Which one is better, UW or Kaplan? This is one of the most often asked questions I’ve encountered from people and the answer is as always not that straightforward. Each has its pros and cons and thereby is more useful in one situation than another.
The best answer is that if you can afford to use both, then do so. UW is better used as a learning tool and is less effective (but not ineffective) in both assessment and preparing you for the actual exam experience. Kaplan is more effective in assessment and test preparation and not as effective as a learning tool.
Most people tend to find UW much tougher than Kaplan. In fact, there is kind of a shock when people scoring high in Kaplan Q bank suddenly start to score 10 to 20% lower in UW. So how does UW make their question tougher and is this really reflective of the actual situation you will face in the examination?
There are 4 major ways to make an examination tougher. The first method is to test lower yield concepts. Most reviewers cover high yield concepts only and most people have covered high yield materials in their review. So putting lower yield concepts on Qbanks will insure that people do not know the material. I covered high yield and low yield concepts in this article.
The second method is to require higher level of mastery of the concept in order to be able to answer the questions. You have to know multiple details about a particular concept to be able to get the answer. I covered Master, Know and Familiar in USMLE in this article. Most 2 to 3 step thinking question are of this nature.
The third method is requiring the examinee not only to master the topic at hand, but to have the necessary analytical skills to solve it. This is effective initially, but long term, the thought process involved would have been worked out by someone and most examinees will just memorize the actual answer rendering it less effective. An example will be questions on the effects of various neurotransmitter and anti-hypertensive drugs on the ANS esp. heart and smooth muscle. It requires knowledge not only of the direct effect of the drugs, but also any reflex response it generates and its exact mechanism of action. However, that is so thoroughly explained in detail in Pharmacology: lippincott’s illustrated reviews that you don’t really need analysis just memorization to answer that question
The fourth and last method requires misdirection. Certain questions are constructed in such a way that most of the stem seems to point to one answer but one or two phrases in the question stem makes another answer the correct one. This is controversial as very few of the actual USMLE questions are of this nature and having too many of this in practice Qbanks can create the wrong instinct. That is looking for the trick in a straightforward question, which can waste valuable time in the actual examination
So how reflective are these of the actual conditions in the examination? Although, the USMLE does use all four methods to make tougher questions, it does not use it as often as UW does. Therefore, UW is a good learning tool, since it does train you to answer tough questions. But as I said, there is a danger of developing the wrong instinct in the exam. I find myself often looking for trick questions where there are none sometimes without realizing it. Most questions in the USMLE will still be straightforward and easy to answer.
Kaplan Qbank is more realistic in that the proportion of easy and tough questions is more reflective of the USMLE. Also its ratio of high yield to low yield question is also more reflective of the USMLE. That is the reason why Kaplan is better as an assessment tool and for test preparation. Although, that may change too as Kaplan is moving towards providing tougher questions in its Qbank.
In order to do well in this competitive exam, doing Qbanks is essential. But even more important is knowing how to use the Qbanks more effectively in review. I’ll tackle that in more detail in another post. I’ll also tackle the NBME assessment tests and how to use them for effective review. Contrary to popular expectation, studying the NBME questions themselves is not really that helpful in helping you raise your scores.
One more thing before we close. The typical USMLE Question Block is always a mixture of tough and easy questions, long and short ones. This is because there is a time limit imposed per block. However, when doing Qbanks, each block is randomly generated and therefore it is possible and very probable to generate a block that is full of tough questions, or easy ones. Long questions or short ones. Therefore, single blocks in Qbanks are never reflective of your actual capabilities. Until next time