Monday, November 3, 2014

The New MCAT: What Future Doctors Need to Know

Medical training is filled with rites of passage. To become a physician, one must dissect cadavers, sit through endless lectures, and often incur substantial loans during medical school. Even after graduating, newly minted doctors need to survive on little sleep and money for years during residency. But the first challenge comes before medical school even begins: the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT. And that rigorous test is about to get even more difficult. 

Observing that an older and more diverse population brings new challenges to the practice of medicine, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has rolled out some major changes to the MCAT; they hope the new test's results will allow medical schools to better determine which candidates are ready to learn to be effective doctors in today's world. The revised test will be administered for the first time in April of 2015, affecting those who hope to begin medical school in fall of 2016.

Changes to the Test

More Topics: In addition to content knowledge and critical thinking, areas tested by the old MCAT, the new one will feature questions about research design and graphical analysis/data interpretation. The lion's share of points will come from the verbal section and questions about biology, psychology, and biochemistry. Students should also be prepared to answer questions about organic chemistry, physics, and sociology, though there will be fewer of these. The AAMC says that the test will also draw clearer connections between scientific knowledge and its application to medicine.

More Time: The new test will take twice as long as the old MCAT. Standard administration will last a grueling 7.5 hours, including breaks. According to the AAMC, while there are more questions on the new MCAT, there will also be more time to answer each question.

More Prerequisites: Eight prerequisite courses prepared test-takers for the old MCAT. The new test covers more topics, and so the number of prerequisite courses jumps to eleven. Since course content varies by college, students should check to see how their school's science offerings line up with the AAMC's preparation recommendations.

New Scoring: Instead of being scored on a 1-45 scale, test takers can earn a maximum of 528 points on the new MCAT. Between 118 and 132 points are possible in each of the four sections.

General Study Tips

The new MCAT covers more material, meaning that cramming over the course of a few months is even less likely to be effective. The best way to study for cumulative exams like the MCAT is to take advantage of opportunities to learn throughout one's undergraduate career, even if the MCAT is still years away. College students should avoid last-minute study sessions to get through their midterms and finals in their science courses; taking the time to learn concepts deeply and thoroughly, through many shorter study sessions spread evenly over the semester, will result in more durable knowledge. Later, as they study for the MCAT, crammers will likely find themselves scrambling to relearn everything they forgot immediately after taking their college exams, even if their scores at the time were satisfactory. Hastily acquired knowledge does not last.

Would-be medical students should take as many practice MCATs as they can, as well. For more information on the benefits of practice tests versus traditional studying, see our previous post on current research about testing and memory.

Implications for Students with Disabilities

Certain types of reading difficulties, attention troubles, and sequencing issues will make the new MCAT even more challenging for some students. Students interested in medical school should compare their time and effort levels to those of their peers.College students who find it difficult to master the content of the science courses needed for medical school may want to explore whether they have subtle difficulties with some aspect of learning, such as an undiagnosed reading disorder or a problem with attention. An evaluation, such as those we provide here at the Yellin Center, may clarify these questions and will yield helpful strategies that students can use to improve their mastery of the course material. Even high performers may want to consider seeking out an assessment if they're putting in tremendous effort and unreasonably long hours. Those students who learn that they have weak pacing skills, for example,  may want to consider consulting an executive function coach to help them figure out how to get through each of the sections

Students with disabilities may benefit from accommodations, and the sooner such measures are in place, the better; examination boards are more likely to turn down requests for accommodations if the student cannot demonstrate a history of having such provisions in place. A high school student may be able to finish enough questions on a tough chemistry exam to earn a solid grade, but a particularly slow pace or waning attention is likely to impact her more as she enters college and medical school. 

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