Daily Princetonian pieces

NEWS: On MCAT, students get early start to stay ahead

Originally published Sept. 28, 2012 at The Daily Princetonian.

Amy Li ’14 had two summer jobs, but her work did not end when she went home for the day. She spent half of her summer at a clinical internship in Alabama and the other half on campus doing molecular biology research.

Li was also registered to take the Medical College Admissions Test in September, so she spent her nights self-studying biology, chemistry, biochemistry and anatomy.

“I wanted to study for the MCAT, but at the same time I didn’t want to lose a valuable summer for clinical work or research,” Li said. “So I decided to just work really hard and try to do both.”

Li is among a group of students who choose to take the MCAT the summer before their junior years. To these students, that summer is the perfect time to study for and take the five-hour test, which covers diverse topics — including biology, organic and general chemistry, physics and anatomy — and is a critical part of a student’s application to medical school.

Premedical students often factor studying for the test into their workloads and extracurricular options, according to Health Professions Advising director Kate Fukawa-Connelly.

“You always have to take into account what you’re going to be doing when you take the MCAT,” Fukawa-Connelly says. “If you’re taking it your senior year, you have to plan your two-course semester and your thesis work with preparation for the MCAT in mind.”

Li said that for students who want to go straight to medical school, the summer before junior year is an ideal time to devote to studying for the test. These students then spend their junior years focusing on schoolwork before beginning their application processes in the summer and fall of their senior years.

“It’s good to get it out of the way at a time that’s most convenient, because you can dedicate an entire summer to studying and then focus on schoolwork during the year,” Li said. “It makes the most sense.”

Patricia Yeh ’14 also studied for and took the test this summer. Matriculating at medical school immediately after graduation was her biggest priority, she said, so in the course of planning activities for her summer, she made sure she had time to study.

“I knew studying would be the most time-consuming activity I had, so I was volunteering a fair amount, but not enough to deter me from studying,” she said.

For both Li and Yeh, devoting their summers to the test made more sense than trying to prepare for it amid their junior-year independent work and the research projects they planned to undertake next summer.

“If I had waited, I probably would’ve opted out of taking it at all,” Yeh said. “Just the thought of trying to plan it all amid JPs, courses and study abroad — I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

The demands of Princeton’s unusual academic calendar also contribute to students’ decisions to take the test in the summer. Li said she needed to spend her winter break focusing on studying for her fall-term exams —which at Princeton occur in mid-to late-January — and doing independent work rather than studying for the MCAT.

At Johns Hopkins University, however, as at most other schools, winter break extends well into January and fall-term exams occur before the break. Hopkins students typically use the winter break of their junior year to study for and take the test, Hopkins sophomore Vissagan Gopalakrishnan said. He said students like him, who take the test in the summer before their junior year rather than during this extended winter break, are an uncommon minority at Hopkins.

“It made for a sort of bleh summer, but I’m hoping that the scores will be OK,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Then I can just take it easy for winter break.”

Both Hopkins and Princeton have offices dedicated to advising premedical students, writing recommendation letters for medical school applications and liaising with medical schools. The offices generally recommend that students take gap years after graduation and wait to take the test and apply. Recently, trends in medical school admission show more and more students applying years after they graduate.

Fukawa-Connelly said this recommendation is to make sure students have had the full breadth of preparation possible before taking the test. She added that most of the people who take the test early have AP credits and other early exposure to college-level science that makes preparing for the test easier.

“Not a lot of people without AP cushion plan to get themselves ready in time,” Fukawa-Connelly said.

HPA recommends students take the MCAT no later than May of the year of application, Fukawa-Connelly said, but cautions against “rushing through” the premedical requirements to take the test early and matriculate right after graduation. Students might change their minds about medical school, she explained, or decide to do a two-year postgraduate program instead of going straight to medical school, and test scores expire after three years.

“Sometimes a student takes the MCAT after their sophomore year and then, once they get to senior year, decide that they want to do Teach for America,” Fukawa-Connelly said. “Well, their MCAT score from back then won’t be valid for when they want to apply. That’s really the only time taking the MCAT early might be bad.”

In recent years, the number of Princeton students taking time off in between graduating college and applying to medical school has grown to between 60 and 70 percent, according to the HPA office. Out of 136 students currently in the interview stage of the application process, 43 plan to graduate in the spring — and will go straight to medical school if accepted — 39 graduated in June and have taken this summer to apply, and 54 graduated over a year ago and have taken at least one year off from applying.

Li said she understands why these students delay studying for and taking the test.

“Ideally, I would’ve loved to take it the summer before senior year because then I would’ve had more upper-level courses,” she said.

Those extra courses in genetics, cell development and biochemistry would’ve helped, Gopalakrishnan and Yeh both said. Li added that a friend who took the test after those upper-level courses had a much easier time both studying and taking the test than she did.

“He says he didn’t even need to read the entire question and he’d know the answer,” Li said. Still, Li doesn’t regret her decision to take it early.

“It’s a trade-off, because [if you take it later] you forget physics and general chemistry and biology, and plus your senior summer is already rough with MOL research,” she said. “Plus, I just knew I really wanted to be able to apply right away. I didn’t want to wait.”

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