The MCAT Gets Revamped; Students Everywhere Panic

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If you’ve ever dreamed about getting into medical school, this is the stuff of your nightmares:  last year, around 44,000 people applied for about 19,000 spots. Medical school admissions committees look at many different factors when evaluating prospective students, but everyone knows that test scores matter quite a bit — namely the scores on the Medical College Admission Test, more commonly known as the MCAT. So when the Association of American Medical Colleges recently announced that they were revamping the test for the first time in 22 years, biology majors worldwide started anxiously nibbling on their number-two pencils.

The MCAT will continue to test students’ knowledge of basic science. But because “the public had great confidence in doctors’ knowledge but much less in their bedside manner,” according to AAMC president Darrell Kirch. So the new test, which will go into effect in 2015, will add sections on social and behavioral sciences, and critical analysis and reading. (It’s also getting rid of its writing requirement.) “The goal is to improve the medical admissions process to find the people who you and I would want as our doctors. Being a good doctor isn’t just about understanding science, it’s about understanding people,” Kirch said.

In other words, medical schools are increasingly concerned that students are privileging scientific knowledge over good old-fashioned human connection and ethical awareness. The changes in the test are actually less an innovation, and more of a return to the test’s origins. From 1942 to 1976, the MCAT had a broad-based liberal arts section called “Understanding Modern Society.” But in the 1970s, medicine became increasingly dominated by technology and efficiency; the test followed suit, and got rid of its humanities questions. Now they’re back — making the test even more of a marathon. The old version clocked in at four and a half hours, but the new one will be a full two hours longer.

Since the MCAT is supposed to measure readiness for medical education, we applaud the AAMC for realizing that good doctors have to know more than just chemistry, physics, and biology. But can a test really measure empathy or humanism? That seems more doubtful.

(Want to see how you’d measure up? Take some practice questions from the new sections here.)



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