Kaplan or Princeton Review for the best MCAT prep course?
In any given year, between 70 and 80% of MCAT takers enroll in a formal MCAT prep course. In this post, I review the courses offered by the two most popular test prep companies, Kaplan and The Princeton Review.
The words they use may be different, but every Kaplan and Princeton Review recruiter is going to try and convince you of three things:
- The MCAT is tricky and terrifying, so you need serious help to prepare
- Medical schools care about your MCAT test score a ton, so you had better not screw this up
- How absurdly high their companies’ instructors scored on the MCAT
You’ll notice that none of these tell you anything about why someone should choose one MCAT prep course company over another. They’re focused, instead, upon manipulating your fears about the MCAT and getting you to sign up right then and there. That doesn’t mean that either of the courses are bad by any means, but it does mean that ambitious pre-meds need to do some digging on their own (reading this page is a good place to start) to find out what distinguishes the MCAT prep giants from one another.
The B A S I C S
The Princeton Review MCAT Prep Course
Reviews of The Princeton Review’s 3-month MCAT prep course are positive on the whole. I occasionally encounter students who complain that their instructors were weird or condescending, but that’s rare and it’s the risk (albeit small) you run when signing up for any prep course. Students tend to speak very positively about the number of class hours and the breadth of their study materials with The Princeton Review as well.
Class Time and Practice Tests
The main classroom TPR offer comes with 42 class sessions and 20 one-on-one office hours with an instructor, who is on hand to help you work on problem areas or questions you don’t understand. That comes out to about 105 hours total, which is more than any other MCAT prep course on the market offers. Instruction is offered by a team of certified instructors, all of whom are considered “subject experts.” Also included in the normal course are 19 full length practice exams, including the 8 official CBTs from AAMC. The rest are created by TPR. A typical semester-long course meets 3 days per week for 2 1/2 hours per class session. The cost is $1,999-$2099, depending on the location.
- You get five Diagnostic Exams to assess your strengths and weaknesses in the five different MCAT subjects, plus a Reading Comprehension exam.
- A recent addition to the TPR classroom course is its new “Amplifire” online workbook, which integrates and complements the practice material you get with the TPR MCAT book set. More on this below.
Kaplan MCAT Prep Course
Kaplan’s MCAT prep course is probably the most popular choice for pre-med students, if only because of Kaplan’s name recognition in the test prep industry. It simply has more courses available in more cities than any other test prep provider. So, there’s actually a pretty good chance that Kaplan is your only option for a live MCAT prep course. Like TPR, reviews of Kaplan courses are positive as well, although I think certain types of pre-med students respond better to Kaplan than others.
Class Time and Practice Tests
Like TPR, Kaplan’s live MCAT prep course is typically spread over a semester with 2-3 hour class periods 2-3 days per week. In that time, you’ll have 54 classroom hours and 32 hours for practice test taking. Kaplan’s courses come with a “higher score guarantee” so you can repeat them at no additional cost within 2-3 months of your first attempt. Kaplan’s courses also come with 19 full-length practice exams: the 8 from AAMC and 11 of Kaplan’s own.
- When you sign up for the Kaplan course, you get access to QBank, Kaplan’s online practice question database. It has 11,000 practice questions for you to arrange to take on your own.
- Kaplan has several unique options and services, but they’re mostly sold separately. More on this below.
Comparing the two…
Practice Tests and Books
Both of these well-respected courses come with access to all 8 AAMC computer-based full-length MCAT tests. These are the best indication of what to expect on the actual MCAT. The remaining 11 tests as part of each course were created by Kaplan and Princeton Review, respectively. Students are almost unanimously in agreement that TPR’s MCAT practice material is better than what you get from Kaplan. That’s because Kaplan’s tests and passages are not particularly reflective of the actual MCAT question style. In my estimation, they over-emphasize memorization and calculation, and many of the reviews I’ve read by other students express similar feelings. TPR’s certainly aren’t the best on the market (I’ve written more about the various brands of MCAT CBTs and how to use them here), but they’re pretty well respected.
TPR is also known for having a better line of MCAT prep books. They’re more in-depth and they have more helpful review sections. I used a Kaplan book for about a week, until I realized the review questions at the end of each chapter were nowhere near as challenging or tricky as what I’d come across with the materials from Examkrackers and Berkeley Review. (If you’re thinking about supplementing your prep with either of these book brands, I’ve written reviews of both.)
Edge: Princeton Review
The Princeton Review MCAT prep course comes with 20 hours of personalized tutoring; Kaplan’s doesn’t come with any. Granted, instructors are able to answer your questions in class, but if you’re looking for some real time-intensive help, you’ll have to buy an extra plan with Kaplan (MCAT Advantage Plus). Kaplan also sells tutoring hours separately, however, at roughly $185/hr. when you buy them in bulk. Yikes.
Edge: Princeton Review
Up until this year, Kaplan had an overwhelming upper hand on this, simply because TPR didn’t have anything to rival QBank. Even then, QBank was not thought of as being particularly helpful, since Kaplan’s practice material isn’t great, and QBank is just more of the same. But this year, the Princeton Review added its Amplifire online test prep software, which I have to say is very impressive. It’s very focused on illuminating your thought processes while you’re answering each MCAT question. If you want to see what I’m talking about, check out the video on TPR’s site. Pretty cool, if you ask me. That said, QBank has tons more to work with—11,000 questions compared to TPR’s 2,700—so if you’ve got lots of time to burn, Kaplan and QBank might be better. Also, the really glitzy stuff TPR offers isn’t nearly as time-efficient as Kaplan’s, so it’s probably not as good at preparing you for the break-neck pace of the real MCAT.
(Both companies also offer “Live Online” MCAT prep courses, where you attend real lectures on your computer.)
Edge: It’s a tie. Kaplan for quantity. Princeton Review for quality. (Both are important.)
The Classroom Experience
For whatever reason, Kaplan MCAT teachers are known for being better at helping students get the fundamentals down. TPR is known for going deeper in class and in their texts. Both courses are well-respected in the classroom, however, and neither is too advanced or too elementary for anyone. No matter which MCAT prep course you choose, you’ll be able to ask whatever questions you like during class, and study at your own pace outside of class.
Edge: Kaplan for beginners and non-traditional applicants. Princeton Review for science pros and purely classroom learners (more classroom hours and tutoring time).
Excuse me for using sports terminology to name this section. By intangibles, I mean extras and minutiae that don’t matter much, but are worth mentioning and may make a serious difference in certain circumstances. Kaplan is offered in more cities than Princeton Review, and since any course is better than no course, it’s probably worth taking MCAT prep from either company, even if it’s not perfectly form-fitted to your needs (if you can afford it). Kaplan also has an MCAT Advantage-On Demand course, which offers 24/7 access to classroom lectures online for the same fee as a normal live prep course. For people with irregular schedules, or who really need to see or hear something twice before it registers, this might be a good option.
Kaplan also has a variety of courses and tools you can purchase apart from its full-length MCAT courses. It sells tutoring hours (as I mentioned above); subject-centered courses called Organic Edge, Physics Edge, and Verbal Edge; and an Online Science Review, which is an online set of tutorials designed to help you get a good grasp of the core pre-med sciences. There’s also a new option called MCAT AdvantagePlus that comes with added perks like one-on-one mentoring and small group sessions. These variations cost anywhere in the ballpark of $199 to $4,399, depending on what you need. So if you can’t afford a full-length course, but could use some outside help, it might be a good idea to purchase something smaller that focuses on your weak areas. You can see a full list of Kaplan’s MCAT prep courses here.
You should go with the Kaplan MCAT course if you…
…need lots of basic review (you had trouble with pre-med classes or it’s been a while since you took them) and aren’t interested in a rigorous classroom experience. Kaplan teachers are known for being better at helping students get the fundamentals down.
…you don’t care about extra tools or you don’t have time for them. You’re signing up primarily for the classroom experience and want an MCAT prep leader to provide you with it.
…live too far from either course’s prep center and have irregular study hours so that you’d benefit from the On-Demand option.
…you really don’t think you need to take a full course, but could use some heavy review of Organic, Physics, or Verbal. Kaplan offers these courses more cheaply than the full course, and also allows you to purchase access to QBank without enrolling in a full-length course.
If any of these circumstances describe yours, you should head to Kaplan to check out their online and live course options up-close. That will give you a better feel of whether or not it’s right for you.
You should go with The Princeton Review MCAT course if you…
…don’t want to spend cash on materials beyond what you spend on the course. TPR gives you better MCAT books and MCAT practice tests, so you’re less likely to need to supplement with other books (although I would recommend it anyway).
…have the content down pretty well. TPR is known for going deeper in class and in their texts, and it offers better tools for you to refine your MCAT-reflexes.
…think you could really use some one-on-one tutoring and can’t afford to spend what Kaplan charges for it.
ONE CAVEAT: Because every Kaplan and TPR testing center can be slightly different depending on who’s running it, it wouldn’t hurt to put an ear to the ground, and see what you can find out from people who’ve enrolled at them. I’ve come across a number of students who recommend going with better instructors, rather than going with a specific MCAT prep company. Unless you hear specific things—good or bad—about local teachers, pick the program that fits you best. Hope that helps!
*If your options are limited due to finances or geography, you might want to ask yourself whether you need to enroll in a live MCAT prep course in the first place. Plenty of people do fine without buying prep courses. It just means you’ll have a little steeper learning curve and you’ll have to work extra hard to keep whatever schedule you decide to set for yourself.