by Aimee Chang
The Medical College Admission Test – commonly referred to as the MCAT – is a standardized, multiple-choice test that pre-medical students must take in order to apply to medical school. Currently, the MCAT consists of the Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences sections, which emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving along with basic knowledge of the sciences.
Along with grades, research experience, and volunteer work, the MCAT score is an essential component of medical school applications. John Swartwood, Senior Instructor for the MCAT at Swartwood Prep, said “The MCAT is important to admissions committees because grading scales are different for different [undergraduate] schools. The MCAT, as a standardized test, is able to evaluate all pre-medical students equally, providing admissions committees an efficient way to compare applicants.”
When asked what is tested on the MCAT, Smartwood said “There are three sections: Physical Sciences consisting of physics and general chemistry, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences consisting of biology and organic chemistry. The MCAT is primarily passage-based, with seven passages in each section. The Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences also have discrete questions, which are straightforward questions that test you only on what you already know rather than what the passages provide.”
“Students tend to find the MCAT difficult because it’s not a content-based test. What makes it different is that it’s about analytical thinking – only very basic, first-year science knowledge is required. It’s all about understanding the concept. Students get stressed about the MCAT because the passages, which make up the majority of the exam, have entirely new content that they have never encountered before. What are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to apply what you know to solve the problem,” said Smartwood.
Before taking the MCAT, students should have some basic understanding of the sciences. “One year each of physics, life sciences, general chemistry, and organic chemistry is needed. Although there is no set time to take the MCAT – and you should take it whenever you’re most comfortable and have enough time to study – a good time to take it is the summer after sophomore year. You will have finished all the necessary courses by then and they will be fresh in your mind. Extra expertise from upper division courses does not help,” said Swartwood.
The MCAT is scored on a scale of forty-five, with each section worth fifteen points. “A solid score on the MCAT would be a thirty. It’s not just about the numbers, but with a thirty and a three point five GPA you would be pretty competitive. Not all thirties are built the same, though – the optimal thirty would be balanced, with a 10 in each section,” said Swartwood.
To obtain the best score they can, students choose from a variety of test prep options to study for the MCAT. Swartwood said, “Everyone does something different. The most popular is going to a live class. Some people do it online, some people just study on their own, and others go to pre-medical forums and follow study schedules. As for the amount of time you need to put into studying, it really depends on who you are. Generally, when you are taking a prep course, treat it like a university class: 1.5 hours of studying per 1 hour of class. Despite all the prep company hype, however, one of the best resources is the real AAMC tests from previous years. They can be purchased online and are pretty good predictors of how you will do on the real MCAT.”
“Overall, it is best to take the MCAT only when you know you are ready, as admissions committees like to see you take the test once and be done with it. You should have a target score, and you should also know the score you are at. If the two don’t line up, don’t take the test. If you take the test and need to retake it, it is best to show significant improvement,” said Swartwood.
The MCAT will be undergoing changes in 2015. Swartwood said, “Now is the golden time to take the MCAT. The writing section has been cut, and come 2015, psychobiology and biochemistry will be added. Right now there is less content being tested and the exam is very predictable. In 2015 however, more knowledge will be required and the 5-hour exam will be extended to a 6 or 7-hour exam.”
Students can learn more about the MCAT, purchase practice tests, and register for the MCAT exam at www.aamc.org.