Proposed MCAT Revisions Give More Weight to Applicants' Social Sciences Knowledge, Personal Traits

Changes Likely to Benefit Family Medicine, Say AAFP Educators

April 11, 2011 04:45 pm Barbara Bein

Preliminary recommendations for a new version of the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, include key changes to the content and format of the current MCAT that can help medical schools select students who are more likely to go into family medicine and primary care, say AAFP medical educators.

According to a March 31 news release( from the Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, the proposed recommendations call for testing the behavioral and social sciences concepts that underlie students' capacity to learn about the human and social issues of medicine.

The revamped recommendations also propose revising the current verbal section of the MCAT to test the way examinees reason through passages in ethics and philosophy, cross-cultural studies, population health, and other subjects, thus communicating the need for students to read broadly in preparation for their medical education.

Moreover, the recommendations call for the AAMC to gather information about applicants' personal characteristics, such as integrity and a service commitment.

Perry Pugno, M.D., M.P.H., AAFP vice president for education, said a revised MCAT will be helpful to family medicine and primary care.

"The new framework to the MCAT will clearly give admissions committees more information to help them identify those applicants whose personal characteristics forecast a greater likelihood of seeking careers in family medicine," he told AAFP News Now.

Wendy Biggs, assistant director of the AAFP Division of Medical Education, agreed.

"We know some demographic and educational factors that appear to predict whether a medical student will enter primary care, such as female gender, having a rural background or attending a publicly funded medical school," she told AAFP News Now.

Academy Reaches Out to Premeds

The AAFP offers numerous resources for premedical students who are considering careers in family medicine.

Among discussion topics included in the Medical School & Residency section of the Academy's website are the following:

  • What types of physicians are needed?
  • What is the course of study in medical school?
  • How expensive is medical school?
  • What if I'm not sure about a career in medicine?

Prospective FPs also can find answers to their questions about the specialty in Explore Family Medicine(4 page PDF).

"Research also has suggested that students choosing primary care are likely to be altruistic and possess a commitment to service," Biggs added. "The proposed changes in the MCAT may be advantageous for students with these values who will be more likely to choose family medicine as their future career."

The recommendations were developed by a 22-member advisory panel -- the MR5 Committee -- that was appointed by the AAMC in 2008 to review the MCAT.

The committee's 14 recommendations( were drawn from numerous outreach events with stakeholder groups, expert input from committees and advisory groups, and reviews of more than 2,700 informational and opinion surveys from undergraduate and medical school faculty, administrators, residents and medical students.

According to the news release, the revised MCAT aims to balance the exam's focus on the natural sciences with testing applicants' critical analysis and reasoning skills. It also acknowledges the importance of behavioral and social sciences by, among other things, adding a specific test of these concepts.

In addition to recommendations outlining the proposed content and format of the new exam, the MR5 Committee also made recommendations regarding the types of resources that may be needed to prepare examinees, prehealth faculty and medical school admissions committees for the new exam, such as

  • clearly describe the types of decisions that test scores are and are not designed to support;
  • prepare examinees for the new test, paying particular attention to the educational needs of students at under-resourced institutions;
  • help medical schools track and research the value and validity of the new exam for student selection; and
  • provide low-cost preparation materials, in addition to fee waivers and discounts on preparation materials, for examinees who qualify.

But perhaps most beneficial recommendation for screening applicants who are likely to choose careers in family medicine and primary care is that the AAMC should pursue options for gathering data about medical school applicants' personal characteristics, including their level of integrity and service orientation.

That recommendation dovetails with the AAFP's family physician workforce reform policy, which says medical schools should be encouraged to develop admissions policies that identify and recruit students who are most likely to pursue careers in family medicine and primary care as a way to alleviate shortages and maldistribution of these medical specialists.

The MR5 Committee will continue to discuss the recommendations with stakeholders until the AAMC Board of Directors meets for final approval in February 2012. If approved, the recommendations would be introduced with the 2015 MCAT.