By: Darwin Wan, MS II

Whether it’s the MCAT or USMLE, there seems to be no shortage of standardized tests standing between hopeful students and their future medical careers. With so much riding on the results of these examinations and new cohorts of students anxious to surmount these challenges every year, there is no shortage of companies ready to aid students on these endeavors.…for a price.

Though USMLE preparation courses are expensive, students do have a choice when it comes to their exam studying, and thus, companies must differentiate themselves in one way or another. Kaplan is one such company that is trying to gain an advantage by riding the digital wave and the rise of the iPhone.

Kaplan is the only test prep company with a free USMLE Qbank iPhone app that integrates with their desktop Qbank database (obviously not free).

To be clear, we have already reviewed a version of Kaplan’s Step 1 Qbank app before. The free Qbank only contained 100 questions, and Kaplan informed us they developed the abridged app in order to test the waters before they launched their full comprehensive “mobile” Qbank. In this review, we look at Kaplan’s Step 1 Mobile Qbank, which promises to integrate with the full desktop and online Kaplan Qbank.

Kaplan’s Qbank is a database of over 2300 USMLE-style questions and explanations designed to prepare test-takers for the USMLE. Ranging from $109 for 1 month of Qbank access to $499 for 12 months of Qbank Plus (4300 questions) access, Kaplan’s tools are by no means the cheapest USMLE preparation options — but only slightly more expensive than the offering from USMLE World.  However, Kaplan does bring added value to their offering by bringing the Qbank to the iPhone for free.

Desktop Version

Before I describe the app itself, the desktop version warrants discussion. Upon logging into your Qbank via your desktop’s web browser, you are presented with multiple options. When creating a test, you are given the option of selecting which organ systems and disciplines you would like to examine, can specify question difficulty parameters, choose between regular or multimedia questions, and specify the test size (a maximum of 46 questions).

You can take either a timed test or a test in tutor mode.  In tutor mode, the answer’s explanations are immediately accessible as one tackles questions.  While taking a test you may suspend them for later completion. After completing tests, you are able to review individual questions. Very detailed explanations for each answer choice are available. A useful supplement to this is the “reKap”, a quick summary of the pertinent learning points from each question. As the detailed explanations can be quite long, I found the reKap to be a quick and convenient way to glean the main points of each question. References are also available for each question.

As you complete tests, your answers are scored and aggregated into a test summary.  The resulting progress report is designed to enable you to identify knowledge deficiencies, upward/downward trends, and compare your scores with other students.

iPhone Mobile Qbank

The Mobile Qbank app essentially allows you to download a block of questions (max 46 questions) to your iPhone or iPad for offline use. This was particularly useful during my reading week break, when I did not have regular internet access, as I could work on questions on the go without incurring data roaming charges. Following test completion, the app uploads your score to your Qbank and includes that data in a test analysis and the progress report.

However, this system, in which the app only communicates with the Kaplan server pre and post-test mode also limits the potential of the app. Whether it be editing lecture notes through Dropbox, accessing email through Exchange, or the IMAP protocol on my iPhone, I love having digital continuity in my work. Through these productivity methods, changes I make on my phone or laptop are reflected online, and thus when I access my work from another device, my previous changes are intact.  It’s a continuous and seamless digital stream.  Unfortunately, the Kaplan mobile Qbank app is not as seamless.

The Qbank questions, once downloaded, remain isolated. For example, if I created a test on my iPhone and completed half of it, I would still have to start from the beginning if I pulled out my iPad with the intention of finishing the test — the same results if I try to complete the test with my desktop computer.

If I finished a test on one device, finishing the test on another device results in a server exception. Kaplan only allows one block of questions downloaded to a mobile device at a time. Furthermore, if I logged into Qbank on my laptop instead of my iPad to try to resume work, I would find that the test I was working on is “locked on mobile device”. Similarly, if I created a test on my laptop, I would have to finish it on my laptop; downloading it to my iPhone would be impossible.

The Mobile Qbank app essentially allows you to store only one block of questions at a time on your iPhone or iPad. It then sends your progress to the server when you’re done; it does not fully sync with the desktop application at all. The only integration between the two applications is in producing your progress report, other than that they are completed isolated.