So…which MCAT books really are ‘THE BEST?” We all remember fondly one aspect of our university experience: professors routinely present a pricey list of required books at the beginning of the semester. And since they choose the books they see fit for the class, we are forced to cough up the ridiculous cost if we want to do well! The only question when it comes to buying books is which edition to go with (and we all know the difference between the third and fourth edition is so insignificant, the $80 we saved made it well worth choosing the third).
If only the best MCAT books/book sets were this easy to select!
So here’s my cursory review of Kaplan, Princeton Review, Examkrackers, Berkeley Review MCAT books! MCAT prep book sets come in all different shapes and sizes, with varying benefits and downsides to each. There is not one book set that is ideal for every MCAT studier, which is why you really can’t believe anyone who tells you one book set is definitely ‘better’ than another.
Yet, as I read different blogs and posts about best MCAT books (written by MCAT ‘experts’ who may or may not be tutors with a financial interest in the books’ sales!), I’ve been amazed to see such bold statements as ‘Berkeley is absolutely, and by far, the best book set you can buy!!!’ or ‘Kaplan’s book set isn’t worth the money. Go with Examkrackers instead.’ Something needs to be made very clear: every MCAT studier is different, with different needs, knowledge base and strengths. Which means there really is NO perfect set of study materials. Sorry to burst that bubble! But keep reading and you may discover the set that’s truly best for you.
A+, A, B or C…
When I first began drafting this review, I thought I’d give four of the best MCAT prep book sets (Kaplan, Princeton Review, Examkrackers, Berkeley Review) a letter grade based on my experience, but I soon realized that rating the books based on personal experience would not necessarily benefit YOU, as my circumstances may be significantly different than yours. But, I’ve tried to be objective in reviewing each book, to give you a glimpse of the components of each. I’ll add my opinions about—and experiences with—each book set, but remember…the opinions are only worth what they cost you (they’re free!). I’ll put my opinions in bold type, so you can easily skip to them (or take them with a grain of salt). I’ve used each book set in this review at some point during my MCAT studies, and all were the post-2015 books, so my review is timely for anyone with a 2016-2017 test date.
First, a little about me…
So you understand where I’m coming from and my experience with each MCAT books set, I’ll share a little about myself. I’m an undergraduate student at a well-respected university in the Rocky Mountain West. My major is Public Health, so I don’t have the strong science background that comes with a degree in Biology or Chemistry. I have taken all of the pre-med science courses. One of my strengths is the ability to remember principles and ideas, and I’m able to relearn and retain information quickly and efficiently.
You may be very different. You may be a Chemistry major who loves all-things chemistry, but has a difficult time remembering basic biological principles. Or, you may be an English major who hasn’t taken a general science class for a few semesters, but you’ve decided to give the MCAT and medical school a shot. Each of us approaches the MCAT on our unique path. The ultimate goal of your MCAT prep should be to bring you to a level that makes you ready and competitive on test day. Each MCAT prep book set (Kaplan, Princeton Review, Examkrackers, Berkeley Review), attempts to do so in a very specific way. As you consider my comments on each, you’ll need to perform a self-assessment in order to understand which tool(s) will serve you best on test day.
Also, a quick note about the MCAT: the new, post-2015 test does not test so much on specific facts, figures and formulas, but instead asks you to problem solve and understand scientific passages, and in turn, answer science-based questions related to those passages.
Kaplan’s 7-Book Set: PRIMO
Of the 4 MCAT books sets, I enjoyed Kaplan the most. The content within the book is concise and to the point. The chapters are not heavy on details, nor do they delve deeply into the underlying principles of the topic at hand. They adequately cover the knowledge necessary for the MCAT, but they do not go much beyond that. The writing style is professional, but not too scientific. I found the explanations and practice problems to be clearly explained and easy to understand.
Within the chapters, the book has wide lateral margins, which allow for note taking and problem solving within the book. Frequently, within that extra wide margin, the writer offers a ‘key concept’ reminder, or one of the Kaplan proprietary ‘bridges.’ The ‘key concept’ notes give a brief summary of what you are learning, and the ‘bridges’ provide links to real-world examples of the principle at hand.
Kaplan uses large, colorful graphics like animations and graphs to aid in your learning. Within each chapter there are ‘concept check’ questions that allow you to quiz yourself on the principles just studied. At the end of each chapter, there is a quiz that includes questions relevant to the entire chapter you just finished. Clear and thorough answers to those questions are found directly after the quiz, making it easy to check your answers and understand what you may need to go back and study again. I found these quizzes to be really useful, and they closely mirrored Kaplan’s FL practice test questions.
The Kaplan book set also comes with a review booklet, which contains basic information like equations, terms and graphics. This is very useful during the couple days before you take the MCAT, as you can refresh yourself on material you haven’t seen in awhile.
Another bonus with the Kaplan MCAT books is the inclusion of 3 Kaplan, full-length practice exams with your purchase. You can check out my review of the Kaplan full-length practice exams here.
Summary: The Kaplan 7-Book Set provides a concise content review, which covers all the information you need to know for the MCAT.
Recommendation: If you feel comfortable with MCAT material, meaning you can read through MCAT books without feeling like you are learning completely new material, then the Kaplan MCAT books are for you.
You can find Kaplan’s 7-Book Set on Amazon, new and used.
The Princeton Review 7-Book Set: TOP NOTCH
The Princeton Review set is very similar to the Kaplan MCAT books in both format and content. The PR books provide excellent content review, and are more in-depth than the Kaplan books. The writing style is clear and concise, but at times the writer dives into deeper detail than is necessary. Within the chapters, there are various questions, and the answers are often found within the text you are reading. The answers to the questions are at the bottom of the page, making it easy to quiz your understanding without flipping to an Answer Section.
Princeton rarely deviates from the professional tone of the text. Unlike Kaplan and Examkrackers (as you’ll see), there aren’t any “key concept’ notes or quotes from ‘Sparky.’ The Princeton MCAT books use colorful graphics to teach principles, which can provide a nice break from the monotonous, black and white text blocks you’re soaking in.
Quality quizzing quotient!
Princeton does provide quizzes after each chapter composed of 7-8 freestanding questions and 7-8 passage-based questions. These quizzes were excellent in determining my understanding of the chapter I had just read. They were very similar to the FL questions found on the Princeton Review practice exams.
Another useful tool in the Princeton MCAT books is the glossary of terms found at the end of each book. They provide a quick reference guide to terms and principles you find throughout the book. The Princeton Review set, like Kaplan, comes with three full-length practice tests, which is a major plus.
Summary: The Princeton book set offers a more in-depth look at the principles and information needed for the MCAT. The books provide questions within the text and at the end of each chapter.
Recommendation: If you feel like you need to brush up on your science skills, or it’s been a while since you’ve taken a pre-med science class, but you’re still confident in your ability to absorb new information, this set is for you.
The Princeton Review 7-Book Set is also available on Amazon, and you can usually get a good price for used.
Examkrackers 5-Book Set: EXTREME DETAIL AHEAD!
Examkrackers MCAT books are the most in-depth and knowledge-intense of all the books I’ve reviewed so far. When you look at the book set in its box, it seems smaller than any of the other sets, but in fact, it is brimming with facts, information and detail. If you open to any page you are assaulted by bright colors, large graphics and cartoons of ‘Sparky,’ the Examkrackers mascot.
Sparky: Annoying or helpful?
The writers explain that Sparky is meant to either annoy you or make you laugh, and in turn, help you remember what is being taught. When I began studying using the Examkrackers MCAT books, I was distracted by the graphics and cartoons to the point of frustration. The writer goes into great detail, especially in the biology, chemistry and physics sections. At times the information was confusing as I was assimilating it and trying to understand concepts being taught. The explanations are thorough, and Examkrackers uses lots of examples in their teaching style.
Within each chapter there are 3-4 small quizzes with 6-7 questions each, helping you to measure your progress as you make your way through the chapter. I found the questions to be very difficult, sometimes testing material that hadn’t been covered in the present chapter.
At the end of each book there are a handful of 30-minute practice exams that include 21-22 questions. These practice exams were incredibly difficult, but made for excellent practice. After you’ve completed the quiz, you can score yourself and compare your score to a scale provided, which gives you a rough estimate of your projected MCAT score for that section. That, I liked. Something that is annoying, though, is that all of the answers to both the in-chapter quizzes and the 30-minute in-class exams are found in answer banks at the very end of the book. SO, to check your answers you have to flip back and forth between the page the quiz is on and the answer bank.
Summary: Examkrackers MCAT books go in-depth, and you better be ready to go with, or you’ll be left frustrated and lost. The 30-minute, in-class exams provide an excellent way to practice and test yourself as you make your way through the material.
Recommendation: It’s hard to say who should buy this book set. If you are struggling and need a full refresher, and you have at least 5-6 months to dedicate to studying, then this would be your book. If you only have 2-3 months, I would steer clear, as this book will frustrate you and kick your gluteus! Then again, if you feel good about your grasp of the MCAT material, and you have 3-4 months to study, this would be a good choice. But don’t say I didn’t warn you… the bright colors, annoying cartoons, and difficult questions may also prove annoying!
You can find the Examkrackers 5-Book Set on Amazon, both new and used.
2015 Berkeley Review Book Set: INTERESTING.
That’s right…Berkeley is interesting. I didn’t get my hands on these books until late in my studies. I was looking forward to getting a fresh new take on the material from the Berkeley set, but when I opened their books, I wasn’t all that impressed. These are the closest things to a textbook I’ve seen, as far as MCAT study tools go. I wouldn’t be surprised if the material is cut straight from Berkeley Review’s textbooks and pasted in their MCAT books. The material they cover is incredibly specific and in-depth. It’s the kind of stuff you learned in Biology class, but were never even tested on because it was so arcane. Also, the textbooks are a difficult to digest as they are all black and white, with few graphics page-to-page.
BR: the best questions
You may ask why people would even buy this book, which is a good question, but these books have one major upside. They contain hundreds of excellent questions. In my opinion, the Berkeley Review MCAT books function more as practice tests than they do review books. Each chapter is followed by 100 questions, mostly passage-based. If you have researched the quality of different companies’ full-length tests, you know that Berkeley Review provides excellent material, and their practice questions within the books don’t deviate from this reputation.
These MCAT books are new, and the bookmakers are on a sort of a learning curve, trying to figure out how to best prepare studiers for the MCAT. To me, it seems like Berkeley is compensating for their lack of material review with excellent practice questions.
Summary: Berkeley provides very in-depth information in their books, but not the kind of information you’ll need for the MCAT. They do, however, offer excellent and copious practice questions.
Recommendation: Do not use these MCAT books for material review. However, if you’re looking for practice questions, you couldn’t do much better than this (other than AAMC material). I would buy another book set, based on your strengths and weaknesses, then supplement it with the Berkeley books. A good idea might be to buy a Berkeley book that corresponds to a section you’ve been struggling with, and using it to practice passage-based questions. If that works well for you then you can buy more books covering different test sections.
The 2015 Berkeley Review Book Set is sometimes available on Amazon. But you’ll need to act fast as they sell out quickly. If you can’t find them here, you can go directly to the BR website to order books and FL tests.
So here’s my best strategy: pick the book set that best fits your study style and strengths and weaknesses, and then supplement with individual books from other sets. If you check out our comprehensive list of books from some of the best and brightest MCAT prep publishers (see link below), you’ll find there are individual study books for every possible subject to help you bulk up where needed:
You may also want to check out these posts as you’re getting ready for test day: