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Changes in MCAT to stress comprehension, not memory

By Hanh Le

In late February of this year, the Association of American Medical Colleges approved several major changes to the Medical College Admission Test, which will emphasize skills in data interpretation, problem-solving and verbal reasoning. These revisions will not become effective until 1991.

The changes in the MCAT are meant to shift the focus of the examination from one that favors those pre-medical students with strong memorization skills to one that stresses an applicant's comprehension of the material.

At present, the seven-hour MCAT consists of 309 questions in six subject areas -- biology, chemistry, physics, science problems, reading-skills analysis and quantitative-skills analysis. The new MCAT, however, will take about six hours and will have 221 questions in four sections -- the biological sciences, the physical sciences, verbal reasoning, and an essay.

The sections on the biological and physical sciences will test the student's understanding of basic concepts and ability to interpret data and solve problems. The verbal-reasoning part will evaluate an applicant's critical-thinking skills through the use of texts from the humanities, social and natural sciences.

The essay portion of the MCAT will require two essays to be written in one hour. Instead of topics in science, technology or health care, the student will be given a famous quotation and asked to expound upon its meaning. This essay part of the MCAT will give medical schools an opportunity to examine the ability of an applicant to communicate while under time constraints. These essays are scored alphabetically, whereas the objective questions continue to be graded on a 15-point scale.

Even though the MCAT is undergoing such major revisions, Ernest G. Cravalho, a pre-medical advisor at MIT, said this examination now has less significance in the selection process for medical school applicants. Instead, admissions staffs are emphasizing the applicants' academic records and letters of recommendation, he said.

Besides this change in the admissions criteria, "There is also a decline in the number of applications," Cravalho observed. Although the number of female applicants has increased, the overall competition for entrance into medical schools has decreased to 1.6 applicants for each place. This can be attributed to a noticeable "exodus of white males" from the total applicant pool, Cravalho explained.