MCAT changes coming soon

On March 31, the Association of American Medical Colleges released preliminary recommendations for a new version of the Medical College Admission Test. The proposed recommendations were developed by a 22-member advisory panel called the MR5 Committee, appointed by the AAMC in 2008 to gather extensive data and review the current MCAT exam and recommend necessary changes.

This is the fifth time the MCAT has been evaluated since it was first administered in 1928. The last full-scale review of the MCAT exam was completed in 1990.

“Medicine and medical practice has changed a lot in the last 20 years,” said Dr. Jeff Koetje, the director of pre-health programs at Kaplan Test Prep. “There have been significant advances in the scientific understanding of disease and the way to treat patients, and, in the light of those advances in health care and health and care practice, there’s a common understanding that the MCAT itself needs to be brought into alignment with the current state of medicine and also anticipate the next 15 or 20 years of medical education.”

The AAMC currently administers more than 85,000 MCAT examinations each year at hundreds of locations in the United States and around the world, and these new recommendations could potentially change the way students will need to prepare for the test. Through extensive surveys of medical students, doctors and medical school admission officers, the MR5 Committee had the goal to evaluate the function of the MCAT, both as a tool for admissions and as a tool for predicting a student’s academic success in medical school.

“Perhaps the most significant recommendation is to add a new section to the MCAT,” Koetje said. “This is a new section that will focus on the behavioral and social science principles.”

The MR5 also made recommendations that the current science sections have new science added to them.

“It is not so much that the current science would be removed or reduced,” Koetje said, “but that new science would be tested. The new sciences they’re recommending to be tested are the upper-level science courses like biochemistry, cell biology — with greater emphasis on molecular biology — in addition to research methods and statistics.”

The current MCAT does test students on some biochemistry and molecular genetics, but the proposals made by the MR5 are ones in which there would be a greater emphasis on upper-level sciences and that the way those sciences would be tested will require students to have much larger funds of knowledge.

There have also been some recommendations to change the current verbal reasoning section, which currently covers a full range of potential topics across the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. The new verbal reasoning section would include topics in cross-cultural studies and population health. This would broaden the focus of this section of the test, but Koetje said it would make that section a little bit more oriented toward the future health practice of the test-taker. It has also been recommended that the writing sample be eliminated from the test.

“The sum of all of this is that the test is going to be about 90 minutes longer,” Koetje said, “even with the elimination of the writing sample section. So the test becomes more challenging in terms of endurance and pacing and maintains energy and focus, so it becomes more of a marathon than what it currently is, and it actually, in some ways, brings us back to the test experience when the test was a paper-and-pencil test.”

With these new recommendations, there has developed some metaphorical applause, as well as some controversy, around the timing of all of this and how quickly schools are going to have to change their curricula, or if they’ll even have to, in order to meet the demands of this new test.

“Since my goal is to work as an MD in the field of social and behavioral science, I like the new additions,” said Kirk Stapley, a Weber State University senior majoring in psychology. “Even if a med school applicant isn’t pursuing that field, MDs need experience in the field to deal with patients who often have behavioral health problems in addition to their medical ones.”

The new MCAT is expected to be rolled out in 2015, a fairly aggressive timeline for changes of this magnitude.

“We’re talking about an exam that is going to be taken by students who may, in fact, already be in school,” Koetje said. “There will even be some freshmen this year who may end up taking the new MCAT. Certainly students who come into college the fall of 2011 are going to be taking this updated test.”

Even though the changes are going to be fast, and broaden the scope of the already-extensive knowledge necessary to take the MCAT, according to Koetje, the changes are being relatively well accepted in the medical community.

“Fundamentally, we see this universal agreement that these are the right recommendations; this is reflective of the new state of health care practice.”