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Changes in the MCATs to Affect a Quarter of Students

Published: Sunday, March 18, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

Almost a quarter of students in the College of Arts & Sciences are premed. That means that one out of every four students is working for their entire undergraduate career to prepare for the MCAT, an exam that they shape their course selections and academic programs around. Now, though, for the first time in over 20 years, those students are being forced onto a new path of preparation, as the MCAT announced significant changes to be initiated in 2015.

Owen Farcy, Kaplan Test Prep’s Director of Pre-Health Programs, noted that the last change to the exam was in 1991, saying that "the world of medicine and how doctors interact with patients has changed drastically since then." The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which both represents medical schools and creates the exam, decided that the test no longer represents what is important to medical schools and could better evaluate undergraduate applicants.

Major changes affect the test’s length, content, and structure. What was once a five and a half-hour test will now be over seven hours. "The AAMC will now have enough data on the test to really distinguish between students," Farcy said. While the additional questions may give some students more opportunities to show their knowledge, others worry that this will make an already grueling exam excessively stressful.

When looking at content, there was a realignment of the topics covered on the test. "They realized the sciences being tested didn’t necessarily correspond with what medical schools need students to know," Farcy explained, so additional advanced topics in biochemistry and genetics were put onto the exam. One of the most controversial changes is the addition of a new section called the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior, which includes topics in psychology and sociology. "The idea behind this new content is that the doctors of today and tomorrow need to be well-versed in understanding different cultures and communicating with their patients and understanding behaviors behind diagnoses," Farcy said. Smaller changes also include a restructuring of the Critical Analysis and Reasoning health and ethics. Also, starting in 2014, a year before the aforementioned changes will be implemented, the writing sample on the exam will be eliminated.

The major implication of the changes for premed students is that they will be expected to know a wider range of material, and may have to take courses that they otherwise would not take. It also may change the course sequences for some, as there are two main tracks for premed students: the three-year track, where students take the MCAT in their junior year, and the four-year track, where they sit for the exam as seniors. Even if students are planning on taking biochemistry, for example, before medical school, many who would ordinarily wait until senior year will now have to work that into their schedule before they take the MCAT.

Since the main changes will not be effective until 2015 or later, this primarily impacts current freshmen and incoming students, but will have large implications for the premedical program. Recommended courses will most likely change, and Farcy noted, "Preparation will be harder since there is more content, and length will impact things since a longer exam is more taxing."

These changes could also shift the demographics of medical school applicants, encouraging or discouraging certain students from pursuing this path. "Med schools say they like students with backgrounds outside of the core sciences to add a variety of experience, but at the same time, with the addition of biochemistry and other subjects, there is concern from advisors that this will make the premedical school track more rigid and might prevent students from alternate paths," Farcy said.

These exam changes will certainly be causes of uncertainty and stress for students planning on pursuing medical school. However, if the test is being altered to better reflect the topics important for medical school, then it will ultimately benefit the applicants in the long run. While students taking the current, shorter version of the exam should certainly focus on the topics they will be tested on, Farcy points out that, "This is a clear indication of the way schools are taking the curriculum, so even if they are not taking the new MCAT, students should consider pursuing coursework in those areas."

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