Remember when you were a child and first realized the magnitude of your school career? When you were young, it probably seemed like high school graduation was an eternity away. You may have even thought about the day when you no longer had to step foot in a classroom or take a test. At some point, despite the arduous journey from grade school to college, you decided to pursue a medical career. But before you can gain entry to your chosen professional training school, you find yourself facing an intimidating sentry standing guard at the gates of medical school, the Medical College Admission Test, more commonly known as the MCAT.
You know it’s worth it in the end, so you push through long hours of study and an MCAT prep class, all the while trying to maintain good grades in undergrad classes. While some can seemingly breeze through the trials and tribulations of gaining admission to medical school, many find it to be overwhelming. This especially holds true for those who are suffering with psychological conditions like anxiety, depression, and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), to name a few. If you’re preparing for the MCAT, any of the above conditions will make the process exponentially more challenging, in part because of the tremendous life significance making a good MCAT score holds for your future.
The Effects of Mental Illness on MCAT Prep and Performance
Many college students struggle with psychological disorders. Often, students go undiagnosed and are not entirely clear why they are struggling in college. Because each unique psychological condition has differing effects on academic and test performance, it is important for students to gain clarity regarding their mental health. Below is a brief discussion concerning some common psychological disorders and how they may negatively affect MCAT performance.
Depression And The MCAT
Perhaps one of the most prominent symptoms of depression is the constant state of being tired. Sometimes you can’t get out of bed and stay awake while other times, you just can’t seem to fall asleep, despite being exhausted. Eventually, the fatigue you experience from over or under sleeping begins to impair focus and interfere with memory encoding and retrieval. Consequently, you don’t study for your MCAT effectively and your ability to complete the test in an efficient and accurate manner is significantly impaired. In addition, depression can deplete your motivation, create an expectation of failure, and may even trigger feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide.
Depression is ubiquitous. It’s estimated that around 6.7% of all US adults suffer from major depressive disorder (MDD). Unfortunately, many of these individuals are undiagnosed and are not certain as to why they are struggling in most life areas. Depression is, fortunately, very treatable once a diagnosis is made. This diagnosis can be made by a psychiatrist, general medical doctor, or a psychologist. Once the diagnosis has been made, medication treatment with antidepressants and undergoing cognitive-behavioral therapy can usually alleviate symptoms in fairly rapid fashion. Academically speaking, however, a psychoeducational evaluation is usually necessary to determine how depression affects focus, memory, and one’s performance across reading, math, and written language.
Once you undergo a psychological assessment and depression is diagnosed, your psychologist will tell you if you qualify for academic accommodations on the MCAT exam. Accommodations for depression will typically include extended test time and additional breaks to help compensate for the slow cognitive processing that often accompanies depression.
Anxiety And The MCAT
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is typically characterized by overwhelming worry. This intense worry typically leads to distraction, difficulty sleeping, and daytime fatigue and irritability. Often, symptoms such as muscle tension, tightness in your chest, feelings that you can’t breathe or are choking, or internal feelings of restlessness can predominate. In more extreme cases, you may suffer from panic attacks, which can cause crippling physical symptoms that lead you to conclude you must be dying.
Feeling anxiety before a test is incredibly common, especially prior to a high stakes exam such as the MCAT. But when anxiety becomes overly intense, it makes both learning and performing well a challenge. For example, when one lives in the agitated and fearful world of generalized anxiety, the encoding process to properly store a memories is disrupted, affecting both the quality of memories themselves and the memory storage process. To make matters worse, during the acute performance anxiety that afflicted students typically experience as they begin taking their MCAT, it is difficult to maintain focus, recall previously learned information, and smoothly proceed through sequential problem solving. It is a true academic nightmare.
Fortunately, there is help. Through proper psychological testing a student’s anxiety can be subtyped. Does one suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or Panic Disorder, for instance? As is the case with depression, once an accurate diagnosis is made, appropriate medications, therapies, and helpful academic accommodations can be outlined. Most of the time, a combination of meds, psychotherapy, healthy lifestyle and study strategies, and appropriate testing accommodations can help the anxiety sufferer conquer the MCAT.
ADHD And The MCAT
Difficulty focusing can come from a variety of different sources, such as the conditions mentioned above. What makes ADHD different is the chronic and intense degree of attention problem, the severe distractibility, and the inability to remain still and work through academic problems in a calm yet efficient manner.
There are other lesser known effects of ADHD on MCAT performance. For example, people with ADHD often experience “clutter effects” while reading, meaning that they have great difficulty efficiently and accurately scanning the words and sentences in a written narrative. In other words, they are distracted by the extraneous words and letters on a given page that are not their immediate focus of attention. This obviously causes a loss of focus and decreased reading speed. Another effect of ADHD on test performance is the fact that these students are typically impulsive, which can cause them to answer questions too quickly without mindfully thinking through problem solving steps (a problem that is especially detrimental to math performance).
Through psychoeducational testing, it can be determined whether ADHD affects your auditory or visual functioning, or both, and how these attention deficits affect performance in reading, math, and written language. Once an appropriate treatment plan is devised, you can apply for the academic accommodations that have been suggested. ADHD students taking the MCAT typically profit from extended time and testing in a distraction free room. Most often, these accommodations can compensate for the reading speed deficits and distractibility described above.
How A Psychoeducational Assessment Might Help With The MCAT
As mentioned throughout this article, a psychoeducational assessment can lead to an accurate diagnosis, outline a treatment strategy, and specify necessary MCAT accommodations. A psychoeducational assessment accomplishes the above goals through investigating your intellectual, attentional, academic, and emotional functions. Through assessing these domains in a prospective medical student, a valid argument can typically be constructed that justifies the need for MCAT accommodations for those diagnosable with certain psychological disorders. Your right to have academic accommodations available when suffering from a clinical psychological disorder is protected by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA.)
Finding A Psychologist
If you are a student and need to consult with a psychologist, there are numerous ways to do so. The first step should always be to contact your college’s student counseling center. Most college counseling centers employ licensed psychologists who can conduct brief assessments and perform therapy. If you are unable to find a suitable psychologist through the counseling center, then you may need to contact your insurance carrier and ask for a covered list of providers in your local area. If you cannot find a suitable provider on your insurance list, then you can contact your institution’s Department of Psychology (if it’s an undergraduate institution). Often, university professors moonlight in private practice and/or the department will have a list of local providers. When seeking a psychologist who does testing, it is important to ask them if they have experience dealing with colleges, graduate schools, and testing companies/organizations such as the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC). If a psychologist has experience psychologically assessing college students, they may not have experience in aiding future professional school students beyond providing a diagnosis and report.
Even if you are already receiving treatment for a psychological disorder like depression, anxiety, or ADHD, it may still behoove you to seek a psychoeducational assessment with a qualified psychologist. Especially for those who historically perform below their own expectations, having the extra help can make a world of difference during an exam. As the MCAT holds major weight on entry to medical school, it’s critically important to perform as well as possible. Getting deserved assistance can mean the difference between fulfilling your aspirations to become a physician or not.