Did The Princeton Review Really Crack the MCAT2015 Code?
- Apr 17, 2015
- Reviewed by: Amy Rontal
The Princeton Review (TPR) is the chronological middle child of the “big three” MCAT companies. It’s sandwiched between its elder predecessor Kaplan and junior member Examkrackers. TPR advertises a youthful passion for “cracking” exams while offering the network of a firmly established company. In 2014, they sold academic products and services to over 3.5 million students.
But the question in our mind was if the Princeton Review would impress us with their 2015 MCAT Subject Review Complete Set. It turns out that our team had mixed reactions and somewhat polarized views about this series, specifically in regard to the role it could play in a student’s MCAT study plan.
You will see below that we preserved these differing viewpoints in our analysis, and we invite you to read these assertions and form your own opinion. After all, when it comes to choosing your MCAT prep materials, your opinion matters most.
(Strapped for time? Jump ahead to our MST score report.)
What are the unique strengths of the Princeton Review materials?
Katherine Seebald: I love Chapter 1, the Great “MCAT 2015 Basics” chapter, because it gives all the relevant practical details about taking the MCAT — everything from exam scoring to test centers’ security measures. TPR also has a great glossary and a wonderful ability to create great summary tables that condense a lot of information down into quick reference guides (e.g. p. 67 Table 5, p. 139 Table 1).
Masis Isikbay: Some of the passage-independent questions were representative of the real MCAT (for example, in the Bio book, p. 229 question 7 about prion diseases ties the chapter concepts to a very clinically relevant example). Also, this is the first book to have end-of-the-chapter passage-based practice, and I think it’s a very valuable form of practice. I also credit TPR with offering 3 full length practice exams that very closely resemble the real online exam (in style, organization, and to a large extent, content as well).
What are its weaknesses?
While our initial impressions may change after we’ve finished reviewing other companies’ prep resources, here are our preliminary thoughts about the weaker areas within the Princeton Review MCAT2015 bundle:
Jeffrey Abrams: I would have appreciated greater highlighting of “very important material.” Kaplan and EK did a better job of utilizing side panels to emphasize big points or to make connections to other topics. TPR did not engage in this at all.
KS: I have difficulties with the TPR books on three levels: test prep strategy, content and organization. First, I do not believe that students benefit from the multi-step TPR testing strategy of prioritizing passages and questions; it would lead to too much skipping around and wasted time on the actual exam. Secondly, I believe their books are verbose without necessarily adding equal substance; they could have pared down the size of their books tremendously if they better prioritized the material. Thirdly, there is no index in their books to streamline students’ studying.
MI: I don’t feel as though the TPR content reviews bring anything new to the table. In reading through all of the books, I didn’t feel like I would pick this series over Examkrackers or Kaplan to explain most topics, so this series really distinguishes itself based upon the level of practice it offers (online and in certain books).
What’s the philosophy behind Princeton Review’s materials?
PK: The philosophy of this set of materials is essentially to provide students with the coverage of MCAT material without going into too much detail. Thus, this is not an independent learning tool for students.
KS: Princeton Review claims to teach to the test, but their test-taking strategies are not well integrated into their books. They tend to over-emphasize unimportant topics and not present many exam applications of the science topics. Since they’re still not completely encyclopedic, I would put them in the middle of the spectrum between Kaplan and Examkrackers.
JA: I’m not sure I would say there’s a definitive philosophy that I took away from TPR. This is in contrast to Kaplan and EK where I did sense the presence of a guiding philosophy influencing the complete study package. If anything, I would say that TPR probably teaches more for understanding of concepts than purely for the test.
MI: The Chem and Physics books appear to teach the concepts in a mostly isolated setting, whereas the Bio and Psychosocial books are much more applied to the exam. I do sense a disconnect and think that these books would benefit from having an overall more cohesive theme.
In their study processes, when should students use these materials?
MI: I would recommend that the Chem and Physics books only be used at the beginning of a dedicated study period. That would allocate enough time to review the books’ considerable detail. In contrast, the Biology and Psychosocial sections could be used later in the study process. As for the practice exams, students could practice with the TPR ones first and then end with the official AAMC exam.
KS: I would be more inclined to use TPR to start out and get to the mean. It is less encyclopedic than Kaplan yet spends much more time going over basic concepts that Examkrackers just skims over.
JA: I think students could effectively use TPR as a primary study source in conjunction with all of the official AAMC material. I don’t think TPR would be effective just for starting out—instead I would say they make sense as the meat and potatoes of a long-duration (8+ weeks of pretty intense studying) MCAT study plan.
PK: This set is useful as a content refresher and to do some baseline practice with outside material supplementation. The 3 full-length practice exams are really valuable and students can purchase them independent of TPR’s books.
For whom would this resource be most ideal?
MI: The Chem and Physics books seem to be only useful for beginner students who need extensive topical explanations. I am fairly impressed with the Biology book passages and think students of all levels would benefit from using this book for content review and practice.
JA: The TPR books would be effective for most students with proper supplementation. I do think that they might be better for students who appreciate the worked out examples and won’t be bothered by the mixing of various AAMC sections.
KS: I would consider using TPR for students whose foundations aren’t as strong as they’d like them to be yet because TPR spends a lot of time reviewing fundamental concepts that advanced students already know (e.g. converting full Lewis structures to abbreviated line structures). Among Examkrackers, Princeton Review and Kaplan, TPR would likely be a resource that would best appeal to students who appreciate comprehensive content coverage with minimalist formatting.
- TPR provides considerable CARS practice in their book and online tests, and their passage style seems very relevant to the real exam.
- For students who like having systematic methods for tackling verbal, TPR offers a great 5-step method of attacking questions (Ch. 4, p. 107-186), categorization of support for points of view (p. 65), paragraph breakdown (p. 68-71 MAPS), and analysis of attractors (Ch. 5.2, p. 191-193), among other tools.
- TPR includes a powerful three-part test- and self-assessment tool on p. 20-43 that, if logged diligently, can really catalyze students’ CARS improvement.
- Their diagnostic test and advice on pacing (p. 253-256) is unique among test prep books, which usually don’t break down in such detail how students can change their test-taking habits.
- Many students leave their CARS skills at the door when completing other MCAT sections. The TPR section on p. 346-362 provides practice on applying these verbal skills to science passages.
On p. 8, TPR claims that, “most people will maximize their score by not trying to complete every question, or every passage, in the section.” We’d like to see the data on this. Based on our research, you will need to answer every question on the CARS section in order to get a competitive enough score for a successful U.S. MD school candidacy.
TPR asks students to rank and number passages (p. 17-18, 221-244), jump back and forth between passages and their questions (p. 82), and group and prioritize questions (p. 113). This seems like an unnecessarily time-consuming and complicated CARS strategy that would be difficult to remember come exam day.
The surveys/self-assessments could be improved upon by requiring students to analyze why they answered questions correctly. This can be just as important as knowing why they answered questions incorrectly.
TPR asks students to highlight numerous keywords in a passage (p.79-81). This is both time-consuming and suboptimal since 1) it may prompt students to miss the critical main idea among all the details, and 2) all highlights are erased as soon as the student leaves that page on the computer.
Bottom Line: The TPR approach was clearly well-thought out and comprehensive enough in content and practice for students who seek a concrete CARS strategy. However, a verbal strategy must become second nature by exam day, and we are concerned that the TPR strategy may be too complicated to intuitively implement on the actual MCAT.
- This is an appendix which appears twice: once in the Biology book and once in the Psychosocial book. It covers many important stats topics clearly without getting bogged down in too much detail.
- Specifically, on p. 615-617, TPR has a great explanation of standard deviation and normal distributions.
- We also appreciated the math appendix within the Physics and Math book as a useful resource to have on hand for students. It reviews all of the important and potentially tricky math material detailed in the “General Mathematical Concepts and Techniques” AAMC guide (logarithms, trigonometry, etc).
Aside from a few questions scattered throughout the statistics appendix, there are no drills or other practice to help students who are less familiar with research and stats.
Bottom Line: TPR provides a clear summary of MCAT statistics concepts, but significantly falls short when it comes to dedicated statistics practice problems. If a student has not taken a statistics course, material supplementation will likely be necessary.
- There are two appendices entitled “Statistics and Research Methods”: one in the Biology book and the other in the Psychology and Sociology Review book.
- The research section in the Psychology and Sociology Review book discusses the logistics of experiments on humans.
There is a distinct lack of real estate devoted to MCAT “Skill 3: Reasoning about the Design and Execution of Research.” In the Biology book, the appendix basically only includes a discussion of statistics. In the Psychology and Sociology book, the only research mentioned is experimentation on human beings.
There was no review of the scientific method.
There are no practice problems or passages specifically dedicated to honing research skills.
Bottom Line: TPR’s appendix on statistics and research methods covers the concepts but does not prepare students to answer MCAT research questions, especially questions pertaining to study design and implementation.
Psychology & Sociology
- TPR has a comprehensive Psychology and Sociology Review book with well-organized content progression from basic biology to applied biology, psychology to sociology.
- The book has an especially detailed coverage of the biological foundations for behavior, with a clear presentation of topics like the central nervous system (p. 50-54) and the types of sensory receptors in the human body (p. 58).
- Some highlights of the psychology section include: classical vs. operant conditioning (p. 130-139), behavior influencing attitudes and vice versa (p. 207-209) and psychological disorders (p. 191-207).
- Some highlights of the sociology section include: social institutions (p. 268-274) and healthcare disparities (p. 280-281).
- The practice passages frequently use experimental/research setups; this helps students hone their research skills for the MCAT.
The writing style and presentation could be altered to be more engaging and dynamic, possibly by using extra charts, cartoons or side panels.
Basic biology topics take up 5% of the MCAT behavioral sciences section, so the TPR coverage of basic biology seems disproportionately large.
Some of the images in Chapter 3: “Biological Foundations of Behavior” can be confusing and overly complicated (e.g. Figure 7 on p. 48, Figure 12 on p. 55, Figure 13 on p. 56).
There’s room to cut down on common sense explanations. For instance, students may not need such an in-depth explanation of how each agent of socialization (e.g. family, peers) affects an individual (p. 227), and the type of animal communication they describe will likely be explained in an MCAT passage if it appears at all (p. 246-247).
TPR goes beyond the scope of the required MCAT topics; for instance, the AAMC outline for the exam does not include knowledge of “mere presence” phenomenon (p. 237) or mindguarding (p. 239).
Bottom Line: This psychology and sociology book is comprehensive. Any student can benefit from this book, though it will be particularly useful to students who have not studied these subjects before or need intense review of the content.
- TPR gave excellent coverage to cellular respiration and other biochemistry pathways. It was a good strategy to begin the cellular respiration section with a reminder of what it means to oxidize or to reduce (p. 90). The section “Introduction to Cellular Respiration” effectively oriented the reader to the coming challenging material (p. 91-92).
- The interspersed questions throughout the biochemistry material introduced variety into this dense chapter.
- The frequent usage of graphs and diagrams throughout the chapter was appreciated in comparison to their relative absence in other TPR books — especially the table on p. 105 of molecules formed/used and the ATP equivalents.
TPR missed the mark when explaining kinetics and activation energy (p. 77-78). They used a “Bob applies for a job” analogy which is way too simplistic for college level biochemistry. Also, the graph they used doesn’t illustrate the classic presentation of Ea differences, which usually should show a more exponential shape because of cooperativity between enzymes, and there is no coverage of Lineweaver-Burke or Michaelis Menton.
They present the Hb curve on the top of p. 87, but don’t go into enough detail given how commonly tested it is on the MCAT.
The section on feedback inhibition was not entirely clear; a visual aid, such as a diagram of positive and negative feedback, would have better reinforced the verbal description. Also, the allosteric regulation section (p. 78) is not strong either since there are no diagrams or examples given.
Other sections that appeared insufficient were their thermodynamics section (p. 73-76), which had no charts, graphs or other tools to explain the concepts, and their section on kinetics and reaction rates (p. 76-79).
Bottom Line: The strength of this section was its coverage of cellular respiration. Otherwise, the subjects had insufficient detail and the section was too short for what is required knowledge for the new MCAT.
- The text is definitely not overly detailed, which is positive given that the new MCAT section on Chemical and Physical Foundations is only 30% general chemistry.
- TPR used some good visual aids for this section, including the cartoon of hybridization (p. 100), the thermodynamics summary chart (p. 131), the list of hybridization states (p. 100), and the tables for kinetics (p. 190-191).
- TPR did an excellent job explaining some difficult concepts, including the second law of thermodynamics (p. 127), buffer solutions (p. 244-246), and electrolytic vs. galvanic cells (p. 273).
- We also gave the book high ratings for its coverage of the Bohr model of the atom (p. 61) and of overall atomic structure (p. 61-65), the section on phases (p. 142-152), and the section on electron configurations (p. 66-74).
The chemistry book did not appear to have changed much for the new MCAT. There was a general lack of both biological and research/stats connections in the chapters and the corresponding questions.
The overall presentation of the book could be improved. Specifically, TPR relied on paragraphs of text too much to explain concepts and not enough on more succinct diagrams and images (e.g. with periodic table trends for electronegativity, electron affinity, etc).
The ambitious Chapter 3 tried to give a broad overview of some important fundamentals, but fell short because the topics were not yet otherwise introduced and in proper context (e.g. nuclear decay, which is better suited for a physics textbook, and oxidation states that should be covered in the electrochemistry chapter).
There were some key lessons and examples that were missing from this text, e.g. bomb calorimeters, coffee cup calorimeters and ideal machines in the thermodynamics chapter, and the rest of the VSEPR chart (p. 98).
Other lessons appeared incomplete; for instance, the review of Lewis Dot structures (p. 88), all the assumptions behind the deviations from ideal gas behavior (p. 165), and the C/H/O chart to balance equations.
Bottom Line: The chemistry text is a decent book for the basics but has not changed dramatically to accommodate the changes to the MCAT exam.
- At 257 pages, this book demonstrated increased efficiency in covering all necessary MCAT topics in comparison to the other TPR books in the set.
- This book has fantastic coverage of isomerism (p. 70-103). Students debatably do not have this much time to cover isomers, but for those who need a review, TPR has some excellent lessons in rotating molecules, relating enantiomers to diastereomers using R/S absolute configuration, etc.
- Chapter 7 on biologically relevant molecules is particularly useful given the new emphasis on biological applications in the 2015 MCAT.
- Other notable positives in this book include: nomenclature (p. 40-43), organic chemistry laboratory techniques (p. 118-126, 133), HNMR spectroscopy (p. 141-147) and their comparison of optical activity labels and chirality (p. 201).
There doesn’t seem to be a strong sense of content prioritization: TPR spent far too much time explaining fundamental organic chemistry concepts, like translating Lewis structures into abbreviated line structures (p. 37-39) and nomenclature (p. 40-46), and not enough time on other frequently tested subject like VSEPR (p. 50), keto-enol tautomerism (p. 160) or organic chemistry reactions like those involving phenyl groups.
We disagree with TPR’s assertion that flash cards would not be useful for the organic chemistry section; they would be supremely useful in helping memorize the reactions and lab techniques.
Some of us would feel unprepared for MCAT organic chemistry questions after using only this book.
Bottom Line: Our team was split on whether the Organic Chemistry book provided too much or too little overall coverage of MCAT topics. Ultimately, students differ in regard to which lessons they need to learn and how long each topic needs to be reviewed. So, we invite you to look through the TPR book and decide for yourself whether it suits your individual study needs.
- The book is quite thorough and far more detailed than the Physics and Chemistry books, with some very nice diagrams that really drive home the topics discussed (e.g. the diagram on chromosome inversion [p. 148], the diagram on chromosome inversion via transposons [p. 150], and the table showing the effects of para/sympathetic stimulation on various organ systems in the body [p. 359]).
- TPR covers many subjects well that other test prep companies gloss over. For instance, there’s a great discussion of unconventional genetic inheritance patterns, linked genes and pedigrees (p. 306-320), an explanation of the angiotensin cascade and the endocrine role in the kidney (p. 448-449), a comparison of osmotic pressure to diffusion (p. 257-258), and a full appendix covering Molecular Biology laboratory techniques.
- There are some wonderfully clarifying explanations to confusing topics, such as prokaryotic vs. eukaryotic transcription and translation (p. 159-162 and p. 169-172), transcription vs. translation vs. replication (p. 186 summary chart), spermatogenesis vs. oogenesis (p. 538 summary table of gametogenesis) and the logistics of the bidirectional replication fork (p. 139-141).
At 686 pages, this book is extremely long. This is in part because TPR included topics that aren’t under the traditional domain of biology, such as thermodynamics and colligative properties. Although interdisciplinary connections are appreciated and will be tested on the MCAT, TPR could do a better job prioritizing the important information from these sections.
At points, TPR goes beyond the scope of the MCAT; for instance, students need not know all the different characteristics of vertebrate classes on p. 331.
The book’s organization could be improved by better pairing related topics, such as genetics and DNA structure/replication.
TPR could improve their book by including more images and graphs to clarify complicated topics like immunity (p. 421-425) and carbon dioxide transport in the blood (p. 419).
Bottom Line: The TPR book’s length allows for thorough topical explanations, but in this case, at the expense of efficiency and MCAT concept prioritization. This book would best be used for students who are deficient in biology or need a supplement to more streamlined test prep books.
- The chapters generally have thorough explanations on tricky topics supplemented with worked-through practice problems.
- Some particularly strong aspects of this book include: the description of the kinematics graphs (section 3.4, p. 54-58), the section on inclined planes, the coverage of different types of pulleys (p. 93-96), the PV graphs for different thermodynamic processes (p. 207), Chapter 10’s involved explanations of electricity and magnetism, and the summary table of spring motion (p. 386).
- The physics book also includes useful tools such as the end-of-chapter formula summaries, a glossary and master formula sheet at the end of the Physics section.
Many practice problems and examples were not in MCAT format, i.e. using scientific data/statistics or putting the information in a biological context.
Students who are already strong in physics will find this an inefficient text with excessive detail, especially in regards to the Bohr model of the atom (p. 464), centripetal force (p.115-123), angular momentum (p. 187) and Chapter 14 on Quantum Physics.
There are also more frequently noticeable mistakes than in other MCAT review sets; for instance, on p. 53, d=1/2(v0-v)t is incorrect, though they solve the problem correctly; and on p. 56, their calculation from t=3 to 5 is wrong — they say the slope of the line is 1 m/s^2 when the graph and the values clearly show -2 m/s^2. TPR apparently does have corrections listed online.
One area that this book lacks in is having something that makes the material come alive a bit more. The text is quite wordy and there was little effort to connect this material to medicine.
Bottom Line: The thoroughness of this physics book makes it best suited for students who are weaker in physics, or as a supplement text for other prep books. Students must be mindful that the TPR content does go beyond the scope of the MCAT.
As always, please let us know what other MCAT2015-related topics you’d like feedback on. We are looking forward to evaluating Next Step for our upcoming post! In the interim, check out our Examkrackers and Kaplan resource reviews if you haven’t done so already.
*Med School Tutors is not affiliated, associated, authorized, endorsed by, or in any way officially connected with any of the companies whose resources we are reviewing.