MCAT to end score withholding

by Karla Kingsley | 11/21/02 6:00am

The Association of American Medical Colleges, sponsor of the Medical College Admission Test, has decided to implement a new policy of "full disclosure" -- starting in April 2003, applicants will no longer have the option to withhold test scores from their applications to medical schools.

The MCAT -- a dreaded eight-hour test that is required of all pre-med students -- forms one facet of a student's application. Prior to the new policy, students could choose to withhold their scores from medical schools and retake the test in hope of a better score, although medical schools would still see that the student had taken the test and withheld the scores.

The AAMC made the decision to change so that "all med schools are working from the same info base," said Ellen Julian, MCAT Director for AAMC. Even before the recent change, "more and more med schools were requiring full disclosure."

Julian noted that the new policy would increase the efficiency of the system. The "withhold" option necessitated "extra paperwork and staff time to deal with students that didn't release all scores," she said. "All this was so that some students could game the system, and different schools got different information."

Currently, about one-third of medical school applicants take the MCAT more than once, but with the new policy, "we are anticipating that our volumes will go down a little bit," Julian said.

Ben Ward '03 took a Kaplan review course to prepare for the MCAT and said he hadn't ever planned on taking the test again. He agreed to release his scores by filling in one more bubble on the day of the test.

"I think there are better ways to practice then to take the MCAT," he said.

Caryn Barnet '03, who also took a Kaplan review course, agreed to release her scores before taking the test as well.

"It is so much work to prepare; I don't know why you would want to take it more than once," Barnet said. Even so, she recalled other students in her Kaplan course who had already taken the MCAT once without preparation. They thought "they could just wing it," she said, adding that the new policy would probably prompt people to be more prepared for the test.

University of Washington Medical School admissions officer Pat Farrell said that from the admissions office's point of view, a "score withheld" doesn't look good on an application.

"My sense is that I think everyone has always had a negative impact from someone not releasing their scores," she said. "The general unspoken consensus is, 'Wow, that must have been really bad.'"

She mentioned that while some medical schools look at the higher or lower score, or may average a student's scores, Washington always looks at the student's most recent score.

Dartmouth Medical School professor and pre-med advisor Lee Witters said that he didn't think the change would have a significant impact, because even before the "full disclosure" policy, the school could see how many times a student had taken the test. He predicted that admissions offices would see a "score withheld" as "just a lousy score."

"I have never advised anyone to withhold a score," Witters said. "Full disclosure is probably the best policy here."

However, Witters emphasized that the medical school application has many other facets aside from the MCAT score. He said that many times, students focused too heavily on test preparation.

"It is important for students to realize that the MCAT score is one small part of the application," he said. He noted that the student's grades, volunteer activities, research experience and professor recommendations are also important to the application. "Letters are very, very important," he said.

He also noted that if a student is well prepared, a second score is not likely to improve significantly. "People who got a 28 are not actually likely to get a 36 if they take it again."

Ryan van Hoff '04 supported the policy change and said that he only planned to take the MCAT once. "The change in policy will not affect how I prepare for the test," he said.

In addition to the score release policy changes, AAMC will be implementing a free online score reporting service in which students can send scores online to unlimited schools at no extra cost.

Dartmouth Medical School's admissions office declined to comment on the MCAT change.