The new MCAT

April 26, 2011

By Donna Peck

The MCAT - the standardized test that every student must take to get into medical school - is getting its first major overhaul in more than 20 years.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the organization that administers the MCAT, has recommended that the test put more emphasis on a student's critical analysis and reasoning skills and less on scientific knowledge. Preliminary recommendations by the AAMC would lengthen the test by 90 minutes, add a new social sciences section, and expand the breadth of natural sciences covered on the exam.

Aniesa Slack, a second-year student at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, thinks the proposed changes in the MCAT are long overdue. "Our medical school curriculum has changed a lot over the last few years to better reflect the societal and cultural shifts in health care," Slack says. "So the MCAT should embrace those shifts as well."

The proposed changes aim to balance the exam's focus on the natural sciences with the testing of critical analysis and reasoning skills, and direct attention to the behavioral and social sciences by:

  • updating the exam's two natural sciences sections to reflect current science and test how examinees solve problems in a way that helps demonstrate their scientific thinking and research skills;
  • adding a new test of the behavioral and social sciences concepts that lay the foundation for medical students' learning about the human and social issues of medicine; and
  • revising the current verbal section to test the way examinees reason through passages in ethics and philosophy, cross-cultural studies, population health, and other subjects to communicate the need for students to read broadly in preparing for their medical education.

Steven Gabbe, the chair of the MCAT advisory committee, told Inside Higher Education that the changes - especially the increased emphasis on the social sciences - reflect the evolving nature of medicine. "It's very clear that in this country a large proportion of illness is related to behavior and social and cultural problems," Gabbe said. "So we want to encourage the applicant to medical school to be thinking about those and reading about those early."

Sandra McCurdy, associate dean for admissions at the KU School of Medicine, believes the proposed changes are a positive thing, because the updated MCAT would not be just an evaluation of competencies in basic science, but competencies in communication and people skills. But she says the new exam will require some major changes for medical students.

"It will most likely influence the prerequisite coursework we want incoming students to have," McCurdy says. "I do worry that this could affect some pre-med students from nontraditional backgrounds and those attending smaller colleges that may offer some of the required classes just once every other year."

McCurdy says the possibility of additional prerequisite courses may force some pre-med students to take a gap year to complete all the coursework.

The new MCAT would not be implemented until 2015, which will give current students plenty of time to adjust their course of study and increase their chances of doing well on the new exam. But McCurdy is quick to point out that the MCAT is just one indicator of how qualified a student is for medical school.

"The MCAT can tell us a lot about how successful a student will be in the first two years of medical school, when a lot of their time is spent in lectures and taking tests," McCurdy says. "But it doesn't necessarily tell you who will end up becoming a great physician."

Last modified: Jun 01, 2011