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One of the most difficult and dreaded aspects of the medical school application process, even for the easiest medical schools to get into, is the MCAT. Every student who wants to become a doctor inevitably wonders how hard the MCAT is and what MCAT score they need to achieve their dream. Why? Because currently, there are very few DO and MD medical schools that don’t require the MCAT in the United States and Canada. With the exception of some BS/MD programs and early assurance programs in the US, like FlexMed, as well as medical schools in Quebec and some medical schools in Ontario, such as the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine and Northern Ontario School of Medicine, most medical schools require the submission of an MCAT score. But there are many educators and physicians who are starting to question the value of this exam for predicting students’ suitability for allopathic and osteopathic medical schools. Furthermore, many of them are calling to abandon the use of the MCAT altogether. And we couldn’t agree more. But easier said than done, right? At this time, if you are faced with the dreadful inevitability of taking this test, how should you approach it to make the most out of it? Here’re our BeMo MCAT prep lessons for you.
Most medical schools in the US and Canada claim to follow a holistic admissions process. But this is more of a veneer than actual practice, in our opinion. In reality, one of the most common ways the MCAT is used in the admissions is for weeding out applicants. Medical school acceptance rates in the US and Canada show an increase in applications almost every year and admissions officers simply do not have the time or the ability to go through thousands of applications with any detail due to lack of sound standards, structure, and accountability. So how can the applicant pool be made more manageable if the admissions office doesn’t really have the time and accountability to do deal with it due to poor administration? By rejecting any applicants with MCAT and GPA that’s lower than the unofficial cut-offs set by previous year’s matriculants, with the incorrect assumption that MCAT and GPA can determine suitability for the profession. Most schools do this quietly, but there are some, such as the Queen’s University School of Medicine, who have openly declared in the past that no applicant will move on in the admissions process if their GPA and MCAT do not meet their undisclosed thresholds. So not only are you competing against your peers in the current application cycle and the previous year’s matriculants’ stats, but you do not know what these stats are and how the process really works.
So, what does this mean for you? It means that the rest of the application you spent so much time and effort working on, such as your medical school personal statement, your activities sections, your recommendations, your situational judgment tests, if they were required, will not be reviewed by the admissions committees if your MCAT score does not meet their expectations. This is not the case for every school – but it’s important to understand the gravity and the importance given to the MCAT by the majority of medical schools in the US and Canada. It is still considered not only an indicator of your academic ability, but also used as a way to knock you out of the race as soon as possible. The pressure to get a good score is so high that students with decent scores feel the need to retake the MCAT to decrease their chance of leaving the applicant pool early. So, here’s the first part of BeMo MCAT prep lesson II: this is why it’s important to do well - not because you will gain any actual skill that will make you a better physician, but because you want to avoid rejection in the initial screening stages of the admissions process.
Why is MCAT prep its own category of test preparation? Why does it have its own industry? Why can’t you study for the MCAT the same way you would study for a college exam? The answers to these questions lie its unique format. The majority of MCAT questions are passage-based. Essentially, you are presented with a five- to seven- paragraph passage and asked questions about the passage that require you to apply your knowledge of specific topics in biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, or sociology. That is, you must be able to apply the knowledge you gained in your intro science and social science courses to passage-based format - you will get a poor score if you cannot. This means that even if you were a wiz in your organic chemistry class with a 4.0 GPA, if you do not train to acquire strong MCAT test-taking skills, you will not get a high score and significantly lower your chances of getting into medical school.
So in reality, when many students start studying for the MCAT, they are studying how to tackle the format of this exam. MCAT content review is certainly a part of their MCAT study schedule, but knowledge of the content is usually not the primary reason they seek out help from an MCAT tutor or why they sign up for an MCAT prep course. They seek to learn how to apply the knowledge they gained in their medical school prerequisites to the format of this test and how to improve their timing so they can run through the questions in the limited amount of time they are given. So, here’s the second part of BeMo MCAT prep lesson II: it’s not the knowledge of the content that’s being tested, it’s your ability to use it on the MCAT. The MCAT is a strategy game.
This reflection certainly leads to a question about the relevance of the test. Do we care whether the student possesses relevant information that will help them learn how to heal and help people, or do we care whether they can figure out how to apply this information in a standardized test? I think the former resonates more with everyone. As we already discussed, the MCAT score and GPA are often the only yardsticks that measure students’ academic suitability for medicine during the admissions process. But if it’s the test’s format that’s giving student so much trouble, not its content, then why would it be used as one of the two measures of applicants’ suitability for the profession? What’s the correlation between a good test-taker and a good doctor? How can your proclivity for standardized testing make you a better physician? Sadly, studies suggest that the only real correlations appear to be those that demonstrate a correlation between wealth and MCAT scores.
Standardized tests are not a forte of most students, so why not have a variety of methods for assessing their knowledge of biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, sociology, and so on? You may say “There’s also GPA!” But GPA is also not a great indicator of anything but wealth, as suggested by previous studies. However, these musings cannot help you as you are wondering when to take the MCAT – you are simply faced with the reality that your prep must include not just relevant content review, but exam-taking strategies and practice tests, first and foremost. That’s what you’ll be tested on, not your knowledge.
Since the MCAT has become a standard of medical school admissions, this exam has grown into its own industry. Just think about the thousands and millions of dollars spent by institutions and students to administer and take this test. MCAT costs and fees add more financial strain to already high medical school costs associated with med school applications for the candidates, and they certainly increase the income of the medical school admissions industry. It’s always difficult to challenge an established system, especially a system that allows so many people to make a living. And herein lies probably one of the biggest reasons the MCAT is still a widely used admissions practice.
With so many moving parts and components to navigate, students inevitably look for help with application review, MCAT prep, SJT prep, interview prep, and so on. Not only do we help our students get into medical school, but we strive to give them other skills that will be useful to them in their future as physicians, such as organizational skills, critical thinking, communication skills, and more. Not only do we provide one-on-one MCAT prep, but we also provide free MCAT prep resources on our blog and our social media channels. And we share the same knowledge online for free that we share with students in our one-on-one prep programs. The only difference is that you do not get personalized feedback when you use our free resources.
But this does not mean we think that the MCAT should stay - quite the opposite. We advocate for change in the admissions process and encourage our students who do get accepted to advocate for change in the admissions process from within. This seems like the only possible way to make a difference. And here’s the third part of BeMo MCAT prep lesson II: only after becoming “one of them” you have a chance to be heard and even then, it’s not often. But having the stamp of approval from the medical educational system does make you a more discernable and appreciated interlocutor in this conversation. So do not make the mistake of forgetting the trials you went through as soon as you get that medical school acceptance – advocate for change to make the admissions process more fair for your profession!
Having said all this, we do not want students to see this article and completely lose hope. While the MCAT might not be the best test of your suitability for medicine, try to see the MCAT as an opportunity in skill-building. While having MCAT-taking skills will not help you become a better professional, having the experience of organizing your study plan can lead to better organizational and time management skills, which will certainly help you with being a great physician. Or use the notorious difficulty of MCAT CARS passages as an opportunity to expose yourself to content you might not have had the chance to read before and expand your horizons by reading classics of literature, philosophy, scientific journals, and so on. This approach will surely increase not only your MCAT CARS score, but also your MCAT reading comprehension.
Lastly, think of MCAT prep as an opportunity to meet with like-minded individuals. Many students look for moral support, in addition to prep support, when they are getting ready to take the MCAT. MCAT study groups, book clubs, and prep courses can be a way to find new friends and colleagues. The key to overcoming even the most challenging obstacles on your way to becoming a doctor is to see them as opportunities for growth. Otherwise, you can go crazy thinking of the irrelevance of application components like secondaries or MMI interviews. And here’s the last part of BeMo MCAT prep lesson II: think of the MCAT and other medical school admissions practices as silly, but necessary processes to your dream career and try to learn from them as much as possible. There will be mysterious and unsubstantiated obstacles on the way to becoming a doctor but remember that you can try to change them only once you are accepted. Good luck!