success, even if he/she is your best friend.  And please, stay healthy if you can.  You do not want to be The Cougher.

To be continued . . .

blog comments powered by Disqus