The American Institute of Physics (AIP) put out some interesting data regarding MCAT scores relative to choice of undergraduate major. The numbers are rather striking and show a pretty extreme disparity between the scores of the traditional pre-med undergraduate majors and the scores of those following the road less traveled.
A little disclaimer here – not all majors are shown on these plots, nor is it clear to me what ‘Premedical’ refers to either. Since I’m not aware of any school which has a formal undergraduate major in that field, I’m going to ignore the results from that particular group and roll them into the biology majors in my discussion.
For those of you that don’t know, the PS section of the MCAT covers first-year physics and inorganic chemistry while the BS section tests organic chemistry and general biology. The third section of the MCAT tests verbal reasoning, widely considered the hardest section of the exam by most undergrads. A writing sample is also taken, but I haven’t included the results for that. While medical schools are increasingly requiring calculus as an entrance requirement, no mathematics beyond algebra and trigonometry are tested on the MCAT. Reports vary as to what the magical number is for consideration at most medical schools, but composite scores above 30 tend to be thought of as competitive (an ambiguous word that I’ve grown really tired of hearing). With that out of the way, let’s check out the average PS scores.
Not surprisingly, my comrades from the physics department did the best in this category. In fact, if you check out the table of values which I’ve included down below, undergraduate physics majors were the only group to average above 11.0 on any section of the entire exam. Physics education is highly repetitive – most of the material covered in first-year physics is repeated each year with added detail and more mathematics, so mastering the content from freshman physics is fairly automatic. Have to give the EE and BE guys some credit too, as both groups there also did really well. Nice to see the economists take home a bronze medal too.
Now check out the gruppetto. Biology got absolutely shelled on this part of the exam. Even english majors, the sole non-science major represented here, scored higher, by a half point! Let’s check out the verbal reasoning section of the exam and see how the science types fared against our heroes from the college of liberal arts…
Wow – a monster showing from our friends in the english department! The physics and engineering types that did so great on the PS section did passably well here, but got absolutely reamed by The English Patients who just ran away with first place on this part of the exam. The difference between the top two scores (english and economics) was higher here than on any other section of the exam. Note that the various flavors of biologists took a major beating here once again. Surely they’ll redeem themselves in the final round….
Not what I’d expected. The biomedical engineering cabal took home the honors on the BS section of the exam, but where were the biology majors? Thankfully, at least they beat out the psychology majors but, once again, got showed up by The English Patients. What are they teaching in that department? You’d think that with a serious home-court advantage the biologists would be able to hold their own, but they got spanked by everyone! Here are the composite scores for each major (I should add that this isn’t the average composite score – this is the sum of the averages, which isn’t the same thing)
Now that’s just embarrassing. Since I’ve never known a biology major that wasn’t considering or planning on applying to medical school, I’m more than a little surprised at the poor showing by these guys. It’s not as if the MCAT should have been a surprise – they’ve been preparing for it since they first hit college. It’s shocking, but based on data publicly available from the AAMC, biology majors – students which account for the bulk of all medical school applicants – do the worst on the MCAT relative to all other science and engineering students by at least a point.
Of course, there are a lot of things unsaid here and it would be pretty illicit to say that the sole determining factor between these groups was their choice of major. One could easily make the argument that a certain degree of selection bias exists here, but it’s difficult to quantify. Personally, I suspect that the primary reason for the discrepancy between the biology and physics/engineering types is that the MCAT is designed to test problem-solving rather than rote-memorization. It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that students that spent four years learning to solve problems out-perform students that spent four years memorizing their lecture notes.