Albert Einstein, who's generally considered a pretty smart guy, said, "It's not that I'm so smart. It's just that I stay with problems longer." That type of commitment, as anyone who's studying for the ACT knows, is its own form of intelligence, and it's what will help you accomplish your long-term goals.
This book guide is meant for students looking to "stay with problems longer" and study intensively, like 100 or more hours, to maximize their scores on the ACT. If you're a student who wants to leave no stone unturned as you prep for the ACT, then these are the books for you.
Before delving into the ACT prep book list, a word about what perspective I'm coming from in my recommendations.
The ACT books on this list all have strengths and weaknesses, but taken together they can provide you with comprehensive instruction, insightful strategies, and a huge number of practice questions. Since all these books add up to hundreds of pages, I'll suggest an agenda below to help you study from them in a coherent sequence.
These recommendations are based off of the experiences of myself, ACT experts, and students. These are the ACT preparation books that offer a level of detail and insight into the test beyond the ordinary. They'll help you achieve mastery in each section of the test.
At the same time, I think that self-studying from books presents some extra challenges for students. One lies in the comprehensive nature of these ACT prep books. Because they're so comprehensive, they can feel overwhelming. It can be difficult to know where to start and how to use them in a more effective way than attempting (and struggling) to read them cover to cover.
The best ACT study plan is customized to your individual needs, target scores, and strengths and weaknesses. You don't want to waste time drilling yourself on vocabulary you already understand or probability questions you could do in your sleep. Instead, you want to make sure you're making an effective use of your time, targeting your weak areas, and building your confidence where you need it most.
PrepScholar's online ACT prep program was created with these challenges in mind. It has all the best parts of these books, with critical lessons, strategies, and practice questions, plus it adds the unique feature of customization. The prep program diagnoses your level and individualizes the study plan to you, ensuring your prep is as focused and effective as possible. Plus it helps you design a schedule and stay accountable, two things that are tough to prioritize when you're studying completely on your own with ACT prep books.
Regardless of whether or not you're interested in trying the 5 day free trial of PrepScholar's ACT prep program, you should explore our detailed study guides on the ACT. We have answers to all your questions about the ACT, from how to read the passages to saving time on math to how to best review your practice test mistakes.
Our goal is to make sure all students can access the resources they need on their path to college. That being said, read on for a thorough assessment of the best ACT preparation books for intense study, starting with the critical book all serious students need.
The Critical ACT Prep Book
The book that's essential to your ACT prep comes from the testmakers themselves. The Real ACT Prep Book, also known as the Red Book, is a must-have. At the same time, it's not sufficient as the only book you use. Let's look at the pros and cons of the Red Book.
The Real ACT Prep Book (or the "Red Book")
Amazon price: about $21
Because The Real ACT Prep Book was created by the ACT and contains previously administered ACT tests, its practice questions are the best ones available. There are definitely high quality practice questions that aren't "official," but they are still an imitation. The questions in the Red Book are real, and therefore they're the most useful ones you can use to get ready for the test.
The Red Book has five full-length practice tests, all of which were administered to students in past years. That adds up to over 17 hours of practice testing with more than 1,000 practice questions! Students doing intensive prep can gain a lot from all this practice testing.
As I'll explain further down, students could benefit from using these tests throughout their test prep, first to diagnose their level, then to measure to progress, and finally to finish up their studying with a post-test. You can gain a ton both from the experience of practice testing and the post-test scoring and analysis. Make sure to thoroughly understand your mistakes and use them to fuel further review.
While the Red Book is the best prep book for authentic practice tests and sample questions, it's lacking in some other key areas. Let's consider what it's missing and why you need to supplement it with other books.
There are other parts to ACT studying besides practice tests, like lessons in content and time management strategies. The Red Book has some general information in these areas, but it doesn't go as deeply as you're looking for. That's why it's best used alongside other books to reinforce your understanding, experiment with strategies, and measure your progress as you go.
Another word of caution: according to ACT experts and students, the ACT has been secretly but steadily getting harder in the past few years! The Science section, especially, has been getting more complex and time-consuming, plus the Reading is tough to finish within the given time limit. While the ACT has not announced any changes, there is general agreement that the test has, in fact, changed.
This means that practice tests developed and/or administered before 2010 are probably not as representative of the test you'll see today as more recent ones. They still resemble the current ACT and are useful, but they're somewhat easier in terms of content and pacing.
When taking these earlier practice tests, keep a critical eye on any differences among the tests. Also keep in mind that you might score higher on these than you would on the more challenging test given today.
Finally, the last downside to the Red Book is that the answer explanations for each question are not as thorough as they could be. Students who want to prep deeply for the test should not just understand why a correct answer is correct, but also what exactly is wrong with the other answer choices.
None of the answer choices are going to be totally off base or random, so students should develop a discerning eye about the common misleading answer choices that seem reasonable, but aren't quite right in some way.
Luckily, the next book in this list provides more thorough answer explanations to many of the questions in the Red Book. It explains each answer choice while also suggesting helpful thought processes to use when approaching each question type.
The Best ACT Book for Strategy
The similarly named ACT Black Book is my highest recommendation for gaining strategies and insights into how the ACT works. It refers directly to questions from the ACT Red Book, so the two are best used together.
The ACT Prep Black Book: The Most Effective ACT Strategies Ever Published
Amazon price: about $29
Can this book live up to its bold title? Actually, I do think it's one of the best books for pure strategy and in-depth understanding of the ACT. According to its author, Mike Barrett, the ACT is a predictable, standardized test. The content knowledge is not particularly advanced, but the questions are unique, even designed to trick students, in their wording.
Because of this predictability, Barrett says, students can learn to see through the tricks and beat each question in the least amount of time possible. He talks about patterns and process, and gives you practical strategies for answering math, reading, science, and English questions.
The Black Book also shows you over 200 solutions for some of the hardest questions in the ACT Red Book. He walks you through how to solve and think about ACT questions in a way that the Red Book doesn't. While the ACT doesn't want to reveal its secrets, Barrett's mission is to pierce through the workings of the ACT and provide a concise roadmap of the test to students.
The Black Book works well for focused students who are interested in going a step beyond the usual in their ACT prep. If you're interested in taking a big picture approach to the test and analyzing its patterns, then the ACT Prep Black Book is an indispensable study aid.
You might be starting to suspect that some of these books are so high quality because they're focused on a particular aspect of test prep. The Red Book is focused on practice tests, while the Black Book is focused on strategy. Because of its singular emphasis, the Black Book does a really good job in that area.
Inevitably, though, this means that it's lacking in other key areas of test prep, namely content review. The Black Book is not particularly useful for instruction in geometry or grammar rules, nor is it going to help you develop your critical reading skills.
In addition, the Black Book has no practice questions of its own. While the Red Book has five practice tests, you'll probably want to seek even more ACT questions to apply your understanding and improve your time management.
Finally, the Black Book requires a certain amount of dedication and focus from its readers. It's not the easiest read, because it dives deeply into the ACT. That's why it can be so helpful for intense study, but be aware that you'll really have to engage with the material to get the most out of it.
So far we've talked about practice tests and strategies, with less of an emphasis on reviewing concepts and enhancing skills. Below are my recommendations for the best comprehensive book for content review, followed by the best books for spotlighting each individual section of the ACT.
The Best ACT Book for Overall Content Review
My recommendation for an ACT prep book with an in-depth breakdown of concepts and skills is Barron's ACT. Students aiming for top scores who are looking for additional practice can also check out Barron's ACT 36: Aiming for the Perfect Score (Amazon price: about $19). This assessment will focus on Barron's ACT.
Amazon price: about $21
Barron's ACT thoroughly reviews the concepts and skills being tested on the Reading, Math, English, Science and Writing sections of the ACT. The English and Math reviews are particularly strong, with each concept broken down into subtopics like a grammar review of parallelism, transitions, and word order and a math review of intermediate algebra, plane geometry, and trigonometry.
It starts with a diagnostic test, encouraging students to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and plan their test prep accordingly. Purchase of the book will also give you access to an online component that helps you establish your skill profile and access video lessons.
In addition to example and practice questions that illustrate and drill various concepts, Barron's ACT also has 6 full-length practice tests. These aren't authentic ACT questions, but they are still high quality and useful in your prep. This is another 10+ hours of practice testing and over 600 practice questions, an essential part of intensive study.
Barron's also excels in its answer explanations. Like the Black Book, it explains both why an answer is correct and what's wrong about the incorrect answer choices, an understanding that should not be overlooked in your test prep. While it's a traditional prep book written in a straightforward style, Barron's also acknowledges the feelings of its readers with sections on optimizing your test-taking mindset and managing any anxiety you have around the ACT.
(For even more information about Barron's ACT, be sure to check out our in-depth review!)
As I mentioned earlier, big traditional prep books can be very useful in their thoroughness, but they can be daunting at the same time. Barron's ACT is a perfect illustration of this — chock full of content and practice questions, but intimidating in its breadth. The book suggests some study plans based on the amount of time you have to prep, but you'll also have to do some extra work to break it up into smaller, more manageable goals.
Perhaps the biggest downside to Barron's ACT is how realistic the practice tests are. While they're relatively high quality, a lot of students agree that they are sometimes more difficult than the questions that will actually appear on the ACT. Their wording can be overly complicated, or sometimes they test a concept that's too advanced.
While over-preparing isn't the worst thing, you want to mimic the test as much as possible so you have a strong understanding of what to expect. Again, try to keep a critical eye when taking practice tests and take factors like difficulty level into account if you notice unexpected fluctuations in your practice test scores.
Best Book for ACT Science
Even though many students find the Science section to be the most challenging part of the ACT, until recently there were no books specifically dedicated to helping you on ACT Science. At PrepScholar, we know all the tricks for making ACT Science easier, so we decided to compile them into a book.
The PrepScholar Guide to ACT Science
Amazon price: about $15
The PrepScholar Guide to ACT Science covers every topic, skill, and question type you'll see on ACT Science which means that nothing on this section will come as a surprise on test day. That includes a list of every science fact you could be tested on, so you're only studying the science information you need to know. It also contains multiple strategies for tackling Science passages so you can choose the method that works best for you.
Most importantly, this book also includes all of our best ACT Science test-taking tricks. Many students get tripped up on the Science section because it's so different from the science tests they've taken in school. Even if you're a science whiz, you'll likely need to study how the Science section works before you can ace it. This book is your key to doing that. It shows you how to identify every trick in ACT Science and learn how to avoid getting fooled by them so you can find the correct answer quickly and more easily.
While every chapter in this book includes sample questions to help you see and understand different concepts, there is no final quiz or exam section at the end of the book. For every section of the ACT, it's critical to take regular practice tests and quizzes to track your practice and see where you still need to improve. To fully practice everything you've learned from this book, we recommend taking full-length Science sections.
Best ACT Book for Math
If you want to home in on the math section and improve your algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and problem-solving skills, then you can do so with the Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT. Let's take a look at where it excels and where it's not as strong.
The Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT
Amazon price: about $24
The Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT is a solid review of all the concepts you need to know for the Math section of the ACT. It doesn't get too advanced, but sticks to the topics that will show up on the test. Like PrepScholar, this book breaks each area — algebra, geometry, trigonometry — into small subtopics, like fractions, averages, square roots, functions, and trigonometry for rights triangles.
Each lesson is illustrated with high quality practice problems, along with techniques and strategies for answering various question types. In addition to its own practice questions, this book cross-references questions in the Red Book. Overall it walks you through each and every concept you need to know for the Math section of the ACT in a clear and succinct way.
This book takes a minimalist approach in terms of its lessons. Some students will appreciate its straightforward, not overly explanatory style, while others might wish they had more description and explanation in each lesson. It's not a wordy book, but a lot of students look for that when they study math.
On a similar note, this book isn't the most helpful for walking you through a problem from beginning to end. Some of its explanations are helpful, especially as they cross reference the Red Book, but it doesn't offer a lot of guidance for thinking through a problem. Nor does it evaluate problems by difficulty level or provide a frequency guide to help you prioritize more important concepts over others.
Finally, this book has some errors in printing, especially in matching up the questions with the answer key. While this doesn't detract much from its overall quality, it can be distracting as you're scoring and understanding your practice questions.
Just as this book dives into the math section of the ACT, my next two recommendations closely examine the verbal, or English and Reading sections.
Best ACT Books for English and Reading
I'm grouping these books together for two reasons. First, the skills you develop for English are helpful for Reading, and vice versa. Secondly, both guides come from the same author, Erica Meltzer, and have similar pros and cons.
Let's look first at Meltzer's book on the English section of the ACT.
The Complete Guide to ACT English by Erica Meltzer
Amazon price: about $26
75 questions in 45 minutes, oh my! The English section is definitely fast-paced. To make sure you finish in time, you need to quickly and efficiently identify each grammar rule being tested and pick the right answer choice. Erica Meltzer explains all the grammar rules you need to know for this section in The Complete Guide to ACT English, like verb agreement, word pairs, and transitions.
Similar to PrepScholar's approach, she breaks the section down by skills and drills you on each one to ensure you can apply them in context. Throughout the text are cumulative reviews so you can practice your widening range of concepts. The practice questions in this book are realistic and take the same passage format as you'll see on the ACT.
Meltzer's lessons are straightforward, clear, and to the point. You can also find extra tips for both the English and Reading sections on her blog, The Critical Reader.
This book is "no frills," meaning it doesn't have a lot of description or creative graphics. Some students find it dry, while others appreciate that she cuts out extraneous material. The formatting can get a bit tedious with a lot of small font on each page, but the content remains high quality.
Also, you have to be careful about answering questions that are arranged by skill. While it's a great way to learn and reinforce each grammar rule, you also must practice applying these rules on real practice tests. Real tests won't be arranged in order for you, so you need to ensure you can quickly identify and apply each rule randomly without them being labeled for you.
In addition to her grammar rules in The Complete Guide to English Grammar, Erica Meltzer also does a great job of presenting the Reading section of the ACT.
The Complete Guide to ACT Reading by Erica Meltzer
Amazon price: about $26
Like her English book, Erica Meltzer's The Complete Guide to ACT Reading is a great resource for students serious about gaining a strong Reading score. She has realistic passages from prose fiction, humanities, social science, and natural science with high quality practice questions.
The Reading section can be harder to break down than, for instance, the Math section, but Meltzer manages to clearly outline the skills and concepts you need. She categorizes the Reading question types into literal comprehension, big picture, vocabulary in context, inference, and tone/attitude questions. Along with a clear lesson, she has questions illustrating each of these important types.
Along with these skills, this ACT book teaches you how to manage both your time and your stress. Meltzer gives strategies for mapping the passage, strategically reading them in order, and using skimming techniques to your advantage. She offers a few different approaches so that students can figure out what works best for them.
At the end of the book are two practice tests, each with four passages and 40 questions each. That's another 70 minutes of practice testing to add to the hours you get from the Red Book and Barron's ACT.
Some students find this book's style to be dry, which can make self-study harder to maintain if you're not engaged with the material. Like the English guide, this book is arranged by question type and skill, like big picture questions and determining tone. This is a great way to recognize question types and apply skills, but you also want to make sure you can identify and apply skills when the questions are in random order.
All of the books I mentioned are exceptionally strong in some areas and not so useful in others. Taken together, they might feel a bit overwhelming — where exactly do you start? Read on for my suggestions on how to come up with a study plan that uses these books in a logical way.
X marks the treasure(d ACT score)!
Study Plan with ACT Prep Books
Should you start reviewing content or learning about strategies? Is it better to break into your first practice test or leave it until you've done some studying? What if you just stack the books in a pile and try again tomorrow?
So many questions, so much time...if you're planning to study intensively and devote many hours to ACT prep, that is. I wouldn't recommend attempting to read these books from cover to cover without a thoughtful plan. Instead, I recommend mapping out a plan and schedule that concentrate your review on the areas in which you need it most.
First off, you need to uncover those areas where you need the most intensive prep. I recommend using a practice test as a diagnostic test, just as Barron's ACT suggests. For your most accurate diagnostic tool, you should use one of the official practice tests from the Red Book.
Time yourself in a quiet room with no distractions. After you score your test, mark the ones you got wrong and figure out the reasons for your mistakes. Go over the answer explanations thoroughly, and take notes on where you need to review.
If you struggled on geometry questions, for instance, you could start with geometry review. If you kept running out of time on Science, consult the time management study guides on the Science sections. You should review every section, but concentrate your prep on your weaker areas.
Consult this guide of recommended ACT prep books for content review. Barron's is a comprehensive breakdown of all the sections, while The Ultimate ACT Math Guide and Erica Meltzer's books focus intensively on one section at a time. Teach yourself these concepts, drill them with practice problems, and measure your progress with practice tests spaced out along the way.
The Black Book is best for students who have a strong foundation in the math, verbal, and science concepts and skills. You could save Black Book strategies for after you've done some content review. As you study, continue to keep a critical eye on question types and difficulty level of questions, as well as analyze the mistakes you make on practice tests.
Focus on the areas where you need to improve your performance and confidence the most. Dive into your weaknesses to see the biggest score improvements. Since this type of planning is so unique to each individual, it can be tough to know exactly what the best approach is for you. Before you start planning, I would encourage you to explore your options for test prep.
Are Books the Best Option for Intensive Study?
Taken together, these ACT books have a huge amount of knowledge to impart. It can be a big challenge, though, to get all that knowledge...imparted. You have to have a tremendous amount of self-discipline and sustained motivation to spend 100+ hours poring over these books. In addition, you have to design an effective study plan, rather than repeating the same kinds of questions that won't end up improving your score.
Besides these challenging efforts, books can also get expensive. All together, these add up to over $100. In the old days of test prep (ie, 5 to 10 years ago), books were a mainstay of SAT prep. But with the advent of online prep programs, which combine the unparalleled advantages of technology with human expertise, books are no longer the only, nor necessarily the best, option.
One of the reasons I'm a big fan of PrepScholar's approach is because it makes the test prep process more enjoyable. It does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work for you, by diagnosing your academic profile and building a study regimen that complements your skills and learning style. It incorporates all the strengths of these books while seamlessly taking care of the customization and accountability aspect.
Besides trying out PrepScholar's 5 day risk-free free trial, you can also explore our detailed study guides on all sections of the ACT. Some especially helpful ones include
- The Best Way to Review Your Mistakes on ACT Questions
- Should You Guess on the ACT? 5 Guessing Strategies
- The 31 Critical Math Formulas You Must Know
- The Complete Guide to ACT Grammar Rules
- ACT Vocabulary: Words You Must Know
- How to Write an ACT Essay, Step by Step
- How to Get a Perfect ACT Score, by a 36 Full Scorer
If you're looking to devote a good amount of time to prepping for the ACT, then you want to ensure you're making the most of it. By exploring your test prep options and the abundance of free resources online (though no ACT preparation books pdf free download), you can make an informed decision that will help you enjoy the process and ultimately achieve the scores you seek for your college applications.
For more detailed strategy guides on all sections of the ACT, including the best ways to study and manage your time, explore our continually updated articles here.
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.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.