PMY 217 : How are Med Schools Looking At Your New MCAT Score?

Session 217

In this episode, Ryan talks with Eric Chiu, Executive Director of the Pre-Health Programs for Kaplan Test Prep and he is in charge of the MCAT prep at Kaplan. Listen in as Ryan and Eric discuss the MCAT 2015, Kaplan's survey of how medical schools are using the test, whether or not a prep course is necessary, and more.

Here are the highlights of the conversation with Eric:

Eric's background:

  • Finishing his undergrad degree in electrical engineering
  • Teaching for Kaplan and getting inspired to take education as a career path
  • Enjoying teaching and interacting with students

Eric's thoughts on the impetus behind the MCAT 2015:

  • The MCAT is an evolving exam.
  • Medical schools want an exam that can help them make good, informed decisions about which students are most likely to succeed in their programs.
  • AAMC surveyed interviewed med school deans, admissions officers, faculty, and advisors who are part of the application pipeline so they could look for ways to improve the effectiveness of MCAT in predicting the student's success in medical school.
  • As a result, the changes in the exam are allowing medical schools to make better informed decisions.

The MCAT's ability to predict who's going to perform in medical school:

  • According to a survey conducted by Kaplan, the most frequent application killer among admissions officers is a low MCAT score.
  • High GPA scores are good but they are not standardized because it depends on factors like the program you're in and the teachers you choose.
  • The MCAT is the only number that is on a standard scale for every student.

What if you're not just a good test taker?

  1. Unfortunately, you have to take the MCAT.

The MCAT is not that last test you'll have to take. Schools want to make sure that students are well-prepared to do well on the USMLE or COMPLEX exams so they can be placed into the right residency program.

  1. There is no such thing as “not a good test taker.”

There is only “bad test preparers.” So you need to figure out whether it's worth the investment to become a better preparer for all of the tests you have to take beyond the MCAT. Think about how you can build on building a capability set that will help you become more successful.

How to become better test preparers:

Become a voracious reader. Be able to read critically. Read your text books for the long concepts and memorize the right facts and formulas that are going to benefit you on test day.

Most MCAT passages are not going to be found in your text books but in other journals and publications.

Results from the survey Kaplan has conducted on admissions officers:

68% of medical schools felt the new test would be an improvement (2015)

52% of medical schools say they weren't sure whether the new MCAT would better prepare students for their programs

Scoring trends and challenges in the new test:

  1. The MCAT is a scaled score.

Your performance is relative to the rest of the test taking population. So as long as the testing population is the same, it's not necessarily about the test getting easier or harder, but you're competing with the rest of the pool.

However, the test could be easier or harder for each student in terms of the content they're more familiar with.

  1. The broader scope of content covered on the new exam represents both a challenge and opportunity.

The challenge is how to focus one's preparation, especially now that the exam blueprint covers 11 semesters of prerequisite coursework. There is much greater integration of science content within all three of the science-based sections.

Therefore, you have to have a more holistic approach into the sections focusing on the highest yield concepts across all of the subject areas rather than just focusing on certain sections.

The biggest mistake students make in preparing for the MCAT: Starting to wait.

Premeds are type A personalities and are very busy so it's easy to procrastinate. So you're either intimidated by it or just not excited about it.

Eric's advice to students planning to take the MCAT:

  • Start thinking about what their prep plans are a year out from when they're planning to test.
  • Start acclimating yourself to the types of content and the practice you can start to do early on.
  • Kaplan courses average between 2-4 months or an option to extend their preparation for up to a full year.
  • Students planning to test in September 2017 can start preparing now in January 2017. The sooner you begin, the more benefit you will accrue from the prep resources you invest in.

Realistic practice makes perfect.

Practice doesn't make perfect. Realistic practice makes perfect. Practice in an environment that mimics the conditions of the actual examination day.

Hold on to the two scored AAMC practice tests available on the last two weeks before test date.

How Kaplan is helping students prepare for the MCAT:

30,000 hours of MCAT expertise into their books and courses for the new exam.

Kaplan recently launched their 3rd edition of MCAT books and course where they've rewritten their curriculum and sections of their books in response to feedback from students who took the actual exam.

Kaplan's The MCAT channel

  • A customized study plan feature for students so they can pick and choose where to focus their time on based on their strengths and weaknesses
  • Approximately 20 hours of live MCAT instruction every week that students can join in and pick the right episodes for them
  • Kaplan is now able to help students engage in test preparations that really fit their individual needs

The Starting Line: Kaplan's Tuition Assistance Program

Fill up their online application form and they get back to you in three days.

They offer up to 60% tuition assistance based on financial need.

How to decide on the right prep course for you:

  • Do you want to become part of a community and learn from those who have come before you or are you willing to try it on your own and find your way through?
  • Choose a structure and study plan that gives you a clear path to success.
  • For DIY test takers, try to find ways to build not only the content review but also the test taking strategies.
  • Start with really good books. Kaplan MCAT books come with three full-length practice tests.

Some pieces of advice for students struggling with their MCAT journey:

Change your mindset towards the MCAT from being an obstacle to an opportunity. The MCAT is not an obstacle but an opportunity for you to show medical schools that you have what it takes to perform well in their programs, that you can do the hard work of reviewing content and learning how to take the test.

This is an opportunity for you to really commit to that dream and build a set of skills that are going to serve you throughout that way.

Links and Other Resources:

Kaplan's The MCAT Channel

The Starting Line: Kaplan's Tuition Assistance Program

Check out the Specialty Stories podcast at

AAMC MCAT practice tests



Dr. Ryan Gray: Are you still trying to figure out what specialty you want to practice once you're a physician? Go check out our Specialty Stories Podcast at

This is The Premed Years, session number 217.

Hello and welcome to the two-time Academy Award nominated podcast, The Premed Years, where we believe that collaboration, not competition, is key to your success. I am your host Dr. Ryan Gray, and in this podcast we share with you stories, encouragement, and information that you need to know to help guide you on your path to becoming a physician.

Welcome to The Premed Years, I'm glad to have you here whether you are here for the first time or you are joining us again for not your first time. I'm glad you are taking the time to listen to me today. I have a great guest today, I have Eric Chiu from Kaplan, and he's the Executive Director of the pre-health programs, which means he's in charge of the MCAT prep at Kaplan. And we sat down and we're going to talk all about the MCAT 2015, the survey that Kaplan did of medical schools, and how they are using the test, and whether they think it's helping or hurting, we're going to talk all about whether or not a prep course is necessary, and so much more.

Eric, welcome to The Premed Years, thanks for joining me.

Eric Chiu: Thanks Ryan, it's great to be here.

Dr. Ryan Gray: So talk about your role with Kaplan.

Meeting Eric Chiu

Eric Chiu: I'm the Executive Director for pre-health programs at Kaplan, which is just a fancy way of saying that I manage our programs for the MCAT, DAT, OAT and PCAT. I've been with Kaplan for going on sixteen years now, and started as a Kaplan instructor, taught my share of MCAT classes back in the day, and I'm happy to say that I am no longer qualified to teach for Kaplan because both our standards have improved and I'm just not as science expert as I once was. But I'm glad to have a great team of both product development, and content developers working for me, as well as of course our hundreds of pre-health faculty members who get that job done.

Dr. Ryan Gray: How do you end up in a role as an instructor, and now where you are now? Were you premed at some point?

Eric Chiu: You know it's actually a good question. I was never formerly premed, I was however a Taiwanese American student in college, and so-

Dr. Ryan Gray: Stereotyping.

Eric Chiu: There was certainly at least some potential for that to be my career pathing. I actually graduated- my undergrad degree is in electrical engineering, also very stereotypical, and sort of fell into teaching for Kaplan along the way. And that really inspired me to think about education as a career path from there. So I wasn't necessarily on a track to go to medical school, but many of my friends were, I obviously had some science aptitude, and really enjoyed the science of learning and being in the classroom, and so fell into management roles with Kaplan along the way, and spent a lot of time working directly with the undergrads, especially the premedical groups at my alma mater, the University of Maryland College Park, go Terps for those out there, or fear the turtle which I'm a little ashamed to say.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Very scary.

Eric Chiu: I've really enjoyed the opportunity to not only work with these tests which are obviously a hurdle, the MCAT especially to students getting into the right school for them, but especially to work with so many inspiring students over the years who really are interested in not just building a career for themselves but finding ways to make a difference in the world, to make a difference in our society. It's a pleasure for us every day to be involved in one part of that process and helping students to own the moment with the test.

AAMC’s MCAT Change

Dr. Ryan Gray: So with your role at Kaplan, and we'll focus on obviously the premed, the MCAT side. Things- you've been there for sixteen years you said, things have been pretty quiet other than Kaplan trying to do better, and create better tests, and help students more, things have been quiet. And then the AAMC comes out several years ago and says, ‘Surprise! We're changing everything.' What in your mind was the impetus behind that huge change?

Eric Chiu: It's interesting. So first of all I'll question the premise just slightly. You're absolutely right, this is in 2015, the largest test change in a generation for the MCAT. But it's important to know that the MCAT is- like every standardized test, is an evolving exam, and was prior to the test change there were subtle changes in the content areas, and in the sort of proportions of different content on the blueprint as the test was in its pre test change state for twenty years or so. But I think in particular the sort of overarching answer to your question is the AAMC is serving the med schools, and the med schools want an exam that helps along with lots of other factors- it helps them to make good informed decisions about which students are most likely to succeed in their programs. And so the AAMC as primarily a research organization did their homework on this. They surveyed and interviewed med school deans, and admissions officers, and faculty, and advisors who are part of the pipeline to get students into programs, and really were looking to see what it is that they could do to improve the effectiveness of this one score in predicting students' success in medical school. And in fact it's going to be a couple years yet before we have a lot of real longitudinal data to prove out the hypothesis that the changes to the exam do in fact better help schools to make those difficult decisions between applicants. But at the very least some of the research the AAMC has already been doing, they did a specific study around the validity of the PSB section- the psych, soc section. They have certainly continued to talk to the medical school admissions officers on how they're using the new exam and provide some guidance for that. All of that is I think going to over time result in a pretty solid affirmative yes that the changes to the exam are allowing med schools to make better informed decisions. Let me come back to one part of that, very specifically the addition of behavioral sciences and biochemistry are one of the things that's easiest to remember about the new test is that those were sections of content that were not tested on the exam previous to the test change, and have now been added in. And maybe even one of the most intimidating things about the new exam is that students now have to be prepared for three additional prerequisite semesters of coursework. But there's a good reason for both of those changes. Biochemistry was in fact one of the subject areas that med school faculty said was most likely to inform whether students were able to succeed in their coursework in medical school. And psych, soc similarly, but in addition to that the idea that behavioral sciences as healthcare continues to move in a more societal direction and less mechanics of the human body, I think it's important for students to have that background, and med schools are doing their part in changing the face of medical school education so that doctors are better prepared to practice medicine in this world.

Dr. Ryan Gray: You talked a lot about the research that the AAMC does behind their testing, and talking to schools and everything. I've always heard random things about the MCAT's ability to predict or determine who's going to best perform in medical school. And maybe this is anecdotal stuff that I've heard, and I haven't really tried to dig into it myself because I don't really think it affects what I do personally working with students, but from your understanding and your knowledge, if I have a student that comes to me and says, ‘I hate the MCAT, the MCAT stinks, and it's so hard, and why do I need to do this? What's the point? I have a 4.0 GPA but I can't get above a 500 on the MCAT.' In your words, if I could steal your words, what should I tell this student? Should I tell them that it helps medical schools know how well you're going to do in medical school? How well you're going to do on the boards? Where does that correlation come in?

Eric Chiu: I would say both of those things, certainly that's how medical school admissions officers are using the score among, among other factors. It's important to note that for each individual student med schools are looking at a holistic review of admissions factors including that 4.0 GPA, which by the way is going to be extremely attractive to every med school admissions officer that opens that student's portfolio. And yet in our survey results year after year- Kaplan does a survey of med school admissions officers, a phone survey every year, one of the things that comes up consistently is that a low MCAT score is the most frequent application killer among admissions officers. And to dig a little deeper into your question, the ‘why' behind that, I think a big part of it is that GPAs- 4.0 GPA is good no matter where you went to school, but GPAs are not standardized. It depends on the program you're in, the teachers you chose. I mean students are using to actually select the professor that is most likely to give them an A in class.

Dr. Ryan Gray: That's one of my pet peeves.

Eric Chiu: There is a component to GPA- and that's not to say that most premed students are gaming the system in that way, but there is a non-standardness (that's quite a word) to GPAs. And so it's harder for schools to know exactly what that means on sort of a standard scale against which they're measuring all applicants. The MCAT is in fact the only number aside from perhaps your SAT scores if they cared about that, that is on a standard scale for every student. Now the AAMC is also doing a lot of work in fairness initiatives to try to figure out how they can close some of the gaps that exist between socio-economic backgrounds, and under-represented minority backgrounds in the scores that the test produces. But at the end of the day, I'll give my response to the question I do get from students, and sometimes from their parents about ‘What if I'm just not a good test taker?' I always have two responses to that. The first is a quick, ‘Unfortunately you have to take the MCAT. It's a required part of the process and there are some early admin programs that you might not need it for, but for the most part it will be a required part of the process to becoming a doctor. And by the way, it's not the last test you'll have to take.' So you mentioned the boards, in fact one of the things schools are very concerned about is ensuring that their students are well prepared to do well on the USMLEs or COMLEX exams so that they can get placed into the right residency program for them. And not just that, to get licensed as a physician. And so that is something that schools do care about, that you have the aptitude not just to perform well in school, but to perform well on exams that are going to be a gate to you actually building your career in this profession. But the second thing I'd say to somebody who says, ‘I'm just not a good test taker,' is there's actually no such thing as not a good test taker, or a bad test taker, there's only bad test preparers. And so it's really about figuring out whether it's worth the investment- your student with the 4.0 is a great example. That student who's struggling to get above 500, if they can unlock new ways of preparing for exams, for the sake of the MCAT in this current timeframe, but also so that they have a new capability, a new skill- this is very sort of growth mindset. I don't mean to be dismissive of the challenge that it is to improve your test taking skills and your preparation strategies for an exam. But if they can do that, then they'll actually put themselves in a better position not just to get into the right med school of their choice, and to carry that strong science aptitude into a program that's going to help them continue their education, it's also going to allow them to be better preparers for all of the tests they have to take beyond the MCAT. And so the idea that it's not one and done, you can't just do well on the MCAT and then never look back and never have to take another standardized test is another good reason for students to really think, ‘How can I work on building a capability set that will help me to be more successful in my career?' Because unfortunately that's part of the process for becoming a physician.

Dr. Ryan Gray: I will never forget the intensity and frequency of tests during medical school. You become a professional test taker. It's test, after test, after test, after test. And so yeah, it's one of those things- and a lot of students are complaining about the length of the MCAT being eight hours long. I said it's great, it prepares you for the boards which is eight hours long, and it's a stamina test- a test of your stamina to sit there for eight hours with a few breaks here and there, but that's just as mentally challenging as raising the questions, and going through it. And so I think it's a step in the right direction. I think it's frustrating for a lot of students to see that thing. Being most likely- outside of SAT and ACT, this is the first time that they've taken such a huge test that has such big repercussions for their future. For the students and the parents that call you and talk about this, do you ever give them advice on first steps to become better test takers, or better preparers outside of taking prep courses? Are there other things that students can do?

Resources Outside of Prep Courses

Eric Chiu: There absolutely are, and actually one of the first things for the MCAT especially, but I think this is probably true for a lot of the exams that students will take in med school and the boards, learning to read critically is just a foundational skill that by the way the AAMC is directly testing in the critical analysis and research skill section. But also throughout the other- even the science sections because they are primarily about 75% passage based. The ability to read critically is something that unfortunately a lot of students with science aptitude who are self-identified as science nerds early on do less of than many other high school and college students. You tend to read your textbooks for to learn concepts and to memorize the right facts and formulas that are going to benefit you on test day for your final exams and midterms. What you don't do a lot of is reading for the sake of understanding how to glean the information you need out of the text that you're reading. And in fact most MCAT passages aren't going to be found in your textbooks. They're more likely to be found in periodicals and other journal publications, and even in the CARS section in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist. So one of the pieces of advice I give a lot of students especially early on in their careers is just become a voracious reader. That's hard to do, it's actually not that easy, but some people just naturally enjoy it. For others, it is- and in particular for students for whom English might not be their native language, it's actually challenging to get into reading in the way that it's challenging to get into running or some other athletic endeavor that takes discipline, and practice, and a commitment to doing it every day or every few days. But if you do that starting out early, it will certainly improve your ability to read critically not just in the content areas that are covered in the MCAT, but just in general. Even if that means starting easier with fiction, and just getting into the habit of reading, that's again I think a capability that I think will serve students throughout their lives, but certainly will get them on the right track for preparing for a passage-based exam.

MCAT 2015 Affecting Medical Schools

Dr. Ryan Gray: The new MCAT didn't have repercussions just for students, it had repercussions for medical schools, and how admissions committees evaluate students. There's an extra score in there now, and the scale is different. Part of the survey that you guys did talked to schools and asked them how they're using this, and if it's working, this new MCAT. Talk about some of those survey results, and if schools are liking this new system or not liking it. What did you find?

Eric Chiu: Yeah I'll start with a little anecdote because I think it's helpful for students to understand it is a big change for students, it's also a big change for medical schools. One particular admissions officer I talked to actually in the just one or two months leading up to the new exam back in early 2015, and I won't name the admissions officer for the sake of his or her privacy, and perhaps his or her school's reputation. The admissions officer mentioned to me- I asked actually that question, ‘What do you think about the new exam? And how is this going to change your plans for this coming application cycle?' And the first thing the admissions officer said was, ‘I just had a meeting last week with our IT department, and we don't even have a way to hold a three digit score in our system- in our database. So that's job number one.' And so it's funny, some of those just logistical things are part of the challenge that med schools are going through here. Not to mention the bigger picture questions of how will we use another section score? How will we compare students- especially these last two admissions cycles applying some with old scores, some with new scores, some with both. There are students who took the old exam and the re-tested with the new exam as well. And so number one, the AAMC has been trying to help medical schools with some guidance around this, and some data about students who are testing on both tests. But the question about how do admissions officers feel about the new exam? I think the headline of our press release around our survey last summer was ‘Med Schools Cool to the New MCAT' [Inaudible 00:19:41]. It's a little bit less dramatic than that. The reality is prior to the new test, schools were very bullish about the new exams- of the opportunity that the new exam represented to make better decisions, and we saw that in our survey results. In fact just last year, 68% of medical schools said they felt like the new test would be an improvement; so over two thirds of the admissions officers we surveyed. This year it's shifted to a majority 52% saying that they weren't sure whether the new MCAT would better prepare students for their programs. Now that's not a no. In fact only 6% said it would not, and that's the same as it's been over the last two years. But it is a sort of wait and see signal that I think really has to do with number one, the absence of data from their own student population. Which if your listeners didn't know this, schools have been collecting data from the beginning of the inception of the MCAT on how MCAT scores for their program predicted grades in their medical schools. That is just a thing that probably- I don't want to say in an absolute, but probably every medical school or almost every medical school is doing to improve their admissions process. And second, there's been plenty of sort of transient challenge in this period of time when some students have scores from an old exam for which schools have twenty years of data on how that predicts success in their program. And many students now, the majority of students this year applied with new test scores from a new exam that schools are going to have to learn more about over time. That doesn't mean a student who took the new exam is at any sort of disadvantage. On the contrary, I think because of that schools are probably ascribing more of a holistic approach than even in years past. But it does mean that there's more work to be done on the med school side before they can sort of fully sign on as they had been optimistic about it prior to the test change, fully sign on to say this is a positive change.

New Scoring on MCAT 2015

Dr. Ryan Gray: From your own data with students that have been working with Kaplan for a while, maybe with the old test and the new test, have you seen just from the old test to the new test any dramatic shifts in scores increasing or decreasing? Or somebody that gets a 26 on the old test is going to get about a 500 on the new test, and there's really no dramatic shift? The AAMC did a good job scaling it.

Eric Chiu: Again I'll answer the question two ways. Just a habit of mine so I apologize for doing so. The first, remember that just like every other standardized test, the MCAT is a scaled score. So in fact per section, and then even overall, your performance is relative to the other test takers, the rest of the test taking population. So I know this wasn't how you phrased the question appropriately so, but sometimes students ask me, ‘Did the test get easier or harder with the advent of the new exam?' Well as long as the test taking population is basically the same, the test didn't get easier or harder, you're still competing against the rest of the pool. However it could certainly have gotten easier or harder for each individual student in terms of the content they're more familiar with. And during the test change period we did have plenty of students who wanted to know, ‘Should I try to take the test before it changed? Or wait until the new exam comes?' And a lot of our questions about that were around, ‘How do you feel about biochemistry? Have you taken psychology or sociology yet? How did you fare in those courses?' And now students don't have the choice, it's probably not worth spending much time on, but for students who are now facing the new exam, the broader scope of content that's covered in the new exam represents both a challenge and an opportunity. So the second answer to your question is do students prepare differently, or are they seeing better results, or worse results with their preparation? I think the biggest challenge that I've seen from students and heard from students is how to focus one's preparation when now the blueprint of the exam covers eleven semesters of pre-req coursework. On the old exam it was pretty clear that the physical sciences section was half chemistry and half physics, and if you were strong in one or both of those areas you could focus less on that section. And that the- now the biochem section, then the biological sciences section was going to be a certain percentage of biology, and a certain percentage of organic chemistry, and there was some genetics mixed in, and that was the scope of that section, and you could focus not only your content review, but also your practice on specifically the types of passages that you wanted to work on most. On the new exam there's a much greater integration of science content within all three of the science-based sections. And what that means is not that students can't start with one content area to focus on, but that they have to be much more holistic in their approach to the sections and to the test, focusing on the highest yield concepts across all of the subject areas rather than just focusing on physics, or just focusing on organic chemistry, et cetera. And I think that has been a challenge for students to map their study planning, and think about how to use their time most efficiently. It's certainly something that at Kaplan we've been learning a lot about over the last couple years as we've had tens of thousands of students take the new exam after going through Kaplan programs. Their feedback has really helped us to improve our approach to making MCAT preparation even more efficient.

Students Biggest MCAT Mistake

Dr. Ryan Gray: What do you see as the biggest mistake that students make in preparation for the MCAT?

Eric Chiu: Easy answer, starting too late. Premeds are stereotypically type A personalities, so are doctors, maybe a correlation there, I'm not sure. But premeds are also extremely busy, and it's easy to procrastinate something that you're intimidated by or just not that excited about. One of the things that I would encourage students to do, even a year out from when they're planning to test, to start thinking about what their plans are for preparation, to get a book set or start looking at videos online, and start acclimating themselves to the types of content and the practice that they could start to do even that early on. Our courses average between two and four months duration, but we also give students the option to extend their preparation for up to a full year. In fact I think this podcast will go live after we launch this promotion, but in the month of January students can get their prep extended for every 2017 test date. And that is not just a marketing gimmick for us, that's really a nod to the idea that students who are planning to test even in September of 2017 can start their preparation now in January. In fact whether it's with Kaplan or some other prep resource, the sooner you begin, the more value, the more benefit you'll accrue from the prep resources that you invest in. So it's never a bad piece of advice to start anything earlier I think, but especially when it comes to MCAT prep. And maybe the particular feedback that I would give is there are some students who say, ‘Well I think I should cram for the MCAT because I'll remember it all on test day if I've studied it more recently.' I'd ask you, when has that ever worked out in your life where postponing your preparation for an exam, or procrastinating on that term paper ever helped you to do better on it because you did it right at the last minute? That's definitely not the approach I would recommend.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah and the MCAT is a little different than a physics test that's testing your knowledge of a few equations and the understanding of those equations. Just a little different last time I checked. So Eric, before we talk about all the new and exciting stuff Kaplan's doing, any other MCAT 2015 stuff that we haven't talked about that students should know about?

Eric Chiu: Yeah I think the one other thing, you mentioned the marathon of an exam that the MCAT is on test day, that it's literally an eight hour testing experience in terms of total seat time. I think one of the other things students sometimes forget is that practice doesn't make perfect, realistic practice makes perfect. Practice eventually in a test-like environment, a test-like interface. One story I have is from a student who told me after taking a different test, not the MCAT, that on the day of the exam they were just freaked out about the fact that it was so quiet in the testing facility. And I said, ‘Well what did you expect?' That like the testing facility would be quiet. But in fact the student had done all of their previous practice, not with Kaplan I should mention, they did all their prior practice with their headphones in and listening to music. And it's a funny little thing but if you forget that you're preparing for test day, and you just get into the ‘I'm going to practice some problems, and learn the content, and develop some strategies,' you forget that in the end you have to perform, and in state dependent learning mode you should try to put yourself, especially in those final few practice tests you take before the exam, in as close to the test like condition as possible. We also recommend that our students therefore hold onto the two- now only two scored AAMC practice tests that are available. We offer those as part of our Kaplan courses, but we recommend that our students hold those two to the last few weeks before the test day so they're doing practice earlier with tests that are also very realistic, but that they have the sort of most realistic exams from the test maker available in those last few weeks for that final dry run before their exam day.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright, I like all of that. So let's talk about Kaplan. Kaplan obviously as any test prep company had to gear up for this new test. What new and exciting things are you guys doing to help students prepare for the MCAT?

Kaplan Preparing Students for the MCAT

Eric Chiu: Yeah I'll start with you mentioned that the AAMC came out with their MR5 recommendations several years prior to the test change as they had to do in order to start doing the psychometric work they needed to do in order to write the new exam. We also were able therefore to get a huge head start on not only the new content areas, but really reinventing our program for the new test. And so specifically we put in about 30,000 hours of MCAT expertise into our books for the new exam, our course for the exam, and in particular building out something some of your listeners may have heard of already called the MCAT Channel, where Kaplan's MCAT program is now focused not on putting every Kaplan student through the exact same 100 plus hours of one size fits all lecture. But instead, getting every student the core lessons they need on test taking skills, strategies, and the highest yield science content, but then having students really pick and choose where to focus their time based on their strengths and weaknesses. And the MCAT Channel allows students to do that, we're running literally twenty or so hours of live MCAT instruction every week that all Kaplan students in all instruction course can join whenever they can fit it into their schedule, and can pick the episodes that are right for them. So when they're preparing for the biochemistry section they can come attend sessions focused on specific biochemistry content, and we have a session on blood, and a session on enzymes. They can prepare for the physics section by coming to our session on batteries, or our session on schematics. And the idea that students don't all need the same instruction to prepare for the same test for everyone, but that each student's individual strengths and weaknesses should guide their study plan. I think that's pretty revolutionary in the world of not just MCAT preparation but in education in general. In fact our online course where for Kaplan students actually looks at your diagnostic performance and subsequent testing performance, and actually gives individualized recommendations to each student for what homework assignments they should be doing between classes. Different for each students based on how they scored on 72 different content categories of practice material. And so that level of personalization just has the sort of necessary impact of being more efficient for each student. A student who's a biology major and has already aced their bio classes, and mastered content, especially basic biology content like Krebs cycle and ATP, and they've got that down, there's no reason for that student to sit through several hours of intro bio lecture covering material that they already know. Engineering major who has been taking physics since they were twelve and is well equipped to handle the first year of physics that's covered on the MCAT doesn't need to sit through those battery sessions or kinematic sessions, and should be focused on maybe more advanced physics concepts, and also focused on other areas of opportunity across the test sections. I'm really excited about our ability now to help students really engage in test preparation that fits their individual needs, not just one size fits all for all Kaplan students. And I think we've gotten good feedback from our students about that too. But to that point, the other thing we've done is we've been able to really rapid cycle our learning from the now tens of thousands of MCAT students who have taken Kaplan, gone on to test, and given us feedback around our programs, our curriculum, our practice tests even, and we've been able to bake that right back into our course. So we just launched this past fall the third edition of our MCAT books, and the third edition of our MCAT course, literally re-writing our curriculum, and re-writing at least sections of our books in response to feedback from students who have gone on to take the actual exam. And that's honestly something that Kaplan can do uniquely because of- because we're the world leader in MCAT preparation. I'm glad that our students have other students that came before them to thank for the product innovations and improvements that we've been able to deploy. One last example of that, I mentioned realistic practice earlier. You know, I think there's been a lot of talk since the new exam launched about what makes for a really realistic practice test. And in the end that's just a question of data. Because it is a scaled score, the reality is your practice tests as a test prep company are only as good as the data you have to inform number one, whether at the item level you have the right psychometric performance of specific questions and answer choices. Are the P levels right? Are you getting the type of responses that you expect? Are you getting the right spread of difficulty based on how the student population that's been put through those paces has performed on individual test items? And also at the sequence and scoring scale level, what every test prep company is trying to do is match their scoring scale to what students would see on the actual test in terms of AAMC scoring. The challenge is AAMC doesn't offer that type of data for you to actually do so, so what you have to do is use your population to sort of try to predict what actual test takers will look like as a testing population. And that's another place where Kaplan is lucky. We have more data to bring to bear on that problem than anyone else, and because of that I'm confident that our practice exams, while some students may find them harder or easier, remember it's about what you're best prepared for in terms of your strengths and weaknesses, that overall our practice exams are calibrated to be closer than anyone else's to the real thing because we simply have more students from the actual testing population giving us performance data on those exams, and more data means more precise replication of what the testing population will represent on test day.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Great, thank you for all that. One clarification with the MCAT Channel. Is that a separate course, or is that part of anything that you get at Kaplan? How do students get access to the MCAT Channel?

Eric Chiu: Yeah, great question Ryan. It's part of our live instruction and self-paced plus courses. So if you sign up for- we call it in-person course where you're meeting with your core lesson faculty member in an in-person classroom on a college campus, or somewhere else near you, or our live online courses where you're meeting with a live instructor in a fully online virtual classroom, which by the way is our highest rated delivery channel and also has the benefit of having off-camera instructors answering your questions in real time chat. That also happens during the MCAT Channel, these are live online programs- sessions where you can ask questions in real time, not just of the faculty member that's presenting, but also of additional expert MCAT instructors in the room. They're solely to answer your questions in real time either publicly or privately, and we have a lot of good feedback from students who like the idea of being able to be a little bit more anonymous with their questions in class, and not having to speak up in front of the whole room, and so that has been a really effective addition to our learning environment. But then also we now have a self-paced plus program. For all of our courses we have a plus version of those courses that includes- in addition to the core instruction and over 540 hours of instruction and practice, and all of the fourteen full length tests that we offer, it also gives students three one-on-one hours of coaching with an MCAT expert that is personally assigned to help them make the best use of their study time, and all of the Kaplan resources that we can offer. For our self-paced program where the instruction is just recorded, self-paced plus version of that also includes the MCAT Channel. So there's no way to purchase the MCAT Channel as its own thing today, we actually think that would be for now doing students a disservice because it wouldn't include all of the strategy, and test taking, and practice that we're also able to offer in our comprehensive courses. But the channel is a feature that all of our live instruction and self-paced plus students have access to.

Deciding on a Prep Course

Dr. Ryan Gray: How do I decide if a prep course is right for me?

Eric Chiu: Yeah it's a good question. I mentioned first that prep courses provide more than just the instruction and practice, although there's a ton of value in the instruction and practice. What they provide is primarily structure and a sort of study plan that gives you a clear path to success. There are some students who would DIY home improvement, buy a fixer upper, and build it themselves, watch whatever they can on YouTube to learn how to- I don't even know the terminology because I am not one of these guys, I'm definitely a ‘write a check' guy to break down the walls and build them back up as they need. For those DIY-ers, there's a path to success on the MCAT where you go out and sort of cobble together the resources you need, do sort of self-diagnosis to better understand your strengths and weaknesses, and try to find ways to build not only the content review- and this is key, not only content review but also the strategy for a test that fits patterns, and is going to have passage-based questions in a format that you haven't seen before in your other exams. But for many premed students, they just don't have the time for that, or they wouldn't be self-motivated. Not self-motivated at large, but self-motivated enough to get really into the detail of what's on the AAMC blueprint, where do I need the most help, what resources should I go out and find that would help me with specific concepts- not just subject areas, but specific concepts I'm going to see on test day? At Kaplan we've done that homework for you. And not only have we done that for you, we've done that for tens of thousands of students who came before you, and we can bring that information to bear on your experience. And so I think that's a big decision point for students. Do I want to be part of a community and learn from those who have come before me? Or am I willing to sort of try it on my own and find my way through my preparation, making my own plan? By the way if you're going to do that, start with really good books. And Kaplan has the best rated and bestselling books for the MCAT, and that's a great starting point. In fact our books also come with three full length practice tests if you buy our seven book set, so it's a great place to start in terms of even just getting a sense as to how you might fare on the exam before you dive into your preparation in earnest. Oh and by the way, I have to get this in here on your podcast for your listeners. Kaplan also has an awesome starting line tuition assistance program, so for those students who just can't afford MCAT preparation, and this is true not just for MCAT but for all of our graduate programs, graduate admissions tests, they should check it out. Just do a Google search for Kaplan starting line, there's a quick online application form, we get back to you within three days. It offers up to a 60% tuition assistance towards your course tuition with Kaplan based on financial need. So we're really trying to spread the word about that. Over the last two years we've given out over a million dollars in aid to students through that tuition assistance program to help ensure that students who might not otherwise be able to afford it can have access to our programs.

Words of Wisdom to Struggling Students

Dr. Ryan Gray: Any last words of wisdom for the student out there struggling on their journey to conquer the MCAT?

Eric Chiu: Yeah I'll end with this Ryan. I talk to a lot of students who are intimidated by the process, who are intimidated by the exam. They don't know how they're going to fare, and they are not sure if they're going to have what it takes even to get through this hurdle. And they really do think of it as a hurdle, as an obstacle. The MCAT is the thing standing in my way of pursuing my dreams. And I think that's an unfortunate mentality that I would like to change for as many students as possible. The MCAT isn't an obstacle, and it's certainly not an arbitrary one as we talked about earlier. It's really an opportunity. It's an opportunity whether you have a 4.0 GPA or a 2.8 GPA, it's an opportunity for you to show medical schools that in one more way coupled with the rest of your application, it's a way for you to show medical schools that you have what it takes to perform well in their programs, that you can buckle down and do the hard work of not only reviewing content as you'll have to do in medical school, but also learning how to take a test as you'll have to do in medical school. If you think about it that way, that you're not just getting past the MCAT, like it's the one thing standing in your way, but rather that this is an opportunity- it's an opportunity by the way that's a rite of passage that basically every licensed doctor over the last half century has had to go through, that it's an opportunity for you to really commit to that dream and build a set of skills that are going to serve you throughout that path. If you think about it that way, then it can be an exciting thing. It can be- it's certainly that I get excited about in terms of the outcomes that we're able to help our students get not just in terms of their score, but some of my favorite feedback from students after a course is, ‘I've never learned physics that way.' Or, ‘I now feel like I could take on anything because I was able to conquer this test.' That's the type of empowerment that the MCAT can represent for students, especially those students who might be feeling a little discouraged thinking about their path to med school. Absolutely let's find a way to flip that around and get you excited about the opportunity to get not only a better score, but to build your skillset so that you're better prepared to learn in med school and become a great doctor.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright there you have it, that was again Eric Chiu, the Executive Director of pre-health programs at Kaplan. You can check out everything that Kaplan is doing at That's

I want to take a couple seconds and thank a few people that have left us ratings and reviews. If you haven't done so, you can do that at

We have one from Akewataru, maybe that's how you say that, I don't know. It says, ‘I highly recommend this podcast. This podcast has given me an in depth and realistic insight into what it takes to become a physician.' Thank you for that.

The next one here that's from Ruby reds that says, ‘Valuable asset. Love this podcast, I listen to it on my drive to school.' Thank you for that Ruby reds.

We have one more here from Carleen. ‘Encouraging and informative. I wasn't sure if I should even consider med school with where I am in life, but this podcast as well as the Old Premeds Podcast has been so encouraging and extremely helpful. I've gained confidence, clarity, and conviction to pursue my dreams no matter what my age.' Alright thank you for that, Carleen.

If you would like to leave a rating and review, again Thank you Eric for coming on the show and talking about the MCAT and everything that Kaplan has to offer. Again if you're interested in Kaplan go check out

And don't forget, subscribe to us on your iPhone, on your Android device, on your tablet; wherever you may be, subscribe so that you can get this podcast every week for free on your device. Don't miss us and we'll see you next week here at the Medical School Headquarters and The Premed Years Podcast.

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