The ACT Black Book is a popular ACT prep guide, but because it lacks the name recognition of large test prep companies like Princeton Review and Barron's, many people aren't sure if it's worth purchasing. The ACT Black Book is great for clever strategies to answer questions, but it's not as strong in other areas. So is it right for you, and what should you use the ACT Black Book for? In this in-depth ACT Black Book review, we explain what the book includes, its pros and cons, and who should buy it. Let's dive in!
What Is the ACT Prep Black Book? What Does It Include?
The ACT Prep Black Book (2nd edition) is a test prep book designed to help students preparing for the ACT get their highest score. It's currently available on Amazon for about $29 (paper version) or about $18 (ebook version). The book is 580 pages, and the 2nd edition was published in 2018. It contains 11 parts, which are further divided into different chapters.
The book begins by explaining the ACT and giving a high-level overview of what your preparation for it should look like. It continues by giving general tips that can be used throughout the entire exam, then devotes a chapter to each section of the ACT and gives section-specific advice. For each section of the ACT, you'll learn about the main types of questions you'll see and different strategies to use to correctly solve them.
Throughout the book are hundreds of answer explanations to practice questions. These questions weren't created for this book; they're official ACT questions that come from The Official ACT Prep Guide (sometimes known as the ACT Red Book). You'll need to purchase The Official ACT Prep Guide (the 2018 version) in order to see the questions explained in the ACT Black Book.
Who Is the ACT Black Book Author?
Many prep books are written by companies and their teams of writers, but the ACT Black Book is different because it is written by a single person not connected to a large test prep agency. So who is this guy?
The ACT Black Book is written by Mike Barrett, a self-proclaimed test-prep expert. He has written other books in his "Black Book" series, including ones for the SAT and certain SAT Subject Tests. Additionally, he has worked as a test prep tutor, offered online video courses, and conducted seminars on test prep. In recent years, he appears to have made a shift to more general marketing and public speaking, and his LinkedIn profile describes himself as an "Author, Consultant, Speaker, and Teacher."
From our own analysis of the book, we believe that Barrett understands the ACT well enough to create a high-quality prep book that recognizes and explains many of the "tricks" needed to excel on the ACT. There is some marketing language in the book and within its description, some of which is exaggerated (as a lot of marketing is), but we don't feel it significantly detracts from the book.
Pros of the ACT Black Book
In this section we go over the three major strengths of the ACT Black Book.
#1: Clear-Eyed View of the ACT and How to Excel on It
The ACT Prep Black Book really gets the ACT. It understands how it's designed and how you can use those qualities to get a top exam score. One of the characteristics of the ACT the Black Book explains is how each answer on the exam 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 especially important on ACT Reading.
Similarly, the ACT Black Book also understands how the ACT tests simple concepts in a challenging way, and how you can learn to see through those challenges to find the correct answer. The explanations and strategies are at a much higher level than those of nearly any other ACT prep book, especially official ACT prep books which really don't offer much in the way of strategy. If you want to really understand the ACT inside and out and use that knowledge to get a top score, this is the book for you.
#2: Offers Individualized Strategies
Some prep materials offer one strategy and expect it to work for all readers. However, the ACT Black Book recognizes that people have different studying and testing preferences. As a result, for every section of the ACT, the book provides multiple strategies to solve questions. For example, for ACT Reading questions, they explain both how to read the passage first, then answer questions, as well as how to begin with the questions and read the passage as you go. Both methods are fully explained, so you can experiment with both and stick with the method that works best for you. This allows you to develop a more individualized and effective approach to both studying for and taking the ACT.
#3: Strong Answer Explanations
The ACT Black Book really shines with its answer explanations. The Official ACT Prep Guide has top-notch practice questions, written by the same people who design actual ACTs, but their answer explanations are weak and likely won't be of much help if you aren't understanding the concepts behind a question. The ACT Black Book goes through over 600 of those questions and breaks down how to solve each problem. Working through questions you got wrong is a very effective way of expanding your skills and raising your ACT score, and The Black Book is a great resource for this.
Cons of the ACT Black Book
Nothing is perfect, and below we explain some drawbacks of the ACT Black Book you should be aware of.
#1: Requires Self-Discipline
Some prep books really take to heart the "studying can be fun!" idea and try to make their materials as engaging as possible (Princeton Review in particular is known for this). The ACT Black Book doesn't spend time doing this. It's not written in a particularly boring style, but it also doesn't try to thrill you or entice you to study. Its goal is to give you the information you need in the clearest and simplest way possible; no additional words are spent on trying to hold your interest. You need to be the one to decide to devote hours going through this book. Some students appreciate this style of learning, but others shudder at the idea of working through nearly six hundred pages of dry test prep information without external motivation.
#2: Not the Best for Building Core Competencies
The ACT Black Book is heavily focused on strategies to answer ACT questions; it doesn't spend much time working through the basic content knowledge needed to answer many ACT questions. So, for example, if you struggle with algebra, the ACT Black Book will explain tricks to answer algebra questions faster and more easily, but it won't be much help if you can't consistently solve algebra questions in the first place. The book assumes readers already have a solid foundation of the skills the ACT tests.
The ACT Prep Black Book on its own costs nearly $30, and the Official ACT Prep Book, which is needed for the sample questions, is another $20 or so. That's nearly $50 to be able to fully use one prep book, which may be too much for some people, especially if they're purchasing other ACT prep materials.
ACT Black Book Review: Is the ACT Prep Black Book Right for You?
Overall, we highly recommend the ACT Prep Black Book and think it's one of the most useful ACT prep books available. No other single book matches the quality of strategies and explanation of the ACT that it does, and it provides much-needed answer explanations for the Official ACT Prep Guide, another highly-recommended book.
However, for many students, the ACT Black Book alone won't be enough for their ACT prep. As we mentioned before, you'll need the Official ACT Prep Guide to see the questions that correspond with the Black Book's answer explanations. Additionally, because the ACT Prep Black Book focuses more on strategies than basic content, if you need to build up your skills in certain areas, you should use another prep book to help with that. Similarly, because the Black Book is such a deep dive into the ACT, you may want to look at another prep book first to get a general overview of the exam before you start learning in detail how it is developed. For ACT beginners, we recommend the Princeton Review or Kaplan prep books to get you started.
Also, know that you'll only really get a lot out of the ACT Black Book if you devote some serious time to it. If you're just hoping to spend a couple hours scanning a prep book that'll give you a better idea of what to expect on the test and maybe raise your score a bit, the ACT Black Book has way more information than you need. You may find a lot of it irrelevant. This book requires a significant time commitment, focuses a lot on particularly difficult questions, and assumes a fairly high level of baseline knowledge to start. If you're looking for a less-intense method of preparing for the ACT, then you may be better off with a different prep book, such as Kaplan's ACT book.
In general though, if you're aiming for a high ACT score or want to significantly raise your score from where you are scoring now, and you're ready to put in the time, the ACT Prep Black Book will be one of the single most useful resources to help you reach that goal.
How long should you study before you take the ACT? Check out our recommended study plan here.
Ready to put in some serious study time? Check out the best books for intense ACT study and get ready to see your score go up!
Are you deciding when to take the ACT for the first time (or second or third)? Read about how to choose your test dates here.
Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.