Saturday, April 27, 2013

Battle of the (MCAT) Books

Which MCAT review books are the best? Ask 10 people and you will probably get 10 different answers. In this post, I will share my own experiences with two MCAT review series, The Princeton Review and Examkrackers.

Let the battle of the books begin!


So, back to my question: Which MCAT review books are best? My answer: It depends. This is not a cop-out. I would not be writing this review if I didn't have an opinion on this issue. Allow me to explain my perspective. My hope, by the way, is that this will help some of my fellow pre-meds make a more educated decision about which books to use (or not use). 

A caveat: I have not tried all the available MCAT review books. In addition to Examkrackers and The Princeton Review, there are also books from Kaplan and The Berkely Review (among others). I am going to limit my words here to personal experience, though. If you want to know about Kaplan or TBR, I am certain there are other online reviews.

In the beginning, I had a definite bias toward Examkrackers (EK). Perhaps in part because I am always a fan of the underdog, and compared to The Princeton Review (TPR), EK is an underdog company. It certainly helped that a dear friend, now an OMS-3 (yay!), gave me the entire EK set, so there was no financial investment on my part. Free = good, especially when you're a broke pre-med. However, I did wind up buying some of TPR's books to supplement my EK material. And I wish I had done so sooner. To explain why, I am going to present what I see as the pros and cons of each series:

  1. Brevity. The EK subject books are short and to the point. This is a definite plus if you are already strong on content and need only a brief review of concepts, equations, etc. 
  2. Passage-based selections. For every chapter, there is a 30-minute, passage-based "in-class exam" at the back of the book. The plus here is that the exams are passage based. This is how the majority of the MCAT is structured, so practicing with passages is the best way to improve your test-taking (which is honestly one of my biggest issues right now).
  3. Location of answers. This may sound silly, but I saw this as a definite positive - all of the answers to the chapter questions (and there are several sets within each chapter, although these are NOT passage based, FYI) are at the back of the book. Some may find this a pain, flipping back and forth, but I liked it because then you're not having to cover up the answer (and you're not tempted to LOOK at the answer before finishing the problem!). 
  4. MORE practice questions. In addition to the content books, EK offers "1,001 Questions" books for each content area. These books are arranged by subject (i.e., for the gen chem book, there is a set of questions on gases, another on thermodynamics, etc.). This lets you hone your weakest content areas. There is also a "101 passages" in verbal reasoning, which I own but haven't used yet. What I've heard that this is perhaps the most helpful of EK's question books, but I can't verify that personally.
  1. Brevity. I know I said this was a plus. But remember? I said it all depends. In this instance, the brevity is good if your content mastery is strong. I was pretty rusty, especially on physics, given that my pre-reqs are from a couple of years ago. I needed more content help than EK had to offer. So for me, this was a con.
  2. Spotty answer explanations. There ARE answer explanations, which is good (obviously). But they really vary in their completeness. Some are a paragraph long, while others are a word or two. There were some questions I missed that I really wanted some more help in understanding the "why."
The Princeton Review
  1. Thorough content coverage. TPR does a great job, in my opinion, of reviewing content - better than EK. I found TPR's explanations more clear, understandable, and complete for someone who really needed a boost on the actual material. 
  2. Online content. This is an awesome feature of TPR, and really makes it worth getting the books, in my opinion. Each book comes with online access to 2 complete practice exams, bunches of discrete practice questions, and many passage-based questions as well. It's all done online, and simulates the MCAT in many ways (such as allowing you to strike through answer choices you have decided to eliminate). TPR's Web site keeps track of your scores and lets you monitor your progress, which is a neat feature.
  3. Detailed answer explanations. I found TPR's answer explanations much more like the AAMC's. TPR goes into both the correct answer, and why it is correct, as well as why the other choices are incorrect. EK sometimes does this, but not consistently.
  4. Passage-based selections. Like EK, TPR has both discrete and passage-based questions. A plus for the same reason listed in my EK evaluation.
  1. Location of answers. While I like how EK had the answers in the back, TPR did it differently, putting the answers right below the questions. I had to constantly cover up the answer with a half-sheet of paper, and found this incredibly annoying. Silly? Maybe, but it's a functionality issue, and I found the answers distracting when they were within the text.
  2. Format consistency. I found this strange - the content area books had different formatting, some of which I found very distracting. In the biology book, there are smatterings of questions within the text, and these are footnoted. The answer to each question is in a footnote at the bottom of the page. I absolutely hated that. And the bio book is the only one that does this. As a former textbook editor, I think someone dropped the ball here. 

I must, of course, also address price. The EK content set (about $115 on Amazon) is a bit less expensive than TPR ($30-$40 per content book; they don't seem to be sold as a set, at least not on Amazon). BUT - what this doesn't take into account is that included with TPR's content books is all that online practice, while for EK, you have to purchase the 1,001 questions books separately (about $20 apiece). So it seems to be just about a wash in terms of money. A tip: If you have access to a good public library system, you may even be able to get some of these books (to borrow) for free. Just be aware that come MCAT time, those books will be in high demand. 

The bottom line: both EK and TPR have pros and cons. Neither is perfect. What matters is that you know what you need. And that may be different from what I need, or from what your best buddy in ochem needs. It's all about personalizing your review process so that you can do your own best on the MCAT. 

And speaking of the MCAT, I really have to get back to studying ... 26 days and counting!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Choose a Focal Point: Now

When you are spinning around, or when the world is spinning around you, it's important to have a focal point that brings you stability in the midst of the maelstrom. My mom reminded me of that a couple days ago as I related some of my MCAT struggles and anxieties to her. As a former figure skater, it makes total sense to me. During those crazy spins you see figure skaters perform for the Olympics, their trick to not passing out from dizziness is choosing a distinct and discrete place upon which to focus their vision every single time they whirl around. It's hard to spot when they're going around that fast, but they all do it. Their movements are graceful, beautiful, and also very intentional.

My mom's focal point is God. I'm not a religious person, so we differ there. After she and I talked, I thought for a moment - what's my focal point? The first thought that came to my mind is "my dream." I quickly realized, though, that in many ways it's my dream that is causing me so much anxiety right now, putting so much pressure on me. So, no. Then it hit me. Now. Now is my focal point - this moment in time, the present. Being present. For my life in general, and also for the MCAT. Focusing on each question as it comes, for example, not thinking about the one behind or the one ahead. Now.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Setting My Testing Tempo

I took my first MCAT practice test yesterday. I knew I wasn't going to make my ultimate goal on the first try, but I did have a score in mind that I wanted to hit. I didn't make it. I had a moment (maybe two, or perhaps even a few) of panic: If I couldn't hit that lower target, how in the world was I going to get to my much higher goal? A dear friend, my MCAT "counselor," set me straight. He reminded me that this was my first try. That you don't achieve a lofty goal on your first try. Life doesn't work that way - it takes practice. And more practice.

As I was a classical pianist for 10 years, he gave me a musical analogy. He asked how many times I would practice a composition while readying it for a performance or competition. "More times than I like to think about," I told him. "This is the same," he responded.

I know my friend is right. But it's hard to overcome the fear that besets me when I even think about the exam, much less attempt it, given its high stakes. I feel like my whole future rides on it. So during my practice exam, even though I didn't feel panicky, clearly I was - I finished two sections (verbal and biological sciences) with significant time remaining, indicating that I was rushing.

What I need, my MCAT counselor told me, is a tempo for each section. Again, thinking like a musician. Play every section with precision, but each at its own necessary pace. For physical sciences, I need a faster tempo, because it takes me a little longer to process the questions and I need to come up with my answers more quickly so that I finish the section. For biological sciences - and even more so for verbal - I need a consciously slower pace, so that I don't rush. Because on those, I process the questions much more quickly, but I have a tendency to feel the need to speed through things and then make silly mistakes. Hence, here are my MCAT "tempos":

Physical Sciences: Presto ("very fast," 168-177 BPM)
Biological Sciences: Adagio ("slow and stately," 55-65 BPM)
Verbal Reasoning: Largo ("broadly," 45-50 BPM)

Next time around, I will more consciously put these tempos into practice. That, and hone my focus. Focus on the question in front of me. Not think about the previous question nor the next question. Just THAT question. Tempo and focus - those are my goals for my next practice exam, rather than a particular score. The score will come. With practice.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

This Day We Fight!

I will be the first to admit that this road - the road to medical school - is not easy. This morning, just opening my MCAT book felt like a major battle. For me, it is important to find encouragement from outside of myself. Often, this encouragement comes from my friends and family. Today, LOTR helped a bit too. I have always found Aragorn's battle speech at the Black Gate inspiring. Even more so on days like today, when everything - even the smallest thing - seems to be a battle.

Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the Age of Men comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Michelangelo Meets Biochemistry

Note: I know this is not the ACTUAL Sistine Chapel. I took a bit of artistic license with the joke. 

Choices, Choices

As I study for the MCAT, it's difficult not to get bummed out sometimes. (A lot of times, actually.) I am a very good standardized test taker, and I did very well in all of my pre-requisites. So while I was aware that the MCAT isn't like other standardized tests, and isn't like a regular classroom test either, I expected I would adjust to it quickly. But it's a lot more challenging than I expected. I am working on practice questions now, and after one especially brutal set of physics questions, the phrase "emotional bludgeoning" came to mind. That's how I felt. I know the concepts and the equations backwards and forwards, upside down and rightside up. But when it comes to those questions, even I, who normally don't have major test anxiety, feel panic well up inside me. Then I waste precious seconds and energy worrying, seconds and energy that I should be applying to the question at hand.

My very wise mother and I were talking about my struggles yesterday. And about her own struggles with her job, and its frustrations. She reminded me: "We always have a choice." By that, she meant that we can choose to panic, to worry, to be negative, to let what is going on bring us down. Or we can choose another path. The path of living in the moment, of doing what we can with the time that is given us, of focusing on what we can control. This is not some naive attitude that everything will be wonderful. This is changing your attitude so that whatever situation you are dealing with - a situation which may or may not change - doesn't rule your life. 

We always have a choice. I always have a choice. You always have a choice.

Another phrase that my mom and I frequently quote to each other is the famous British saying "Keep calm and carry on." It's a quotation that has become quite popular of late, with many iterations available on T-shirts, mugs, notebooks, stickers, you name it. I found one on the Internet that is quite fitting for me today. 

Again, it's making a choice - to maintain your calm, to be sure and steady, to do what you need to do. Unfortunately, unlike when choosing between steak and lobster at a restaurant, it doesn't all end with making one choice. You have to choose again. And again. And again. But I believe it's a choice well worth making.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Avogadro's ... Donkey?

In all this mad MCAT studying, I have come up with some absolutely terrible jokes (some of which I have shared here). Apparently, I have rubbed off on one of my dear friends, who is studying for the chemistry GRE right now. She told me this one today, and I couldn't help but share it.

Hee-haw, hee-haw ...

Beware the (MCAT) Apocalypse

In the little free time I have lately, some of my "therapy" has been playing with my photo editing app on my iPad, and just having a little artistic fun. OK, maybe not so artistic, but definitely fun. I found this roadside sign image and just had to make an MCAT "collage" from it with my test date, May 23.

Cheers and best wishes to all of you who are taking the MCAT in the coming weeks and months!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

T-Minus 6 Weeks

I take the MCAT exactly 6 weeks from today. The photo below IS my life right now. Thankfully, my lab supervisor gave me some time off (completely of her own volition - thank you SO much, Mari!) so I will have lots of quality time to spend with these books. Um ... hooray?!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Organic Demons

This is what happens when you study organic chemistry for too long. You think of (and create) things like THIS:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Hamburger, and a Lesson About Medicine

Last Friday I learned an important lesson about being a doctor - at Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

I was waiting at the counter for my order. Standing next to me was a woman, probably in her 60s, with a walker, also waiting for her food. There must be something about me that looks friendly, because this woman started a rather personal conversation with me. I'd had a rough day, wasn't really in the mood for chatting, but I could tell she needed someone to talk to. So I listened. The woman told me she'd had heel fusion surgery around Thanksgiving, and was very unhappy with the result. As I listened, I realized it wasn't the actual result of the surgery that frustrated her, but it was the disconnect between the surgeon's optimistic attitude and her realistic outcome.

I know there are two sides to every story, and obviously I haven't heard the surgeon's side. So it's quite possible that back in November, when she and her surgeon were discussing the surgery, she heard what she wanted to hear. Her take-home message from those conversations, though, was that by June she would be wearing summer sandals and walking normally. "Instead," she told me, "I will be wearing a brace that goes halfway up my leg."

I don't know for sure, but I think the woman would have been less angry if she felt she had gotten a more realistic prognosis from her doctor. True, it is important for physicians to give their patients hope. But it has to be an honest hope. As a doctor, I think you have to present the various scenarios that could  happen. Not to frighten your patients, but to prepare them.

It's a fine line to walk, clearly. Optimism and hope can motivate a patient to work harder, to believe he or she can get better. But if you only present the best case scenario, you run the risk of angering your patients, of losing their trust. This woman didn't say so directly, but I could imagine her considering a lawsuit against her surgeon. Not because he botched the surgery, but because she felt lied to, misled.

As I said, I don't know the whole story here, so I am certainly not passing any judgment on this surgeon. It could very well be that this woman completely misunderstood what he told her. And as a doctor, you can't control what patients decide to believe, or what they choose to hear. Even so, I think it does fall on the physician to do all he or she can to present the situation honestly to the patient. With optimism, yes. But also with realism. Because once that trust between a physician and patient is broken, I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to repair.