School of Medicine makes MCAT optional amid COVID-19 testing disruptions

July 15, 2020, 9:58 a.m.

The School of Medicine announced in June that applicants would no longer be required to submit a Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) score during the 2020-21 admissions cycle.

While submitted scores will not be used during the screening and initial review process for interview decisions, the submitted scores will be a part of the applicant’s file, according to Associate Dean of M.D. Admission Iris Gibbs. 

As of July 8, all other application requirements remain the same for the School of Medicine. In future admissions cycles, Gibbs wrote in a statement to The Daily that the School of Medicine does not “expect to abandon” the exam requirement.

“While there are concerns about the MCAT, a great deal of thought was put into formulating the new exam introduced in 2015,” Gibbs wrote. “Stanford Medicine values the MCAT as a useful tool.”

Stanford joins UCSF in making MCAT scores optional during the screening and interview process, although several other peer medical schools have opted to wait for MCAT scores to come in, as opposed to making them optional. Harvard Medical School announced that it “will accept MCAT scores at a later time,” and UCLA will wait for a score before reviewing an applicant’s file, though its Vice Dean had signed a joint statement with Stanford in April reassuring that applications could be submitted by the October 15 deadline without an MCAT score. 

The decision has drawn applause from some members of the medical community, with concerns over health and safety during in-person examinations no longer a worry. The lack of a standardized testing metric also relieves concerns over structural inequities, wrote Abdi Abdullahi, a third-year medical student at UCSF, in a statement to The Daily.

“Historically, URM [underrepresented minority in reference] students have performed worse on the MCAT (largely influenced by SES [socioeconomic status] and structural racism),” Abdullahi wrote. “In this midst of a pandemic, with families strained economically, these inequities would be further enhanced.”

“Equitable access … would not likely be possible”

Gibbs wrote that the decision to waive the MCAT requirement was prompted by the cancellation of MCAT examinations through the end of May. 

In late May, as the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) resumed its examinations, the School of Medicine received concerns from applicants that the exam was difficult to schedule, unexpectedly canceled or unsafe to take.

“To us it became clear that equitable access to the examination would not likely be possible despite AAMC’s valiant attempt to do so,” Gibbs wrote, “AAMC acknowledged that there were errors in meeting social distancing guidelines in some testing centers in states experiencing recent COVID-19 surges, further validating our concerns for test takers.”

An AAMC spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Daily that the AAMC “requires social distancing at every MCAT exam.”

“Every exam that has been held has followed the AAMC’s social distancing requirements,” the spokesperson wrote.

But while the decision to waive or delay the MCAT requirement is recent, many students have been preparing for the exam for a long time.

Incoming Stanford Black Pre-Medical Organization co-president Ronald Clinton ’21 wrote in a statement to The Daily that pre-med students are recommended to spend up to 350 hours studying for the exam.

“So many students have already prepared or are currently preparing to take the exam and will only see it as a way to improve their application,” Clinton said. “I doubt that many students will op-out [sic] of taking the exam. The MCAT is just one more way of differentiating your profile from other applicants.”

Gibbs wrote the MCAT score is only a small part of the application, a process that includes multiple letters of recommendation, personal statements and more.

“So much more goes into the selection process other than metrics,” Gibbs said. “Our internal analysis reassures us that other factors in combination can be effectively used in the holistic review process even in the absence of the MCAT.”

Equity concerns also led to Stanford’s waiving of the MCAT, Gibbs wrote: “COVID-19 contributed to existing inequities. We did not wish for applicants to place themselves and [their] families in more harm.”

While Abdullahi wrote he thought all medical schools should waive the MCAT requirement during the pandemic, he wrote that the question of whether schools continue the use of the MCAT in post-pandemic admissions is an “interesting one.”

“I believe schools should instead focus on an applicants’ experiences and motivations for pursuing medicine instead of a three digit numerical score,” he wrote. “Rankings like US News encourage medical schools to accept students with the highest exam averages, when that doesn’t necessarily correlate to which applicants will make the best doctors.”

Abdullahi wrote that other parts of the application process are inequitable, pointing to MCAT prep courses and admissions advising services with costs running into the thousands.

“These services essentially gift wrap applications for students, making the process much easier to navigate for students who are wealthy,” Abdullahi wrote.

On the other hand, Clinton wrote he thought schools could reform their evaluation criteria, as opposed to waiving the MCAT. He said that the MCAT can be improved to better reflect students’ abilities.

“Being a doctor involves strong interpersonal communication skills, empathy, and being adaptable,” Clinton wrote. “It would be difficult to test these skills in a standardized test like the MCAT, but I believe some of these skills can be addressed more thoroughly in the exam.” 

This article has been corrected to reflect that UCSF has made MCAT scores optional during only the screening and interview process. A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that UCSF had made MCAT scores optional throughout the whole application process. The Daily regrets this error.

This article has been updated to include a statement from an AAMC spokesperson on the social distancing at MCAT exams.

Contact Anthony Wong at anthonytjwong ‘at’

Anthony Wong is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.

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