Prospective Changes to MCAT content and sections by 2015

by Faizan Malik

The MCAT sections premed students are currently acquainted with  will be almost “unrecognizable” in 2015, according to proponents of the revision.The Medical School Admission Test was first developed in response to unprecedented drop-out rates, sometimes reaching as high as 50%, according to the American Medical Student Association.In order to standardize the admission process and select students capable of enduring the rigors of the medical curriculum, the MCAT was administered in 1928 and sure enough drop-out rates fell below 10% by the 1940s.

Since its initial implementation, the MCAT has undergone four major revisions resulting in a computer-based test with fewer organic chemistry questions, more genetics, shorter testing times, and a writing section. The last modification mentioned was an attempt to remedy the MCAT’s major failure- to select students with strong communication skills and professional characteristics.

However, the writing section has been criticized as unsuccessful in its intended role – the main reason for the upcoming revision of the MCAT expected in 2015. Currently the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which administers the MCAT, has posted 14 recommendations for the revised MCAT which can be found on its website.

The major change involves switching from the MCAT’s current format (a Physical Sciences section, Biological Sciences section, a Verbal Reasoning section, and a Writing section) to having a Molecular, Cellular and Organismal Properties of Living Systems section, a Physical, Chemical and Biochemical Properties of Living Systems section, a  Behavioral and Social Sciences Principles section, and a Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section.

The sciences sections will largely remain the same, but a stronger emphasis will be placed on experimentation and statistics.

The most conspicuous difference in the new MCAT is the complete replacement of the Writing section with a section devoted to “Behavioral and Social Sciences Principles.”

According to AAMC, this section is meant to “test examinees’ knowledge and use of the concepts in behavioral and social sciences, research methods, and statistics that provide a solid foundation for medical students’ learning about the behavioral and socio-cultural determinants of health.”

Alongside the Verbal Reasoning section’s name change are modifications to the topics tested in the “Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills” section. AAMC expects this section to “test examinees’ ability to analyze and reason through passages in ethics and philosophy, cross-cultural studies, population health, and a wide range of social sciences and humanities disciplines to ensure that students possess the necessary critical thinking skills to be successful in medical school.”

This section is likely meant to complement the Social Sciences part of the test and help identify students sensitive to social issues and capable of communicating professionally in difficult circumstances.

Opinions about these changes differ. Kelsey Thomas, a junior majoring in Biological Sciences, has taken the MCAT. Though she feels changes were necessary, she does not think current plans will make much of a difference.

“I’ve heard that most medical schools don’t really care about your writing score” Thomas said, “but I’m not sure how you can ask ethical questions in a multiple-choice format. Still, I don’t think it will make a difference. I think the multiple mini interview trend is a better solution.”

Alex Ung, another premed student, thinks that changes are a good idea if they can select for applicants with better communication skills.

“A lot of premeds are only focused on grades and tests,” Ung said. “It would be nice to see more empathy and students you can have a normal conversation with.”

Brent Chapman, a junior majoring in Electrical Engineering with “no intention to apply to medical school” offers an outside opinion.

“I don’t think changes to the test will make a difference in the quality of the applicants,” Chapman said. “It’s still a standardized test.”

The takeaway message for those expecting to take the test in 2015 is to have a firm grasp on basic statistics principles and experiment concepts as humanities-related courses will play a larger role in doing well on the MCAT.

This does not mean these recommendations should be ignored by those taking the MCAT sooner than 2015. Rather they show exactly what medical schools are looking for in its prospective students, so those taking the current MCAT can use these ideas to strengthen their essays and interview skills.

It is essential to show schools that you are well-rounded and understand how science, culture, and social issues intersect to affect health and human disease.

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