December 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 9

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Changes in the MCAT Have Implications for Sociology Department Planning

Edward L. Kain, Southwestern University

An important change in the MCAT® (the Medical College Admission Test) has the potential to have a significant impact on sociology departments across the country. In February 2012, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) “approved changes… that will require aspiring doctors to have an understanding of the social and behavioral sciences.” (Mann, 2012). The new version of the test, which will be in place by January of 2015, includes an entire section on the social and behavioral sciences. One implication of this change is that pre-medical curricula across the country may start requiring that students take an introductory sociology course (as well as an introductory course in psychology) in preparation for taking the MCAT (see, for example, Brenner and Ringe 2012).

Sociology departments need to pro-actively plan for this change and assess the extent to which it may have an impact upon their program. This article provides some background about the forthcoming change and outlines a series of steps that may be useful in that planning process.


The AAMC formed a group (the MR5 Committee) in 2008 to recommend changes to the MCAT content areas, which has not revised since 1991, so they will better reflect the needs of medicine in the 21st century. The report from this committee suggested significant revisions to the format and content of the test, including adding material from sociology and psychology.

The exact content of sociology and psychology test questions is not yet finalized. Starting in January 2014 the new social science section of the MCAT will be included as an “optional” section. The cohort of students who take that first updated version of the MCAT are already enrolled in college. Students who choose to complete it will be compensated in some way. These trial runs will be used to modify the section before it “counts” as part of the MCAT score. Starting in January 2015 the test will include the required section on social and behavioral sciences.

The new section of the MCAT that tests sociology and psychology is described in a Preview Guide to the MCAT2015 Exam. The descriptions contained in that guide detail specific content areas within sociology (including “understanding social structure,” “demographic characteristics and processes,” “social stratification,” and “social inequality”) that will be covered on the test (AAMC 2012:12).

Disciplines in the natural sciences are discussing the impacts of this change upon their curricula. For example, recommendations from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) suggest that chemistry/biochemistry/biology departments “streamline” their sequences so that pre-med students will have more space in their schedule to take the required introductory sociology and introductory psychology courses they will need to prepare for the new section of the MCAT.

Some Unknowns

In addition to not knowing the exact content of the questions in the new social science section of the test, there are a number of other unknowns about which sociology departments need to start collecting data.

I teach at a small selective liberal arts institution, Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. Our pre-medical advisor on campus told me that in Texas, medical schools typically have a list of required courses in the undergraduate curriculum.  If a student has not taken these, they will not be considered for admission. Even with high MCAT scores, a high GPA, a great interview and stellar recommendations, an applicant must have completed all of the courses on the list. My colleague in chemistry said that Texas medical schools are considering the addition of introductory sociology and introductory psychology to those lists, but this decision has not yet been made. Such a decision could significantly increase enrollments in these introductory courses.

The impact of this change will vary considerably by type and size of institution and may vary by state, depending on decisions made by various medical schools. In my liberal arts setting, for example, all students are required to take at least two social science courses to fulfill General Education requirements. Sociology and psychology are both among the most popular choices. It is unknown what proportion of current pre-med students already take the courses. We do know, however, that they often take them in their senior year. That could change with the new section on the MCAT.

How institutions respond (or need to respond) will depend on medical school lists of “required courses” for consideration for admission. It will also vary considerably by institution type. Large institutions may consider developing specific sections of both introductory psychology and introductory sociology aimed at pre-med students. Smaller institutions are unable to do that.

Start Planning Now  

The scheduled changes in the MCAT will affect students who are currently in their first year of college. On our campus the pre-medical advisors are already suggesting that students thinking about medical school should take our introductory course (Social Patterns and Processes) to fulfill one of their General Ed social science requirements. This is only one of our two introductory sociology courses—Social Problems is the other. Since we only offer three or four sections of that a year, and typically a very large proportion of entering cohorts (as many has 50 percent or more) think that they are pre-med. . . we potentially face significant over-enrollment issues for introductory sociology.

The change could also affect graduates who are taking the MCAT after completing their undergraduate degrees. If those graduates did not take the required course in sociology, they might need to find a way to fulfill that requirement for admission to medical school.

There are at least six things a department chair can do to begin the process of planning for this change.

Hopefully this background and set of suggestions will help departments and programs plan for changes that may have an impact upon enrollments in introductory sociology as the MCAT changes its format in the coming years.


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