For the most part, I regard standardized tests as a necessary evil. Yes, we need certain measures of learning that put everyone on equal footing regardless of the rigor of their education. But few people would argue that exams like the SATs or GREs tend to favor rote learning over actual intelligence or creativity. I remember taking SAT classes, frustrated that the trick to doing well seemed hidden somewhere in the fee I had paid for the extra tutelage rather than any intelligence or commitment to learning on my part.

So it should carry some weight when I say that I think the MCAT is a pretty good standardized test. It actually measures something beyond one’s ability to spit out memorized answers. You need a strong background understanding of the subjects it tests, but the majority of the exam consists of passages explaining concepts. It is the job of the test taker to combine background knowledge with a critical examination of the material presented to answer the questions. Which, if you ask me, is a pretty good test for future doctors. They need to have strong background knowledge, but they also have to be adaptable and able to incorporate new information. Not only that, but they need to be able to be critical about new information, and the MCAT, at least superficially, tests all of these skills.

Except for the writing portion. Two three-paragraph essays that are assigned apparently to test how completely uncreative the human mind can be. I’m not kidding; the test is graded twice, once by a human being and once by a computer. Usually the two scores agree pretty closely with one another.

I spent a good portion of our review session trying to find a way to wriggle out from under the constraints of the essay structure. Could I include an example from literature? No. How about including some of my concluding paragraph in my opener? Not such a good idea. What differentiated the really high scores from the middle-of-the- road scores? Strength of examples and following the structure. The whole thing felt more like a fill-in-the-blank questionnaire than an actual essay.

What gets me is that this is completely counterintuitive to the goals of the majority of the exam. How backwards is it that the physical sciences portion of the test requires more out-of-the-box thinking than the essay?

The essays are graded on a bizarre scale that ranges from J-T and isn’t factored into the numerical scoring of the test. The average score for everyone taking the test is an O and the average score for students who matriculate is a P. I would dearly love to see their example of a “T” essay; the absolute best writing the MCAT graders could expect. Has anyone ever achieved this mythical score? Would the writer have simply mastered the fill-in-the-blank structure beyond all expectation, or would this perfect essay have thrown out the convention and set the computer grader smoking with its exquisite prose?

In truth the writing portion of the exam is barely a blip on the radar of the whole application. If I want to impress anyone with my writing skills, the personal statement is the place to do it. But it hurts my soul a little to write something so deliberately bad just to prove that I can string words together like beads on a chain.

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