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:: Monday, April 18, 2005 ::

Report on the April MCAT

::This post is featured in Grand Rounds XXX, hosted by GirlScientist at Living the Scientific Life::

After taking the better part of a day to vegetate post-MCAT, I'm now starting to return to my normal blogging schedule. Because very few people actually undergo such an ordeal, I've decided to share it as best I can with the blogosphere and the larger world. Those interested solely in my experience can skip to about the middle of the post - the first, more boring section is devoted to explaining the test itself for those who are unfamiliar with it.

As a part of the medical school admissions process, every prospective doctor in North America (and a few other places) takes the Medical College Admission Test. The MCAT is administered twice a year by the American Association of Medical Colleges, and it explicitly evaluates a student's knowledge of the physical and biological sciences, as well as their verbal reasoning and writing skills. Not advertised, but known to anyone familiar with the exam, are the tests of a student's stamina, ability to function under pressure and stress, and ability to filter through obscure data to find meaningful information that also contribute to the MCAT experience.

Each of the three objective test sections (Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences) are scaled, like the ACT, on a 1-15 scale. The writing section consists of two essays: each is scored twice on a 1-6 scale, then all four grades are summed and converted into a letter grade of J-T (T being the highest possible). The composite score for the exam is obtained by summing the results of the three objective sections, resulting in a range of 3-45. The letter grade is often appended to the composite grade, e.g. 32R. While the MCAT never fails to produce a very nice bell curve, one can't just try to be above average and expect to go to medical school - in order to have even the slimmest chance of matriculating, one has to score significantly above average. According to the information I received as part of my Kaplan MCAT review course, the overall average of MCAT scores is 24O, the average score for applicants is 27P, and the average score of matriculants is 30P. While medical school admissions offices are considering an increasing number of factors when deciding to admit students, having a low MCAT score remains a major kiss of death.

(Those who don't like reading dense text (like that above) can check out Wikipedia's entry on the MCAT and skip the previous two paragraphs.)

True preparations for the MCAT start as soon as one enters college as an undergraduate (or as part of a post-baccalaureate program) and begins to fulfill the prerequisite coursework for admission to medical school. Nearly every medical school requires coursework in general and organic chemistry, biology, physics, some english, calculus, and a few other odd courses. Not surprisingly, everything in the generic pre-med curriculum (other than calc) is included in the MCAT.

Most students take the exam in the April of their Junior year. Depending on the type of person the student is, they are most likely a bit rusty on many of the topics covered by the MCAT. Reviewing before the exam is often in order. As happens every year, some students this year decided to buy a review text or two before taking the test. Others, including myself, took a commercial review course that set ourselves (or our parents) back a good chunk of change. I chose Kaplan, mostly because they run an annual informational meeting on Med School admissions. The fact that I knew where their office was on Green Street also didn't hurt much either. For those students who need an in-depth review of the subject matter, Kaplan provides ample opportunity for that. However, what I most got out of the class was the knowledge of how to actually take the test. The objective portions of the MCAT are passage-based, and without knowing how to handle them they can seriously kick your butt. Verbal Reasoning can be the worst of the three because the passages are the only source of information for correctly answering the questions. In the other sections outside knowledge is a boon, in Verbal Reasoning it can trip you up and get you into serious trouble. My projected VR score before the class was a 4, on the later practice exams I had it up above 10 every single time. For this reason alone I deemed the class worthwhile.

(NOTE: This is probably where those of you who skipped to the middle should resume reading.)

Test day itself was this past Saturday, 16 April 2005. My test administration has the honor of being the last one completely done on paper - starting with the August exam some locations will offer a computer-based MCAT. The transition to being completely computer-based may come as early as next spring. I had registered for the exam weeks before, and had already received my admission ticket and MCAT ID card, the latter of which had to be filled out and include a passport-sized photo provided by myself.

The day started, for me, at 0609 when my girlfriend called to wake me up. After a few resets of my sleep timer (like a cook timer, only much louder), I crawled out of bed at 0630 or so, and checked my computer. It said it was 46°F outside, so I threw on jeans, an undershirt, a sweater, and my red wool jacket, and headed out to get food. Since I'm too poor to own a car, and really don't want one anyway, I biked over to my local IHOP. I'd have gone to the dorm cafeteria to eat except that a) they don't serve warm food on Saturday mornings and b) they don't even open until 0900. I ate pancakes and sausages (the latter for protein), paid (with a coupon), and undertipped (I'm poor, remember?). After walking next door to the convenience store to buy some Gatorade (for the electrolytes), I hopped back on my bike and went to the testing center.

My test location was in 100 Gregory Hall on my very own University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rooms on three different floors of that building were being used for the MCAT, as well as the lecture halls in the Natural History and Medical Sciences buildings. I arrived at 0730, and most of the people assigned to that particular room showed up shortly thereafter. We were admitted to the room starting at about 0755, when we identified ourselves, had our thumbprints taken, and were assigned our seats for the exam. After listening to the usual administrative stuff (this is the MCAT, fill out your mailing address, don't cheat, you can void your test whenever you want up until just after the exam, etc.) we started the Physical Sciences section at just before 0830. The Kaplan people had said that we'd be filling out demographic stuff before this - apparently, all that was done when we registered.

The version of the test that I took had eleven passages for the Physical Sciences section. The passages, and number of questions per passage, were shorter/less than what I'd seen on the Kaplan practice exams. Also, rather than focusing on just one topic, the questions for each passage seemed to cover a number of different topics. The brevity of the passages, plus my astounding luck at getting a version of the exam that seemed to miss all the areas that I was shaky on, led me to finish the section a full twenty minutes early. Good thing, too - I'd mis-coded the answers to three questions on my answer sheet and I would've missed them if I hadn't had time to go back and check my answers. The consensus of other people I knew was that the Physical Sciences section was much easier than we'd thought it would be based on our review course - not that we were complaining.

After the Physical Sciences booklets and answer forms were collected, counted, sorted, and put away, there was a ten minute break before the beginning of the next section, Verbal Reasoning. That section seemed to be the roughest of the exam, and was definitely harder than the versions of it I'd seen as part of my Kaplan course. The passages themselves weren't difficult (which was a pity, since I do my best on those), but the questions and the answer choices were among the weirdest I'd ever seen. Questions with four apparently wrong answers weren't uncommon. I muddled through as best I could, finished the section with about 9 minutes remaining, and checked my answers. After all the test materials had been collected, we were let out for lunch at 1202.

The MCAT lunch break is an hour long. Kaplan suggests bringing a lunch so as to avoid finding a place to eat near the testing center, but most MCAT students don't have a dorm cafeteria a short bike ride away that they can eat at. I had a hot dog (protein), fries (starch, a complex carbohydrate), and some cookies (yummy). To keep my blood osmolarity from dropping, I drank only Powerade during lunch. Since it was now in the low 80s, I swung by my room to drop off my jacket. I would've changed into a lighter shirt, but the test room was still quite cool. I biked back to the my testing room and got there with fifteen minutes to spare. We were readmitted to the room at 1301, and soon started the Writing Sample.

Since the MCAT people will hunt me down if I actually state the writing prompts for the sample, I won't reveal them here. For those interested in what types of prompts are used, the AAMC maintains a list of past prompts; I've written essays for a number of those as part of my Kaplan course. I will say that my name-drops on the first essay were Airbus, dot-coms, and automobiles that can be converted into airplanes; for the second essay they were the Ivy League, Stanford, University of Michigan, University of Illinois, Sen. John Kerry, and Illinois State University. As my feedback from my practice exams had said that I needed to do more in my conclusion than restate what I'd said in my previous paragraphs, I concentrated a bit more on adding substance to those. Personally, I'd guess that I did decently and got 5s on both, landing me with a Writing Sample score in the neighborhood of R.

After the writing sample materials were collected and another ten minute break, the final section of the exam began. My analysis of the Biological Sciences section is much like that for the Physical Sciences section: there were shorter passages than I'd expected from practices, there were fewer questions per passage (due to there being eleven passages in the section), and questions for each passage jumped around from topic to topic. I finished this section rather quickly and had about twenty-five minutes left over. Once I'd checked that I'd gridded my answers properly, I went back and revisited a few of the questions that I'd not quite understood and looked at them again. In order to keep later indecision on my part from causing me to lose points, I usually have a policy of not questioning my earlier responses on passage based exams. However, since I knew that I hadn't properly examined some of the questions, I felt confident that I was getting better answers on the three questions I did change my answers to. With fifteen minutes still remaining, I was effectively done with the exam. After time was called, the section's materials were collected and counted, and then surveys were handed out to everyone. These asked if the proctoring was alright and if we thought that cheating had occurred, among other things. The surveys were collected and it was announced that this was the last opportunity to void the exam, which one woman did. Following that, we were dismissed at just before 1630.

After the exam I went home, filled out the Kaplan post-exam survey, ate some chicken in the dining hall (that later gave me food poisoning), and then rented a Doctor Who and a Farscape DVD to vegetate to. I went to bed sometime around midnight, I think.

Overall, the exam wasn't nearly as traumatic as I thought it would be. It was very exhausting, though, and I wasn't functioning very well at higher cognitive levels for a few hours afterwards. Many of the people I knew from the Kaplan course were thrown by the lack of a one-minute warning during the test. I finished all my sections early, so I didn't have problems with it, although it does suggest that Kaplan may need to revise their practice exam protocols. Based off my performance on the last few practice exams I took, as well as how I think I did on test day, I'm semi-confident that I scored at least a 33 composite score on the exam. However, my final reactions to the exam will have to be reserved until I receive my real exam results in two months time. Until then, I plan on starting on my AMCAS application once I get home from finals and not worrying about my MCAT results until they come in the mail..

UPDATE: For all you impatient people, AAMC has stated when they'll be posting and sending out the MCAT scores from this administration of the exam.

FINAL UPDATE: My scores have been posted.

:: The Squire 1:55 AM :: email this post :: ::


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