MCAT exam goes digital

Aspiring doctors can put away their pencils. The Medical College Admissions Test will soon be a computer-based exam.

As of January 2007 the MCAT will only be offered in a computerized format, following other major standardized tests such as the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

“They’re pretty severe changes,” said Matt Fidler, MCAT program manager for Kaplan Test Preparation and Admissions. “On a scale of one to 10 I’d call it a nine, nine and a half.”

However, not everyone is convinced the new format will require big adjustments. Adele Meyers, admissions officer for the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine MD program, doesn’t think students will be affected in a significant way. While Meyer concedes there will be some changes, such as shortened exam length, she said the core components of the test will stay the same.

“It won’t be as long and gruesome a day,” said Meyers. “But it’s the same four areas they’ll be scored on [physical sciences, verbal reasoning, writing and biology], and most young people are so computer savvy they’ll probably be more comfortable doing it that way.”

Still, Meyers cautioned there is always room for error.

“Of course something can always go wrong with technology,” she said. “The potential is always there with any computer-based test for a glitch of some kind, but I’m sure they’ve done everything they can to account for that.”

Glen Krueger, U of C Students’ Union Faculty of Medicine representative, is hesitant about the new system.

“What a lot of students are complaining about are possible power failures, or the computer freezing,” he said.

Ideally, Krueger would like to see the test offered both on computer and on paper, even if the paper-and-pencil test would only be offered a few times a year. He believes students would perform better if they could choose a format they felt more comfortable with.

“It’s not how fast you type, but how well you write that’s important,” argued Krueger.

The new MCAT is now three hours shorter, clocking in at about five and a half hours. This is because students can work through the exam at their own pace. The number of questions has also been reduced. However, the content has not changed, putting greater pressure on test takers to get the remaining answers right.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said Fidler. “They still test all the same competencies, but they’re using fewer questions to cover the same content.”

The new exam will also be offered more frequently. Previously, the MCAT was available twice a year, but the computer-based MCAT can now be administered 22 times annually. Starting April 2007, there will be at least two test dates per month.

The number of people who can write the test on any given date will be reduced from around 150 to only 18 since the tests can only be administered at special computer-based test centres with limited capacity.

“It’s going to be really important for the test takers to register early in order to get one of those 18 seats,” Fidler said. “You’ll start to see students grouping towards the one date and it will fill up.”

According to Fidler, a Kaplan survey found that eight per cent of students surveyed had never taken a computer-based test as long as the MCAT.

“It’s not that folks aren’t familiar with the computer,” said Fidler. “It’s the intensity of the five and a half hour exam. It’s sort of like running a marathon, you need to build up your computer test-taking endurance over time.”

Despite all these changes, some things remain the same.

“It’s still a matter of hard work and determination, like it’s always been,” said Krueger. “You need to go in there feeling confident.”

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