Best MCAT Prep Books

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So you want to be a doctor when you grow up? Many aspects of you—the person—will be scrutinized and ultimately judged before you’re accepted into medical school. The MCAT, however, is the gateway, and it can either swing open or shut. 

You can explain a marginal GPA due to extenuating circumstances, but the MCAT is objective, and schools rely on it to predict your future med school performance. Every admission by a medical school is an investment, and anyone who fails to complete the curriculum has wasted the school’s educational dollars and denied someone else a place there. 

Basically, the MCAT is a big deal. 

Preparing for the MCAT: What Are You Getting Into?

Nothing makes applying to med school feel real like preparing for the MCAT. College might have been a challenge, but the MCAT is a rite of passage that every doctor in North America and Australia must survive. 

Before you tackle the MCAT, adjust your attitude. You must think of it as part of your career. The MCAT is not an obstacle, but part of your calling. Don’t think about “getting it over with,” but consider it part of your goal to be a doctor. Instead of fighting it, work with it. 

MCAT prep books succeed only when they emphasize the process. Sure, you’ll need the “book knowledge,” but you’ll also need something else—perseverance—and the MCAT is your first taste of it. Preparing for the MCAT will put you into the right mindset for medicine. 

To help you get ready to take the test, let’s review the best MCAT prep books.

First Things First: AAMC’s The Official Guide to the MCAT Exam

The folks who make the MCAT, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), put out their own book, The Official Guide to the MCAT Exam. Considering the source, it’s a great place to start your MCAT preparation. 

This book won’t help you cram the entire science of biochemistry or any other discipline into your head. That’s what college was for. However, this Official Guide gives you a bit of perspective so you’ll know what preparation steps make the most sense for you. 

Part I explores scheduling, paying for, and registering for the MCAT. Part II explores the nature of the test: extrapolating ideas, reasoning, analysis, and reading between the lines. There are also practice questions to demonstrate these kinds of intangible concepts. 

The Official Guide to the MCAT Exam is essentially a pep talk with no patronization—pure incentive in print. It prepares you for what to expect and how best to navigate the familiar paths as well as the surprises. And it reminds you that you’ll need to practice—a lot.

What This Book Includes:

  • The nuts and bolts of the MCAT, from the application to the rationale of its sections
  • Insight into how to tackle the different questions and sections

Who Should Use This Book:

  • Everyone planning to take the MCAT exam. This is the official road map!

Everything You Need to Know to Take the MCAT

If you want to know everything, these two books have you covered. These multivolume packages are arranged according to different subjects, and they’ve stood the test of time, helping students prepare for the MCAT for years. 

Plus, both sets of books offer online practice tests and other resources (see below).

1.     Kaplan’s MCAT Complete 7-Book Review 2019-2020

This seven-book set also has practice tests.

2.   The Princeton Review MCAT Subject Review Complete Box Set

 This set of 10-11 books also has practice tests. 

What These Books Include:

Both of these complete solutions to MCAT prep cover the usual subjects, including:

·      Biochemistry

·      Physics

·      Math

·      Biology

·      General Chemistry

·      Organic Chemistry

·      Behavioral Science and Sociology

·      CARS

Besides $20-$30, these two products are essentially identical. (And $30 is trivial in the grand scheme of things, especially when amortized over the life of your student loans, right?) 

The Kaplan and Princeton Review book sets are just different arrangements of the same product, and these resources don’t stop at the printed page. 

The Princeton Review also offers live online tutoring if you purchase a package, while Kaplan offers in-person tutoring for an extra fee. The PLUS option for Kaplan provides three hours of online tutoring.

Either way, if you have the time to commit to making the most of these MCAT resources, you’re covered. If you still have doubts, both companies offer immersion courses (Kaplan’s six-week immersion and Princeton’s four-to-six-week “Bootcamp”) around the country for an extra $2,000-$3,000.

Who Should Use These Books?

  • Anyone with enough time to follow the prescribed programs. They are not for cramming, so if you’re short on time but looking for a quick MCAT prep, you’d be better off with the flashcard or note card solutions I’ll describe below. 

If You Want Different MCAT Prep Tools

3. The Sterling Series 

The Sterling series takes a slightly different approach. Instead of presenting material to study, it presents the material in the form of explanations to sample questions. This is an excellent way to learn and is especially helpful if you only need to concentrate on a particular subject or discipline. 

At $35 a book, owning the complete set (five or more books, including separate ones for the practice tests) becomes impractical. It’s not the cost—the Sterling books would add up to close to what you would pay for the Kaplan and Princeton Review sets. It’s just that working through all the books would be too time-consuming. Knowledge is infinite, but your time is not. 

Many people preparing for the MCAT will choose an all-encompassing solution (like Kaplan’s or Princeton Review’s MCAT prep sets) to start. Then they’ll choose one or two Sterling or Examkrackers (below) books to beef up on the weak links in their knowledge base.

What These Books Include:

As mentioned, each Sterling book covers one of these topics.

  • General Chemistry Review
  • General Chemistry Practice Questions
  • Organic Chemistry & Biochemistry Practice Questions
  • Biology & Biochemistry Review
  • Biology & Biochemistry Practice Questions
  • Psychology & Sociology
  • Physics Review
  • Physics Practice Questions

Who Should Use These Books:

  • Students who want to brush up on a particular category (or two). 

4. Examkrackers “1001 Questions and101 Passages in Psychology & Sociology 

These Examkrackers books follow the same motif as the Sterling Series, with each one focusing on a particular subject.

What These Books Include:

  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Biology 1
  • Biology 2

Who Should Use These Books:

  • Students who want a secondary review of a particular MCAT subject after they’ve already done a more intensive review of the full test. 

5. Examkrackers MCAT Complete Study Package

An all-encompassing MCAT prep package in six volumes. This package is succinct and concise, and it covers the breadth and depth of the MCAT testing materials. 

What This Books Includes:

  • A one-stop destination for the usual MCAT subjects
  • Insights into the actual testing approach for each subject
  • Two 30-minute practice tests
  • Questions within the material to reinforce the subject matter
  • Reasoning skills (verbal, research, and math)
  • Biology I (molecules: biochemistry)
  • Biology II (systems)
  • Psychology & Sociology
  • Chemistry General & organic)
  • Physics

Who Should Use This Book:

  • Students who want to learn about the links between MCAT concepts across the various disciplines

Note: We didn’t include Barron’s NEW MCAT book in our review of the complete approaches because of the repeated negative reviews about its practice tests. Also, it’s beginning to be out of date, so it’s better to go with MCAT prep materials that include more recent developments in both the material and the test itself. 

The Best MCAT Flashcards

Once you’ve chosen and carefully studied your complete solution, you might be ready to test your Jeopardy-like recall. Flashcards help you learn by repeating what you already know.

As you read this, you are forming synapses in your brain. That’s how cognition works: “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” as neuropsychologist Donald Hebb famously explained in 1949.

By the same token, neurons that stop firing together become looser. Knowledge is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition, and flashcards take your neurons that first fired in Chem 101 and keep them wired together. If you’ve ever chased a dream by trying to remember more and more of it, you’ll know that recall via re-engaging the synapses also reinforces your recall of the more complex concepts behind the simple answers.

Flashcards aren’t the best way to learn something for the first time, but they are useful for practicing what you already know. Plus, they’re cheap, so there’s really no downside to using them.

1. AAMS Official MCAT Flashcards

Each card has a question, solution, and explanation. And the AAMS Official MCAT Flashcards are the only ones that can call themselves “official,” so they might be a good bet.

2. Kaplan Flashcards

First, this package doesn’t actually include a thousand cards. But these MCAT flashcards dovetail into the other Kaplan materials, so if you bought the Kaplan Complete series, you might like these as well.

3. Barron’s MCAT Flashcards

These aren’t exactly flashcards, but note cards. Using them with a complete approach helps you keep those neurons wired together and firing together.

What These Card Sets Include:

  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

Who Should Use the Flashcards:

  • Students who like the flashcard method for review
  • People who refer information delivered in small doses 

4. Examkrackers MCAT Complete Study Package

Yes, this package appears twice. It’s a concise version of the complete approach, and so it can serve as a review much like the flashcards do. If you’ve used a different complete MCAT prep solution, you might like to use this one as your review tool.

What This Books Includes:

  • Biology 1 (molecules)
  • Biology 2 (systems)
  • Chemistry (general and organic)
  • Physics
  • Psychology & Sociology
  • Reasoning Skills (verbal, research, and math)
  • Test-taking strategies

Who Should Use This Book:

Students who want it all tidily packaged in one consistent “voice.” 

What Else Should You Look for in MCAT Prep Books?

It is very interesting and informative to look below these books on Amazon and see which items are “Frequently bought together.” Yes, it’s part of Amazon’s marketing tactics, but it’s also a glimpse into how MCAT preppers strategize and prepare for the test. 

Many of the “complete” prep books dovetail best with the flashcards or standalone in-depth subject books from the same company. 

When you’re considering buying MCAT books, always check the reviews on Amazon first. For example, the Examkrackers “1001 Questions” and “101 Passages” books seem to have lower star ratings than some other MCAT prep materials. 

But be sure to read the reviews as well—for example, some customers complained about the paper quality, but is that really a big deal when you’re more concerned about preparing for the MCAT?

What Do MCAT Prep Books Cost?

All of the “complete” solutions listed above cost between $100 and $200. If cost is an issue, you could buy last year’s version without much of a downside. 

The MCAT changes, but a year’s difference won’t be what gets you into or keeps you out of medical school. However, some books, such as Barron’s NEW MCAT Book (published in 2016), are a little too out of date. Remember, today’s total medical knowledge doubles every few months, so you want to stay on top of the information.

If you’re considering buying last year’s MCAT book, look for an online guide that describes what percentage of material has changed from one year to the next. This information can help you choose the right MCAT book for your budget, while still getting you the test prep information you need.

Online MCAT Prep Courses

Khan Academy offers free MCAT prep courses. These video courses are helpful for students who learn better by paying thoughtful attention to a presentation than by reading. Most MCAT preppers, however, use these courses for review and not as their sole study tool. 

Subscription services such as Magoosh (www.mcat.magoosh.com) are similar to the Khan Academy approach and, while not free, are very reasonable ($99 for a year). Again, most students would use this service for repetition or review.

What Online Prep Courses Include:

  • Short video lessons on the usual MCAT subjects

Who Should Use Online Prep Courses:

  • Students who are already familiar with MCAT materials and who want another way to reviews
  • People who prefer audiovisual learning

How Can Books Help You Prepare for the MCAT?

What do these MCAT prep books offer that your college education cannot? The answer: perspective. 

Doctors cannot and do not know everything (although some may disagree!). With our knowledge base doubling over shorter and shorter spans of time (it’s projected to be every 73 days by 2020!), any all-encompassing exam naturally will be less all-encompassing as time passes. 

To test you in a meaningful way, therefore, the MCAT must evolve; it continuously fine-tunes its perspective on what is important today. You, too, need to hone your perspective, because you can’t know everything when you take the MCAT. Even the rare person who gets a perfect score does not know everything. 

The people who make the MCAT understand this, and the test is designed to take this fact into account. While the MCAT does test your “book smarts” on many subjects and while it is also a test of persistence (7.5 hours!), it also tests something else. Rather stealthily, it tests whether your perspective on what’s important matches the MCAT perspective. A good prep book should help you prepare for this part of the test, too.

Summary

When it comes to MCAT prep books, it’s not “you get what you pay for.” Instead, it’s “pay for what’s best for you.” 

I suppose you could use all of these MCAT prep materials, but you’d probably just collapse from exhaustion. Your first MCAT “prep” is your college education, but these MCAT prep books are the next step to helping you take the test with confidence.