Video 6: Med School Prep – Introduction

In this video, we’ll start our discussions about the MCAT: More specifically, we’ll talk about:

  • What the MCAT is
  • Why it exists
  • What is the layout of the MCAT exam

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Click here to watch the next video: Video 7 – Med School Prep – The MCAT

Video Transcription:

Hi guys, it’s Radhika here again. Thank you for joining me. Today we’re going to continue our discussion about medical school prep but also start talking about the MCAT. This is going to have a heavy portion of this video series, however, in today’s video I will just be introducing the MCAT. We’ll talk about some of the basics and I’ll answer questions like what it is, why it exists, and a brief few things about its layout. As we get into the series a little more I’ll start explaining things with more depth. Let’s get started!

The first question always is, “What really is the MCAT?” The MCAT stands for the Medical College Admission Test. It is a six hour and fifteen-minute exam. It’s standardized and written by the AAMC. The AAMC is the American Association of Medical Colleges. Although the fact that it’s an American board that writes and administers this exam, it is a requirement for most Canadian medical schools. There used to be quite a few medical schools that didn’t require the MCAT in the past, but recently all of them have started switching over to having this as a necessary component of your medical school application.

Why does it exist? We’ve all heard stories about it. We’ve heard it’s really hard, super long, takes three minutes to study for… a lot of people do well, and some people don’t. It’s that one monster that every pre-med kind of dreads. So why have they made this kind of exam? What kind of purpose does it serve? I’ll tell you.

It exists basically as a means to standardize thousands of applicants. If you think about it, we all come from diverse academic backgrounds. Some of us are in the sciences, some of us are not. We go to various institutions and we take a variety of classes with a very vast means of being able to score how well we did on those classes. All medical schools would be able to see is our GPA. They wouldn’t be able to make much of that number because there is no standardization. How do you compare somebody who has a 4.0 GPA in accounting to someone who may have a 3.7 in biomechanical engineering? There is no standardization that actually exists amongst people from various academic backgrounds. As a means to standardize every single applicant, the MCAT serves that purpose primarily. But it does serve a bit of a different purpose as well.

That’s to be able to test your critical thinking skills. Skills that the AAMC and almost all medical schools agree are very crucial for practicing medicine. Critical thinking skills are something that your GPA doesn’t reflect. Your GPA reflects your academic abilities in a series of subjects that you took throughout your undergraduate or graduate career, but it doesn’t really tell the medical schools how great of a thinking skill set you actually possess. The AAMC essentially said they needed to create an exam which basically tests applicant’s ability on a level of critical thinking. How good are they are critical thinking? The numerical value that you get out of this exam would be an indicator of your critical thinking skills. Again, the MCAT exists for two reasons. It’s primarily to standardize all applicants from various academic backgrounds and secondly, to be able to take those critical thinking skills, evaluate them, and standardize everyone in terms of how they rank on those thinking skills.

Just as a bit of a side note, before the MCAT was introduced what most medical schools in North America found as that there were all these students who got into medical school but didn’t have the right skills once they got there to be a successful practicing physician. We saw, for many years, the dropout rate amongst med students was about 50 percent. That’s right! Almost one in two students used to dropout of medical school just because they weren’t the right candidate, either because they found this out on their own or the medical school had to go back and say, “We gave you an admission offer, but you don’t seem like the right candidate.” They found that once this exam was introduced that the dropout rate fell significantly. It went from about 5 percent to about 7 percent. Ever since it has been introduced the dropout rate has continually declined. That’s why it exists.

I have to give you a word of caution. The biggest misconception about this exam is that it is a science test. Students who are not in the sciences without a science background think they won’t do well on it because they haven’t gotten through three or four years of basic level sciences as anyone with a science major. That’s not the case. The reason being is although you need to have a certain baseline level of scientific understanding, the MCAT is not a science test. It is a thinking skills test. The reason it’s a thinking skills test, especially a critical thinking skills test, is because what it actually evaluates is your ability to problem solve and involve critical thinking and reasoning. It’s not one of those exams that’s synonymous to how you would study for an undergraduate class where perhaps you attend class, take lecture notes, read the textbook, go back and read those lecture notes, and if you have a 100 percent understanding of all the information, you can do really well on midterms and exams. The MCAT is not like that because although you need a scientific understanding in order to do well, if you don’t have the right skills, problem solving, critical thinking, critical reasoning, and analytical skills, then knowing 100 percent of the sciences isn’t going to help you do 100 percent on this exam. It is a thinking skills test, not a science test.

It exists exactly for that purpose. We talked about in the previous slide that it’s a means to standardize and test critical thinking and that’s exactly what it does. If medical schools want to look at how great your academic abilities are, how well you are proficient in the sciences, they can look to your GPA if you had a science major. If they want to see how well you’ll be able to perform as a physician based on some of the critical abilities you’re supposed to have, this is when they’ll look at the MCAT score. It’s a very important factor of your application because it serves a purpose entirely different from your GPA. It does not convey much about your academic abilities, but more about your thinking skills.

Moving on, why does it matter then? There are a few reasons, the main one being that the score that you actually get is used in multiple stages of your admissions process. There are three ways it is actually used. The first is as a minimum for admission. It’s kind of a cut off here. Many medical schools have cut offs, not all of them, quite a lot do. A cut off is the minimum score that you need in order for your application to even be considered. If your MCAT score doesn’t meet this minimum criterion, then your application is not even considered any further. Your application is sort of “dead.” They’re not going to open up your file because you haven’t met certain criteria they have deemed as essential for you as an applicant to your school.

Another way that it is actually used is as a pre-interview direct criteria score. This means they set certain criteria and say, “If you’ve hit this criterion in all of the four sections, we will consider you for an interview.” This isn’t even to consider your file. This is when they’ve considered your file and are thinking about giving you an interview. They directly look at your score. You think that may be all because should you be invited for an interview then they are probably going to look at your interview score afterwards to see once you’ve gone through whether they should be giving you an offer of admission. But that’s a bit incorrect because the MCAT score is also used as post-interview direct criteria. Although you have delivered this interview it’s not as if they’re going to discard looking at your MCAT score. Most admissions committees will still pay quite a bit attention. Not as much as they did in terms of your pre-interview direct criteria but they do give it quite a bit of emphasis. These are three ways in which it’s directly used in admissions.

Now that I’ve provided you with a basic understanding of the MCAT let’s get deeper into the exam itself. I want to talk to you about the format. The first thing I want to share is that the MCAT is a passage based exam. A passage based exam refers to the fact that this exam is arranged such that 80 percent of the questions that you’re going to be answering are going to come from knowledge that you’ve obtained in a passage. 80 percent, approximately 185/230 questions, are going to come from a passage. The passages vary in length, in difficulty, and in the number of questions. Each passage is typically followed by four to six questions and they’re based on the content presented in that text. The MCAT is also a computerized exam. In 2007 it official switched over to being computerized. You cannot request a paper and pencil version of this exam anymore. I’ll show you in a second what it actually looks like. On top of that, it is 100 percent completely a multiple choice exam. Just a word of caution here. When most of my students see the word “multiple choice exam” they think, “Great. It’s so easy! That means they’re going to present me with a series of answer options and all I have to do is select the correct answer option.” Not so much the case here.

This kind of multiple choice exam is unlike any that you’ve seen in your undergraduate career. The reason being is because the way these questions are designed are to ambiguously make things tricky for you. They are ambiguous. You’ll find especially in the critical analysis and reasoning skills section that you’re going to look at the four answer options that they give you and be like, “Wow. None of these are correct.” At that point, you’re going to come to the realization that this is one of those exams that ask you to pick the least wrong answer option. Not the one that is correct but the one that is least incorrect. If it wasn’t hard enough already, it’s a lot harder now. You may know that all answer A, B, C and D are not entirely correct. But your job as a test taker is to select the one that is least incorrect. You can tell that although this is not a science test your science skills have to be excellent for you to be able to comment on the inaccuracy of the answers that have been presented to you.

Moving on, this is what the computer interface looks like. In the red block on the left you can that half of this screen will always be devoted to your passage. There it has passage one, questions one through four. This passage in particular looks like it has some figures and text, a lot of which happens to be captions that follow that figure. It doesn’t look very text heavy but some of these images… I don’t know how I feel about that. The fact that they’ve wrote reaction one here seems like in this series of diagrams that they’re probably describing some sort of reaction with the compounds given to you in terms of figures. The passage always appears on the left-hand side of your screen. On the right-hand side of your screen you will see one question appearing at a time. This is very different. Prior to 2015 when the exam went through a major change, you used to be able to see all the questions that were associated with this little passage. Not the case anymore! You only see one question at a time. You can toggle between questions. If I want to see the next question what I see on the bottom right of my screen is the next button. I’d have to click that and I’d be able to see the next question appearing, only one at a time. The moment I click that the existing question will disappear. You can go backwards as well. That’s the previous button right here on the bottom bar.

Another important thing I want to draw your attention to here is the time remaining button. You’ll see a timer that always counts down in hours, minutes, and seconds from the total time that you had per section. We’ll talk about the time you have in every section. This is commonly how your screen is going to look. You do have certain tools that will be available for you when you write this exam. One of those tools is going to be a highlight option. Any of the text that actually appears in your passage, what you can do is click, hold, and drag to highlight text. You cannot highlight equations. You cannot highlight diagrams. Text only!

In terms of answering the questions themselves, one of the most useful tools that exists is the strikeout option. Let’s say I was actually to do question number four and I was going to do some sort of process of elimination. I knew that one of these answer options was not correct. I would be able to strike that out. I could click on the text of the question itself and a line will appear through it. That means that I’ve narrowed down my options and now have three questions remaining. You could do this up to three times in one question. Technically I could eliminate three answer options, leaving the one that is correct. You can also flag questions. That’s the second button that you see here from the left. When I mark or flag a question it allows me to revisit the question later by hitting on all the ones that were flagged and double-clicking when I get to the review screen.

I’ll tell you what the review screen is. The review screen you can access by pushing the review button. It will show you all of the questions that were available to you in that section. You can take a shortcut to each that you’ve flagged by double-clicking on it. A flag actually will appear next to that question. You’ll be able to distinguish the ones that you’ve flagged versus not flagged. All of this seems really great because these are user tools you would not have had available to you on the paper and pencil version. But I’m going to leave you with a word of caution here. Your reading speed, study after study has shown, is on average ten percent slower on screen then it is on paper. It’s because of the way the human eye perceives light bouncing off of paper versus light that is reflected from a screen. You do read about 10 percent slower. That means for an exam that is mostly passage based and is quite text heavy you will be reading slower then you actually do.

What I’m trying to say here is that when you’re studying for this exam you want to make sure that you do as much of your practice as possible on screen because that’s what it’s going to be like on test day. You want to simulate those conditions as best as possible. That kind of concludes my basic overview of the MCAT for today. We’ll continue these talks about the MCAT as we go further in this video series. My takeaway messages from this video would basically be that the MCAT serves to standardize applicants from a diverse array of academic background first and foremost. It is a long exam, six hours and fifteen minutes in total writing time. It is computer-based and on top of that, 80 percent of it is passage based. You have to be able to read those passages in order to answer the questions correctly. But I think the biggest takeaway from this video is that this exam is a critical thinking skills exam. It’s not a science test! In order to do well on it you must have phenomenal knowledge of the sciences, but furthermore you really have to have excellent critical thinking skills. I hope you were able to takeaway lots of good information from this exam. I’ll see you next time where we’ll keep up digging further into the MCAT. See you next time! Bye.

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