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What books should you buy for ACT prep?

act phase 3 test prep Oct 20, 2021
 

Whenever I travel to speak, I am frequently asked about my recommendations for ACT Prep Books. While I do offer an online ACT Prep Course, I wanted to go through and talk about the print resources I recommend. 

NOTE: Grab my FREE 10-page ACT Prep Guide here!

Practice/Review Books vs Strategy/Content Books

First, it's important to differentiate between the differences between the purposes of your books, and for that I want to highlight the four components that are essential for ACT Prep:

  • STRATEGY
  • CONTENT
  • PRACTICE
  • REVIEW

PRACTICE/REVIEW: The ACT is a paper test, so you need to practice it that way-you need paper copies of official exams. Only one free ACT exam is released officially online, so if you don't get any other book, you need to own an Official Guide to the ACT.

Why the Official Guide? The ACT is copyrighted, so while Princeton Review, Barrons, Kaplan and other publishers sell books touting practice questions or practice tests, they are real exams and can actually be sued for copyright infringement if their questions are too similar, so those books are fine for strategy or content but not best for practice and review.

The Official Guides also include detailed answer explanations for every single problem, which is great for reviewing and learning from your mistakes.

It's fine to get an older copy of the Official Guide. The 2021-2022 version has the most paper tests (6), but three of those are virtually the same as tests in every edition going back to the 2019-2020 version and one going back to the 2016-2017 version, so really any of the past several versions are good.

 So purchase an Official Guide for your ACT practice and make sure to carefully review the questions you miss (you should also make sure that any online ACT Prep Course you take incorporates practice from official ACT exams, like UniversityReady's ACT Prep Course).

STRATEGY/CONTENT: First off, the best book is the book your student will actually use and work through. Buying a huge stack of books for strategy and test prep is an awful idea if it just overwhelms your teen!

While the Official Guides are great for taking practice tests, they are horrible for strategies. Think about it, it is NOT in ACT Inc.'s best interest to tip their hand with the best strategies for you to beat them at their game! So while I recommend Official Guides for practice, you need a resource from a 3rd party for strategy (essentially your "textbook"), and also to brush up on the primary concepts you need to know for the English and math sections (reading and science reasoning do not depend upon you knowing much specific content).

There are lots of generic guides by Princeton Review, Kaplan, Graubners, Barron's, Idiot's Guide, Magoosh, etc. These are fine, and relatively equivalent in my experience. The problem is that most tout the number of practice tests or questions that they include, which as we discussed before is not your primary purpose for 3rd party books. This ends up drastically bulking up the book with resources that you really don't need.

For this reason I recommend a book that just focuses on strategy. A good starter book is Barron's ACT 36. For one thing it's skinny, which makes it less intimidating than overwhelming a student with multiple phone-book-like books:

It provides a good overview of strategies for each section and some basic content review for English and math. For most students, this is where I recommend starting (and the book I primarily use in my online ACT Prep Course). 

SUBJECT-SPECIFIC BOOKS

If you get through the Barron's ACT 36 and still want additional support, at that point I usually recommend identifying your weak subjects and get a book that targets those. The subject-specific books that I reccomend include:

ENGLISH:

MATH:

  • The Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT Second Edition is an excellent, compact math review book that covers both the content and strategies needed on the math section.
  • If you aren't intimidated by another large book, ACT Math The Guide is a very good ACT math review book that contains placement tests for each category that allows you to easily identify what you need to focus on (and also includes access to over 90 online videos).
  • College Panda's ACT Math: Advanced Guide and Workbook is excellent and more accessible at 271 pages vs the ACT Math The Guide's 600+ pages!
  • The most comprehensive (and most up-to-date) math review is The Best ACT Math Books Ever, Book 1: Algebra and Book 2: Numbers, Stats, Trig and Geometry  (yes, 2 volumes!). These together are extremely thorough, but again give consideration as to whether your teen will be intimidated by over 700 pages of math prep for the ACT!

READING:

  • Hands down my top recommendation is Erica Meltzer's The Complete Guide to ACT ReadingIt is pretty expensive for the number of pages it has, but worthwhile if you need focused help on the reading section.

SCIENCE REASONING:

  • The Science Reasoning section can be overwhelming and confusing, and the book I prefer is The Master Key to ACT Science, an excellent and substantial book to help you tackle this tricky section.
  • While it's a little older and a much shorter book, I also very much like For the love of ACT Science, though currently it is only available used.

Again I would generally not recommend you get all these books, just one or two to work on problem sections after you have gone through a standard strategy book. I incorporate ideas from all of these resources in my online ACT Prep Course.

ADVANCED SITUATIONS

If you have an advanced student that isn't intimidated by another substantial book and is very self-motivated then I highly recommend the ACT Black Book Second Edition. Note that this book goes along with the older 2018 Official Guide, so if you have a newer version you will still be able to use the Black Book for at least one of the tests but you might have to search to make sure they line up.

The beauty of the Black Book is that it goes through every single problem from the 2018 Official Guide, teaching you both the traditional as well as "hack" ways to answer each of the questions (those ways that the ACT doesn't want you to know about), so it can be a powerful tool for more advanced students. I also incorporate a lot of these concepts in my online course.

CONCLUSION

So those are my top recommendations for ACT prep books! If you have any questions about these or any other test prep resources feel free to reach out to me by email or Facebook or in the comments. If you want more resources and recommendations check out my FREE 10-page ACT Prep Guide here, or you can enroll in our Online ACT Prep Course which includes a 4-week crash course, a full-length 16-week course, LIVE Zoom sessions on Wednesdays for the 4 weeks leading up to each ACT exam date, access to Study.com and Magoosh's ACT prep courses and more! Let me know what questions you have, and I'll see you next time!

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