The ACT recently released a new official prep guide for the upcoming school year. This guide is designed to accommodate several small changes that were made to the format of the test. These changes include new essay prompts, fewer science passages, and paired passages in the reading section. In this article, I'll provide a review of the Official ACT Prep Guide for 2016-2017, including positives and negatives of the new guide, how it differs from the 3rd Edition, and whether or not you should buy it to help you through the study process.
What’s in The Real ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017?
The book is organized into five parts which are further divided into smaller chapters. The parts are the following:
- Part One: Getting Acquainted with the ACT Test (general study strategies and test-taking tips, explanation of the format and what’s covered on the test)
- Part Two: Taking and Evaluating Your First Practice Test (diagnostic practice test along with an explanation of how to use your results to identify weak areas)
- Part Three: Improving Your Score (test-taking strategies for each section of the exam)
- Part Four: Taking Additional Practice Tests (two additional practice tests for you to take after you’ve evaluated your mistakes and done more prep)
- Part Five: Moving Forward to Test Day (shows you how to sign up for the test and what to expect on test day)
There are three full practice tests included in this guide, counting the initial practice test that you'll use to diagnose your mistakes in part two. In the next section, I'll go through my full review of the book with extensive details on its strengths and weaknesses.
The Real ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017 Review
There are many reasons to like or dislike this new version of the Red Book. I'll start with the positive attributes of the guide and move onto its not-so-awesome qualities.
Smart Overall Structure
The order of the chapters in the book corresponds to when you should take each step in the review and testing process (which was not the case in the previous edition of the guide). This book understands that the best way to guarantee improvement over time is to take a practice test, evaluate your mistakes, study the content that's relevant to your mistakes, and take another practice test to see if you’ve improved. The guide tells you exactly how to begin studying and which steps you should take along the way to make sure you’re improving.
Good Advice on Scores and What They Mean
The guide walks you through scoring your practice tests accurately, and it gives you a table of percentiles so you can see how your scores compare to those of other students. It also does a good job of explaining how to judge your scores based on where you plan on applying to college and how much you improve from test to test. Learning to set appropriate goals is a huge aspect of studying for standardized tests that can be overlooked in some prep books.
Abundant Test-Taking Tips
There are many test-taking tips for each section of the ACT included in this book. Some tips can seem a bit repetitive (sometimes it seems like they’re just filling up space), but most are solid pieces of advice. For ACT English, helpful tips listed in the book include considering the context of the question before choosing an answer, rereading the sentence using the answer you've selected, exercising caution with two part questions, and paying attention to the writing style.
This guide is dryly written, with little in the way of images, graphics, or differentiated headings to break up the text. There are sporadic efforts to be more engaging, but it’s definitely not the most student-friendly prep guide. Adding to this, Part 1 has an overview of the test that includes long lists of concepts covered by each section that could be condensed. The book makes the test seem way too intimidating and overwhelming (more on this in the next point).
Complicates the Material
While it's great that there are abundant test-taking tips included in this book, they aren't always presented in the best way. The tips are a bit hard to digest and use in practice on the test. While question examples are given to show how the tips work in some cases, these examples are not as abundant as they should be.
This book falls short specifically in demystifying the science section. The main issue with this section for most students is that it looks super intimidating, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. To overcome this, you need to learn to pick out the most important details and ignore extra information that’s just there to distract you. This guide makes the science section look scarier and more “sciencey” even though in reality it’s more about reading comprehension than scientific knowledge.
Answer Explanations are Lacking
Math and science question explanations are laid out in a way that makes them confusing and difficult to think through. Here's an example of what the answer explanations for math questions look like:
As you can see, there are rarely any images to guide you in your understanding or even much room for the text to breathe at all. Everything starts to blur together into a mass of unintellible math-like word goop. If you're already having trouble with the Math section, these sorts of answer explanations probably won't clear things up.
The guide also makes some assumptions about how much you know about the content. If you didn't even understand where to begin in answering these math questions, the answer explanations provided aren't too enlightening. It would be helpful if they at least indicated the page in the book where you could find additional details on how to solve these types of problems.
Not Enough Guidance on Understanding Mistakes
The book tells you how to understand your mistakes, but it could have a more consolidated system to help you go through and diagnose them. An organized chart where you could record your findings would be better than just saying “put a checkmark next to the mistakes you made” and listing potential mistakes for each section.
There are also no direct actionables that go along with each type of mistake. The guide doesn’t tell you which page to turn to if you have a certain problem. It would be great to know where to find advice that corresponds to the errors you made in each section. The tips for the Reading section also don’t elaborate on different ways to approach passages, which can be a huge problem for people on that section and should be addressed more comprehensively.
It would be a shame to burrow down into your mistakes only to reach a dead end.
How Does This Compare to the Previous Real ACT Prep Guide (3rd Edition)?
The downside to this new version is that there are fewer practice tests (only three as opposed to five in the 3rd Edition). It's also important to note that none of these practice tests are completely original. The first one is essentially the same as the test that was given in June of 2015 (form 73C), and the second one is very similar to the test given in April of 2015 (form 73G). The third test is an amalgamation of questions from practice tests in the 3rd Edition.
There are minor tweaks within these tests, including the fact that the science sections only have six passages now, but most questions are the same. It also contains completely new writing prompts for each test because the essay format has changed significantly in the past year. The similarities between the practice tests and the old tests might not make a difference if you're new to the ACT, but if you took the ACT in April or June of 2015 or have already been through all the practice tests in the 3rd Edition, this version of the guide might not be as useful.
However, the new guide does outshine the 3rd Edition in certain respects. It’s much better at giving you a system for organizing your studying. The 3rd Edition has background information about registration, strategies, and content before listing all five practice tests in a row. This structure doesn’t give you much of a game plan and makes it tempting to just take practice tests without evaluating your mistakes. The new guide is structured much more logically. It recommends taking a diagnostic test and analyzing your mistakes right off the bat as the first step in your studying (a strategy that we advocate at PrepScholar).
Should You Get This Guide?
You should get this book if you’re new to the ACT. It's a thorough summary of everything you need to know about the most up-to-date version of the test, even if has its imperfections. If you need additional practice materials, you may choose to buy the 3rd Edition as a supplement (though I wouldn't recommend using the old writing prompts to practice your essays because they’ve changed significantly). Keep in mind that many of the questions from the fourth and fifth practice tests in the 3rd Edition were transferred over to the third practice test in the new edition. The first three tests will be the most useful for practice in that case. You also could decide to get this book if you want to practice your essay-writing skills using new prompts that align with the current version of the ACT.
I would NOT recommend getting this book if you're confident about self-guided studying and are just looking for more practice questions. There isn't that much material, and almost all of it is recycled from previous tests. You're better off getting the 3rd Edition, which has more original practice materials, and supplementing it with free online resources.
The last practice test in the new edition of the guide is the rebellious twin of the last two practice tests in the 3rd Edition. It may have changed its hairstyle, but the same DNA is still there. Side note: If anyone had natural eyelashes that were this long, it would be a truly terrifying sight to behold.
How to Get the Most Out of The Real ACT Prep Guide
The best way to ensure that you're getting the most out of the guide is to go through it in chronological order. First, read the basic tips in chapter two so you can get a handle on the basics of how the test works. Then, take the first practice test and go through your mistakes. Go on to use the content sections of the book and any other resources on hand to study the areas that need the most work. When you feel that you've addressed your mistakes and are confident that your results will reflect your newfound expertise, take a second practice test to see if you've made significant improvements.
Note that The ACT Black Book, a resource that we recommend alongside the Real ACT Prep Guide for the best strategic test-taking advice, is tailored to the practice questions in the 3rd Edition. The answer explanations in the Black Book will not correspond directly to the questions in the latest edition of the Red Book. The tips can still be helpful even if you don't use it in conjunction with the 3rd Edition, but this is something to keep in mind so you aren't confused when you can't match questions to explanations using the new edition.
Not sure what score you should be aiming for on the ACT? Learn how to calculate a target score that makes sense based on your college goals.
Did your ACT test date sneak up on you? Check out our 10-day prep plan for advice on how to cram for the ACT and potentially raise your score by four composite points!
If you still have quite a bit of time before the test, read this guide on how long you should study for the ACT so you can come up with a solid study schedule.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.