Medical College Admissions Test: A Primer
This week, I’ll be giving a rundown about the Medical College Admissions Test, what you need to do to prepare for it, and when to take it. As always, don’t hesitate to send me questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A heads-up for people interested in taking the MCAT in 2016:
Registration for the January-May 2016 Exams opens on Wednseday, October 21.
Registration for June-September exam dates will open mid-February.
To create an AAMC ID, please click on this link:
Register for an AAMC ID as soon as possible! It makes your life much easier and servers are bound to be less reliable as the registration date comes closer.
1) Is the MCAT an absolute requirement for acceptance into medical school? What does it consist of?
The MCAT is the Medical College Admission Test, and is required for any individual who wants to apply for United States and Canadian medical schools. There are very few, if any, medical schools in North America that don’t require the test.
The AAMCAS states that “The Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) is a standardized, multiple-choice examination designed to assess your problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine.”
Essentially, the new MCAT tests you on your ability to synthesize new information and apply concepts you’ve learned through the various pre-med requirements and self-preparation for the exam. The new MCAT focuses on content knowledge, critical thinking, research design, graphical analysis, and data interpretation.
The test consists of 230 questions that students will take over the course of six hours and 15 minutes. The majority of these questions are passage based, with a few stand-alone questions within each section. Passages integrate all of the sciences; you may see physics, organic chemistry, and biology appear within the same passage, and this will challenge your ability to conceptualize examples, rather than memorize facts.
Scores are divvied into four sections:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior,
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS)
The AAMC revamped the MCAT earlier this year to include biochemistry, psychology, and sociology. I realize that it will be difficult to fit in these extra classes, especially if you are a non-science major pre-med student. However, I would like to point out that you do NOT have to take psychology, sociology, or biochemistry as a prerequisite for a number of medical schools. These subjects will show up on the MCAT, but many schools have not made these subjects a formal requirement for acceptance. Please consult with the schools you are interested in to make sure you aren’t omitting any requirements.
You can most definitely study the subjects that aren’t formally required for medical school admissions on your own. However, I would HIGHLY recommend taking biochemistry in a formal setting; a large amount of biochemistry can show up throughout the exam, and is arguably the most heavily emphasized subject on the new MCAT. Most concepts will be applied mainly in biochemical and biological systems. For instance, within one passage, you may have a question about the biochemical aspect of hemoglobin, as well as the physics of blood flow through the body.
2) How do I really prepare for the MCAT?
Conceptualization and Experimental Knowledge
Preparing for the MCAT begins with the pre-requisites. As you fulfill your requirements, make sure you understand CONCEPTS; strict memorization will not serve you well for taking the MCAT. The new MCAT emphasizes conceptual thinking and synthesis of your accumulated knowledge, and I cannot stress how important it will be to be able to apply knowledge in different settings.
Critical reading will be arguably the most important aspect of doing well on the test. Passages in the MCAT will present you with a great deal of the information you will need to know to answer the question. The biggest challenge will be for you to interpret the knowledge, harvest it, and be able to answer questions within a limited time frame. The biggest piece of advice I have heard others say after taking the exam, is to be proficient in analyzing primary literature. This will build your ability to read dense scientific passages, and interpret data.
What you can do is to find a topic you are interested in, and search for primary literature relating to it. You can use Pubmed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed) to find an incredible amount of articles relating to any topic you’re interested in. As you get closer to the exam, try to read through primary literature and understand graphs, variables, and experimental setups. On test day, you WILL be expected to understand how experiments work, what the independent and dependent variables are, what flaws were present in the experiment, and much more. Start studying early!
As for content review, you would be best served by buying specialized MCAT preparation books. There are a number of companies, such as Kaplan, Princeton Review, Berkeley Review, Examkrackers, and many more, all of which teach in a different manner. In my experience, Kaplan does a great job of presenting knowledge, but does not really make you think in a conceptual manner or have you apply the information in a different context. Examkrackers is very concise and to the point, and I would recommend it to a student who is extremely proficient and confident in the knowledge they’ve acquired through their pre-requirements. The Berkeley Review provides very detailed content review—sometimes unnecessarily so—and would be a great source for anyone who is a bit rusty on their concepts. The winning point to Berkeley Review is that it has approximately 100 passage-based questions at the end of each chapter, in the standard MCAT style.
Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/mcat) has numerous playlists dedicated towards MCAT preparation. They have collaborated with the AAMC to provide videos that should technically cover all of the material you need to know on the exam. Best of all, there is NO COST whatsoever. Just click on a video and play. Personally, I would say Khan Academy is a great reference for when you are unsure or confused about a topic. I would prefer to have books handy, since it would be easier to consult the text for information rather than a video.
I would argue that content review is just a small part of preparation. You need to do practice problems in order to actually apply the knowledge you will gain from reading, which is why I would personally recommend The Berkeley Review. Keep in mind, I have NOT taken the MCAT yet, so please take this with a grain of salt. Khan Academy is another great resource in this department; there are a number of practice problems for all of the MCAT subjects. The more you practice, the better.
Another great resource is the Student Doctor Network (http://forums.studentdoctor.net/) has an MCAT sub-forum where pre-med students across the world weigh in and provide their experiences and test-taking tips. I would suggest regularly browsing SDN and reading what others have to say; they provide valuable insight that may help you with your goal.
3) When should I take the MCAT?
There is no “proper” time to take the MCAT. It depends on what you want. Do you want to enter medical school just a few months after graduation from Skidmore? If this is your goal, you need to, at the very LATEST, take your MCAT by August/September prior to your senior year. If you want to take a gap year or multiple gap years, you just need to have your MCAT done by the August/September a year before you want to enter medical school. I say August/September because the majority of medical school admissions are on a rolling basis, meaning first-come, first-serve. The earlier you submit an application, the greater chance you have at being accepted. In another column, I’ll detail the entire admissions/interviewing process, and why preparing for them begins in your freshman year. The best advice I can give is: DON’T RUSH. It can be difficult to prepare for the MCAT while a full-time student. There is absolutely no shame in taking gap years in between Skidmore and medical school. Don’t rush to take the MCAT unless you are certain you are ready.
Thanks for reading, everyone. I appreciate the questions that have been asked, and by all means, send in some more. Next week I will be talking about your journey through college, what GPA is important, and what extracurricular activities are necessary to be accepted into the health professions schools.
Once again, if you want a Health Professions Advisor, please contact Tracy Broderson at email@example.com. An HPAC advisor will be able to work with you on a one-on-one basis to schedule out what you have to accomplish each year at Skidmore in order to reach your goal.
If any of you are interested in meeting up with other students also pursuing a career in the Health-Professions, consider joining the Pre-Health Club. You can email Alison Love, the club president at firstname.lastname@example.org. They meet every other week on Tuesdays, from 6:20-7:00 pm in Ladd 206. They would love to have new members, and they are another great resource for information regarding the Health Professions.