COVID-19 and the MCAT: What should premedical students do?

As many of the spring MCAT dates have been canceled due to the onset of COVID-19, pre-med students across the country will be faced with daunting decisions on when to test and how to prepare for arguably the most definitive examination of their careers thus far. Students’ strategies surrounding the MCAT can affect anything from their academic schedule to the cycle in which they will matriculate. Throw the tremendous costs associated with preparing and sitting for this test into the mix, and aspiring physicians all over the country are adding tens of hours of pre-pre decision making to the demanding 400+ hours of estimated study time. And now? This carefully thought-out plan has been derailed by cancellations of MCAT dates and the AAMC’s current freeze on registrations and rescheduling. Over the next few minutes, we will walk together through some for the common dilemmas students are currently facing in regards to this exam, and offer a framework to help you make the decision for you and your academic goals.

For those of you who want to be sitting in your very first anatomy dissection in August 2021, the traditional timeline dictates that you’ll want to have your application submitted in early June to be with the first batch of applicants. However, this is obviously not a “traditional timeline” kind of year. MCAT dates were canceled nationally beginning in late March, and, as of today, are currently canceled through May 21st. I hope (for all of our sakes) that testing resumes as scheduled on May 29th and continues that way until … well, forever.

Again, this is not a traditional year. We don’t yet have any concrete information about exactly what this will look like, but I anticipate there will be some kind of delay in the application process as a whole. Now, this may be a de facto delay instead of an official delay. What I mean is that if two months-worth of test dates will have been canceled, and thousands of students were anticipating testing during those months in order to complete their applications, do you think that medical schools will want to (or be able to) just ignore the applications of all those people? Unlikely, from an ethical, practical, and financial perspective. I encourage my readers to submit their applications as soon as they open on June 1st. However, the unique nature of this cycle (and of this year, and of this season for all of humanity) means for you is that even if you aren’t able to test until later in the summer, a delay in your application will not be as significant as it would have been in other years, simply because the bulk of the applications will be arriving late.

If your test date has been canceled, try not to panic. The AAMC and each individual medical school across the nation are working hard to come up with reasonable, fair, and actionable contingency plans to make sure that an entire class of M1s is sitting in their seats come August 2021. On our end, that, unfortunately, means that we will need to be very patient with them, as they work out kinks in scheduling and try to navigate the uncertainty surrounding this pandemic. The most important thing to remember is that when plans are finally made about how this whole situation will be handled, you will be given a fair shot at applying, even if that doesn’t look quite like you’d expected. In the meantime, continue to study as if you will be taking the exam in June or July. Continue to prepare your personal statements and activities lists, and if your schedule has suddenly opened up, maybe try to get a jump start on some of your secondary applications as well. Chances are you will have to take the MCAT eventually, so as hard as it may be right now, try your best to stay focused and keep pace with a consistent study plan.

If your test date is currently in limbo, meaning you are testing from May 29th to mid-June and you are genuinely concerned about not having the opportunity to sit for your exam, there are two routes for you. The first is to ride this out. It is possible that things will have started to open up by May 29th and that your plans will progress normally. (This is, by the way, my favorite scenario. The AAMC was optimistic about not canceling the final May date, so no reason you shouldn’t be as well!) However, if you find yourself constantly thinking (read: stressing) about whether or not it will be canceled, you may want to save yourself the anxiety and push your date back a bit yourself. The AAMC has stated that it will waive all change fees regardless of your test date, so this might be a great opportunity to take advantage and give yourself some peace of mind.

Finally, if you are finding yourself with trouble studying or focusing due to the state of the world, or due to changing circumstances in your own household, remember that a delay in this test or in any part of your application is not the end of the world. You need to focus on your health and well-being first so that you have the ability to keep pushing through this marathon of a process (and I don’t just mean the application to medical school—there’s a whole bunch to do once you get there as well!) Dive into meditation, exercise, and staying in contact with your friends and family. The MCAT, the application, and your dreams of being a physician will still be there when this is all over, so priority #1 is making sure that you are able to jump back into all of this when that time comes.

Elisabeth Fassas is a medical student and author of Making Pre-Med Count: Everything I Wish I’d Known Before (Successfully) Applying to Medical School.

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