Academic vs corporate study materials

While studying from the privately-produced MCAT study guides that I bought, I’ve noticed some differences between the way material is presented in the study guides as opposed to most academic material that I’ve consumed over the years.

I suppose that the Kaplan study guides are the product of different sorts of pressures than the textbooks and course notes produced by academia, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Academia is designed to produce freedom of thought and allow discourse at the highest level. It is supposed to be a no-holds-barred intellectual brawl. That’s why universities have the institution of tenure. It’s so that professors can pursue their research along whatever lines it takes them, without worrying that they’ll lose their job if they discover something that their employer doesn’t like. (This is a massive idealization and simplification of course.)

The Kaplan study guides, on the other hand, were designed for one purpose: to make profit for Kaplan’s shareholders. The Kaplan company thinks it can make money by producing MCAT prep materials and services and selling them. The pressure for the Kaplan guides to be good is so that they don’t get sued for publishing misleading MCAT guides, and so that they have customers with good experiences, who will recommend Kaplan study guides and prep courses to others.

Both academia and the commercial preparatory systems are set up such that they (generally) produce good curriculum, but I’ve noticed some differences between the two, which I think demonstrate some characteristic features of each one.

For example, the Kaplan study guides are written with mnemonics in the margins, silly analogies that are intentionally carried too far so as to be memorable, and the guide’s text is written with humour.

Academics are often guilty of making the material difficult to learn, or at the least, there isn’t nearly the same emphasis on trying to help the student pass the test.

The Kaplan guides are written engagingly, even soothingly. They are specifically trying not to scare you with the amount of material you need to know.

I had a physiology prof who stood at the front of the lecture theatre, held up the course package on the first day of the course, and actually did try to scare us with the sheer size of the volume.

I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that the Kaplan guides are entertaining, but they are certainly better to read than that physiology course package was.

The Kaplan guides have each of the articles rated out of six stars. The higher the number of stars, the more frequently it is examined on the MCAT, and the easier it is to learn. So a one-star concept would be one that is tested very infrequently, and that is difficult to master. This is to help students focus on the pieces of information that will best help them score well on the exam.

I have had courses (and textbooks) where the most insignificant detail is dwelt upon ad nauseum, because it is the professor’s favourite subject. This sort of thinking is encouraged in the academic world, since new developments in science and philosophy often come about because of attention to the details of seemingly insignificant problems.

Such ways of thinking do not help students pass exams, though, so the Kaplan guides are very focussed.

In some ways, academia could learn something from the focus that the corporate world brings to their prep materials. I mean, really, who in their right mind (except an academic philosopher) would recommend studying the works of Immanuel Kant in an attempt to learn the discipline of rigourous thought?

Medicine admissions is big business

I have been studying for the MCAT using a set of books from Kaplan, an MCAT prep company, and I’ve realised a few things.

First off, medicine admissions is big business. I’m not even talking about medicine. I just mean the admissions process. Imagine you just wanted to apply to all the medical schools in Ontario, for example. First you would have to write the MCAT. This will cost you $230. Then, you will need to pay for the application, and to apply to every school in Ontario through OMSAS, it will cost about $660.

That’s $890 just to apply and take the MCAT.

Now imagine that you want to take a prep course for the MCAT. I went shopping around for MCAT prep, and someone from Kaplan tried to sell me a comprehensive package which included one-on-one tutoring, online lectures, books, and practice exams. All told, the tutor would have been making roughly $180 per hour from me, and the package would cost me $2799.

There is a whole industry built up around the fact that there’s huge competition to get into medical school. I ended up spending $150 for review books and practice exams, myself.

I can understand companies like Prep 101 and Kaplan charging huge sums for their expertise and time. They are, after all, in the business of making money, and people (generally) are willing to spend money on investments that they think will bring a greater return in the long run. I have no problem with them.

That said, there’s no way they are getting $2700 from me! I don’t care how good their tutor is. There’s no way he’s worth $180 an hour. Imagine knowing that your MCAT tutor is coming, and that you’re paying that much for him. I imagine I would spend as much time prepping for my meeting with the tutor as I would spend prepping for the MCAT, so that I would be sure to get my money’s worth, and that sort of mentality might not actually best help one to prepare for the MCAT.

Anyway, I was thinking, and of course, I can understand wanting policies that make it difficult for someone to get into medical school. You don’t want an unqualified person committing surgery against a patient, after all. So you would want to produce a high intellectual barrier, or a high skill barrier, or otherwise make it difficult, but in ways that elminate the greatest number of people that should not be doctors.

What’s confusing though, is why medical academia would have policies that produce such a high financial barrier to entry. The $890 is what you would pay if you were going for a bargain-basement medical school admission. That’s the minimum you would have to pay. You’re not buying any extra review material on that budget. You’re not getting any practice exams, tutoring or classes. That’s just what it costs to apply, and nothing more.

Maybe it’s to weed out those who might just apply on a whim. Or maybe doctors don’t want new applicants to be spared any hardship they themselves had to suffer. Maybe it actually does cost that much to ensure that the process is fair. I’m not sure what the real reason is.