2021 UVA alumna Simrat Jassal is working to address inefficiencies and financial barriers in MCAT prep programs, pairing students and tutors across thousands of miles. (UVA Alumni Association photo)
Across the United States, Australia, Canada and the Caribbean islands, thousands of prospective doctors are required to complete the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, as one of the first steps toward becoming a doctor. Countless hours of studying precede the test, as scores are weighed heavily in medical school applications.
The eight-hour standardized exam tests a compilation of knowledge from biology, chemistry and physics to psychology, sociology and English – all of which are courses taken across four years of undergraduate education. That timeline in itself makes it hard for students to completely recall each subject, while some MCAT-takers may be years removed from that education.
The recollection required to pass the MCAT calls for a steep relearning curve. As preparation, undergrads and alumni alike often invest in MCAT prep courses, with costs ranging from $1,000 to $7,000. Prep course costs are just one layer of the much larger financial obligation that comes with becoming a doctor, including attending college, paying MCAT registration fees, medical school application fees and traveling to interviews, to name a few. According to a 2020 analysis conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 38.1% of MCAT examinees from lower-income backgrounds completed test preparation courses, compared to 50% of examinees coming from higher-income backgrounds.
“I [hoped for a] platform where students could connect with each other throughout this journey … and learn from each other.”
Educational barriers due to pricey prep courses are not the only issue regarding exam preparation that Jassal has come across. She also found a lack of tailored tutoring for each individual, minimal application-based learning and an absence of instructors who had actually taken the exam. Following her own MCAT experience in August 2020, Jassal saw the need for a new way of learning. With help from Bob Lenahan, a SCORE small business mentor, Jassal and a group of aspiring medical professionals who had already taken the exam – and had decided something was missing in the MCAT experience – began offering free sessions to tutor their study strategies. With that, MCAT 101, now known as Premed Peers, was born.
“I [hoped for a] platform where students could connect with each other throughout this journey … and learn from each other,” said Jassal, Premed Peers’ founder and president. “It’s been really helpful to have students who have taken the MCAT and have excelled at it to really give back to other students and pass on their knowledge.”
Premed Peers is based on individual student feedback, unlike other prep courses. If the majority of students need physics help, then that is what the next session is based around. As the program has evolved over many months, Jassal and her colleagues have implemented a variety of aspects to assist students, including one-on-one tutoring which pairs medical students with current MCAT studiers, guest speaker workshops for interviews and medical school application help and a Slack group for students to communicate directly with tutors. Premed Peers volunteers even make tailored day-to-day schedules for students to efficiently work towards mastering MCAT content, and blog and social media volunteer positions are also available to help combat the lack of opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When it comes to their prep course-structured program, Premed Peers offers five to six lessons a week focusing on multiple subjects at a time. It all comes at an extremely low cost of $15 per month – compared to the commonly spent thousands of dollars – where students can ask questions and learn from experienced tutors. The program takes place virtually through Zoom and Google Meets, allowing tutors, volunteers and participants to join in from around the world.
Following the program’s conception in August 2020, Premed Peers’ founders used Reddit to spread the word, reached out to premed clubs across universities to join their team, and developed Campus Ambassadors – representatives who help their respective student bodies gain access to the MCAT materials and resources that Premed Peers has to offer. Close to a year later, more than 2,000 students have been reached, and more than 200 are currently enrolled in the prep course. Students, volunteers and tutors are tuning in from places like the University of Texas, the University of Houston, McMaster University, New York University, the University of Florida and even the Universities of Toronto and Cambridge.
Premed Peers’ outreach efforts paid off for Cinthya Sanchez, a non-traditional medical school applicant – meaning she did not take the MCAT straight out of undergraduate education – currently pursuing a master’s in business administration and health care at Florida International University. After starting her MCAT studies in January 2020, the mental stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic put her studies on pause until August, when she came across a link to Premed Peers in the Zoom chat of a medical eShadowing session.
“I felt very comfortable whenever I have a question … because I know that they’re going to listen to me.”
Years removed from initially learning the complex list of MCAT topics, Sanchez – who doubled as a mentee and MCAT scheduling volunteer – said Premed Peers has provided a non-intimidating, convenient environment for her to relearn. “It doesn’t feel like you are in a tutoring session,” Sanchez said. “I felt very comfortable whenever I have a question … because I know that they’re going to listen to me.”
At the moment, Sanchez has turned her focus toward her master’s thesis, though she plans to pursue Premed Peers’ prep course in the future, prior to her anticipated MCAT date of May 2022. Though she has stopped attending live sessions, she still takes advantage of recorded lessons, and as she looks toward the next phase of her studies, she has noticed the vast difference in prices among prep courses … and the educational barriers that can come with the more expensive offerings.
“People who are getting into med school, they’re fortunate to have all the resources to get in, but there are also some people that unfortunately don’t have all the resources,” she said. “That’s one of the things that hold them back.”
To gain perspectives from current medical professionals and educators, Premed Peers brought on a board of directors: internal medicine resident Dr. Ceshae Harding from Duke University, primary care physician Dr. Marcel Durieux from Charlottesville’s Free Clinic, UVA medical student Carlos Cevallos and Dr. Kathryn Mutter from UVA’s emergency medical department.
Premed Peers’ mission to widen medical school education access to underserved students was a big attraction point for Mutter, who has years of experience running courses for medical students such as internship preparation. With her experience in medical education, Mutter not only provides perspective as a physician with firsthand medical school experience, but also as an educator.
“I get to interact with a ton of students … and appreciate the importance of diversity within our classes,” Mutter said. “I recognize that we still have a gap, and we still need to do better, so the fact that we’re helping students do preparation in a truly excellent way, and in an affordable way, is pretty revolutionary to me.”
Moving forward, Jassal plans on taking Premed Peers as far as it can go while simultaneously keeping it free or reduced-price, though eventually she hopes the prep course will produce enough revenue to pay volunteers and tutors.
“Medical education barriers such as the cost of a prep course or lack of support should not be the reason why one does not succeed.”
“Through my public health classes at UVA, I have learned that there are so many barriers to healthcare such as education, location, geography, and insurance,” Jassal said. “The same is true for education. Educational resources, the quality of education, and the level of support differs for each student … However, medical education barriers such as the cost of a prep course or lack of support should not be the reason why one does not succeed.”
For those interested in joining Premed Peers as a volunteer or tutor, applications can be found here. For those interested in joining the Premed Peers listserv to learn about the prep course and other resources, contact information can be entered here. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information