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MCAT exam reveals new online-only version

Kate Antonacci | Monday, September 25, 2006

For the first time in nearly 80 years, students sitting for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) need not panic if they forget a number two pencil.

Beginning in January 2007, the MCAT exam will be paperless, offered only on computers at “climate and sound-controlled” Thomson Prometric testing centers off-campus.

This is a big change for the roughly 1,200 pre-medical students at Notre Dame who have only known the exam being delivered in familiar lecture halls or large classroom facilities.

“The thing about the test when it was being done on the campus of Notre Dame is that it became a sort of community event,” said Father James Foster, assistant dean in the center for health advising. “The group that is responsible for this transition from the written test to the computerized test has been very reassuring … but that culture is going to be lost.”

Administered about 75,000 times per year, the MCAT is one of the crucial components medical schools look at when evaluating an applicant.

The test is a concern at Notre Dame, which generally has roughly 280-300 medical school applicants per year, placing it about “18th or 19th in the country” in terms of highest number of applicants, Foster said.

Schools with the largest numbers nationally include University of California, Los Angeles, University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan with roughly 600 to 700 applicants per year, said Amjed Mustafa, program manager for MCAT for Kaplan, the leading company in standardized test preparation.

“[Notre Dame is] probably around the halfway point with about 300 students applying,” he said.

With so many students applying to medical school – nearly 44,000 applied last year and only 17,001 enrolled – the AAMC decided to also change the number of times the exam is administered. Whereas in years past the MCAT was offered only two times throughout the year, that number has jumped to a record-high 22 times per year, due largely to the new computerized format.

“I do think that given the nature of the fact that you have test dates later in May, in June, July, earlier August, more students will be taking the test not at Notre Dame, but in their home area or after they’ve left here,” Foster said. “That’s part of the cultural shift that’s going to be made … students will have to plan to take the test in advance.”

Additionally, tests are now available Monday through Saturday, both morning and afternoon.

Along with the change to being computerized, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the group that creates and administers the MCAT, made subsequent changes to the length of the exam and number of questions.

Though the subjects tested – physical sciences, verbal reasoning, writing sample and biological sciences – remain the same, the amount of questions has been decreased by nearly one-third and allowed testing time is reduced by 30 percent. While the paper exam took 8.5 hours, the new computerized exam takes 5.5 hours.

“In the past we’ve seen trends shifting from more emphasis on organic chemistry to less emphasis on organic chemistry,” Mustafa said. “This time, as for change in content, there is none.”

Though students are looking forward to the shorter exam, Mustafa said one cause for concern is that students are not familiar with computerized exams.

“When we surveyed about 3,000 potential test takers … eighty percent had not taken a college exam on the computer before,” he said.

The AAMC offering students realistic practice on the computers before their test date is key, both Foster and Mustafa said.

“This first year … is going to have its bumps along the way but I think that rather than feeding fears they try to give people the opportunity to experience what it’s like,” Foster said. “In some ways it’s going to be less of a burden for the students because there really was this kind of marathon day before whereas now I think it’s a little more reasonable.”

A Kaplan team has been working to move over 10,000 questions into computer format so students can go onto their Web site and try a free practice test that simulates the real exam, Mustafa said.

Making students feel secure taking the exam is as much of a concern for AAMC as is the actual securing of computers.

“Part of the challenge for the AAMC is to figure out exactly how to lock those computers to make sure the only thing the student sees is the MCAT,” Mustafa said, mentioning that finger printing and facial recognition tactics are being discussed.

Security was one of the reasons the AAMC pushed to change into a computer format, as there were lingering administrative concerns about the paper exam, including proctors giving students too much or too little time and the actual logistics of shipping exams, Mustafa said.

All of these concerns over the paper-and-pencil style exam culminated into one collective decision to go computerized – not that the new model comes without concern.

Though there are Thompson Prometric locations all around the country, South Bend is a troubled area in terms of finding testing centers.

“South Bend is one of those cases that is mentioned as an especially problematic area for computerized test administration because the campus is really large but also in an isolated area,” Mustafa said. “Students in such areas have less access than most others will to computer testing centers.”

Limited number of seating in a computer exam room – generally 14-18 seats, Foster said – is also cause for concern. The AAMC hopes to make up for that problem not only by offering more exam dates, but also by allowing students to sit for the MCAT up to three times per year.

Still, the AAMC is looking to solve the issue of limited seating in a computer exam room by using mobile testing units in localized areas where there is an extremely low number of Prometric testing centers.

“That’s one of the reasons they have a contingency plan set that allows them to roll out mobile testing units … with expandable sides, very high tech trailers,” Mustafa said. “They are looking at South Bend as one of those particular test cases [to use] mobile testing units.”

Though the MCAT is often the “last opportunity for students to show [medical] schools what they’re really about,” Mustafa said, a student’s grade point average (G.P.A.) is equally important to medical schools.

“You really do see a difference between what your G.P.A. is,” Foster said. “3.5 or above have a 94 to 95 percent chance of acceptance.”

Notre Dame’s numbers, however, are a bit higher.

“Everyone with above a 3.75 last year was accepted,” Foster said.

For G.P.A.s ranging from 3.25-3.5, Notre Dame had a 76 percent acceptance rate. For a 3.0 to a 3.25, Notre Dame had a 52 percent acceptance rate.

The application process – which Foster’s office begins helping students with about a “year and a half prior to matriculation” – is not just about finding a school that would accept a student with a certain G.P.A., but finding the place where the student best fits.

“We want them to be applying to their state schools,” Foster said. “But you will see them applying to schools all over. There are some schools that are known to like Notre Dame students and schools that Notre Dame students will like.”

Foster mentioned Indiana University, Loyola University in Chicago, Georgetown University, Tulane University, St. Louis University, Vanderbilt University and Emory University as schools where “people from Notre Dame feel at home because of the culture of those institutions.”

“One thing that is an advantage to Notre Dame is that we are large enough to have a reputation for turning out great medical students and still small enough that we can afford to provide a high level of support, like individual advising and an advisor’s letter attached to faculty letters,” said Kathleen Kolberg, assistant dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Science.

Foster said that many medical schools like students from Notre Dame because of the strong community spirit, service orientation and good grounding in ethics. He said the undergraduate students have a good understanding of the holistic nature of medical care.

“They learn to treat the person’s psyche and spirit as well, to attend to the person,” he said.

Foster said that he hopes to enhance not just the numbers or percentages of students accepted to medical school, but the numbers of places that they are accepted.

“We’d like to see them accepted to more than a couple of places so that they have some choices … so they can choose the school where they think they best fit,” he said.