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Best ACT Prep Books 2018

Posted by Allen Cheng | Nov 7, 2017 12:00:00 PM

ACT General Info, ACT Strategies

 

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There are numerous “Best ACT Books” lists out there. But we think most of them aren’t very good or thorough, so I’ve tried to write a much better guide here. You’ll learn which books are absolutely critical for your ACT prep, which focus on improving individual sections, and which you'll need if you're aiming for a top score. Most importantly, you’ll learn how to use these top-notch ACT prep books for effective studying.

This guide is pretty detailed, so here are some quick links you can use to jump around to different topics. That said, I recommend reading the whole article if you can!

 

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 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.

It’s important to vet the advice you get (including ours) before deciding on your ACT prep plan. As you read each article in your research, ask yourself: why should I trust this person online giving me advice?

To be transparent, here’s why we believe our ACT prep books guide is better than others online:

  • I explain in detail why good books are good and what each book's flaws are. You probably haven’t heard of some of the books we recommend because they're either newer or less well known. By contrast, most other ACT book guides just list a few books without much rationale about what makes them worth buying.
  • I believe it’s important to target your weaknesses and where you need to prep. 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 tend to 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'd be using if I myself were prepping. Other sites, such as about.com and reviews.com, are often 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 of all levels, from those scoring below 12 to those aiming for 34+. Other writers don't always have the expertise needed to differentiate between ACT prep books and thus 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. 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 in your prep.

However, I want to stress that you don’t need a program to excel at the ACT. In fact, writing this guide might lose us some customers if you decide you don’t need a program at all. But if you'd rather not have to manage 10 books and would prefer an integrated, complete program with the greatest chance of raising your ACT score, check out our comprehensive ACT program.

No matter what you ultimately decide, if you’re serious about ACT prep like I think you are, keep on reading.

 

Who Is This Guide For?

First, this guide is for students who are serious about ACT prep. You must 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 plan to study just five hours or so, your choice of book won't make much difference. You should focus your time mainly on taking an ACT practice test and reviewing your answers. With such a short amount of prep time, your score won’t go up much—and you shouldn’t expect a miracle.

Buying high-quality ACT prep books is the first and easiest step of ACT prep. You'll need to put in serious work to actually get the score improvements you want. We'll explain below the best ways to use ACT prep books.

Secondly, this guide is for students who want to improve their scores by more than 2 points. To make consistent improvements at this level, you need more than just tricks. You need to understand the content being tested—the underlying math concepts and grammar rules—rather than just ineffective "tricks" that make you feel like you've learned something when you actually haven't.

Now, if you’re looking to improve by only 1 point, you might be able to do that simply by retaking the test, especially if you’ve taken the ACT only once.

Overall, as long as you’re serious about score improvement and want quality ACT books to study with, this is the guide for you.

 

The Best ACT Prep Books of 2018

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

  • Critical Books: These are absolute must-have books for your ACT prep, no matter your skill level or weaknesses.
  • Subject Training Books: These are the best books to use for the ACT sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science.
  • Books for Top Scorers: These books are challenging and guaranteed to push you over the top.
  • Books for Low Scorers and Low Motivation: If you want to study for only a handful of hours and improve your ACT score by just a little bit, these are the best books to use. That said, we don't recommend putting such little time into your prep!

 

Critical ACT Prep Books

These must-have books are what I believe everyone should have, regardless of your current score or what you need to improve. This category is extremely hard for books to qualify for. In fact, there are only two ACT books out of the dozens I’ve tested that I think are worth buying.

 

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The Official ACT Prep Guide

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

Official ACT practice tests released by ACT, Inc., are the gold standard for ACT practice questions. Each test contains real questions given to students at previous test administrations. The quality of official questions is far better than those written by unofficial sources such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review.

This particular prep book, informally called the "Red Book," is by far the best source of ACT practice tests, though you might consider getting the third edition instead of the 2016-17 or 2018 editions, as this older version contained five tests instead of just three.

 

Pros

  • It has the best set of ACT practice tests you can get anywhere, period.
  • The book's three full-length practice tests offer a sufficient amount of practice for most students. Since each test takes at least four hours to complete and review, that's already 12 hours of material!
  • Answers for each question are available in the book.

 

Cons

  • Answer explanations are not particularly helpful for self-learning. Most explanations say something like this: “A is wrong because A is wrong. B is correct for these reasons.” They don't show you how to solve the question from step one, which is what most students need; you need to understand yourself well to be able to learn from your mistakes.
  • It doesn’t provide other instructional material. If you’re bad at algebra, you can’t rely on this book alone. You're really only buying it for the tests, and ACT, Inc., knows this.
  • Taking practice tests without learning strategy isn’t going to improve your score, and the book doesn’t provide guidance on how to do this effectively.

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

 

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ACT Prep Black Book

This is the only other critical book I recommend for ACT prep. Just using the Black Book alone, you’ll likely need supplemental help as I explain below. But what it does have is so good that I believe every student using ACT prep books in their studies should read it.

What you’ll get from the Black Book is a way to think about the ACT. But what does this mean? Here are a couple of examples of what you'll learn:

  • 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 be difficult, so it distorts the questions in weird ways.
  • Every answer must be unambiguously correct, or else students would complain that their incorrect answers are correct. This means that your strategy should be to rule out all incorrect answer choices, which is especially important on ACT Reading.

Some of the concepts in this book were things I understood intuitively back when I took the ACT, but the author here articulates them in a crystal clear way. 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

  • It offers a very lucid take on the ACT. The ideas in it will change your view on the ACT and hopefully motivate you to work harder, knowing that any student can excel on the ACT.
  • It contains practical strategies that are more helpful than those in most other ACT books; you don't simply learn to rely on tricks.
  • The book doesn’t assume that all students are the same. It offers a few alternatives for strategies, and then suggests that you try them out to see which one works better for you.
  • It offers a solid set of answer explanations for the hardest questions in the Official Guide (see previous book). The author breaks down the best way to approach each question in a straightforward way.

 

Cons

  • This book 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 out which one works best for you. For some students, following a set of straight guidelines could be less confusing.
  • 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 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 at the 8-26 score level on a section, these questions can be pretty confusing.
  • The fundamental content is lacking. If you’re weak in algebra, for example, this book alone will not help you master the 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.
  • Its English and Science sections are not as strong as its Reading and Math sections are. This is largely due to the nature of the English section, in which it’s less about understanding how the test works and more about mastering grammar rules.

 

Best ACT Books by Subject

Beyond the critical books above, you’ll most likely need supplemental help on specific sections. This section discusses the best books for ACT 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 to prep effectively for the ACT.
  • Cover only what you need to know—not advanced material that's 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. You also 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 online ACT prep 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 L. Meltzer. The book is fantastic at distilling grammar into exactly what you need to know for the ACT; you won’t have to learn any arcane grammar concepts that won't appear on the test. As for the rules that are tested, Meltzer presents them all clearly and covers the essential foundations for those who want to brush up on basic grammar knowledge.

 

Pros

  • This book articulates grammar rules clearly and accurately.
  • It covers only what you need to know for the ACT and cuts out extraneous material.
  • Practice questions use a realistic ACT-passage format. They're also all grouped by topic so you can get repeated practice with the same skill.

 

Cons

  • It's a bit pricey for a book that covers just one ACT 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 on a practice quiz but not on the actual 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 plugging in 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. Ultimately, you need to learn algebra, geometry, and number theory to be able to do well on the ACT.

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

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For these reasons, I recommend the Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT by Richard F. Corn. This is a well-written ACT prep book that forces you to buckle down on your weakest math areas.

 

Pros

  • Its lessons teaching math concepts are clear and helpful. They stay focused on math you need to know for the ACT and don't dive into any irrelevant topics.
  • The book divides math into more manageable sub-topics. For example, algebra is divided into solving equations, FOILing, word problems, etc. This division into smaller skills lets you concentrate on and attack specific points in your prep.
  • It contains higher-level strategies on how to prep effectively.

 

Cons

  • Answer explanations are lacking. They show you why an answer is correct but don't teach you how to recognize the problem and solve it.
  • Though high quality, questions could be more creative. The ACT has 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 more challenging than the easiest questions. If you're scoring in the average score range, you don't actually need to know how to solve the hardest 20% of questions. Trying to understand these can be a waste of time when you should instead build your fundamental skills.
  • It's got a lot of typos. While they don't impede your understanding of ACT concepts, they can be distracting.

If you’re struggling with ACT math concepts at a basic level (say, scoring 16 or below), I recommend that you supplement your work with Khan Academy, a free online program that offers an engaging way to train your most basic math skills. Note that it's not customized for the ACT specifically, so this program alone won't be enough for your 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 easy to master as math concepts and grammar rules are. It’s very important to figure out what types of Reading questions will be asked and how you can approach these questions in a systematic way.

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My recommendation for best ACT Reading book is once again by Erica L. Meltzer: The Complete Guide to ACT ReadingThis book dissects the ACT Reading section by both question type and skill. Meltzer does a great job 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, Meltzer aligns most closely with my philosophy of drilling questions skill by skill to recognize patterns.

 

Pros

  • It offers a great breakdown of the Reading section on a skill-by-skill level. You'll get some of the most helpful strategies for every Reading question type.
  • The book has lots of realistic, high-quality passages and questions. Meltzer uses passages extremely similar to those you’ll see on the ACT.
  • It contains useful strategies on skimming and how to approach Reading passages.

 

Cons

  • For a book that covers just one section, it's a bit pricey ($30).
  • 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.
  • Its lack of creative page layouts and tendency to use a lot of text on large pages can get tiresome.

 

Best ACT Science Prep Book

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

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

Realizing this problem, we at PrepScholar published what we believe is the best ACT Science prep guide currently available. Our guide breaks down the section into its individual skills and gives you useful strategies to improve your Science score.

If you must prep with books, the best way to study for ACT Science is to take the practice tests in the Official Guide (Red Book). You can then reflect carefully on every single question you miss.

 

Best Additional Books for Top ACT Scorers

Looking at the list above, you can see that you already have your work cut out for you. With nine full-length practice tests and five books at your disposal, you'll be studying for well over 80 hours. If you go through all of your practice using the guidelines we recommend, you’ll likely make huge improvements.

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If you still want additional practice, though, I recommend Barron’s ACT books—especially if you’re aiming for a near-perfect score. I remember using these books during my own prep in high school, and while Barron's questions are inferior to those in official ACT practice tests, they’re a solid backup source to use if you've finished everything else above.

 

Pros

  • These books offer a lot of content. With Barron's you get thousands of practice questions and detailed lessons with several examples.
  • They're extremely thorough, covering every nook and cranny you need to know. You can be confident that very little is tested outside of what’s contained in these books.

 

Cons

  • Topics can sometimes be too difficult than what you need to know for the ACT. Some questions get unrealistically hard in a way you’d never see on the actual test. If you’re not an ACT expert, you won’t be able to detect when this happens and might end up wasting time studying content that doesn't ultimately matter.
  • The books often lack clear direction on what’s important and what's not. For example, a grammar rule that appears once every test gets the same number of pages as a grammar rule that appears eight times every test. Again, this is the flip side of being thorough. As a result, these aren't the books to use if you have limited study time.
  • Not all of their strategies are good. For instance, I have mixed feelings about the reading advice in Barron's ACT 36 (pictured above).

 

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.

But I know some students just want to put in five hours, get some exposure to the test, and then take the ACT and forget about it. I personally believe that for most students, improving your ACT score is the best way to improve your chances of college admission. If you feel like you don't want to put in much effort to studying for the ACT, I strongly suggest reexamining your approach.

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That said, if you’re stuck in the mindset of simply getting the ACT over with, the book I recommend is Kaplan’s ACT Prep 2018. It’s an all-in-one book that covers all four sections and contains practice questions and tests. It doesn’t excel at any of what it’s doing, but it covers the most important bases. It also tends to have more reasonable content than other all-in-one books, such as the ACT book by The Princeton Review.

I'll be honest: I don’t love this book. I don’t even really like it. To be frank, I don’t recommend it if you seriously want to improve your ACT score 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 book out there.

 

Pros

  • It covers all four ACT sections and has a total of three full-length practice tests (two of which are online).
  • At about $15, this book is pretty affordable in terms of the breadth it covers.
  • It offers some helpful, 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 the right way, either. Questions also don’t trick you in the same ways the real test does.
  • The strategies are not very helpful once you move beyond a 24-score level on a section.

 

Other Free Resources for ACT Prep

More important than buying ACT prep 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 walk you through your ACT study plan:

 

Is Using ACT Prep Books the Best Option for You?

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

People who choose to study with books do so for different reasons. Some do it for cost reasons. As I noted above, the best ACT books can get expensive. If you buy all of 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 studies step by step and and motivating you to put in the time.

Others study with books because they're self-motivated and like teaching themselves. If this isn't you, books can be a disappointing way to spend your time—and you probably won't improve, either. 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 started.

We've written a free guide to compare other methods of ACT prep. Click the image below to download this guide so you can compare the different methods and see which one is best for you.

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What's Next?

Understanding your ACT target score is critical. Get started by reading our step-by-step guide to figuring out what ACT score you need to aim for.

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

Beyond that, our 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, and then gives you focused practice so you learn the patterns on the ACT. Furthermore, it motivates you to study so that you put in enough time.

There's a 4-point guarantee, too—meaning that if you don't improve your score by 4 points or more, you get all of your money back!

Get 4 More Points on Your ACT, GUARANTEED

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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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