For aspiring healthcare professionals, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) represents an important milestone on the way to medical school. Many students have even more questions about the test this year (affectionately referred to as “MCAT2015”), since the MCAT format and content will change for the first time in over two decades.
We spoke with Jacqueline (Jackie) McLaughlin, Director of Pre-Health Post-Baccalaureate Programs at Penn, to discuss how she and her colleagues are ramping up for the changes. The short answer? Every year, Penn’s Pre-Health Programs team helps prepare students for success with standardized tests and professional school applications through a combination of intensive advising and targeted study support. The team has adapted to address the MCAT changes and will continue to provide superior guidance and support to the next generation of healthcare professionals.
So, Jackie, why are the MCAT changes such big news?
The MCAT is an entrance exam required for medical school admission. The MCAT exam hasn't changed very much since 1991, so the revision to be launched in January 2015 is pretty significant for a lot of people. The exam is changing to reflect the way medical training is evolving and to better identify which students are well prepared for these changes.
What precipitated the changes in the test?
Our understanding of what it takes to be an effective healthcare provider is evolving. The more we understand about delivering care effectively, the more we want to train people who are prepared to do so. Medical schools are looking for students with additional competencies — not just the ability to recite knowledge, but also demonstrated critical thinking and reasoning skills, scientific literacy, and an understanding of human behavior.
It sounds like these are pretty fundamental shifts to healthcare professions and education. How has the MCAT changed to help medical schools recognize students who have mastered these competencies?
The content has been reorganized into new categories. A new category for biochemistry has been added, as well as social and behavioral sciences. There will be questions to gauge your understanding of health behavior theory, which gets into psychology and social science theory, and the application of statistics and research methods to problem solving.
Along with some changes in content, they've also changed the length — instead of five hours, it's going to be seven hours.
The types of questions have been redesigned as well. There are a lot more critical thinking and problem-solving questions, and more information is integrated throughout the testing. It is going to rely much more on applied knowledge.
How have the faculty and staff at Penn been preparing for such an important moment for healthcare education?
It's been a five year planning process to create the new exam, so we've known it's coming for a long time. One of the first things we've done is to stay abreast and educated about what changes are coming down the pike. Our Pre-Health advising team attends regular trainings put on by the American Association of Medical Colleges to stay on top of the progression of the exam development. That's a commitment on our part.
Biochemistry has become a requirement for many medical schools, but since there's a new section of the MCAT focused on biochemistry, students should have a course in it whether a medical school requires it or not. As a result, the biology department has made some revisions in the biology curriculum, and we now know how a biochemistry course will be incorporated into the schedules for students in our Core Program [students who enter the Pre-Health program with little or no scientific background]. We’ve been talking to our students about all of this as they come in for advising so they're well informed and prepared.
Will the addition of the biochemistry course have a significant effect on the way students entering the Core Program schedule their time at Penn?
The addition of biochemistry extends the preparation timeline for our students who enter the Pre-Health Core Program with little or no scientific background. At this point we recommend a two-year timeline for these students.
I believe this new two-year plan puts our students at an advantage, because medical schools are also looking for students with experience in the field. Two years at Penn gives them access to observational experiences and research opportunities. We're providing opportunities for our Pre-Health students to grow academically, personally, and professionally in this program. When they complete the program, we ensure they're the strongest candidate they can be.
One of the many strengths of the Pre-Health Programs at Penn is the intensive application support you provide your students. Are you making additions that will help them prepare for the new MCAT2015 changes?
We’re actually partnering with some of the online learning design experts at Penn to develop a new online review tool for students enrolled in our programs. As part of the development, we talked to students who'd already taken the MCAT and asked them to evaluate the tool. We received very positive and helpful feedback, and all of them thought it was going to be a really valuable asset for our future students.
The online content review tool will allow students to use an index to directly go to a short content review on any particular area that they want to brush up on. It aligns all of their classroom curricula with the content on the new exam, and it includes problem sets with solutions. Students can use this tool at their own pace to fill in the gaps in their test prep. We’re looking forward to launching the new resource in fall of 2014.
The way we teach at Penn has always been based on problem-solving and the application of knowledge, not just spitting it back — so our students are well prepared. At every stage we're helping students develop their sophistication, critical thinking and ability to present themselves as a future health care provider. I think with the way we've been approaching our curricula and our focus on continuous quality improvement, our students are going to be very well prepared for their future.
So when will the test changes actually be put in place and when will students start taking the new version?
Students who are taking the MCAT in January of 2015 will have the option of taking the current version or the new one. Starting in February of 2015, everyone will be required to take the new version of the MCAT.
People applying to medical school now are able to use their old MCAT scores, although we are recommending that students check the policies for the schools that they're applying to. Anyone applying for 2017 medical school admissions will need to prepare to take the new test.
There are also students in the Pre-Health Programs who are applying to veterinary, nursing and dental schools. Are you anticipating changes to entrance requirements for those schools? How do you think the Penn Pre-Health Programs are poised to deal with changes in healthcare preparation as compared to programs at other universities?
Most recently there were changes made to the dental school admissions exam (DAT) in 2014. The biological content is now more systems focused and test takers are expected to employ more critical thinking, and our students have been preparing for that update.
One of the benefits of the many years of experience and the diversity of expertise represented by our advising staff, along with our close relationships with colleagues at the professional schools around Penn, is our ability to stay well informed about all the pre-health professions. Because we’re part of a university with some of the finest health professions schools in the world, we have pretty special insight into the most current understanding of what it takes to be an effective doctor, veterinarian, nurse, or dentist. We work to stay ahead of all the relevant changes, and respond as quickly as we can to prepare our students accordingly.