MCAT 2015 Podcast
John: Hi! This is John from Next Step Test Preparation and I am here with my colleague Bryan Schnedeker and we are going to chat for about 15 – 20 minutes about the 2015 MCAT changes.
Bryan Schnedeker: Hi John and hi everybody. It’s a pleasure to be here.
John: Hey, just for some background, Bryan has been teaching the MCAT for well over a decade now. He has taken the test several times and scored 41 most of those times which, as probably our listeners know, is the high 99.99990 percentile. So, he is one of the guys who know the MCAT better than anyone else in the country but, as you know, the MCAT’s changing pretty significantly. So, we are recording this in December of 2013. So, students over the next year are going to be taking what I guess we could call the current MCAT and students who are going to have to take the test starting in 2015 with the exclusion of January are going to have to take the new MCAT.
So, one of the things that we are going to chat a little bit about today and my first question to Bryan is, Bryan, as a student who maybe can have some leeway for whether he or she should take the test this year or wait for 2015, what are your thoughts on trying to make that decision?
Bryan Schnedeker: Yeah, that’s a good question, John, and one that I have been hearing from a lot of potential students. As you noted, the students have up until January of 2015. So, actually right at the very beginning of 2015 you can still take the current version of the MCAT which means you have got an entire calendar year and the decision about whether or not to take the current version of the MCAT or wait and take the 2015 version of the MCAT depends primarily on where the student is in the process of their college career or getting their prerequisites done. As I am sure many of you know, the current version of the MCAT basically requires some freshman level science – so, one year of Biology, one year of General Chemistry, a year of Physics and a year of Organic Chemistry – and that’s it. Despite how challenging the test of MCAT is, fundamentally the coursework that the current version of the MCAT requires is just a year each of all those hard sciences and, as we said, we have actually got a full calendar year before the MCAT change which means for the overwhelming majority of students listening, if you are hearing this podcast anytime in the next few months, there is a very strong chance that your best bet is to take the current version of the MCAT, to take it sometime in 2014 or to take it right at the very beginning of 2015. The primary reason for that of course is that the coursework that the MCAT requires can all be completed in one year. I mean, if you just sat down for a full year and did a year of Bio, Chem, Physics and Orgo, you could get yourself ready for the current version of the exam. So, that’s what I have been recommending to most people.
If at all possible, try and take the current version of the test.
John: I think that’s great advice. One of the things that you and I who have been in test prep forever and have seen all these tests change over the years, for example, the MCAT just lost its writing samples, so you no longer get that little letter after your score. Lots of times tests change in fairly minor ways but, in my opinion, this is one of the biggest test changes that I have seen in 10 year of being in test prep and looking at all the different exams and the reason is that the MCAT of course tests problem solving skills and strategy but it also tests actual knowledge. So, it’s not just a reshuffling of that knowledge or changing of the number of questions on the test or the order of the sections or something like that but they are actually introducing these new substantive sections on sociological and psychological foundation of the sciences.
So, in your opinion, Bryan, do you think that students are going to have to take new courses or prepare in a very different way once that instruction is up and running?
Bryan Schnedeker: Yeah, absolutely, and that is the core of the advice for trying to get the MCAT done if at all possible.
The other consideration of course – and I will get back to the psychology and sociology in just a second – but, John, as you well know having the same kind of depth of test prep experience that I do, ultimately the customer for standardized test is the admissions committee, not the test taker and admissions committees at Med Schools have a long experience with the current version of the MCAT. So, they know exactly what they are doing, they know how to evaluate current MCAT scores. So, you as a student, you know the game that you are playing, so to speak. You know the field that you are walking on to with the current version of the MCAT and, as you said, the change to the MCAT that’s coming in 2015 – and I don’t think it’s overstating it to put it this way – is staggering. This is the biggest change I have ever seen in any standardized test, bigger than when the SAT added a writing section, bigger than when the LSAT changed their essay, bigger even than when the GMAT added a new integrated reasoning. This MCAT change is even bigger than when the MCAT went to computer – biggest test change to come down the pipe in decades. So, that presents challenges for the students as well as the admissions committees which means these new med school admissions committees aren’t really going to know how to interpret these new scores. So, from a student’s point of view, you don’t want to be walking into that period of uncertainty or at least you don’t want to be walking into it if you don’t have to.
And, John, you brought up the issue of the additional coursework. That’s another big part of why the prep horizon that you look at for the 2015 exam is very different because now not only is a student going to be expected to have a year of organic Chemistry, a year of Gen Chem, a year of Physics, a year of Bio but they are adding essentially an entire semester’s worth of psychology, a semester’s worth of sociology and a semester’s worth of biochemistry and on top of all of that, the test is shifting the emphasis. Now, you had mentioned problem solving is a big part of the MCAT. So, it’s still going to be problem solving but one of the big new things is the types of problems that the MCAT is asking you to solve and this emphasis that they are placing is on experimental design and statistical analysis of how experiments work. So, you will still get passages that deal with physics experiments and biology experiments and so on but you are going to see a lot more of these questions asking you about the significance of data or asking you about statistical analysis or information which means for somebody who is going to be prepping for the new MCAT 2015, now you are not talking about just a year’s worth of coursework but more like a year and a half or even two years’ worth of coursework because now on top of the year of all the other sciences, you are adding essentially entire another semester, a full semester load of taking psych and socio and stats. So, there is a ton more work that’s going to go into prepping for the 2015 exam.
John: Yeah and that really what kind of appeared to me when we started to look through here at Next Step, the guidance that the AAMC has given us on what that new section is going to look like. So, for those of you that are listening here in December, all that AAMC has released in addition to some kind of broad guidance about why they are changing the test which is not particularly useful for the test taker is this packet of maybe 20 or 30 pages that go over some of the new section and give some of the goals for this action which again is nice to have but not necessarily great for the test taker. And then a couple of sample passages, when we looked at those passages, what we saw was that many, many, many of the questions in this new psychology and sociology section weren’t necessarily content based for those subjects. So, he picked some of these theories. There were some questions like that but most of them were about the construction of psychological or sociological experiments or studies and then asking us to kind of manipulate those and understand what that data meant. There are certainly some questions that asked you about “Which of these theories apply?” So, there is some of that basic stuff but I think for someone studying, it really is, like you said, that first semester of those topics and then really being able to understand how studies get put together.
You actually mentioned something really interesting which is the semester of statistics. Do you think that’s kind of the way that students are going to end up going in order to understand how these studies work?
Bryan Schnedeker: Absolutely, John. Now, different colleges are going to have different ways of approaching how they teach their students experimental design. So, for example, the college I went to – I was a Biology major just like all MCAT students seem to be – and I had the good fortune of taking classes in the biology department where they actually had a full three-credit class called Experimental Design in Biology. So, the class was teaching us how do you interpret data, how do you interpret statistics, how do you build an experiment. So, if any of our listeners our there are lucky enough to be going to a colleges that will offer classes that specifically teach you about experimental design, then absolutely you should take those classes. I would even go so far as to suggest that that should be considered another prerequisite for the MCAT. I mean, not only do you need your Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Sociology, Psychology but if you have any kind of classes that teach you Experimental Design, you need to take a semester of that. A lot of our listeners though, I think, might not have that luxury, their college might not offer a class that teaches Experimental Design in which case they really do need to have a solid grasp of the statistical reasoning that underlies experimental design.
So, I think for the majority of test takers, John, you are absolutely right that it’s going to be a class in statistics that teaches you the skills that you need to succeed on this new version of the MCAT.
John: Perfect, yeah. So, we talked a lot about this brand new section but all of the other sections on the exam are actually changing a little bit. There is this brand new section which is a huge change and then there is, I think, more moderate changes to the other sections but of course as an MCAT taker you have got to be aware of what those changes are.
So, Bryan, I wonder if you could talk about the biological and physical sciences section and then also for the now renamed verbal section. How do you think those sections are changing and then how is that going to impact the way that students prepare for each of those?
Bryan Schnedeker: Okay. Those are definitely part of the consideration as well. Let’s start with that last thing you mentioned. You said the now renamed verbal section. I think that’s one of the easiest ones for us to talk about because sure they renamed it ‘critical this and analysis that’ but fundamentally the verbal reasoning section of the test is going to be the one that is the most unchanged. Students will still be reading passages on various aspects of the humanities and so on and answering questions about that. So, that will be a section that doesn’t require any outside knowledge at all. You can simply read the passage and answer the questions. The changes there – and there are a few of them that are worth talking about – are first, there is going to be no more passages addressing the hard sciences. So, the current version of the MCAT in the verbal reasoning section you could get a passage dealing with say ‘volcano formation’ or ‘plate tectonics’ or some aspect of the hard sciences but presented as a verbal passage. This never version of the MCAT won’t do that. So, no more potentially passages about the weather or something like that. Second, there is going to be an emphasis on public health. So, on every section you should expect to see one or two passages addressing some sort of public health type of topic. And then finally – and this really is the most important one – is the length of the thing; it’s getting longer. So, at the moment things are still a little bit up in the air. The AAMC has not committed to an exact number of questions or an exact length of the section but we can say roughly that the current version of the MCAT is 7 passages in 60 minutes and what we are expecting is the new verbal section to be more like 9 passages in 80 minutes and, as always, you take the MCAT on a computer screen, so test takers are really going to have to be well prepared for the fatigue issues that come with reading hundreds and hundreds of really dense paragraphs and all these texts on a computer screen. That’s one of the places where good prep is absolutely essential.
The other thing you asked about was what is currently called Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences and it’s now getting a big fancy new name and the changes that are happening there. This is the place where the changes are probably the least significant in terms of what’s actually going on but again there are a few things that students should be aware of. First, like I said, there is this renewed increased emphasis on experimental design and that’s going to be in those sections as well. So, you might still get a passage on inclined plane or buoyancy or one of those classic MCAT topics but you are more likely to see a passage based on an experiment and then asking you about what that experiment means, how it works, what’s significant about it. Then, again, the new science section much like the new verbal section, the killer is going to be time. Instead of being 70 minutes long and again having 7 passages, what we are expecting is for them to go up to something like 9 passages and be more like 80 or 90 minutes long. So, this new version of the MCAT, when push comes to shove, is going to be a beast. It’s just going to be so difficult to deal with because instead of it being 4½ to 5-hour day when you include the waiting time and the check-in and all the other stuff you have to do on test day, it’s currently something like a 5 to 6-hour experience from the moment when you first walk into the testing suite and I would expect students’ testing experience now to run 8 or even 9 hours from the moment you walk in the testing suite to the moment you walk out. So, students really need to be prepared for that endurance aspect of this new exam.
John: Yeah that’s a really great point and one of the things that’s going to be a challenge for students as they start preparing for this new MCAT is understanding how to get prepared for that long test day experience. Students who take the current MCAT definitely have an advantage in that they have access to these 8 actual tests, AAMC practice exams and there are also going to be certainly some third-party tests that range in quality as well but there is a lot of material where students can sit down and actually take a practice test and then review it either by themselves with their tutor or whatever they are doing on the MCAT and that really is one of the very best and most valuable things that students can do to prepare for the exam to make sure that they are taking lots of those practice tests but, you know what, the new length of the test, that’s become a much more challenging process. So, a pre-med student, everyone listening to this knows that you have got lots of other things to do in your life other than just take practice MCATs. You have got class and job shadowing and internship and research and homework and your actual <> of your life as well. So, it’s going to be a real challenge to work that in and now taking a test is not just doing it Saturday morning and then review it; this is where you are going to be, something that takes a full day to do it. That’s going to be a challenge by itself and then the other challenge that I think students will face with this new test is that they are not just going to be as much official practice material from the AAMC. So, from what we have been given now, we know that the AAMC will release at least two full-length practice computer-adapted tests in advance of the 2015 exam. My guess is that one of them will be free much like AAMC No. 3 is now and then one of them will be something that you will have to pay for that companies like ours would provide to their students. Now you have got two tests as opposed to eight and the tests that you have are going to be real pain to work into your life. So, that’s going to be one of the challenges that students are really going to have overcome and when Bryan talked about let’s think about should you try to take a test this year, those are the challenges that historically students have always faced when tests change and with this thing, Bryan had said that one of the biggest test changes we have ever seen in 15 years of doing this, that’s really going to be a challenge for students to work through.
So, Bryan, as we started to think towards that 2015 preparation, let’s imagine that we are students who for one reason or another is going to take the 2015 exam and they are going to take it on a really good timeline so they are going to plan to take in March or maybe April or maybe May test dates in 2015. Normally we would recommend students really plan at least four to six months ahead towards studying for the MCAT. Do you think that’s still the right timeline or does that timeline and preparation process change given the difficulty of the new exam?
Bryan Schnedeker: I think the answer as always is it depends. Obviously here at Next Step, since all we do is one-on-one tutoring, we recognize the core truth when it comes to education which is simply different students learn differently. So, a lot of folks like to have kind of a standard benchmark to follow in terms of prep, have a framework but when it comes right down to it, each test taker has their own individual background, has their own individual strengths and weakness. So, we can’t give one simple answer or one size fits all approach. That’s the approach that those guys take who offer these cookie cutter classroom courses. At Next Step what we want to think about is analyzing each individual student’s own situation to figure out whether the standard timeline of four to six months makes sense, whether they need more time or I would find this heard to believe but maybe if they are just a particularly gifted test taker, if they need less time.
Now, despite having said all that, I am still going to give you kind of a general answer because of course students want to know. I think as a rule of thumb students should probably plan of course more time because the test is getting longer, it’s getting harder, there is more material to review so you are going to need more time to review it.
And, John, you really hit the nail on the head when you said that building in time to take a practice test is going to become one of the new kinds of unrealized dangers or problems of MCAT prep; you don’t actually think about it until you take it because any good MCAT teacher or tutor, anyone who is worth their salt will tell you that you should spend anywhere from 1.5 to 2 times as much time reviewing a test as taking it. So, what it used to be with the MCAT – and you could ignore the essay and just blow through the three sections – it was 3 hours and 20 minutes of your time, not including breaks and you could do a really thorough, careful high-quality analysis of that exam over the course of 4 to 5 hours. So, just like you said, taking a test used to be the kind of enterprise where it was one full day of work – start at 8 a.m., be done by 4 or 5 p.m. and then you could go have the next day off or maybe you would it on a Saturday morning and you could spend some time on Sunday reviewing it and you are fine. With this next version of the MCAT coming, now taking a practice test is going to basically eat up almost half your week. You are talking about kind of a 6 or 7-hour day just to take the same. Then you are talking about anywhere from 9 to 15 hours reviewing it question by question, passage by passage, learning the lesson that the test has to teach you. So, now suddenly when you are starting to prep for the MCAT, you have to say “Okay, I am going to take the test on Saturday and that’s my whole day and then I am going to review the first half, I am going to review the second half on Monday. Now, I need time to go back and reread my review notes to look up some stuff and meet with my Next Step tutor to review that material and it’s going to be almost two weeks before I am ready to take another practice test because committing to that practice test is another 3 days out of my schedule.”
So, just as a consequence of what a bear this test is going to be and how much content there is, we would reasonably expect that 6 months would now go from being the most that students would spend prepping for the MCAT to being either the standard or the minimum.
John: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
Well, thanks, Bryan. I think this was useful. I hope that our audience learned something as well. We have reached the end of our show. So, if you would like to get in touch with either of us, you certainly can. Next Step Test Preparation provides one-on-one MCAT tutoring program that we will be completely ready for the 2015 test if you so choose to take it but I think one of the big takeaways of today is that if it’s possible and you plan to take one of the tests in 2014 or at the very latest on a January of 2015 date as another option.
You can find us on our website www.NextStepTestPrep.com. Send us an e-mail at Info@extStepTestPrep.com. We hope to hear from you and thanks a lot for listening.
Bryan Schnedeker: Thanks much, John, and I look forward to hearing from our students.
Next Step Test Preparation provides one-on-one, personalized MCAT tutor programs nationwide.