Tag Archives: medical school admissions

The MCAT: An Overview

In April 2015, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) officially launched a new version of the MCAT, the MCAT15. According to the AAMC, the test was changed “to help better prepare tomorrow’s doctors for the rapidly advancing and transforming health care system.” The MCAT is now double in length, includes a fourth section on the social sciences, and has a revamped scoring system. Medical schools vary in their policy about whether they will still accept the old MCAT for the 2019 application cycle.

Before we provide you with a detailed look at the test, it’s important to keep in mind that the MCAT is just one of various factors used by medical schools. The evaluation process also reviews college grades, trends in grades, extracurricular activities, and medically-related experiences such as research, shadowing, and clinical work.

Test Structure 

The current MCAT consists of 230 questions over 6 hours and 15 minutes—double the length of the previous version of the test.

The first three sections of the MCAT are organized around “big ideas” in the sciences. According to the AAMC, these sections “reflect current research about the most effective ways for students to learn and use science, emphasizing deep knowledge of the most important scientific concepts over knowledge simply of many discrete facts.”

The MCAT will also test additional skills, including research design, graphical analysis and data interpretation. Kaplan claims that the “passages will be restructured to test all of the natural sciences within biological systems,” giving the test a more medical focus by showing the application of the sciences to medicine.

The newest section, added during the 2015 revamp, is “Psychological, Social, and Behavioral Foundations of Behavior,” which comprises 25% of the test and recognizes the role of social science in treating patients effectively. Catherine Lucey, a member of the MCAT review committee and vice dean of the UC San Francisco School of Medicine, observed:

“One hundred years ago, all you really needed to know was the science. We were all looking for the magic bullet that would cure disease. Now we have problems like obesity and diabetes that require doctors to form therapeutic alliances with patients and convince them to change their lifestyle.”

Ripal Shah, an MCAT test prep tutor for Advantage Testing, agrees that training in the social sciences is beneficial for a career in medicine, because “many studies have shown that communication skills are often the most indicative of patient satisfaction and medication compliance.”

The US News blog, “Medical School Admissions Doctor,” estimates that the vast amount of information covered on the MCAT requires significantly more than standard medical school prerequisites:

  • One year of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics
  • One semester of biochemistry, psychology, and sociology
  • A year of humanities (recommended)

MCAT Test Dates and Centers

The MCAT is offered 30 times throughout the year, from January through September, with scores released five weeks after administration. You can find a local test center here.

MCAT Score Scale

Each of the four sections will be scored individually, from 118 to 132, with a midpoint of 125. Scores are combined to create a total score ranging from 472 to 528, with a midpoint of 500. The test is not graded on a curve, and there is no penalty for wrong answers.

Below is the expected distribution of total scores for the MCAT taken between May 1, 2018 and April 30, 2019.

The score reports provide details on your test performance, and combines MCAT scores, percentile ranks, confidence bands, and score profiles. See the sample score report below.

 

What Are Percentile Ranks?

Percentile ranks are included so examinees can compare their performance to others who took the new exam. Percentile ranks are updated May 1 of every year. This info has been particularly useful to med schools in the first 3 years after the new MCAT was implemented, before sufficient historical data was available to evaluate applicant’s scores.

Importantly, on May 1, 2019, the percentile ranks will be based on the MCATs from the entire four preceding years; having this history will provide much more useful information to both students and med schools.

Below is a chart outlining the percentile ranks in effect from May 1, 2018 to April 30, 2019:

What Are Confidence Bands?

Confidence bands show the ranges of scores an examinee could expect on another MCAT attempt. Score profiles provide information about applicants’ strengths and weaknesses across the four sections of the exam. According to the AAMC, “non-overlapping confidence bands show a test taker’s likely strengths and weaknesses. Overlapping confidence bands suggest that there are not meaningful differences in performance between sections.” For instance, in the example above, the student would have strengths in the BBFL and PSBB areas, and relative weaknesses in the CPBS and CARS areas, but would have comparable strengths between BBFL and PSBB; and between CPBS and CARS.

Note that the confidence bands for each of the four section scores are two points, whereas the confidence band for the overall total is four points. So if your total score is 501, and you retake the MCAT, you have a reasonable chance of scoring anywhere from 499 – 503.

Average MCAT Scores for Selected Medical Schools

Below are the median new MCAT scores and GPAs for accepted students at a variety of medical schools.

Medical School US News Rank MEDIAN
GPA
MEDIAN NEW MCAT SCORE
Columbia 6 3.87 519
Drexel 83 3.73 511
Emory 23 3.79 515
Georgetown 45 3.74 512
Harvard 1 3.92 518
NYU 12 3.9 520
Stanford 2 3.89 518
Temple 55 3.79 512
Washington Univ 7 3.89 521
Univ of Miami 48 3.8 513

Applying to medical school is a long and challenging process. For more information or guidance regarding the MCAT, or any other aspect of the admissions process, contact Collegiate Gateway – we’re always happy to help.

Pass/Fail, and Other Trends in Med School Grading

In recent years, there have been vast changes in the way medical students are evaluated and graded. Most notably, many medical schools have replaced their letter or tiered grading system (honors, high pass, etc.) with a much simpler one: pass or fail. According to a recent AAMC initiative, the number of schools using a pass/fail system in the pre-clerkship increased to 87 in 2014 from 71 the previous year. A school’s grading policies have far-reaching implications on its academic culture and community, informing everything from stress levels and competitiveness to the methods by which students are evaluated. As such, it is important that prospective medical students take grading policies into careful consideration as they evaluate different opportunities. 

Rationale for Pass/Fail Grading for Pre-Clerkship Years

This change can be largely attributed to a greater concern for medical student’s overall well-being. One study in Academic Medicine found that the class of University of Virginia (UVA) medical students who were graded pass/fail showed a significant increase in satisfaction as compared to their counterparts who were evaluated using a standard letter grading system. An even broader study surveyed students from seven different medical schools, and found that students evaluated using grading schemes with three or more categories had higher levels of stress and emotional exhaustion, and were more likely to experience burnout than those who were graded pass/fail. Many schools also find that a this system fosters a greater sense of collaboration and cooperation among students, while diminishing competitiveness.

The benefits of this pass/fail grading scheme extend beyond the students themselves, as it may also be helpful to schools as they seek to attract the best and brightest to their institution. In fact, a survey at UVA Medical School found that 81% of the entering class cited the pass/fail grading system as somewhat to very important in their decision to accept the offer of admission.

Examples of Pass/Fail Medical Schools

Schools that employ pass/fail grading during the pre-clerkship years include  Case Western School of Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Rochester School of Medicine.

Even within the standard pass/fail grading system, however, there are small differences that distinguish one school from another. Students at Harvard Medical School, for example, are given grades of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” during their pre-clerkship years, but students of exceptional merit can receive a Letter of Excellence that is added to their permanent file.

Many students are wary of pass/fail schools that may still track grades and establish ranking orders behind the scenes. However, schools such as Yale School of Medicine explicitly state that “there are no grades and there is no class ranking.”

Concerns (and Rebuttals)  

As expected, there are some concerns associated with a pass/fail grading scheme. Some worry that a non-tiered grading system may negatively impact students’ residency placement, scores on medical licensing exams (USMLE Step 1 and 2) or overall academic performance. If students are placed into only two categories, is there less incentive and, therefore, less motivation for them to work hard?

These concerns, however, have largely been refuted. The study cited above, involving UVA students, found that a change from a letter grading scale to a pass/fail system did not result in a decline in students’ academic performance or USMLE Step 1/2 scores. Furthermore, there was no negative affect on residency placement, as demonstrated by the quality of residency programs to which students were matched.

Alternatives to Pass/Fail for Pre-Clerkship Years

Despite the hype about pass/fail grading, there are still a significant number of schools (~81 according to AAMC) that evaluate their students using greater than two categories during the pre-clinical years. Pittsburgh School of Medicine, for example, employs a three-tiered grading structure: Honors/Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory for the first two years. The University of Maryland School of Medicine employs a letter grading approach: Honors, A, B, C, D, F.

Different Grading Approaches for Different Years

 Schools often employ different grading schemes depending on course types or year of medical school. The pass/fail system discussed above largely applies to the pre-clerkship years of medical school, when students are learning and reviewing the sciences before entering clinics. The majority of schools recently surveyed by AAMC also use the simple pass/fail system for grading students in electives. However, many schools utilize an entirely different grading scheme when evaluating students in their later years of medical school. In fact, the majority of schools surveyed by AAMC use a four-tiered grading system: honors, high pass, pass, and fail for required clerkships and fourth year electives and sub-internships.

Evaluation Components

In the same way grading frameworks are changing, so are the actual methods used to evaluate students. Schools not only assess their students using standard written exams, but now also use a variety of novel evaluation techniques. Although Yale does not give grades for the first two years, it still employs unique forms of evaluation such as direct questioning during seminars and laboratories to deem acceptable performance or not. Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern provides feedback to students using conventional methods such as examinations, as well as skills assessments, and narrative evaluations. Moreover, as of 2012, students at Northwestern build an electronic portfolio that is continuously reviewed with their mentors to ensure they are meeting the school’s required competencies.

Schools such as Perelman School of Medicine at UPenn utilize particularly innovative assessment methods, including simulations and standardized patients. Made possible by recent advances in technology, these assessments involve a patient simulator in a realistic hospital environment. Standardized patients, however, are trained individuals or in some cases, actual patients who help to create real-life medical scenarios.

Academic Honors

Often, these evaluation techniques are used to identify students for academic honors. Boston University School of Medicine awards Latin honors (e.g. summa cum laude) based on a number of factors: performance in courses, scores on medical licensing exams, and other more subjective criteria, such as “extreme initiative and talent.” Other types of academic recognition include membership in the medical honors society Alpha Omega Alpha, as well as distinction in research, and various clerkship and departmental awards.

Every medical school differs slightly in its approach to grading, and it is imperative to thoroughly research schools of interest in order to properly understand these nuances. For more information on medical school grading or any other part of the medical school application process, contact Collegiate Gateway – as always, we’re happy to help.

 

The MCAT2015 has Arrived!

 

The Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, officially launched a new version of the MCAT, called the MCAT2015 on April 17, 2015. Approximately 8,200 individuals took this new version of the exam. The test has been changed for the first time since 1991, and AAMC is calling it “a better test for tomorrow’s doctors.” It was designed “to help better prepare tomorrow’s doctors for the rapidly advancing and transforming health care system.”

New Structure of the MCAT2015

The MCAT has changed in several major ways. Most notably, it has doubled in length. The MCAT2015 consists of 230 questions over 6 hours and 15 minutes, whereas the previous version consisted of 144 questions over 3 hours and 20 minutes. But despite the greater overall length, students taking the newer exam actually have more time to complete each question.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 8.03.17 PM

The MCAT2015 includes both new topic areas and different types of questions. The first three sections are organized around “big ideas” in the sciences. According to the AAMC, these sections “reflect current research about the most effective ways for students to learn and use science, emphasizing deep knowledge of the most important scientific concepts over knowledge simply of many discrete facts.”

Here is a sample question from the MCAT2015 from the section, “Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems.” It focuses on using scientific theories and models to solve a specific problem.

The radius of the aorta is about 1.0 cm and blood passes through it at a velocity of 30 cm/s. A typical capillary has a radius of about 4 10-4 cm with blood passing through at a velocity of 5 10-2 cm/s. Using this data, what is approximate number of capillaries in a human body?

  1. 1   104
  2. 2   107
  3. 4   109
  4. 7   1012

The new sections will also test additional skills, including research design, graphical analysis and data interpretation. Kaplan claims that the “passages will be restructured to test all of the natural sciences within biological systems,” giving the test a more medical focus by showing the application of the sciences to medicine.

The new section, “Psychological, Social, and Behavioral Foundations of Behavior,” comprises 25% of the test, and recognizes the role of social science in treating patients effectively. Catherine Lucey, a member of the MCAT review committee and vice dean of the UC San Francisco School of Medicine, observes:

“One hundred years ago, all you really needed to know was the science. We were all looking for the magic bullet that would cure disease. Now we have problems like obesity and diabetes that require doctors to form therapeutic alliances with patients and convince them to change their lifestyle.”

Ripal Shah, an MCAT test prep tutor for Advantage Testing, agrees that training in the social sciences is beneficial for a career in medicine, because “many studies have shown that communication skills are often the most indicative of patient satisfaction and medication compliance.”

The following visual, from Kaplan Test Prep, illustrates the structural and content changes between the two tests.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 8.03.52 PM

The US News blog, “Medical School Admissions Doctor,” estimates that the vast amount of information covered on the MCAT2015 requires significantly more than standard medical school prerequisites:

  • One year of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics
  • One semester of biochemistry, psychology, and sociology,
  • A year of humanities (recommended)

Score Scale

Each of the four sections will be scored individually, from 118 to 132, with a midpoint of 125. Scores are combined to create a total score ranging from 472 to 528, with a midpoint of 500. The new score reports will provide details on your test performance. “The AAMC envisions a score report that will bring together MCAT scores, percentile ranks, confidence bands, and score profiles in a way that highlights applicants’ strengths and weaknesses.” The MCAT Score Report Prototype released by the AAMC illustrates each of these aspects of scoring on a sample score report.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 8.04.36 PM

Percentile ranks are included so examinees can compare their performance to others who took the new exam. Confidence bands show the ranges of scores an examinee could expect on another MCAT attempt. Score profiles provide information about applicants’ strengths and weaknesses across the four sections of the exam.

Applying to medical school is a long and challenging process. Not to mention competitive: just under 50,000 students applied to medical school in 2014, with an average MCAT score of 28.6 and GPA of 3.55. Of those accepted, the mean MCAT score was 31.4, with a 3.69 GPA.

For more information or guidance regarding the MCAT, or any other aspect of the admissions process, contact Collegiate Gateway – we’re always happy to help.