MCAT goes digital

Online Poster

Online Poster

By Danielle Gaines

The American Association of Medical Colleges recently announced significant changes to the Medical College Admission Test, the most significant change being that it is strictly a computer-based format.

The exam currently takes students eight hours to complete and is timed by a proctor. In the new system, students will answer fewer questions and may choose to take breaks or skip them. Now, the average test day will take five hours, timed by a computer.

While the MCAT is administered only twice a year now, students can test up to four times a year under the pending changes. A more controlled testing environment is proposed, including fingerprinting to enhance security.

“Our goal is to enhance the testing experience for examinees and the usefulness of the results for the medical schools and other professional schools that use the MCAT,” said Ellen Julian, associate vice president and director of the MCAT, in a press release from the association.

Students should not worry about the changes according to James Hall, dean of student affairs at the University’s College of Medicine and member of the University’s medical school admissions committee.

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“There have been changes in the MCAT before and the association has proven themselves,” Hall said. “They were still identifying the people who had the best aptitude to be pursuing medicine. They have a lot of testing experts, and I think that most applicants will appreciate the changes.”

Amjed Mustafa, MCAT program manager for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, said the association is changing the MCAT to offer more test dates and to process scores quickly afterwards. He said concern over security issues were also a factor for the decision.

The MCAT will maintain its basic characteristics, testing students in the areas of verbal reasoning, physical sciences, biological sciences and writing.

“It isn’t the number of questions that affects students but the time allotted,” said Michael Mackowski, senior in LAS who took the MCAT last spring. “If they keep the same ratio, the test will be just as difficult. It’s not the test that is hard, it is finishing in the time given.”

The changes in structure are affecting the way students prepare for the exam. Kaplan offers courses specifically for the computer-based test. With the pen and paper version, students can do scratch work, highlight and annotate their readings. It is not yet known whether these features will be included in the computer-based test.

“Many of the strategies for the paper test are not going to be available on a computer, so students are going to need to develop a new skill set,” Mustafa said. “It is not that the test is becoming more difficult, just that the skill set will change. Preparation for the exam is going to become much more important.”

Students may see an opportunity to test multiple times because of increased dates, but Mustafa warns against this.

“As part of an education campaign, we are explaining to students the difference between taking the MCAT once and taking it multiple times,” Mustafa said. “The fact is MCAT scores get reported every time you test, so it is important to take preparation very seriously.”

Students who take the test multiple times are evaluated differently at every school. Hall said that the University takes the highest set of scores.

Though an electronic MCAT has been offered on a limited basis for the last few years, it is not the same as the new program. In 2004, only 560 examinees of more than 61,000 took the computerized version of the test.

The scores from the first computer-based MCAT in 2007 will not be comparable to scores from previous years, as the test will change completely.

“If everyone does worse, then everyone does worse,” Hall said. “That will simply change the scale used to evaluate the applicant pool.”

The paper MCAT will be offered for the final times in April and August of this year. The Princeton Review’s Web site advises prepared students to take the test during one of these sessions.

“Do it once, do it right, and do it this coming April or August,” Mustafa said.