McKelvey knows his players need to step straight into top gear to ensure themselves a place on the highest stage in April's finals in Tarbes, France.
After a warm-up match with Japan Schools in Glasgow on March 20, they face a trip to Headingley to play England on 27 March.
They complete their qualifiers against Ireland on 3 April, and must win at least one of those two games to give themselves a chance of making the elite group of four nations.
McKelvey's side will warm up for the finals by taking on Wales on April 10 but the coach believes the strength in depth in his squad should stand them in good stead.
"It's a huge step-change for us to go from a Six Nations format into what is effectively a shoot-out to get into the European Championship," said McKelvey.
"It's very encouraging that we have real competition for places and if we can continue to improve, particularly in our set-pieces, then we can target a place in the elite group.
"Our back-row is particularly strong, Callum Templeton is back from injury in the second-row where he faces intense competition from, among others, Jonny Gray, the younger brother of Scotland and Glasgow Warriors lock, Richie Gray.
"And elsewhere we have three quality scrum-halves, our back-three contenders are all rapid and among our centres Robbie Fergusson has been playing senior rugby for Ayr in Premier 1."