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Premeds in Search of MCAT Prep Say Harvard Classes Provide Insufficient Instruction

Harvard students planning to take med school entrance exam say test prep classes are costly

Premed students say they do not feel prepared for the MCAT after taking Harvard science courses.
Premed students say they do not feel prepared for the MCAT after taking Harvard science courses.
By Lauren E. Claus, Crimson Staff Writer

Ghassan S. Gammoh ’14 has taken Life Sciences 1a and 1b, Mathematics 1a and 1b, Statistics 104, Life Sciences 2, Physical Sciences 1, 2, and 3, a summer school class on organic chemistry, and a freshman seminar entitled “The Neurophysiology of Visual Perception” during his time at Harvard.

But when it came time for Gammoh to take the Medical College Admission Test, the exam every premedical student must take before applying to medical schools, he felt his Harvard education had left him underprepared. To fill the gaps in his knowledge, he chose to enroll in a Kaplan MCAT Advantage course prior to the exam.

Gammoh’s decision is not an unusual one for Harvard students on a premed track. Undergraduates generally say the information they learn in premed courses does not align with what is tested on the exam.

“I don’t think they’re really focused on the MCAT,” Jason A. Gandelman ’14, a neurobiology concentrator, said of Harvard courses. “Usually the classes are very focused on exploring what the professors are interested in and are not overtly helpful for the MCAT.”

Despite the disparity between material tested on the MCAT and information taught in the classroom, undergraduates say they appreciate the fact that professors do not try to teach for the test because it means students are exposed to a greater breath of material.

But with the Association of American Medical Colleges slated to introduce a new MCAT in 2015 that adds, among other things, sections on topics like psychology and sociology that are rarely touched upon in premed courses, Harvard students say that the premed track at Harvard does not adequately prepare them for the exam. And, they say, they often face prohibitively expensive costs when they turn to classes run by test preparatory companies for instruction.

THE PREMED HARVARD CLASS

Though the MCAT covers physics, general and organic chemistry, and biology topics that crop up in Harvard’s life sciences classes, students say that College classes are not particularly helpful for learning MCAT material.

Jennifer K. Cloutier ’13, a human developmental and regenerative biology concentrator, described the premed courses she has taken as not “based on what was covered on the MCAT, or vice versa.”

Students say that if anything, classes serve only as an introduction to the test material, rather than as instruction for the exam.

“When I sat down to learn the material, I had been exposed to pretty much everything that was going to be on the MCAT at least once,” Cloutier said. “But you definitely still need to study after taking the classes.”

Owen Farcy, director of pre-health programs at Kaplan Test Prep, said whatever disparity exists between class and exam material could be caused by the nature of the MCAT.

“The thing that a lot of students don’t realize about the MCAT is that it’s not a science test, but it’s a really different type of test,” Farcy said. “The test is designed to test their ability to apply their knowledge to particular situations. It’s a critical thinking and analyzation test.”

Many students said that although the material might not align, their experience in premed classes has been bettered by the fact that courses do not try to serve as test prep.

Gammoh said he appreciated that courses did not just focus on MCAT material because they provided him with an “even more deep understanding of the medical world.”

Krystle M. Leung ’15, a chemistry concentrator and premedical student, said she tries to choose classes “that are fascinating and foundational more for the material than for the MCAT itself.”

PREPPING FOR THE TEST

Students who find classes to be insufficient review often look for options outside the classroom to help them learn the material tested by the MCAT.

Gandelman described the studying he did on his own as “the most helpful” method of preparation.

Other students say courses offered by test prep companies are useful tools. Gammoh said the course he took with Kaplan was “definitely helpful in [the] sense that it provided me with a lot of resources” in the form of practice exams and other materials.

Farcy said Kaplan structures its program to provide specific details and strategies for the exam that students cannot replicate just by reviewing the material.

“We really build around the ideas of developing critical thinking skills and helping students understand the exam.... Our course is strategy-focused course, as opposed to just a review,” he said.

In 2015, the MCAT will implement changes to its format for the first time since 1991. A new section entitled “Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior” will focus on introductory psychology and sociology concepts and a new “Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills” section will involve analyzing information from humanities and social science disciplines, including ethics and cultural studies. In total, the test will also be approximately 90 minutes longer than the current MCAT exam.

Farcy said he thinks student demand for prep classes will increase with these changes.

“As the domain of the test continues to expand, expectation is that students will need more help to get ready for the exam,” Farcy said, adding that he believes changes to the test will make test prep courses more important.

But the high cost of test prep can make it inaccessible to students with limited financial resources. In Cambridge, Kaplan’s MCAT Advantage course costs $1,999 and Princeton Review’s Ultimate MCAT program comes with a $2,299 price tag.

“I think that the courses are great if you’re somebody who wants structure, but they are also...really expensive,” said Cloutier.

There are several programs currently in place to provide students with the resources to attend prep classes. The Harvard Premedical Society collaborates with test companies to auction off discounted courses and Kaplan offers several initiatives to help students with financial constraints, including a tuition assistance program that offers financial aid for the company’s graduate school prep courses.

But undergraduates say financial aid is not enough to allow everyone to take a test prep course. Gammoh supported the idea that Harvard should create a course in the style of what is offered by official companies to help its students prepare for the MCAT.

“I think it would be really helpful if Harvard did offer a class for the MCAT for students who don’t have the money to pay for a class,” Gammoh said. “The MCAT is a very specific exam and there are a lot of techniques you need to know to take it.”

—Staff writer Lauren E. Claus can be reached at laurenclaus@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenEClaus.

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