Pre-Med Stress Hits New Heights As MCAT Exam Changes Loom

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Becoming a doctor was never easy. There’s stress, there’s no sleep, there’s life and death. But now, that already tough career path will get even more complicated with the introduction of a new, far longer version of the Medical College Admission Test, aka, the MCAT.

Just ask pre-med Charles Denby, who panicked when he recently went online to sign up for the test and found all the sites in the U.S. were booked into January 2015. Why is that a problem? Well, that’s when the old, familiar four-hour MCAT takes a short hiatus and then morphs into a newfangled, nearly seven-hour version of the test that most students must take in order to get into medical school.

(Marquette University/Flickr)

(Marquette University/Flickr)

Denby, a 36-year-old consultant who is now pursuing a medical career, was not amused by the prospect of facing the new test. It’s “a curveball I wasn’t expecting,” he said in an interview from his home in Providence. Denby is hoping someone local will opt out of taking the test at the last minute so he can get a spot, though he briefly considered getting on a plane to avoid the new exam. “Germany and Israel are available for January right now,” he said.

Germany? Israel? Isn’t the MCAT stressful enough without getting on a plane and switching time zones?

Barbara Moran, a pre-med student in Brookline, who recently completed Kaplan’s MCAT prep class, was stunned to hear that her classmates were planning to travel to Indiana and South Dakota to take the exam. Moran, who took the exam Oct. 21, had reserved her seat in Boston months ago. “I suddenly realized I was sitting on the hottest ticket in town,” said Moran. “It was like having a seat to a Red Sox World Series game.”

The soon-to-be-extinct four-hour exam now tests students’ knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, organic chemistry and verbal reasoning; and also their nerves, as they watch the clock tick down while struggling to recall obscure equations. Now they’ll have to endure that anxiety even longer: the new test is nearly seven grueling hours long.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which administers the MCAT, approved changes to the test in 2012.

One of the most significant changes is the inclusion of the new section that tests students’ understanding of the socio-contextual determinants of health — essentially asking students to think beyond the specifics of the patient’s body, and consider how income and social status, education, home and work environments and other factors shape health outcomes.

“Testing students’ understanding of these areas is important, because being a good physician is about more than scientific knowledge,” Dr. Darrell Kirch, AAMC president and CEO, stated in a 2012 online letter to premed students. It is about understanding people — how they think, interact, and make decisions.”

Other big changes to the MCAT include new introductory biochemistry questions and a section that asks students to critically analyze written passages from non-medical arenas — humanities and social sciences, philosophy and ethics.

“The new exam is really designed to help medical school admissions people select students who are academically prepared for the curriculum they’ll experience in 2016,” said Karen Mitchell, the AAMC’s senior director of admissions testing services. “The exam kind of shifts the focus from testing what students know to testing how well they can use what they know.”

Still, she acknowledges the impulse to take the more familiar exam: “The devil you know is better than the one you don’t,” she said.

Moran says that many of her fellow students are desperate to take the current exam, because nobody knows exactly what the new MCAT holds in store. “I talked to a pre-med adviser about it and she said, ‘No matter what you do, take the current exam.’ ” Also, she added, “Seven hours, seriously? I’d pass out from dehydration!”

The AAMC surveyed more than 2,700 medical faculty, residents and students to help formulate the new test, Mitchell says.

“It’s good practice in standardized testing to look at your test every 10 or 15 years to make sure that it continues to measure the most important things in the most capable ways and that time had come for the MCAT,” Mitchell said.

The AAMC did, in fact, announce a new date for the old test: Dec. 6, 2014. Now, it seems, due to popular demand, more spots for the old test may open up.

From the website:

To address the recent spikes in registration for the current MCAT exam, the AAMC added one additional administration date on Saturday, December 6. With this additional date, we will have added 50,000 seats between September 2014 and January 2015 to accommodate examinees who wish to take or re-take the current version of the exam. Nearly all of these seats have been available for registration since February 2014 so that students could plan accordingly. We will also be adding a very limited number of additional seats to the existing January exam dates in key locations to meet the high demand listed below. Adding seats takes time to set up and will be added to the MCAT Scheduling and Registration System in early November. We will send out an announcement via Twitter (@AAMC_MCAT) when these seats become available. The last administration of the current exam will be January 23, 2015.

And on Wednesday night, this message appeared on Twitter:

According to Eric Chiu, Kaplan Test Prep’s executive director of pre-medical programs, students generally take their MCAT in the spring semester of their third year of college. This year, however, he’s seeing many students scrambling to take the test before it changes.

Barbara Moran said her experience with the Oct. 21 MCAT underscored just how seriously the test is taken. She and her fellow wannabe doctors were searched and fingerprinted as they entered the testing room, she said; her socks were checked, and her sleeves, and she was told that she could bring in an extra ponytail holder on her hair or her wrist, but not in her pocket.

“I felt like a criminal,” she said.

But all that is behind her now. “Thank God I’m done,” she said. “I’m so glad I never have to think about that test again.”

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