SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Best ACT Prep Books 2017

Posted by Allen Cheng | Feb 24, 2016 2:30:00 PM

ACT General Info, ACT Strategies

 

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There are numerous “Best ACT Books” lists out there. We think most of them aren’t very good or thorough, and I’ve tried to write a much better guide here.  You’ll learn which books are absolutely critical for your ACT prep, which books are focused on improving individual sections, and which books you need if you’re aiming for a top score. Importantly, you’ll also learn HOW to use these books to study effectively.

Keep reading to learn how to use ACT books to raise your score.

 

Guide Quick Links

This guide is detailed, so here are quick reference links. I recommend you read the whole thing if you can.

What's Better About This Guide?

Who is this Guide For?

Must-Have, Critical ACT Prep Books

Best ACT Books by Subject

Best Extra Books for Top Scorers

Other Free Resources

 

What’s Better About This Guide to the Best ACT Books?

Because your ACT score is important for getting into college, and you’ll probably spend a good amount of time studying, it’s important that you get the right advice. Follow the wrong advice, and it might be too late to improve your score before you need to apply to college.

Therefore, it’s important to vet the advice you get (including ours) before deciding on your ACT Prep plan. Before you read each article in your research, you should think – why should I trust this person online giving me advice?

To be transparent, here’s why this guide is better than others online, so you can decide for yourself:

  • I explain in detail why good books are good, and also what each book's flaws are. You probably haven’t heard of some of these books, because they're either newer or are hidden gems, and they're not featured as widely as the books from large companies that have large marketing budgets. Most other guides just list a few books without much rationale.
  • I believe it’s important to target your weaknesses and where you need to prep. Thus, I’ll point out books that are best for training specific sections, and books that are better depending on whether you’re scoring high or low. Other guides assume all students are the same.
  • I don’t get paid for promoting these books over others. I’ve studied dozens of books for ACT prep, and these are the books I would be using if I were prepping myself. Other sites, like about.com and reviews.com, often get paid to adjust their rankings and get kickbacks from publishers.
  • I like to think that I know what I’m talking about. I scored a perfect 36 on the ACT and have worked personally with thousands of students prepping for the ACT. I’ve worked with students at all levels, from people at a 12- level to people aiming for a 34+. Other writers often don't have the expertise needed to differentiate between books, and they recommend books as an afterthought (and you can probably tell).

One important disclaimer: I’m co-founder of PrepScholar, an online ACT prep program. I believe we’ve built the best prep program available right now. It diagnoses your strengths and weaknesses and gives you a structured all-in-one program, combining the best aspects of the books below, so you know exactly what you need to study at every point.

But I want to stress that you don’t need a program to excel at the ACT. In fact, writing this guide may lose us some customers, since you might decide that you don’t need a program at all. But if you decide that you don’t want to manage 10 books and want an integrated, complete program that has the greatest chance of raising your ACT score, check PrepScholar ACT out.

If you’re serious about ACT prep, keep reading.

 

Who Is This Guide For?

First, this guide is for students who are serious about their prepYou need to be motivated to get a high score, and you need to be willing to put in hard work. Getting through these books will take dozens of hours, simply because the ACT covers so much material.

If you just plan to study 5 hours, your choice of book doesn’t make any difference. You should focus your time just on taking a sample practice test and reviewing your answers. Your score won’t go up much, and you shouldn’t expect miracles.

Buying the books is the first and easiest step of ACT prep. You'll need to put in serious work to actually get the score improvements. We’ll explain below the best way to get the most out of these books.

Secondly, this guide is for students who want to improve their score by over 2 points. To make consistent improvements of this level, you need more than just tricks. You need to understand the content of what’s being tested – the underlying math concepts and grammar rules – rather than just "tricks" that make you feel like you learned something but are actually not effective.

Again, if you’re just looking to improve by 1 point, it’s possible for you to do that just by retaking the test, especially if you’ve taken the test only once.

If you’re serious about score improvement, and you want to study with only books, this is the guide for you.

 

The Best ACT Prep Books of 2017

We’re going to divide the best ACT books into a few categories:

  • Critical Books: Must have books as part of your prep program, no matter your skill level or weaknesses.
  • Subject Training Books: The best books to use to train for the English, Math, Reading, and Science sections.
  • Books for Top Scorers: Books that will push you over the top.
  • Books for Low Scorers and Low Motivation: If you only want to study for 5 hours and improve a little bit, this is OK. Otherwise avoid.

 

Critical ACT Prep Books

These are books that I believe everyone should have, regardless of their current score, regardless of where they need to improve. This is extremely hard to qualify for, and in fact there are only two books out of dozens that I’ve tested:

 

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The Official ACT Prep Guide

We’ve written at length about the importance of official ACT practice questions. The ACT test is weird and tests concepts in ways that you’ve never seen in school before. This means that you need to train with realistic questions so you learn the patterns of the ACT.

Official ACT tests released by the ACT organization itself are the gold standard for ACT practice questions. Each test released contains real questions given to real students at previous administrations of the ACT. The quality of official questions is far better than questions written by unofficial sources like Kaplan and Princeton Review. This book, informally called the "Red Book," is the best source of tests, though you might consider getting the old third edition, instead of the new 2016-2017 edition, since it contained five tests rather than the current three.

 

Pros:

  • The best set of practice tests you can get anywhere, period.
  • Three full-length tests provide a good amount of practice for most students. Since each one takes at least four hours to complete and review, this is already 12 hours of material.
  • Answers for each question are available in the book.

 

Cons:

  • Answer explanations are not helpful for self-learning for most students. Most of the explanations read like this: “A is wrong because A is wrong. B is correct for these reasons” rather than showing you how to solve the question from step 1, which is what most students need. You need to understand yourself well to learn from your mistakes.
  • Three tests isn't enough for more ambitious students. You will need to supplement with other free practice tests or with the ACT online course, which is good only for the 2 extra tests it offers.
  • Book doesn’t provide other instructional material. If you’re bad at algebra, you can’t rely on this book alone. People are buying it for the tests, and the ACT knows this.
  • Taking practice tests without a system for learning isn’t going to improve your score, and the book doesn’t provide guidance on how to do this.

You can also get all free official practice tests here, but these don’t have answer explanations.

 

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ACT Black Book

This is the only other Critical book in my recommendation. It’s not sufficient by itself, and even with the Black Book you’ll likely need more supplemental help, as I explain below. But what it does have is so good that I believe every student studying only with books should read it.

What you’ll get from the Black Book is a way to think about the ACT. What does this even mean? Here are a few examples:

  • You learn that the ACT is designed to be a predictable, standardized test. It needs to test basic concepts so that it can be administered nationwide to all students, but it also needs to make it difficult, so it distorts the questions in a weird way.
  • You learn that every answer must be unambiguously correct, or else students would complain that their incorrect answer is correct. This means that your strategy should be to rule out all incorrect answer choices, which is important on ACT reading.

Some of the concepts in this book were things I understood intuitively when I took the ACT, but the author articulates them in a crystal clear way in this book. It’s influenced the way that I think about teaching our students at PrepScholar. Of all books on the market, this book aligns most closely with my personal philosophy on the ACT and how to succeed on it.

 

Pros:

  • Very lucid take on the ACT. The ideas within will change your view on the ACT and hopefully motivate you to work harder, knowing that any student can excel on the ACT.
  • Contains practical strategies that are more helpful than most other books. Doesn’t rely on “tricks” like other popular books do.
  • Doesn’t assume that all students are the same. It offers a few alternatives for strategies, then suggests that you try them out and see which one works better.
  • A good set of answer explanations for the hardest questions in the Real ACT Prep Guide (the book above). They break down how to approach the question in a straightforward way.

 

Cons:

  • Requires a ton of self-discipline and insight to use effectively. Because you’re learning from your mistakes and no one is there to guide you, you need to be self-driven to experiment with different strategies and find which one works best for you. For some students, following a set of straight guidelines could be less confusing.
  • The question explanations are based on the old third edition of the Red Book. If you don't have that book, large parts of this book will be either difficult or impossible to use.
  • Most of the question explanations cover the hardest questions in the Red Book. These serve as good examples for how to think generally about ACT questions, but if you’re scoring in the 8-26 level in a section, they can be confusing.
  • The fundamental content is lacking. If you’re weak in algebra, for example, this book will not alone help you master that subject area. I believe more in recognizing your weaknesses and, through focused prep and specific practice questions, mastering that skill. This book is more about teaching an approach to prepping for the ACT.
  • English and Science sections are not as strong as Reading and Math. This is largely due to the nature of the English section, where it’s less about understanding how the test works and more about mastering the grammar rules.

Once again, I highly recommend these two books for all students studying purely through books. We cover most of the important concepts in the Black Book in our ACT prep program and provide focused practice on individual skills.

 

Best ACT Books by Subject

Beyond the Critical books above, you’ll most likely need extra supplemental help on specific sections. The following section discusses the best books for English, Math, Reading, and Science. These books all follow my prep philosophy:

  • Divide ACT content into skills, and get focused training on those skills
  • Use realistic, high-quality questions that prep you well for the real ACT
  • Cover only what you need to know, not advanced material not on the ACT

 

Best ACT English Prep Book

The best way to excel at ACT English is to understand the grammar rules and how they appear on the ACT. Then, you need to do a lot of focused practice questions to make sure you learn the patterns of the ACT. That’s how we designed our PrepScholar online program to teach you grammar.

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My recommendation for best ACT English book is The Complete Guide to ACT English, by Erica Meltzer. Erica’s fantastic at distilling all of grammar into what you need to know for the SAT. You won’t learn arcane grammar concepts that aren’t tested. For the rules that are tested, she presents them clearly and covers the foundation if you’ve forgotten the grammar rule from school.

 

Pros:

  • Clear writing and articulation of grammar rules.
  • Covers only what you need to know for the ACT and cuts out extraneous material.
  • Practice questions are in a realistic ACT passage format. They're grouped by topic so you get repeated practice on the same skill.

 

Cons:

  • Pricey for a book that covers just one section (around $30). 
  • Testing a single grammar skill in this format can be misleading practice for the real test. For example, if you know the section is focusing on Subject/Verb Agreement, you might be biased toward recognizing that error in the practice quiz, but not during the actual test. This is why our program integrates full-length practice tests into your program so you can learn the skills in the context of the real test.

 

Best ACT Math Prep Book

My philosophy on ACT math is that the best way to significantly improve your math score is to learn the underlying math content. Learning some simple strategies like ‘plug in the answer choices’ can get you a little progress, but you’ll quickly run into a ceiling if you have gaps in your underlying math skills. You need to learn algebra, geometry, and number theory to improve on the ACT.

Your best bet is therefore to find a book that can both teach you math content in an organized way and give you practice problems to focus on individual skills. 

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For these reasons, I recommend the Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT, by Richard Corn. This is a well-done book that lets you drill down on areas of weakness.

 

Pros:

  • Lessons teaching math concepts are clear and helpful. They don't dive into math that you don't need to know.
  • The book divides math into smaller sub-topics. For example, Algebra is divided into Solving equations, FOILing, word problems etc. This division into smaller skills is important and exactly how we designed PrepScholar to teach you.
  • Contains higher-level strategies on how to prep effectively.

 

Cons:

  • The answer explanations are lacking. They show you why an answer is correct, but they don't teach you how to recognize the problem and how to solve it from the first step. In PrepScholar, we focus on detailed answer explanations that guide you through how to solve the question and others like it.
  • The questions are high quality, but they can be more creative. The ACT contains a host of questions that are unique and unusual, and having this variety is important to mastering the test.
  • The book doesn't distinguish by difficulty level. On the ACT, the hardest questions are much harder than the easiest questions. If you're scoring in the average score range, you don't at all need to know how to solve the hardest 20% of questions. Trying to understand these can be a waste of time when you could instead be building your fundamental skills better. This is why we designed PrepScholar to test you exactly at the level that will most stimulate your growth.
  • The book contains numerous typos. These don't impede your understanding, but they can be distracting.

If you’re really struggling with math at a basic level (say, scoring 16 and below), I’d recommend that you supplement your work with Khan Academy’s math modules. It’s a free program and it provides an engaging way to train your most basic skills. Note that it's not customized for the ACT, so it's nowhere near enough for just ACT prep.

 

Best ACT Reading Prep Book

In my experience with thousands of students, ACT Reading is the most difficult section to improve. It uses logical reasoning skills that aren’t as easily mastered as math concepts or grammar rules. It’s very important to drill down on what types of questions are asked, and how to approach these questions in a systematic way.

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My recommendation for best ACT Reading book is once again by Erica Meltzer: The Complete Guide to ACT Reading. This book dissects the ACT Reading section by question type and skill. She does a great job of teaching the core of what the question is asking, and how to work with the passage to arrive at the correct answer. Of all writers, Erica Meltzer aligns most closely with my personal philosophy of drilling questions skill-by-skill to recognize patterns to questions.

 

Pros:

  • Great breakdown of the Reading section on a skill-by-skill level. Helpful strategies for every type of question.
  • Lots of high-quality, realistic passages and questions. She uses passages similar to those you’ll see on the ACT.
  • Contains useful strategies on skimming and how to approach passages.

 

Cons:

  • Pricey for a book that covers just one section ($30) and contains just 120 pages.
  • The writing style is dry and clinical, like an academic textbook. I personally prefer this – cut out the fluff – but it can be quite dense for the average student.
  • Lack of creative page layouts and a lot of text on large pages can get tiresome.

 

Best ACT Science Prep Book

As you may know, ACT Science is more like ACT Reading than science classes you've taken in school. It tests less fundamental science knowledge and more scientific reasoning from passages.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend any book out there that's focused on ACT Science. No book has the breadth of practice and logical reasoning that is needed to excel on this section. Barron's ACT 36 (described below) has a decent treatment of ACT Science, but you'll find it lacking as a full guide to ACT Science.

Noticing this problem, we at PrepScholar published what we believe is the Best ACT Science Prep Guide available anywhere. It breaks down the section into its individual skills and gives you useful strategies to improve your ACT Science score. Check it out.

If you must prep with books, the best way to improve ACT Science is to take the full-length practice tests in the ACT Prep Guide (Red Book), and then reflect carefully on every single question you miss. We discuss how to get the most out of practice tests here. Our ACT Prep Program does contain detailed practice on ACT Science, including strategies and customized practice quizzes.

 

Best Additional Books for Top ACT Scorers

With all the books above, you already have your work cut out for you. With 9 full-length practice tests and five books at your disposal, you will be studying for well over 80 hours. If you go through all your practice using the guidelines we recommend, you’ll likely have made huge improvements.

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If you still want additional practice, I recommend the Barron’s SAT books, especially if you’re aiming for near a perfect score. I remember using these books during my own prep in high school, and while their questions are inferior to real ACT practice tests, they’re a good backup source when you finish everything else above.

 

Pros:

  • A lot of content. Thousands of practice questions and detailed lessons with many examples.
  • Very thorough – covers every nook and cranny of what you need to know. You can be confident that very little is tested outside of what’s contained in these books.

 

Cons:

  • Topics can get too difficult for what you need to know on the ACT. Some questions are too hard in the wrong way – they can get unrealistically hard in a way that you’d never see on the ACT. If you’re not an ACT expert yet, you won’t be able to detect when this happens and you can waste time studying things that don’t matter.
  • Lacks clear direction on what’s important or not. For example, a grammar rule that appears once every test gets the same number of pages as a grammar rules that appears 8 times every test. Again, this is the flipside of being thorough. This is definitely not the book to use if you have a limited time to study.
  • Not all strategies are good. The ACT 36 reading advice I have mixed feelings about.

 

Best All-In-One Book for Less-Motivated Low Scorers

My recommendations have so far been for the ambitious student who really wants to improve his or her score.

I know there are some students who just want to put in 5 hours, get some exposure to the test, and then take the SAT and forget about it. I personally believe that for most students, improving your SAT score is, hour for hour, the best way to improve your chances of college admission. So I would say that if you feel this way, you should re-examine your approach.

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But if you’re stuck in this mindset, the book I would recommend is Kaplan’s ACT book. It’s an all-in-one book that covers the four sections and contains practice questions and practice tests. It doesn’t excel at any of what it’s doing, but it covers the important bases. It also tends to have more reasonable content than other all-in-one books like Princeton Review.

I don’t love this book. I don’t even really like it. I don’t recommend it if you at all want to improve your score seriously and are willing to put in study time. But if you just want a single source that can do an OK job and is easily digestible, this is the best one out there.

 

Pros:

  • Covers all four sections and contains six practice tests.
  • At $15, affordable for the breadth that it covers.
  • Contains some basic strategies that can get you a few easy points if you get stuck answering questions.

 

Cons:

  • Practice questions tend to be unrealistic – they often don’t phrase questions the way the ACT would, and they don’t test concepts in the right way. The questions also don’t trick you in the same ways that the ACT does.
  • Answers and materials can have errors – not great quality control.
  • Strategies are not helpful once you move beyond a 24 score level in the section.

 

Other Free Resources

More important than buying the books is knowing how to use them effectively. The more books you have, the more important it is to understand how to build a unified study system. We've written thorough guides to help guide you through how to study.

Get a free guide for 5 essential components of your study program to improve 4+ points.

If you're aiming for a top score, check out my thorough guide to how I scored a perfect ACT score.

Build a study plan across your high school schedule so you know when to take the ACT.

 

Is Book Studying the Best Option for You?

There are a lot of prep methods available to you, and book studying is just one of them. Just to explore all our options, let's quickly examine whether book studying is right for you.

People who choose to study by books do so for different reasons. Some so it for cost reasons. As I noted above, the best ACT books can get expensive. If you buy all the top books, you'll be spending around $200. This is already close to the cost of our online ACT prep program, which goes beyond books by guiding your study step-by-step and and motivating you to put in time.

Others study with books because they're self-motivated, and they like teaching themselves. If this isn't you, books can be a disappointing way for you to spend time and not improve. By far one of the most important ways to improve your ACT score is to study your mistakes and learn from them. If you can't do this reliably, you'll need extra help to get you started.

We've written a free guide to compare other methods of prep. Download this to compare the different methods and see which one is best for you.

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What Next?

Understanding your ACT target score is critical. Read this step-by-step guide to figuring out what ACT score you need to aim for.

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Check out our industry-leading online ACT program. We've designed it to cover all the advantages of books and tutors - and more - at an affordable price. Featuring in-depth strategy lessons and thousands of practice questions, we have the content from the leading books. We include the critical Real ACT Prep Guide above as part of your program.

Beyond that, the program acts like your personal tutor. It guides you step-by-step through what you should be working on at every moment to best improve your score. It customizes to your strengths and weaknesses, then gives you focused practice so you learn the patterns on the SAT. Furthermore, it motivates you to study so that you put in enough time.

There's a 4 point guarantee - if you don't improve your score by 4 points or more, you get all your money back.

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Allen Cheng
About the Author

As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.



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