Say test prep, and the first word people typically say is Kaplan. And, that should come as no surprise—not only have their testing centers mushroomed on many a city block, but Kaplan’s line of test prep books runs deep—if there is a test, Kaplan has a method.
How did Kaplan become the gorilla in the space, to use a term from business that accords this simian status to a company that has significant market share in its industry (cell phones: Apple)?
The answer to this question is beyond the scope of this review. However, many would simply assume that Kaplan’s preeminent status is because it is the best. But, is that true? Does Kaplan provide the best material? And, most importantly, does it lead to your best score?
In this review, of course, I am only focusing on Kaplan’s book for the New GRE. But, if this book is any indication, awareness of a product does not equal quality of product. In fact, and I don’t mean to sound flippant, my favorite thing about the Kaplan New GRE book was the quality and smell of the paper.
In GRE talk, there is a word for this: specious (adj.) falsely attractive or misleading. Below, I will tell you why Kaplan’s prep material is specious, and, with a few qualifications, is a book that I will not use to help my students prep for the New GRE.
ETS, the folks who write the GRE, are not arbitrary. That is, they are not simply writing sentences with blanks and seeing who can answer them correctly. They are trying to discern which students have the most sophisticated sense of the way the English language works stylistically, especially in an academic context. To gauge this, ETS crafts daunting text completions that can even give a tutor with 10 years experience pause (I took the new GRE a couple of weeks back).
Kaplan writes text completions that are often more at the level of a mad-libs game. Here is a Kaplanesque text-completion for your perusal:
It was very ____ ; Matt was sweating profusely and yearned for an air-conditioned space.
(A) humid (B) stormy (C) humorous (D) deliberate (E) copious
Compare that to something in GRE-ese, the language ETS uses to create the test.
Her latest art exhibition was anything but ____ , yet many in attendance could not help feel that her work was at best that of a circumscribed talent.
The first is fun and inviting – the second makes you want to punch a wall (or at least the art exhibit).
So, while many claim that Kaplan offers lots of practice questions, what good are these practice questions if they are dumbed down to such a level? Sure, they are not all that easy, and a few offer some more challenging words as vocabulary, yet you would be misled thinking that this level of prep would prepare you for the actual GRE.
To make matters worse, Kaplan has many text completions in which only one of the three possible answer choices could make any sense in the blank (if you look at the word right next to the blank). Suddenly, the whole idea of contextual recognition is moot. In the end, the more Kaplan practice problems you do, the more the part of your brain that is responsible for analytical/contextual reasoning shuts down.
At least, as far as Text Completions/Sentence Equivalence are concerned, this is not prep. Kaplan is a sort of anti-prep in this regard.
As somebody who has been tutoring the GRE for 10 years, I’ve had many ex-Kaplan students. Disgruntled, they usually have to sit with me the first couple of sessions, and unlearn most of what they’ve learned. I call this process the Kaplan detox.
One of the biggest areas for the Kaplan detox is on vocabulary. First off, learning roots is mostly a waste of time. When I tell students this, they feel relieved that someone is confirming what their many futile study hours have shown: learning a root and then applying it to an unknown word will only get you in trouble.
The next big detox step is in word groupings: Kaplan feels that words that are vaguely related are not only synonyms, but are interchangeable. For instance, in the “criticize category,” remonstrate and reprove are all lumped together. They mean, however, very different things.
To reprove is to censure, to remonstrate is to beg and plead in protest. That Kaplan is oblivious to these nuances is clear: they offer a Sentence Equivalence question in which these two words are the answers (this would not happen on the actual test), and they use remonstrate in the sentence in a way that does not make sense (it’s also an intransitive verb).
This bungling of the English language is found throughout the text completions: awkward expressions abound, and words are used incorrectly. Simply put, the Kaplan writers are victims of their own system. That doesn’t mean you have to be one, too.
One thing, Kaplan does right…sort of. Ignore the strategies that make reading comprehension needlessly complex (I’ve had to do some detox for students here as well). Instead, learn reading strategies from Princeton Review, or elsewhere, and apply them to passages. The passages are well done, the questions, for the most part, sufficiently subtle enough that you can turn your critical thinking faculties on again.
Indeed, if there is one reason why I’ll use this book, it is for extra reading comprehension practice. That is, only after a student has exhausted all of the material from ETS and Barron’s (though it’s for GMAT, I also highly recommend the Official Guide for Reading Comprehension).
Again, Kaplan shines at the specious level. Information is laid out beautifully – it’s well-formatted, easy on the eyes. The strategies are easily digestible, and by no means cramp the page. Indeed, some pages have only one question, laid out photogenically.
And, therein lies the problem – over the course of nearly 150 pages, we get very little in the way of helpful tips and strategies. Kaplan gives only a cursory review of math concepts, and, typically, at the most basic level. Gone are any of more advanced concepts: permutation/combinations, counting problems, rate problems and anything but the most elementary geometry and standard deviation.
As for strategies, on their useful tips for quantitative comparison, they give very few examples to illustrate the concept they are discussing (one would think that if you were elucidating a strategy, you would give a couple of examples, so that someone new to the test would have a better understanding).
All of this is very different from Barron’s, who, though they may stuff as many problems and strategies as possible onto their used-napkin style paper, will, at least, help you learn many valuable tips.
Of course, for someone who doesn’t know the GRE, Kaplan makes the GRE math seem approachable, the quantitative beast easily vanquishable. Yet, there are some important math fundamentals that Kaplan leaves out, fundamentals that Princeton Review does a much better job covering. So, if you haven’t seen math in awhile, Kaplan may leave you frustrated.
At least Kaplan does a very good job with the explanation section. Unlike Barron’s, who provides practice sets without any explanations, Kaplan provides clear explanations, and usually references strategies and tips they mentioned earlier. This is helpful, especially as they have two 60-question sections – far more than Princeton Review. The questions are relatively easy, so, if you are looking for a high score, Kaplan’s problems will not be very helpful.
As a tutor, I’ve helped many students who were victims of the Kaplan writing strategies. That is not to say that the strategies are wrong, per se, only that they make writing the essay needlessly complex. Moreover, they do not provide many exercises to apply these strategies.
What they do provide is a primer on writing that is helpful for those students who are really rusty in writing. However, wasting precious space—and Kaplan already puts so little on each page—on the rudiments of comma use, and the like, only detracts from the more pragmatic concerns of the essay writing. There are plenty of writing books out there, Princeton Review’s Grammar Smart or even Kaplan’s Sharp Grammar.
I want to say that Kaplan should have spent more time on helping students craft winning essays for the Issue and the Argument…yet, simply learning your approach from Barron’s (or maybe Princeton Review), is the best way to go.
Kaplan looks perfect on paper, so to speak, but, when you look closer, much of their content will leave you woefully unprepared for the actual test. Indeed, if you practice only from Kaplan, you’ll be in for a big shock test day.
This is the fourth in a series of new GRE book reviews.