Is The MCAT Still Worth Its Weight?



Despite a national decrease in medical school applications, the Medical College Admissions Test continues to play a significant, although not exclusive, role in the medical school admissions process.

The competition for acceptance to medical schools is extremely fierce, with the number of applicants to U.S. medical schools more than doubling the number of acceptances, according to a 1999 survey conducted by Kaplan Inc. one of the nation's leading standardized test preparation companies.

"Medical school is extremely expensive, time intensive and arduous," said Margaret Peroski, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "It's important to know that you are taking a student who can do well enough on a standardized exam to get through the future exams that they're going to have to get through."

The MCAT gives admissions officers with an objective indication of a student's ability to handle the demands of an intensive academic curriculum and ability to perform on future board exams.

MCAT scores are good predictors of how well students will perform on medical board exams, collectively known as the United States Medical Licensing Exam. The boards consist of three parts taken over the course of the student's education; all must be passed to legally practice medicine.

The MCAT itself is divided into four sections: verbal ability, physical sciences, biological sciences and a writing sample. The exam requires test takers to have prior knowledge of sciences, but is not a test of advanced science; rather, students must use basic knowledge to solve problems. The average score ranges between 15 and 45.

"An MCAT score of 24 or below is sort of a red flag for possible potential academic difficulty, whether it's course failure or not being able to get through the national boards," said Peroski.

But Peroski pointed out that there is no automatic cutoff and there was once a student - not at UB - who was admitted into medical school with an MCAT score of nine.

Many companies offer study courses to help students raise MCAT scores. Kaplan Inc. is the largest provider of preparation services to practicing physicians and medical, dental and nursing students, and offers a preparation course at UB.

Students practice all types of problems from the test and also have the option of taking five full-length practice exams in a formal MCAT setting. The coursed can cost up to $1,300 and last six months.

"I think it's worth it," said senior biology major Lynn Camp, who took a Kaplan prep course. "By the time you take the real one, you're not nervous about it. A lot of the test is just staying focused through the whole thing because you're in there for around eight or nine hours."

UB, like most other schools, requires students to pass the first part of the board exams before continuing with clinical medical education. If a student fails part one three times, they are dismissed from the school.

According to Peroski, admissions officers understand that the level of difficulty between schools varies and that students can often peg easy graders and easy courses.

"The nice thing about the MCATs is they are a totally standardized experience," said Peroski. "You can't pick the easy MCAT teacher, you can't smile a lot and charm the MCATs. They are a totally objective measure."

Many critics of standardized tests point say tests do not adequately assess the academic abilities of students with focused work ethic, but are countered by proponents who contend standardized testing has become the norm in almost every field.

"In this country we use standardized tests as sort of the great equalizer," said Peroski. "How people perform on these tests is not a trivial issue."

In addition, admissions officers emphasize that the MCAT score is by no means the most important part of the admissions process, but that academic performance throughout undergraduate years, life experience including volunteer work and research, letters of recommendation, the personal essay and especially interviews are all important components of the application.