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New MCAT looks for heart, soul, and brains

Revisions reflect growing awareness of medicine as a ‘human endeavor’

Starting in 2015, would-be medical students will take a substantially different, longer, and more wide-ranging Medical College Admission Test that’s aimed at identifying aspiring physicians who understand people as well as science.

While the changes are big news nationally—the MCAT hasn’t been significantly revised since 1991—they likely won’t mean a drastic change in the way University of Minnesota pre-med students prepare for the test.

Nor will they alter the way the Medical School evaluates candidates, agree advisers and faculty leaders. That’s because the thinking behind the changes aligns with efforts that have been under way at the University of Minnesota for years.

“I think the U is actually ahead of the curve,” says Tricia Todd, assistant director of the Health Careers Center and an instructor in the School of Public Health.

For example, the Medical School’s 2008 statement on essential and desired qualities of medical students makes it clear that at the University of Minnesota, an aspiring doctor must be much more than a biology whiz.

Besides strong academics, the admissions committee is looking for professional conduct (integrity, compassion, self-awareness, and ethics), outstanding interpersonal skills, and a dedication to lifelong learning.

“Our admissions requirements were intentionally redesigned to guide students to apply their knowledge of science to improving the human condition,” says Kathleen Watson, M.D., the Medical School’s associate dean for students and student learning.

What’s in? What’s out?

The recently announced MCAT overhaul will include new sections on behavioral and social sciences as well as critical analysis and reasoning.

Gone will be the exam’s writing section. Gauging applicants’ communication skills is achieved just as effectively through students’ personal statements, says Watson. And the new critical analysis and reasoning section in the revised test will likely reveal strengths or weaknesses in that area as well, she surmises.

Sample passages and questions in the MCAT 2015 preview guide include subjects ranging from Rudolph Virchow to prison ethics, giving test-takers the chance to demonstrate how well they comprehend, evaluate, apply, and incorporate various facts and concepts.

Critical thinking and endurance required

The revamped MCAT may, in fact, require more careful planning for undergrads, Todd says. Students will need some familiarity with research methods, statistics, and biochemistry, as well as some background in the humanities and ethics—and the ability to think critically. (They’ll also need the endurance to cope with a 90-minute increase in the exam time, from five and a half hours to seven.)

It’s important to note, both Watson and Todd add, that while a more liberal-arts-focused background will prove advantageous, students will still need competency in the basic sciences. “While you’re adding new content, you’re not taking away the emphasis on science,” Todd says.

Ultimately, the move to ensure that more physicians have not just strong scientific knowledge but a more holistic view of patient care is a positive one, says Watson. “I think it’s a good idea. We should pay careful attention to how we educate the kind of doctors everybody wants to have.”

By Susan Maas

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