This Ain’t Your Mamma’s MCAT: Changes in the MCAT for 2013 and 2015

by Belinda Lao

By spring 2015, the Medical College Admissions Test will undergo rampant changes in structure and content. The most important change is the introduction of a new section focused on the social behavioral sciences: Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior. This addition is aimed at assessing the ability of applicants to recognize socio-cultural and behavioral determinants of health and health outcomes.

These changes are a response to recent recommendations by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) MR5 committee, which was appointed in 2008 to review and suggest improvements for the next generation of MCAT exams. Recommendations were based on a composite of advice from blue-ribbon panels, advisory groups, and over 90 outreach events, such as surveys of baccalaureate and medical school faculty, students, and admissions officers. The committee’s recommendations aim to maintain successful components of the current testing format while improving the representation of concepts that are expected to be useful for future physicians.

Since its creation in 1928, as a response to the high rates of medical school dropouts, the MCAT has served as both a measure of applicant preparedness for the rigors of medical school as well as a mental marathon of considerable strife for the majority of its examinees. Nearly all American medical schools require MCAT scores as a mandatory component of applications to be considered for admission. The current (2012) version of the MCAT is completely computer-based and can be broken down into a total of four sections: Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, Biological Sciences, and the Writing Sample. A maximum of 15 points are available for each of the first three sections, for a total possible score of 45. The Writing Sample is graded on a different, alphabetical scale, ranging from J (lowest) to T (highest).

For the 2013 and 2014 testing cycles, the revised MCAT will begin transitioning towards the integration of new sections and new concepts in preparation for its 2015 release. Students registered to take the exam in 2013 will be greeted with the traditional Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences sections, but will no longer be required to take the Writing Sample. Instead, students will have the option to participate in a voluntary Trial Section that previews future questions and concepts for the revamped MCAT. Volunteers who choose to participate will take the 45-minute Trial Section at the end of their exam. Successful completion of the Trial Section with good-faith effort will be rewarded with monetary compensation, in the form of a $30 Amazon gift card, and feedback about the examinee’s performance in comparison to other volunteers.

In an open letter from David G. Kirch, president and CEO of AAMC, the organization acknowledges that these modifications to premedical school testing reflect the changing landscape of medicine. He suggests it will demand cultural competency and show an undeniable necessity to “promote prevention [of disease] and wellness for patients” for an increasingly diverse and aging population. Kirch made sure to emphasize that the new focus on sociological and psychological factors of patient health will serve in addition, and not in place of, a consistently strong focus on core scientific concepts such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

So what does this mean for the current aspiring physician? We can probably consider this as parallel to recent trends in medical school admissions and interviews towards an emphasis on identifying individuals with not only a strong background in critical thinking and scientific skills, but also good bedside manner and the ability to communicate with patients and other healthcare workers alike. This emphasis will hopefully culminate in generations of well-rounded physicians who can interact in a manner that is progressive and conducive to providing the best possible patient care.

For students still fresh in their pre-medical track, you might expect to see introductory psychology and sociology courses surfacing in the coming years as recommended premedical courses, joining the ranks of traditionally recommended courses such as human physiology and genetics. Will these sweeping changes succeed at creating a more accurate determinant of physician quality? It remains to be seen, and will likely require a good number of years and many more MCAT examinees to come.