Aspiring premed students be warned: The MCAT will likely undergo a significant makeover in 2015. Yes, that's four years from now and may seem like an eternity to the average high school senior or college freshman, but test experts stress the importance of planning for these changes now. Premed students will have to reshape their undergraduate academic careers to accommodate the new test, experts say.
"Students will have to plan much better starting their freshman year in college," says Amjed Saffarini, executive director of pre-health programs at Kaplan Test Prep. "They're not going to have the leisure and flexibility of waiting a year or two to start their requirements."
That flexibility is disappearing because the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which administers the MCAT, recently announced that it's adding new competencies such as genetics, cell and molecular biology, psychology, and sociology to the test. In order to perform well, test gurus say, premed students will have to add additional MCAT-centric coursework in lieu of balancing their course load with appealing electives.
"As a premed I was really interested in architecture and I took a lot of architecture courses," says Saffarini. "I'm not so sure students in the future are going to have the luxury of taking multidisciplinary courses like that."
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To excel on the test, however, a premed student's courseload can't be rooted entirely in the hard sciences. Social science classes like sociology and psychology will play an important part in preparing for the revised MCAT because of the new behavioral and social sciences section. The intent of this addition is to assess a student's ability to understand, empathize with, and communicate well with patients of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds—an aspect of practicing medicine that's become more important as the nation becomes increasingly diverse, experts say.
"Many schools require a core curriculum that often includes social science and humanities classes, but for students at schools [that] don't, it would be worth considering taking one or two humanities classes to get the necessary background to do well on this section," says Ibrahim Busnaina, a medical school admissions consultant at Veritas Prep.
Additionally, the test day experience will likely expand from a test of endurance to a full-fledged mental marathon. Though the writing section will likely be cut, the test will lengthen from about 5½ hours to 7 hours. Comparatively, the GMAT lasts 4 hours, the LSAT about 3 hours, and the GRE 2½ hours.
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Students entering college this and next year will have a difficult choice to make, test experts warn. These cohorts will be gearing up to take the test around the time the changes are implemented, and each version requires a unique path of preparation that must be decided upon years in advance.
"Given that the current version of the MCAT already generates anxiety even with the amount of preparatory materials available, it might not be a bad idea to try to squeeze in a test date before the changes take place," says Busnaina. "However, it's never a good idea to rush into a test unprepared, as that will make even more of a score difference than any changes made."
None of these modifications are finalized, and the new version of the test won't be subject to approval until February 2012, but it's unlikely that the new, finalized version will differ much from what has already been suggested, Saffarini notes.
"It's really [the AAMC's] first draft; that said, they've been working on this draft for three years now," he says. "What they've come up with as preliminary is going to look a lot like the final recommendations."
Officials at top medical schools, however, are divided in their reaction to the test shake-up. Some have expressed dismay over the increased demands the new test will put upon students, claiming that the more rigorous coursework requirements will trigger diminishing diversity among medical school applicant pools.
Brenda Armstrong, director of admissions at the Duke University School of Medicine, is opposed to the changes and claims officials at many peer institutions echo her sentiments. "It will be almost impossible for people who are not science majors to go to medical school," she says. "I have some real concerns about the impact that this will eventually have on the pool of people that we will be able to pull from to prepare and train a diverse workforce."
Meanwhile, Bonnie Miller, senior associate dean for health sciences education at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, feels the MCAT's expanded measures of science and social awareness will better reflect the skills needed by doctors in a rapidly evolving medical climate.
"The proposed changes in the MCAT are much needed," she says. "Physicians of the future must be critical thinkers who can manage complexity in diverse settings, from ethical dilemmas within families to the operations of integrated health systems…The proposed changes will better align the MCAT with the measurable traits we seek."
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