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5 Expert Tips for Navigating COVID-19 Changes to the MCAT®

Plus, a FREE COVID-19-Adapted Full-Length MCAT Exam

Last Updated: May 5, 2020

Michael Larson, MD

Former Member University of Oklahoma SOM Admissions
Committee Otolaryngology Resident, EVSOM

The Experts

Lauren Curtis

Founder & CEO of Altius Test Prep 15+ Years Admissions
Committee and Pre-Med Consulting Experience

Cannon Nelson, MS3

Medical student at the University of South Florida SOM 7+
Years MCAT Tutoring and Admissions Consulting Experience

Conrad Ashby, MS-Anatomy

Associate Director of Mentoring & Achievement at Altius Test
Prep Masters in Medical Science
6+ Years MCAT Tutoring Experience

Introduction

We recognize that life as a pre-medical student can be stressful—even overwhelming at times—and that’s under normal conditions. Recently-announced changes to the MCAT exam and the application cycle due to the COVID-19 pandemic could potentially add to that stress. Our goal in writing this article is to give students clarity and comfort by providing an expert, unbiased summary of the major changes and how best to navigate them successfully.

In this post we will cover: 

  • How has the MCAT changed due to COVID-19? 
    We’ve included an easy-to-digest infographic summarizing all major changes. 
  • How to access a FREE COVID-adapted full-length MCAT practice exam. 
  • When and how to register for the new COVID-19 MCAT. 
    HINT: Registration opens nationwide on Thursday, May 7, 2020. 
  • How to determine when you’re ready to take the MCAT.

COVID-19 Changes to the MCAT®

Following unprecedented worldwide disruption due to COVID-19, and in order to protect the health and safety of examinees, the AAMC was forced to cancel multiple spring 2020 MCAT exam dates. In April of 2020 the AAMC announced that MCAT testing would resume, beginning with the May 29, 2020 administration. To accommodate the large number of students whose original test date had been cancelled, plus additional summer examinees, the AAMC implemented several significant changes. These included adding additional test dates and—perhaps most significantly—changing the length, timing, and test-day format. 

We have prepared the following infographic to illustrate the COVID-19 MCAT changes in an easy-to-understand format. You will be able to directly compare the standard exam to the new COVID-19 version and quickly determine the likely impact of those changes on your own test-day experience:

TIP #1: Stay calm. This will give you an advantage over other examinees and applicants.

Don’t overreact to the COVID-19 changes. Remember, every single applicant is facing these same challenges. The MCAT will be different, but it could potentially be slightly easier for you given the reduced length of the exam. Also, take comfort in knowing that admissions committees are aware of these unusual realities and will factor them into all admissions decisions. Across the board, both on the committees on which our team members serve, and in the case of every other ADCOM with whom we’ve spoken, medical schools are approaching this application cycle with increased compassion and flexibility. Some students will allow themselves to become frazzled by these unforeseen issues. If you do not, you will have a distinct advantage. Understanding the information in this article will be a strong start to remaining calm and in perspective.

Changes to the MCAT Infographic

How to access a FREE COVID-19 Full-Length MCAT Practice Exam

Given the significant COVID-19 changes, you’ll want to practice extensively with exams that reflect the new format and timing system. Although the AAMC has no current plans to offer COVID-adjusted practice exams, our team has created a FREE Full-Length MCAT Exam that reflects all the COVID-19 changes. Access your FREE copy of this exam by clicking on the “Get My Exam” button located above and at the end of this article. 

The value of a full-length exam that is true to the new COVID-19 version of the MCAT leads us to our next take-home message:

TIP #2: Practice exactly as you will be tested. Mimicking every detail of your test-day experience will dramatically improve your performance.

By default, your brain is NOT prepared to perform at its peak ability during the unusual time frames in which you may be testing—as early as 6:00 AM or as late as midnight. To overcome this issue, you will need to practice exactly as you will be tested. For example, if you are testing during the first exam slot, begin waking up at 4:00 AM for at least 2-3 weeks before your exam. Begin all your practice exams at exactly 6:00 AM, without exception. If you are testing during the final exam slot, we recommend shifting your diurnal rhythms by purposely getting up a few hours later than normal and staying up until an hour or two after you will finish your exam (1:00-2:00 AM). Otherwise, you may experience significant fatigue during the final section of the exam. Do your best to mimic all other aspects of the exam and exam-day experience. Visit your testing center well in advance to become familiar with its location. Take all practice tests in a secluded setting, on equipment similar to that provided at your testing center. Finally, utilize COVID-19-adapted practice whenever possible. In addition to our FREE COVID-19 MCAT Exam, the Altius team has prepared nine (9) other COVID-adapted full-length MCAT exams—making it possible for students to practice extensively under the new COVID-19 parameters.

One of your goals when preparing for this important exam should be to eliminate as many test-day surprises as possible. The more familiar you are with the exam, the testing center, and the experience overall, the better:

TIP #3: Master the 2020 MCAT Essentials. Don’t just read this important AAMC document—master it.

The importance of this document, prepared by the AAMC and considered required reading for all examinees, cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, many students invest only a cursory effort into reading and understanding the “Official MCAT Rule Book.” This can cause serious issues on test day, up to and including being removed from the exam and investigated for misconduct. You must know and follow the testing rules enforced by the AAMC. For example, you may not realize that it is a violation to write anything on your note-taking booklet before an exam section begins. You may also be surprised to learn that if you ask for an additional notebook the proctor will give you another booklet, but also confiscate your current booklet. This caused one student unexpected anxiety at a recent exam because she had written a pre-planned timing scale at the top of her first booklet. These issues are fully preventable if you study this document carefully beforehand. At a time when you will already be facing new challenges due to COVID-19, it is more important than ever to eliminate surprises through careful preparation.

One of the most widespread causes of examinee surprise and frustration on test day is the extensive—and at times intimidating—check-in process. This can last 30-minutes or more and will include being asked to review a list of test-center rules, verifying your ID, providing a digital signature, taking your photograph, infrared palm scanning, a pat-down search, inspection of your pockets—and occasionally a few other security procedures that vary by testing center. You will encounter similar requirements when entering the room after one of the 10-minute breaks. For those who are interested, Altius occasionally provides free live and/or virtual walk-through experiences that replicate the test-day check-in process. We expect to offer these events multiple times over the coming weeks and months for COVID-19 MCAT examinees.

The AAMC has announced multiple new exam dates for 2020, including an extension of the normal testing period through the last week of September. The registration portal is currently closed. Registration will reopen between 6:00 AM and 12:00 PM Eastern on Thursday, May 7, 2020. 

The registration process will vary slightly depending on whether or not you are holding an existing registration for a 2020 exam date.

For students already registered for an upcoming exam date on or after May 29th. 
If you registered previously for an exam date that has not been canceled due to COVID-19, your existing registration is always for an 8:00 AM exam start—a start time which no longer exists. The AAMC has said it will contact these examinees and assign them a new 6:00 AM, 12:15 PM, or 6:00 PM time slot. They expect to notify all currently-registered examinees before the MCAT registration system reopens on May 7th. However, they have clarified that this may not happen in all cases. If you do NOT hear from the AAMC, you will be able to see your assigned testing appointment time after logging in to the registration system. Either way, if you do not like the time slot you have been assigned, contingent on availability, you will have the option of rescheduling your exam for another administration using the registration system. Until further notice, all AAMC cancellation and rescheduling fees have been waived.

For students who are not currently registered for the MCAT. 
Based on the AAMC’s official statement to existing registrants that “You will be able to change your appointment time once registration opens, subject to availability…” we expect that unregistered examinees will most likely have the option to choose both their exam date and their exam appointment time. However, the AAMC has been somewhat vague on this topic, so do not be surprised if they end up assigning you an exam start time.

DO NOT DELAY. Be ready to register at 6:00 AM Eastern 
All students, regardless of circumstance, will benefit from accessing the registration system as quickly as possible after it opens. Seats and exam dates always fill quickly but are expected to fill even more rapidly under current circumstances. The AAMC has only announced this general timeframe; the system will open sometime between 6:00 AM and 12:00 PM on Thursday, May 7th. They will make an announcement on their Twitter account @AAMC_MCAT once the system is available. Carefully note that these times are Eastern, and you need to adjust accordingly for your current location. Based on recent past history, the registration software may crash under the intense demand of thousands of users. If this happens, remain calm. Close or refresh your browser and attempt to enter the portal once again. Repeat as necessary until you are successful.

All of the available test dates remaining for 2020 are listed in the chart below.

When and How to Register for the COVID-19 MCAT®

Updated COVID-19 Exam Dates and Score Release Dates

Updated COVID-19 Exam Dates and Score Release Dates 
Scores are released by 5:00 p.m. ET on the scheduled date.  All deadlines are at 11:59 p.m. local test center time on the day of the deadline. Only upcoming, available test dates are included. Test dates canceled due to COVID-19 have been removed.

All deadlines are at 11:59 p.m. local test center time on the day of the deadline 

*GOLD Zone scheduling deadline: Last date to reschedule at the lower rate and last date to receive a partial refund for canceling an exam. 

**SILVER Zone scheduling deadline: Last date for initial registration without a fee increase and last date to reschedule. 

***BRONZE Zone scheduling deadline: Last date to cancel a reservation and last date to edit registration information such as name, address, consents, etc.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Effective April 1, 2020, rescheduling fees for all exam dates have been suspended until further notice. You will not be charged a rescheduling fee online. 

Source: https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/article/mcat-testing-calendar-score-release-dates/

Zone Deadlines

TIP #4: Take the MCAT when you are ready to perform at your best. Honestly critique your current level of preparation before taking this important gatekeeper exam.

Many students have a plan in mind. You may have expected to take the MCAT after your junior year of college, apply that summer, and matriculate immediately following graduation. If you were on-track for that timeline before COVID-19, you feel confident about your current level of MCAT preparation, and you are scoring well on accurate full-length practice exams, then go for it. On May 7th, register for the date of your choice and move forward. If your reality is different—especially if the quality of your study has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic—it may be wise for you to consider a later test date. You may even consider testing next year, in January or early spring of 2021. Our counsel to students has always been the same, and hasn’t changed as a result of COVID-19: “Take the MCAT when your practice test scores are consistent with your desired final MCAT score.”

Am I ready to take the MCAT? If you base your decision on practice test performance, the answer to this question will vary widely for individual students. For someone targeting a state school with an average matriculated MCAT of 508, the answer will be different than for someone dreaming of Harvard or Johns Hopkins, whose matriculated students usually average in the high 5-teens. Meanwhile, if you’re looking at elite MD/PhD programs you may need a 520 or above.

The following application data will prove helpful in determining your level of readiness with respect to the MCAT. 

Applicant Data – 2019 Application Cycle 

Average MCAT score for all applicants: 506
Average MCAT score for applicants accepted to medical school: 512
Average science GPA (BCPM) for all applicants: 3.48
Average science GPA (BCPM) for applicants accepted to medical school: 3.66
Average total GPA for all applicants: 3.58
Average total GPA for applicants accepted to medical school: 3.73.

Source: https://www.aamc.org/system/files/2019-10/2019_FACTS_Table_A-16.pdf

These data suggest a pre-med student applying to an average medical school should only test if they are confident they will be able to obtain a score of 512 or better, as this was the average MCAT score deemed sufficient to be accepted last year to an allopathic medical school nationwide. Each school varies in specific MCAT requirements, and the MCAT is only one of several important aspects of your application, but 512 is a good baseline to ensure you remain relatively competitive at a wide variety of schools. If you are not averaging within 1 to 2 points of this target on realistic practice exams (particularly your last AAMC exam), you might consider altering your plans to accommodate additional MCAT preparations and a later exam date.

How to determine when you’re ready to take the MCAT

TIP #5: Never go it alone. Get help from pre-med advisors and other experts who have navigated this road many times.

Whatever your goals are, we strongly encourage you to counsel with the Pre-Health Advisor at your undergraduate institution. They have accurate information and years of experience helping students just like you. Given the many complications introduced by COVID-19, seeking advice of this kind is more important than ever. The Altius team offers extensive MCAT preparation and admissions services, including the opportunity to have your application reviewed by current and former admissions committee officers. Whatever you do, don’t do this alone. As an admissions officer, it is shocking to see the large number of students who make harmful, yet preventable mistakes—issues they almost certainly could have avoided had they consulted more closely with someone familiar with the application process and historical tendencies of medical school admissions officers.

Remember, no MCAT score, even a 520 or above, guarantees admission. Committee members consider many aspects of your preparation for medical training and do so in a wide-ranging, holistic manner. That being said, your MCAT score is one of the most important factors in selecting students who will progress to the interview stage. Therefore, it is particularly important that you navigate these COVID-19 MCAT challenges successfully, allowing you to obtain the highest possible MCAT score. 

If you have any unanswered questions about the MCAT or the application process, the Altius team includes multiple former advisors, admissions committee officers, and other MCAT and admissions experts. During COVID-19 we are offering free consultations Monday through Friday during regular office hours (8:00 AM – 6:00 PM MTN). We can be reached at (435) 671-5783.

Miscellaneous COVID-19 Tidbits

Here’s a Super-Easy MCAT Timing System for COVID-19. 
Your exam timing will work out almost perfectly if you: 

  • Spend exactly 8 minutes per science passage (CP, BB or PS sections; total time spent reading the passage and answering the questions). 
  • Spend exactly 1 minute per stand-alone question. 
  • Spend approximately 10 minutes per CARS passage (total time spent reading the passage and answering the questions).

YOU must bring your own personal protective equipment!
Although both masks and gloves are now allowed at the testing center (previously this would have been a violation of MCAT rules), the test proctors will NOT provide them for you. You must bring your own mask and gloves. Be advised that anything you bring is subject to inspection.

Beware of registering for an exam held a long distance from your home.
Experience has demonstrated that student exam performance can be negatively impacted by the need to travel to a distant testing center, sleep in a hotel, and navigate an unfamiliar city. We generally advise against it. We also recognize that there may be an above-average number of students scrambling to find an open seat due to COVID-19. Consider these risks carefully before you decide.

WARNING: State quarantine rules may prevent you from testing.
Some U.S. states may still be enforcing travel and quarantine restrictions after MCAT testing resumes. Pearson Vue has stated that they will not allow you to test if you are under government-mandated quarantine. This could be the case in some instances if you cross state lines to reach your testing center, because some states require a 14-day self-quarantine after entering their jurisdiction. Double-check all COVID-19 legal requirements for the locality in which you will be testing well before your exam date. Pearson Vue will also turn you away if you have tested positive for COVID-19, have been in close personal contact with someone who has tested positive, or are exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

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