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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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!).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Passage-based selections. Like EK, TPR has both discrete and passage-based questions. A plus for the same reason listed in my EK evaluation.
- 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.
- 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!