As winter break quickly approaches and I prepare to relax for two months, many of my premedical track friends are preparing for something not so relaxing — MCAT tutoring courses. In order to prepare to take one of the most important exams of their lives, these medical school hopefuls may start studying almost two years in advance. In order to apply to med school without taking a gap year, students must take the challenging exam the summer before their senior year. These students often take preparatory courses to boost their chances of success on the exam, but are they an example of an even greater problem?
These preparatory classes can cost anywhere between $2,000 to $3,000, and, usually, one class is not enough to achieve the “target score” that the top medical schools are seeking. It’s significantly harder to do well on the MCAT without taking courses like these, and even students who attempt to study on their own have to pay for expensive test prep books, which can cost between $45 and $200. This truly limits the range of people who can apply to medical school, due to the inability of those who cannot afford prep to outperform others on these exams. Is it fair to restrict our future medical professionals based on whether they can afford test prep? The MCAT should no longer be required since it disproportionately affects certain communities.
It has been proven time and time again that the MCAT specifically challenges medical school applicants that are members of marginalized communities. An Inside Higher Ed article written by Lala Tanmoy Das argues that systemic factors, such as “low parental income, unequal educational opportunities, food insecurity and racism,” contribute to overall lower scores from Hispanic and African American test-takers. This is, of course, also true for almost all standardized testing. These lower scores lead to lower acceptance rates and continue to add to already-existing systemic barriers. This dissolves all the work industry professionals have been doing to diversify the medical workforce.
In continuation, test-takers with families who earn over $100,000 annually make up half of medical school admissions. Since they have parents that are able to financially contribute to their test prep, they are able to score significantly better than students who lack this financial backing. This continues the cycle of wealth and prevents poorer students from being able to achieve equal status. In other words, the MCAT tests people’s wealth, which prevents economic diversity in medical schools.
On the other hand, many people believe the MCAT is necessary in order to see if students can handle the rigorous material and coursework they will face in medical school. While this may make sense on the surface, it actually lacks statistical backing. It has been found that the exam does not assess factors that are needed to be a physician, specifically “professionalism, integrity and interpersonal skills,” as Das argues. Furthermore, many of the subjects, such as physics, organic and inorganic chemistry, covered on the MCAT have only abstract ties to actual physician practices.
So what should medical schools look for? It’s actually quite a simple answer. Applicants to other medical professional schools, such as physician assistant and nursing programs, focus much more on personal statement essays, interviews and hours spent working in patient care and health care. This is because those programs, generally, believe experience is more important than test scores. This helps determine if applicants are capable of the physical, emotional and mental skills required to work in this field, since sitting behind a desk is very different than actual hands-on work. If medical schools started following this procedure, the admissions process would be fairer. Of course, there would still be discrepancies due to the overall lack of opportunities for lower-income students, but it would be a step in the right direction. This would also help prevent students who don’t have the capability to perform real medical care from wasting their time in medical school.
In the final analysis, it is clear that the medical school admission process needs to be reevaluated. Medical school is where intellectuals are meant to shine in order to one day provide excellent care for patients in the future — it is not supposed to be a financial competition. Everyone deserves a fair chance to reach their full academic and professional potential, no matter their financial situation.
Nicolette Cavallaro is a sophomore majoring in integrative neuroscience.