Medical School Hopefuls Grapple With Overhauled Entrance Exam
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Students who took the Medical College Admissions Test this spring have been getting their scores back this month. They were the first to take the MCAT since it was completely overhauled. April Dembosky of member station KQED describes what's new.
APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: It's a typical afternoon for Travis Driscoll - T minus four days until he takes his MCAT exam - and he's already clocked five hours on his desk.
TRAVIS DRISCOLL: Glycolysis, citric acid cycle.
DEMBOSKY: He's got all kinds of chemistry charts taped to the wall.
DRISCOLL: And then different cell cycles - mitosis, meiosis.
DEMBOSKY: He also has a thick prep book on psychology and sociology.
DRISCOLL: All right, so number four - when new members of a society eventually become indistinguishable from the rest of society, adopting the language, norms and customs, which process has occurred?
DEMBOSKY: This is the new MCAT. The test is now three hours longer and includes a whole new section on psychology and sociology. Test takers now have to answer questions about how race and class affect health.
DRISCOLL: And D is groupthink.
DEMBOSKY: As patient populations across the U.S. become more and more diverse, MCAT administrators wanted to make sure the doctors of tomorrow are better prepared to care for patients who don't look like them.
DEMBOSKY: What's the answer?
DRISCOLL: It's assimilation.
DEMBOSKY: Driscoll studied biomedical engineering in college, so for him, the new psych-soc section is the one he's most nervous about.
DRISCOLL: It's at the end of the test, which makes it more difficult because you're pretty tired by then. Yeah, and it's just the thing I have the least experience with.
DEMBOSKY: Catherine Lucey is a dean at UC San Francisco School of Medicine and has been deeply involved with the new MCAT. She says the exam was last revised more than 20 years ago, and the overhaul was needed to bring it up to date with the latest science. In particular, there have been significant advances in research on how social forces impact help.
CATHERINE LUCEY: Whether or not someone becomes ill has a lot to do with the society in which they live.
DEMBOSKY: For example, she says, we now know a lot more about what happens to children who are abused or exposed to violence before they turn 5.
LUCEY: If they live in a violent neighborhood, if they hear gunshots all the time, they are much more likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and many other chronic conditions because of their social environment.
DEMBOSKY: The test prep industry adapted quickly to the new MCAT, but course enrollment is just starting to pick up. Krissi Taylor Leslie, of the Princeton Review in Northern California, says the real rush was last fall when students flocked to take the old test.
KRISSI TAYLOR LESLIE: Just recognizing that it's, like, that was my chance at the easier test and now I'm up against this beast.
DEMBOSKY: She says the new social sciences section, which is worth a quarter of the overall score, is already attracting a different kind of student to consider med school.
LESLIE: For instance, an increase in the number of English majors, of psychology majors.
DEMBOSKY: And philosophy majors, like Ari Fischer. He started thinking about a career in medicine the summer after his junior year when his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer.
ARI FISCHER: That's kind of when I was first shown, like, what physicians do every day.
DEMBOSKY: He started taking medical ethics classes.
FISCHER: One of them was called "Life And Death."
DEMBOSKY: Where he read works about immortality, the meaning of death and the meaning of life in the face of death. Fischer says he can imagine drawing on this knowledge one day if he has a patient facing tough end-of-life decisions.
FISCHER: What a cool way to take my degree in philosophy and kind of turn it into a helpful, practical skill.
DEMBOSKY: Fischer just got his MCAT score back. He did the best on the social sciences section and the verbal reasoning and landed in the 87th percentile overall.
FISCHER: Perhaps Harvard will think that I'm lacking in my MCAT score and that might be fair enough.
DEMBOSKY: Altogether, he's applying to 38 schools.
FISCHER: Any school that gives me a shot, I'm going to be thrilled.
DEMBOSKY: Fischer says he just wants the chance at an interview so he can really show what kind of physician he wants to be. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.