What Looming MCAT Changes Will Mean for Aspiring Doctors

College freshmen and applicants who aspire to be M.D.’s will need to choose their classes differently.

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After three years of review, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which administers the MCAT, announced last month that it approved changes to the exam for the first in more than 20 years. While the MCAT has long required a strong background in the natural sciences, the new exam will be broader in scope and will place a greater emphasis on psychology, sociology, and biology.

Starting in 2015, the MCAT will include several new sections, including Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. It will also feature two natural sciences sections—which will test concepts that typically arise in introductory biology, general and organic chemistry, biochemistry, and physics courses—and will eliminate the writing sample.

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As a result of the revisions, the new exam will also test medical school applicants' endurance. The updated MCAT will be about 6½ hours long—an increase of an hour.

In a press release detailing the changes, AAMC president and CEO Darrell Kirch said, "Being a good doctor is about more than scientific knowledge. It also requires an understanding of people. By balancing the MCAT exam's focus on the natural sciences with a new section on the psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior, the new exam will better prepare students to build strong knowledge of the socio-cultural and behavioral determinants of health."

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So what does this mean for aspiring doctors? First and foremost, the changes will affect undergraduate course selection for college applicants and freshmen. Premedical students will now need a solid foundation in basic sciences, social sciences, behavioral sciences, and the humanities.

While the general application and admission timeline should largely remain the same, colleges and universities will be shifting their prehealth curricula in response to the changes to ensure students take the required premedical coursework.

For older applicants, anyone taking the exam after the changes go into effect may need to enroll in a postbaccalaureate program or supplement their earlier education with some additional courses. In many cases, older applicants may have needed to do that already, especially if they weren't a premed major in college, so the revisions will likely just expand their preparation process.

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To help students get a better grasp of the updated MCAT, the AAMC has made sample questions and a comprehensive list of concepts and topics covered by the new exam available in its "Preview Guide for MCAT2015." The AAMC has also posted an informational video that offers tips for preparation.

While this all may sound daunting, the thinking is that a more holistic approach will ultimately produce medical students with a greater knowledge base and who are better equipped for success in the evolving healthcare field. Moreover, another AAMC report suggests that integrating social and behavioral sciences into medical education curricula and clinical practice can improve the health of all patients. So although the new MCAT may require more advance preparation, the changes have a purpose.

For more information about the revised MCAT, including detailed descriptions of each content section, go to the AAMC website to review the Final MCAT Recommendations.

Scott Shrum is director of admissions research at Veritas Prep.