The Medical College Admission Test has been markedly consistent in its material since 1991, with subject matter drawn from biology, chemistry, organic chemistry and physics. But this is slated to change in 2015.
A proposal to revamp the MCAT, the exam all medical school applicants must take, was drafted last year by the Association of American Medical Colleges and is likely to be approved by the organization’s governing board in the coming weeks. Although the revised version of the MCAT will not take effect until 2015, the changes will be significant.
The new exam will place more emphasis on psychology, sociology and biochemistry, three areas that are not included in the current test version, according to the association, which creates and administers the test on behalf of medical school admission offices. In fact, the 2015 MCAT is set to place twice as much emphasis on psychology as organic chemistry and more on sociology than physics. It will also be lengthened to around seven hours, from its current five and a half.
The proposed exam requires students to have taken semester-long courses in each of the new areas, in addition to two semesters of each of the four science areas already tested.
Beyond the basics
Since most medical school applicants take the exam during their senior undergraduate year, pre-med students entering college this fall will be the first to experience the revised MCAT in large numbers. But current first-years and sophomores planning on taking time off after graduation before completing the MCAT will also have to deal with the 2015 version.
“The change will be significant enough to affect everyone thinking about applying to medical school,” said George Vassilev, director of pre-professional advising and assistant dean of the College. Vassilev said he believes the revised MCAT is based on the desire of medical schools to adapt to vast changes in the medical field since 1991, the last time the exam underwent a change.
“We live in a highly diversified society, and there is a need for physicians being able to make the connections between science and the social contexts of medicine,” Vassilev said, citing the rise of new medical technology and the importance of health specialists developing a greater understanding for the humanities and behavioral sciences. “The new MCAT aims to capture these changes.”
Jeff Koetje, director of pre-health programs at Kaplan Test Prep, agreed that the changes would be beneficial. Focusing on the additional subject matter will help physicians appreciate the influence of sociology and psychology on caregiver-patient relations. “The prevalent mindset amongst the academic leadership” in medical schools is that students need to understand these subjects, he said.
“Frankly, at this point, we can say that almost any student is going to be impacted by these changes,” Koetje said, citing a Kaplan survey showing that 73 percent of medical school admission officers believe these changes will help medical students have a better understanding of the “biochemical basis of diseases.” He said he views the new MCAT as aiming to make students “look beyond the basic pre-med track.”
Meeting the requirements
Pre-med students and health career advisers have expressed concern that the new sections will leave medical school applicants with less time to devote to areas like the humanities because of the need to satisfy the additional course requirements. Many colleges and universities have starting planning ways to assist students in fulfilling both the traditional “hard science” and new behavioral science requirements, Koetje said.
Anxiety about the changes has also reached Brown undergraduates.
“We’re already stressed, and we have a lot of requirements already,” said Kelly Shan ’15, who is pre-med. “It does put a damper on things, although de-emphasizing physics will help relieve some of the stress.” But she added that as a human biology concentrator, she was already planning on taking courses in some of the newly prioritized areas of the MCAT.
Philip Gruppuso, associate dean for medical education and professor of pediatrics, said Brown’s open curriculum blunts the impact of the proposed changes, since most pre-med students at Brown already take courses in a wide array of disciplines. “I don’t think this is going to hurt students at Brown, and it may actually be to their advantage,” he said. “I think that commitment to education and the behavioral and social sciences is really critical to the overall outcome of educating compassionate caregivers.”
While pre-med students should consider how the changes to the MCAT could affect their schedules, Gruppuso said, Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education already serves as a catalyst for implementing the new requirements, as it provides future physicians with a broad interdisciplinary education.
Noting that around half of Brown undergraduates who apply to medical school decide to concentrate in non-science areas, Vassilev said the diversity of students’ extracurricular and academic interests already puts them in a strong position to adapt to the new MCAT requirements. Consequently, there are currently no plans to revamp the pre-med courses or departments at Brown, Vassilev said.
“We already encourage students to focus on exploring psychology or the behavioral sciences,” Vassilev said. In addition, health careers advisers hold six workshops each academic year to assist pre-med first-years and sophomores in planning their undergraduate education. Vassilev said the University’s support structure for pre-med students will address any added pressure related to the new MCAT.
Adding ‘a new dimension’
Many pre-med students expressed similar views, saying they already had an interest in the newly emphasized areas of the exam. Emily Wilkins ’14 said there are already many required classes for pre-meds, but she also sees the benefit of having a background in psychology and sociology.
Pre-med student Kwame McCain ’15 noted the benefit of an expanded area of study. “It adds a new dimension to preparation for med school,” he said, adding that he does not expect the changes to alter his undergraduate experience at Brown.
Still, some students said they thought that although it was important to study the behavioral sciences to become more capable caregivers, they felt the lengthening of the test by an hour and a half was unnecessary.
“I think the MCAT is already long enough,” said Libby Stein ’15, a likely biology concentrator. “There’s a point when mental acuity goes down the toilet.” Stein said she was excited about taking courses in psychology, biochemistry and sociology, but that the new sections simply add stress for pre-meds.
Acknowledging these criticisms, Koetje said he feels the new MCAT is a step in the right direction. “Nobody wants any of these proposed changes to reduce the diversity of experiences or opportunities for pre-med students,” he said. “The goal is to help students become more diverse in their educational pursuits.”