Group Asks Docs, Students to Help Waive MCAT Amid Pandemic

Marcia Frellick

July 09, 2020

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COVID-19 complications are disrupting administration of the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a group of premedical students says, and it is calling for medical schools to waive the test requirement for 2021 admissions.

Unlike the Law School Admission Test and Graduate Management Admission Test, which both have moved to an online format as testing centers closed, the MCAT is still required by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to be taken in person.

Students for Ethical Admissions (SEA), a group of 55 premedical students, wrote to AAMC outlining their concerns.

But after reporting an insufficient response, SEA launched a campaign on social media, asking medical students and faculty to push individual schools on three demands: waive the MCAT as a requirement this year; push back  application deadlines; and consider permanent changes to MCAT administration moving forward, with input from premedical students.

Social media posts show many doctors speaking out on behalf of their future peers, including Melissa Simon, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois, who tweeted her support for the #WaiveTheMCAT movement.


Safety and Equality Concerns

To address COVID-19 concerns, the AAMC says test-taking stations will be set up in accordance with social and physical distancing guidelines: eight people can take the test together at one time and masks are required, among other changes.

However, SEA says the changes are insufficient to ensure safety or equality in taking the test.

To accommodate allowing less students to take tests at the same time, the test has been shortened from about 7.5 hours to 5 hours 45 minutes for those taking the MCAT through September 28 of this year. Time was eliminated by shortening breaks and eliminating a tutorial and survey.

Karen Mitchell, PhD, AAMC's senior director of admission testing, told Medscape Medical News, "The shortened exam was designed so that students can work at the same pace as the full-length exam and practice exams, and will not be disadvantaged."

In a letter to examinees explaining the changes, David Skorton, MD, president of AAMC, and Mitchell said the test couldn't move to an online format for various reasons, including the fact that guards against cheating would be impossible if students took the tests at home without proctors.

Additionally, they claim that because "about 20% of households do not have regular access to high-speed internet, an online option would create an immense disadvantage for many."

Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD, a bariatric surgeon and scholar in residence at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, told Medscape Medical News she doesn't see that as a strong argument.

Students determined to cheat could still do so at a testing center, she said, but under both in-center and at-home scenarios, looking up answers would likely be unproductive with a timed test. She also adds that most students likely would have access to high-speed internet at another nearby location if they lacked the technology at home.

"Also, there's plenty that we do in the admissions cycle that requires people to have internet," Salles said. "The entire application is online."

Burning the Midnight Oil?

To address the backlog of tests canceled during the pandemic, testing hours have been extended. The three testing slots are roughly 6 am to noon, noon to 6 pm, and 6 pm to midnight.

This has allowed the AAMC to add 50% more testing slots. They have asked students to call in to reschedule testing times. However, students report waiting on hold for hours as systems crashed, only to find out the nearest testing option was hours away; finding the test was rescheduled for long after they had prepared to take it; and that taking the test may require breaking local distancing regulations, Salles said. She began advocating for these future medical students when she became aware of the challenges applicants were facing.

Mitchell said call volume for the AAMC is up 70% at this time compared with last year and that they are hiring and training more staff for the Services Contact Center to reduce wait times.

Salles noted that the new time slots will force students who live outside the testing area to either find lodging the night before or the night after the test — which disadvantages those with fewer resources — or to drive in the middle of the night to get to or from their home. Taking a test at 6 am or completing it at midnight is "unreasonable," she added.

"Applying to medical school is already very difficult and very stressful, and it seems these are additional challenges that maybe don't need to be in place. There's just not been any flexibility in letting students test in other locations," Salles continued.

One student posted this message on social media: "I've been rescheduled 4 times through no fault of my own. I was originally scheduled for May 9th, then scheduled for June 28th, then July 18th, and now July 23rd. I don't think the AAMC really considers the amount of stress both emotionally and financially they have caused."

Salles says lack of an MCAT score would not be a huge blow to the selection process, as more schools move toward holistic considerations for admissions. Schools could still look at grade point averages, course work, research, essays, maturity, and life experiences, she said.

AAMC says most of their member schools are already making adjustments.

Mitchell told Medscape Medical News, "According to a recent survey of AAMC-member institutions, nearly 70% of responding schools have adjusted their application deadlines for 2021 admissions or are considering adjusting them. A similar percentage said they will accept or are considering accepting scores from dates later in the testing year. Many medical schools will screen or interview applicants without MCAT scores."

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick

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