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Should You Use Kaplan’s MCAT Complete 7-Book Subject Review for the MCAT2015?

Preparing students to score high on over 90 standardized exams in the course of their 76-year history, Kaplan is one of the most well-established and ubiquitous company leaders in education. Not surprisingly, this test prep giant has a strong hold in the MCAT industry.

Historically, Kaplan has been known for an encyclopedic coverage of MCAT topics, and with a new exam comes new teaching opportunities. Let’s see how Kaplan addresses what’s new in the MCAT2015 with their Complete 7-Book Subject Review.

(Strapped for time?  Jump ahead to our MST score report.)

What are the unique strengths of Kaplan’s MCAT Practice and Review materials?

Jeffrey Abrams: The biggest strength of Kaplan is that they go into good detail on difficult conceptual topics, which helps to drive home the material for students. They also have end-of-chapter outlines, which succinctly summarize the chapter material and will be of particular use for quickly reviewing old material—especially in the final 1-2 weeks of studying.

Parth Kothari: Kaplan’s detailed conceptual approach to MCAT practice worked particularly well in the organic chemistry, research and CARS books. The organic chemistry book was quite readable, which is tough for such an abstract subject. The comprehensive CARS strategy was a great way to break down a section that gives so many students anxiety, and the research section was not a disappointment either.

Masis Isikbay: Unlike the EK books, Kaplan also has very good glossaries and indexes in each book. This can make a huge difference for the student working through the AAMC guide and having difficulty finding a specific term or concept quickly.

Katherine Seebald: I also appreciate their concept checks. Although these chapter questions are not in the MCAT-style multiple choice format, they emphasize recall of information over simple recognition of concepts. This recall will be a critical skill to hone if students really want to score in the top percentile on the new MCAT.

What are Kaplan’s weaknesses for MCAT Review?

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 Kaplan’s MCAT2015 bundle: 

KS: My biggest issue is with Kaplan’s test practice problems—or lack thereof. The CARS book literally has no practice passages, only sample ones embedded in the chapters, and the other books have precisely 15 free-standing multiple-choice questions per chapter—none of them passage-based and few research-based. The books have neither partial nor full-length practice exams.

PK: The content review and practice is essentially separated: Most of the practice is online, and though the online material has some passages that are clinically relevant (unlike the end-of-chapter questions), many seem to just be recycled from the past. Also, the online component of the 7-book set is incomplete: The full collection of videos, passage-based questions and practice exams are only included in the purchase of a Kaplan course, so they are probably using these online materials to advertise their courses.

JA: Kaplan also includes extraneous information in its books that is not needed to do well on the MCAT. As an example, there is reading in Kaplan on the Aristotelian method—this is something students studying for the MCAT simply shouldn’t waste time on.

MI: While I do appreciate that these books are for a standardized test, the new MCAT is still much more interesting than it’s being given credit for here. The Kaplan chapters can be very text- and number-heavy, with few demonstrative figures, and sometimes the figures included are not engaging, and too complicated or difficult to understand intuitively.

What’s the philosophy behind Kaplan’s MCAT Review materials?

JA: Kaplan’s overall philosophy is to make sure all material is covered. So, unlike many other resources, they provide plenty of detail for the AAMC-specified MCAT content.

PK: The company aims to provide students with something like a condensed set of textbooks that adequately covers the material.

KS: It’s philosophically on the other end of the spectrum from Examkrackers: Kaplan teaches to the understanding of the material rather than teaching to the test (although they do have mnemonics and “MCAT Expertise” sidebars that attempt to reconcile the material with the exam).

In their MCAT study processes, when should students use these online materials?

MI: I would encourage these texts earlier on in the study process because they provide a complete profile on most every topic, and there is utility in having all of the information in a particular setting (especially if a student is struggling with concept fundamentals). However, these resources are not good for “getting to the meat” of the topics, especially with regard to what will most likely be examined on the MCAT, so they can also be used as reference material but not to prioritize the information.

PK: Although these books should not be used for 6-8 weeks of study, I think Kaplan would work well for a student who is planning on working for 12+ weeks. They’ll form a comprehensive package that students can use while supplementing with official AAMC materials/questions.

KS: I would typically use Kaplan as a reference only since its content goes beyond the scope of the MCAT, doesn’t prioritize high-yield topics and is ill-suited to visual learners.

For whom would this complete review resource be most ideal?

MI: I think students who enjoy a consistent, conventionally organized textbook should use these Kaplan books. The format of figures or chapters does not vary as much as in the EK books, so some students might be less distracted by the formatting.

KS: I would be conservative in my use of Kaplan, mostly using it as a reference guide except perhaps for more concrete students who welcome an abundance of detail, have a good sense of what is high-priority MCAT information, and learn best from straightforward, no-nonsense text.

JA: These books are best for students who have some deficiencies in their content background and who need to do a good bit of learning. They will be poor for students who only have 6-8 weeks to review material, but a strong potential resource for students whose foundations are weaker.

PK: Overall, I think these materials would be excellent for all students as long as special attention is paid to selecting the best supplemental materials.

Kaplan Prep for CARS

  • Kaplan provides a very comprehensive approach to CARS reviewing, going over everything from main ideas to key words and how to build that into understanding passages and attacking different question types.
  • On p. 192, Kaplan sets up “Why I Missed It” sheets which help catalyze students’ understanding of their errors.
  • Kaplan has several good summary sheets of their strategy in the back of the book to help students remember their CARS tools.
  • There are no practice problems in this book.
  • Some students will find this approach overly complicated and difficult to remember on exam day.
  • Kaplan’s detail-oriented approach to MCAT review runs the risk of students “not seeing the forest for the trees.”

Bottom Line: Kaplan has an impressively comprehensive CARS reviewing approach that more detail-oriented students will find comfortingly systematic, while others may find too complex to remember. However, the consensus is that at least some element of Kaplan CARS will be useful to a majority of students studying for the MCAT, and the book will definitely need to be supplemented with practice passages.

Kaplan Review for MCAT Statistical Reasoning

  • Within the Physics/Math book, there is a statistics chapter that is a good “crash course” on the subject; it adequately covers what will be tested on the new MCAT.
  • Kaplan provides a clear explanation for each of the statistics concepts. Since statistics does not necessarily require as many explanatory images, aside from some graphs/charts, Kaplan’s math- and text-dominated approach is better suited to explain statistics over some other subjects.Kaplan’s statistics review overall is lacking in practice questions. There are 15 sectioned-off statistics questions at the end of the chapter, and statistics applications in the other Kaplan MCAT questions are rarer than preferred.
    On p.410-417, Kaplan has a separate section discussing charts, graphs and tables. Although this is not a bad idea as a refresher section, Kaplan should have more of these visual aids prevalent throughout their MCAT books and integrated into more chapter practice questions.

    Bottom Line: Kaplan provides a clean, clear explanation for the statistics concepts tested on the MCAT2015. However, the quantity of practice questions is largely insufficient to feel comfortable with the material, and statistics is not well integrated into Kaplan’s other MCAT practice questions in their social and hard sciences books.

Kaplan Test Prep for AAMC Research Skills

  • Kaplan dedicates a full 22 pages to discussing research on the MCAT as a chapter in the Physics/Math book, covering most of the MCAT topics required by the AAMC.
  • Kaplan’s text-dominant presentation of material works well with this topic.Kaplan didn’t fully cover research in the psychosocial field, either in the research section of the Physics book or in the Behavioral Sciences book. However, the online Kaplan materials do provide practice passages related to this topic.
    More practice problems, ideally integrated into the other MCAT hard and social sciences books, is needed to supplement Kaplan’s topical coverage of research.

    Bottom Line: Kaplan provides a good overall review of MCAT-level research themes. However, their literature will need to be supplemented with more practice problems, ideally passage-based and integrated with other MCAT topics (biology, physics, etc).

Kaplan for Practice for MCAT Psychology & Sociology

  • This section is where the Kaplan strategy excels, giving students a middle-range amount of information about a broad spectrum of topics.
  • In comparison to Examkrackers, Kaplan’s flow of the material seems to be more intuitive and organized, which is important for content comprehension.
  • The corresponding practice passages online are very MCAT-applicable and research-based.
  • Kaplan has some great summary tables that condense and organize notable amounts of information, such as in the Child Development Milestones table on p. 35 or the Impression Management Strategy table on p. 327.

Unlike Examkrackers, Kaplan lacks a solid introductory explanation on how to approach this new MCAT section and how a student can avoid using personal biases while selecting test answers.
The pictures and sometimes even the information can be irrelevant to a student’s MCAT studies. For instance, on p.230, students will probably not need to know that Jung saw himself as a Tibetan Mandela, and on p. 127 they probably don’t need to see a baby playing peek-a-boo.

Bottom Line: Kaplan provides a solid overview and organization of MCAT-based psychological and sociological concepts. However, Kaplan does not provide a strong overall approach to this new section. This book also includes a notable amount of extraneous information and images and its practice passage-based problems are separately featured online instead of integrated into the book.

Kaplan Practice for MCAT Biochemistry

  • Kaplan has a separate biochemistry book, which reflects the new MCAT emphasis on the subject and helps integrate otherwise scattered topics.
  • The organization of the book is intuitive and mirrors the flow of medical school biochemistry courses.
  • The AAMC materials are covered pretty extensively, making this section one of the strongest points in the Kaplan series. We particularly appreciate the Lineweaver-Burk plots of different inhibitors on p. 52-55, as this could be a practical MCAT application of the topic, and the direct comparison of eukaryotic and prokaryotic DNA replication on p.177-178.

In spite of having a separate biochemistry book, some sections are not covered sufficiently. For instance, there are no visual aids illustrating the often confusing mixed inhibition or competitive inhibition of enzyme kinetics (p. 53), and there are too few examples of the frequently-tested titration curves.
Kaplan also tends to over-complicate some topics. For instance, the Goldman-Hodgkin-Katz voltage equation on p. 279 is likely not needed for the MCAT and the antibody structure provided on p. 76 is much more complicated than necessary for the exam.

Bottom Line: For students who struggle with biochem, Kaplan has a comprehensive biochemistry book that can provide a solid understanding of MCAT-tested material. Students who have already taken biochemistry and done well, however, will probably find they do not require the detail of the Kaplan book to do well on the exam. Either way, if a student does decide to use this book, (s)he will need to supplement it with more MCAT-style passage-based questions.

Kaplan Test Prep for General Chemistry

  • Kaplan succeeds at giving a complete review of the AAMC chemistry content and there are few gaps in the material.
  • This chemistry book is especially good for students who need a refresher on general chemistry, since the Kaplan text does not assume any prior knowledge. For instance, Kaplan does not assume that a student knows how to draw a Lewis dot structure (p.82) or how to balance a chemical equation (p.125-129).
  • The authors spend notable time explaining commonly tested (e.g. VSEPR theory p. 87, types of chemical reactions p. 120-124) and frequently confusing (e.g. ionization energy vs. electron affinity vs. electronegativity p.50-53) topics found on the MCAT.

There is additional miscellaneous information that will not be tested directly on the MCAT (e.g. the electrodeposition equation on p.423) or need to be memorized (Van der Waals equation on p. 278).
Some select topics need more examples to show how to problem-solve, e.g. with titrations on p. 352.
As with the other books in the Kaplan series, students will need to seek out extra practice problems, especially passage-based ones, to be prepared for the MCAT.
Kaplan misses some opportunities to divulge test-taking shortcuts for different topics, such as quickly figuring out a Lewis dot structure on the MCAT.

Bottom Line: Kaplan has compiled a very good foundational book in general chemistry that will be terrific for students who need a comprehensive topical overview. As consistent with other Kaplan texts, there is a de-emphasis on test-taking shortcuts and the book will need to be supplemented with additional MCAT-style problems.

Kaplan Prep for Organic Chemistry

  • Students using this Kaplan book will be well-prepared, and even perhaps over-prepared, for the MCAT organic chemistry content.
  • The practice and review material is clearly organized, very practical and quite readable for such an abstract topic, and the end-of-chapter outlines provide a nice summary of the material.
  • Kaplan does an especially good job explaining fundamental organic chemistry concepts that are commonly tested and/or potentially confusing to students, such as distinguishing enantiomers from diastereomers using R/S configurations (p. 41), correctly rotating a Fischer projection to get the same compound (p. 47), distinguishing protic from aprotic solvents (p. 86) and providing some of the clearest images we’ve found of molecular orbital combinations and hybridizations (p. 63-68).
  • This particular text appears to have more exam applications than Kaplan’s other MCAT books. For instance, they have an example on p. 98 of figuring out the intermediates and final products of a reaction, in a setup that precisely mirrors actual MCAT questions we’ve seen.

As seen before, Kaplan needs more practice questions to prepare for the MCAT—specifically organic chemistry ones with more intimidating organic biological molecules. The examples in the book only show the simplified molecules. To Kaplan’s credit, the online materials do provide some passages with more complex molecules.
Some explanations could be clearer, such as the ones for certain lab techniques (e.g. separations and spectroscopy) and for carboxylic acid derivatives.

Bottom Line: Kaplan’s straightforward approach really works to explain some complicated organic chemistry concepts, so keep this book in mind if a particular topic is difficult to understand. As before, supplement with practice problems from elsewhere.

Kaplan Exam Prep for Biology

  • The pictures and illustrations in the biology book are the best in comparison to other Kaplan books in the MCAT series, e.g. in the section on the nervous system and action potentials.
  • Kaplan does a particularly good job in this book covering complicated topics in-depth, e.g. the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system on p. 175, the negative feedback mechanism, mentioned multiple times, and the forces impacting the Bowman’s capsule.
  • Kaplan did include information that is frequently tested but not commonly highlighted in other texts, e.g. the trajectory of the sperm through the body.

Students may find this book a bit less engaging than they would prefer for the subject matter.
There is still a maldistribution of topical emphasis with too much given to some subjects (e.g. cardiovascular and digestive systems, the prokaryotic flagellum structure) and not enough attention given to other topics (e.g. oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in red blood cells, no chromosomal number tracking in meiosis images on p. 61).

Bottom Line: This Kaplan book appears to have the most visual aids of the MCAT set and applies them relatively well to the subject matter. Its best feature is its ability to break down complicated content into straightforward, readable explanations. This book also needs practice problem supplements.

Kaplan Practice for Physics

  • This book has a very logical presentation, starting with the most basic lessons and working up to increasingly difficult subjects. The math, research and statistics chapters are also placed in this book – a very organized approach.
  • Kaplan provides example problems with detailed solutions – however, these are more textbook-style than MCAT-style problems.
  • The MCAT Expertise sections features throughout the physics book are useful, e.g. the projectile motion shortcut taught on p. 23.
  • Their thermodynamics section is notably clear and well-taught.

The MCAT irrelevancy of some lesson details really stands out (e.g. on p. 5 where they teach that the British system unit of mass is a slug and on p. 66 where they show a six-pulley system that is clearly too complicated for an MCAT problem).
There is a marked lack of supporting images and test-taking strategies for these physics topics. For instance, among the many gaps in the torque section, there is never a vector diagram of forces drawn for the problem on p. 33. Projectile motion is also only given one tiny image, and the fluids chapter did not include some very classical MCAT presentations of the subject, such as those using Torricelli’s law.
The Kaplan physics lessons and questions tend to be disconnected from the MCAT format and emphasis on biochemical applications. For instance, on p. 133-134, there is a separate discussion of fluids in physiology but no corresponding MCAT-type questions to test students’ understanding.

Bottom Line: While this Kaplan book does technically cover a broad scope of official MCAT content, the majority of our Special Ops Team would not choose Kaplan as their primary physics resource. As with other test prep companies’ materials, students using Kaplan physics will need to seek out supplemental MCAT-style practice problems.

As always, please let us know what other MCAT2015-related topics you’d like feedback on. As of mid-April, if you haven’t seen them already, we’ve also evaluated Examkrackers and The Princeton Review’s materials.

*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.