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PCAT: Friend or Foe?

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One of the primary sources of anxiety for pre-pharmacy candidates is the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT). According to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy website, approximately two-thirds of colleges of pharmacy require the PCAT. This standardized test provides an overall comprehensive score along with sub-scores in the areas of chemistry, biology, math (quantitative ability), reading, verbal and writing. Proper preparation for the PCAT is complicated by the fact that in 2012 the PCAT blueprint was changed with shifts in content related to biology and chemistry. So, why are pharmacy schools so enamored with the PCAT; how should one best prepare for it; and under what circumstances should an applicant consider retaking it?

Pharmacists are scientist by their nature and training. As such, they are data driven. When it comes to admissions, one of the challenges is finding data that predicts success. Success in progressing through the Doctor of Pharmacy program. Success in becoming a pharmacist. Success in becoming a health care professional. There is no single piece of data that will predict all of these things. The purpose of the PCAT, is to provide a predictor of baseline knowledge (given differences in pre-pharmacy requirements) and academic abilities. How good is it at doing that? Fair to Midland.

A number of studies have been done examining the relationship that exists between the PCAT and “success” in pharmacy school (typically defined in terms of GPA in the professional degree program). Some studies have also looked at the relationship between PCAT scores and NAPLEX scores (the pharmacy board exam). For the most part, the results of these studies have shown that higher scores on the PCAT translate into higher GPA’s in pharmacy school and on the pharmacist board exam. That being said, the appropriate question is: If it is a predictor, to what extent?

One of these studies was recently published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (2011;75(5):Article 81). The authors examined the relationship between PCAT (along with pre-pharmacy GPA) and first-year pharmacy school GPA from 22 colleges/schools of pharmacy. As expected, they found a relationship. What is interesting is the magnitude of that relationship. In a regression analysis, PCAT score combined with entering GPA explained 25% of the variation in first-year pharmacy school GPA. PCAT alone explained only 10% of the variation. What does this mean? There are other variables that explain success in pharmacy school above and beyond PCAT and pre-pharmacy GPA.  That being said, the PCAT will likely remain the cornerstone of many college of pharmacy admission “formulas”.

Since the PCAT is here to stay, what is the best way to score well on it? Preparation, preparation, preparation. It is arguable that the relationship that exits between PCAT and NAPLEX is (in part) an artifact of the test taking and preparation abilities of the subjects. Successful preparation should include:

  1. PCAT practice tests. It has been shown that individual who take the “official” PCAT practice tests do better than their “un-practiced” counterparts.  These are available on-line at the PCAT site. There is a cost associated with these, however.
  2. PCAT preparation books.  There are a number of PCAT prep-books available from different sources.  These include practice questions and explanations that can provide more concentrated information.  Be sure to use more recent versions that reflect the revised 2012 blueprint for the PCAT.
  3. Getting full nights of sleep leading up to the exam.  The brain uses restorative sleep to help process and file information for later retrieval.  Pulling a couple of “all-nighters” before the PCAT is NOT going to help your brain prepare the information for your usage during the test.
  4. Eat well. Provide your mind and body with good nutrition leading up to the PCAT.
  5. Practice relaxation techniques for use during the exam. Some of the errors that occur on any exam can be avoided by staying calm, reading the question (and answers) and carefully selecting responses.

Finally, under what circumstances should an individual consider retaking the PCAT? This is one of the most common PCAT-related questions we get. There is no magic percentile “cut-point” that I can give. Before deciding whether or not to retake the PCAT, be sure you understand clearly how the colleges of pharmacy you are applying to handle multiple PCAT scores. Different colleges have different policies. One might average the scores, another might take the most recent. Ferris’ current policy is to utilize the highest score and all the sub-scores associated with that sitting. As a result, for Ferris, you can not harm your application with a retake. If the score is higher, it will count. If it is lower, the previous PCAT will be used.

Remember that the combination of your GPA and PCAT provides a summary of your academic portfolio. If the college of pharmacy publishes their “averages” (for GPA and/or PCAT) then you can also use that as a guide in deciding whether or not to retake the test. There are four quadrants that you can fall in that might aid in making this decision:

  1. Candidate GPA > School Average; Candidate PCAT > School Average
  2. Candidate GPA > School Average; Candidate PCAT < School Average
  3. Candidate GPA < School Average; Candidate PCAT > School Average
  4. Candidate GPA <School Average; Candidate PCAT < School Average

Avoid simple comparisons to other applicants. I see many posts on Studentdoctor.net that look something like: “You got in? What was your GPA and PCAT?” Colleges of pharmacy may use complex formulas or decision algorithms that take into account multiple factors, different “mash-ups” of GPA and varying PCAT sub-score weightings. Not to mention, experience, role (or weightings) of higher level courses and recommendations. This means that two identical GPA/PCAT combinations may translate into dramatically different rankings. Strive to build the most competitive application across all facets of your portfolio.

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