Courtesy of Elaine Frederick
As this year’s medical school applicants receive interview offers, Yale’s premedical community has had the opportunity to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of last April’s changes to the Medical College Admissions Test. Students interviewed said the revamped test, which focuses more heavily on the social sciences while still measuring proficiency in the natural sciences, reflects a shift in the medical profession toward a more socially as well as medically conscious job force.
The MCAT — which prior to April 2015 tested prospective medical students on biology, physics, verbal reasoning and general and organic chemistry — has been lengthened from 3 hours and 20 minutes to 6 hours and 15 minutes in order to accommodate the additional examination of introductory psychology, biochemistry and sociology. The new format of the MCAT also places an increased emphasis on verbal reasoning while reducing the focus on physics. Although many students interviewed expressed frustration at the increased duration of the test, most said they feel the changes represent a positive step toward a more holistic and accessible profession.
Premed sociology major Laura Garcia ’16, who is currently preparing to sit for the MCAT next May, said she feels the changes indicate an understanding within the medical community that modern doctors require a knowledge base and skill set that surpass expertise in the body’s biological processes.
“While more material covered in the exam does intensify the preparation needed for it, I think it’s a great and welcome change,” Garcia said. “It ensures that every premed learns basics about disciplines other than the sciences. It also emphasizes that medicine and practicing it well requires understanding that a patient is infinitely more complex than their biological and chemical makeup.”
Premed music major Leah Meyer ’18 described the recent changes to the exam as positive and necessary given the profession’s increasing emphasis on each patient as an individual rather than as a collection of biological systems working in tandem.
Meyer added that the changes to the examination will require future doctors to become more keenly aware of each patient’s societal and socioeconomic context in addition to their medical status, a development that she believes will over time lead to a gradual increase in professional standard of care in the United States.
“Emphasizing that you have an understanding of the human condition as well in a nonmedical sense doesn’t detract from [a doctor’s competence]. In fact, it enhances it,” Meyer said. “I think that all around, [the new MCAT format] puts an additional strain on students, but I think that what it might do is have a student take a sociology class who wouldn’t otherwise … But the fact of the matter is that we’re not lowering our standards. We’re just recognizing that there’s a sphere in which we have room to expand and it’s going to improve the care that we give.”
Premed History of Science, Medicine and Public Health major Joyce Wang ’17, who is also currently preparing for the new exam, emphasized that while the MCAT now requires additional expertise in the social sciences, the natural sciences continue to remain at the heart of the test, and the “substantial human component” of medicine is recognized by the MCAT.
She added that she does not feel that the test’s increased length will affect the number of college students who apply to medical school. She noted that, in her view, those students passionate enough about medicine to have seriously considered such a lengthy career path will see the end goal as worth the additional time and effort.
Kristin McJunkins, the director of the Health Professions Advisory Program at the Office of Career Strategy, echoed Meyer’s sentiments that the changes to the MCAT are linked to the evolving nature what is expected of aspiring physicians. McJunkins added that in spite of developments in biomedical research, the changes to the MCAT are the first in roughly 20 years.
“The MCAT exam has not changed since the early 1990s, but science and medicine have changed dramatically since that time,” she wrote in an email to the News. “The decision to update the exam was not made lightly, and while no standardized test is ever perfect, it is only one piece of the admissions process, along with many other factors and competencies considered by admissions officers.”
McJunkins added that many medical schools had changed their admissions requirements to be in line with the MCAT, and that as a result, she did not expect that the changes to the MCAT will in themselves affect students’ course choices. She also stressed that the MCAT does not stipulate that students study its subjects in college, and that some students elect to study certain subjects outside of the formal classroom.
Most students interviewed said that the changes to the MCAT did not significantly impact their course choices at Yale, given that several of the subjects added to the test last April are already required for admission to many medical schools.
However, Sukriti Mohan ’17, a premed student in Yale’s combined Bachelor of Arts and Master of Public Health program, said the new content of the test did influence her course decisions during her time at Yale. She expressed enthusiasm, however, for the changes and said that the extra subjects are important for students applying to medical school.
In particular, she noted that the broader societal perspective afforded by study of sociology is useful for medical professionals because of the way it teaches one to think about how certain populations are more or less likely to face certain health outcomes.
But Mohan added that she does not believe that the increased focus on verbal reasoning and the social sciences will place premedical students majoring in the humanities or social sciences at an advantage as compared to their science-major peers.
“If you’re really knowledgeable in topics covered by your major, you might be less knowledgeable in another, and vice versa,” Mohan said. “I don’t think the tendency at Yale is really to major in something that will help you on the MCAT. There are simply so many courses for each major, and you forget so much material by the time you actually take it.”
Mohan said students usually take on majors that they will enjoy, which they believe will strengthen their overall application holistically or which overlap with premedical requirements, allowing them to explore other classes at Yale.
Christine Xu ’18, a premedical molecular, cellular and developmental biology major, said she believes success in the MCAT is mainly linked to each student’s degree of preparation for the test itself than to their enrollment in any particular major program, noting that she does not believe students majoring in the humanities have a head start on their competitors when taking the test.
McJunkins said the breadth of courses offered at Yale prepares premedical students well for the MCAT, regardless of which major they choose to pursue.
The MCAT has been computer-based since January 2007.