SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

SAT Book Guide: The Best Books for Intense Study

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Jul 11, 2015 3:25:15 PM

SAT Strategies

 

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If you're a student who wants to leave no stone unturned as you prep for the SAT, then this SAT preparation book guide is for you. These are the best SAT books for students committed to devoting significant time, like 100 or more hours, to get ready for this important test.

The recommendations on this book list go beyond a general review of the SAT and provide the skills, strategies, and insights you need to get a top score. Before diving into the SAT book list, let's consider an important question: are books the most effective way to study for the SAT?

 

 

Are Books the Best Method for Intense Study?

Since you're putting in hard work to achieve your target scores, you also want to make sure your prep materials are working for you. If you're devoting a significant amount of time to studying, you should see results. So what methods of test prep will be most effective in preparing you for the SAT?

If you're looking to use books to prep, you should be aware that all test prep books have pros and cons. Some excel in teaching content while others focus on strategies. On the flip side, some have unrealistic practice questions or bring in concepts that will never actually show up on the SAT.

To truly delve into all sections of the SAT, you'd be best served by studying from several of these books together in a coherent sequence. Given this, I'll recommend a possible approach to tackle these books effectively, rather than trying to read them from cover to cover. Even with this plan of attack, studying from books requires a lot of self-discipline and self-motivation.

Besides getting ready for the SAT, books pose the extra challenge of designing a logical study plan, prioritizing some concepts over others based on your needs, and sticking to your schedule. Because this degree of discipline is tough for students at all levels and ages, an alternative method of studying that can be very effective is online test prep.

PrepScholar's online SAT program incorporates the most useful aspects of these books - content, strategies, high quality practice questions - while adding that helpful component of accountability. Plus it goes one step further and customizes the study plan to you. PrepScholar diagnoses your strengths and weaknesses, helps you design a study plan based on your individual profile as a test-taker, and tracks your progress along the way. 

Books can be very useful for students looking to study intensely for the SAT. If you're using books, I recommend taking the time to develop a thoughtful approach and study plan customized to you, setting benchmarks along the way, and finding ways that help you stay accountable to your goals (even when a marathon of your favorite show is on).

First on this list is the critical book that all students need for SAT prep.

 

The Critical SAT Prep Book for Practice Tests

The book that all students should use to prep for the SAT comes from College Board itself: College Board's Official Study Guide, otherwise known as the Blue Book. While this book is a must have, it also doesn't stand on its own as your only resource. Let's look at the pros and cons of the Blue Book.

 

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College Board's Official SAT Study Guide, or the "Blue Book"

Amazon price: $16.43

Pros

Why is this book so critical? The Blue Book has official practice questions from previously administered SATs. It has 10 official practice tests, meaning over 35 hours of practice testing and 1700 practice questions!

Ambitious test-takers should not just take these tests for practice, but also study them deeply. Take the time to understand exactly what each question is asking, as well as any mistakes you made and why. Was it a lack of knowledge? Difficulty managing time? A careless error?

By scouring answer explanations and practicing thoroughly, you can become an expert in taking the SAT. Then the real one will just be another 3 hours and 45 minutes that you're well accustomed to.

Students who want the full test-taking experience should note that these practice tests are actually only 3 hours and 20 minutes. Why? The real SAT will have an extra 25 minute experimental section for the purpose of testing out future material and maintaining accuracy in scoring.

The experimental section can be math, critical reading, or writing, but you won't know which one until you finish the test. Even then, you'll only know which section had extra time, but not specifically which 25 minute section was experimental. If you want the true experience in terms of testing time, you might consider adding an extra 25 minute section when you take practice tests. 

Since official questions are the gold standard, we've gathered 8 official SAT practice tests here that you can use, as well. Four of the tests are from the current version, while the other four are older. The drawback of these is that the answer key doesn't have explanations of each question.

Besides the hours of practice testing and studying the Blue Book provides, what are some areas in which it's lacking?

 

Cons

The Blue Book stands above the rest for official questions, but taking practice tests is not the only part of SAT prep, especially for intense studiers. You want a thorough review of content and skills, plus those extra insights and strategies that will help you avoid the common SAT tricks and pitfalls.

The Blue Book is not the best source of instruction or strategies. Since it's created by the test-maker, College Board, it's not going to give away its secrets!

The other drawback of the Blue Book is that its answer explanations are not particularly thorough. It only gives a brief explanation why an answer choice is correct, but it usually doesn't delve into why the other answer choices are wrong. Since on the SAT most answer choices usually sound reasonable, this could leave you still feeling confused.

Intense studiers should thoroughly understand what a question is asking, along with the common "distractor" answer choices that pop up, especially among passage-based Critical Reading questions. It's also helpful when books guide you through a question type step by step, so you can use that same thought process for next time.

Luckily, there is a book that provides more thorough answer explanations to some of the hardest questions in the Blue Book. You can think of it as the Blue Book's companion: the similarly named Black Book.

 

The Critical SAT Prep Book for Strategy

The SAT Prep Black Book by Mike Barrett supplements College Board's Blue Book and refers directly to official SAT questions. If you're looking for a deep understanding of SAT structure and question types, then this book is a must-have on your SAT prep book list.

 

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SAT Prep Black Book by Mike Barrett

Amazon price: $17.97

Pros

According to Barrett, the SAT is actually an easy test. It doesn't test particularly high level skills, nor does it require you to have learned advanced concepts in math, reading, or writing. Instead, the SAT is difficult for students because it asks about basic concepts in strange ways.

Barrett asserts that students can perform well on the SAT by learning about its "strangeness." By seeing through the tricky wording and distracting answer choices, students can use his strategies to greatly improve their scores.

While his take may not resonate with everyone, I think he has highly useful insights to share about the test. He can help change the way you think about the SAT and approach and process each question.

For instance, Barrett emphasizes that every multiple choice question has only one unambiguously correct answer. When students start to overthink all the realistic-sounding answer choices, that's when they run into trouble. He helps you identify which one is correct for each question type, along with understanding exactly why the other ones are not quite right.

The SAT Prep Black Book gives thorough explanations of official practice questions, which is a key part of SAT prep for any motivated student. A lot of his strategies influenced the developers of PrepScholar's online prep program and were incorporated into the way PrepScholar teaches students about the SAT.

 

Cons

Because the Black Book delves deeply into the SAT, it requires a lot of commitment from students. To get the most out of it, you really have to be disciplined and engage with the material. Some students find it overly wordy, which can make it hard to stick with. That's why the Black Book tends to be used by the most dedicated SAT studiers.

While the Blue Book and Black Book supplement each other well, they are still not sufficient as your only sources of test prep (sorry!). You've probably noticed I talked about practice tests and strategies. So what's missing? Good old-fashioned instruction of content and skills.

Drilling yourself on grammar rules, practicing solving algebraic equations, and sharpening your critical reading skills are still essential for doing well on the SAT. The Black Book's strength does not lie here. Instead, it assumes most students have a strong foundation of knowledge. For this kind of test prep, let's look at the best book for overall prep and then the best books by SAT section.

 

The Best SAT Prep Book for General Study

For students planning to devote a good amount of time to SAT prep, I recommend Barron's SAT for an examination of all sections of the SAT. 

 

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Barron's SAT

Amazon price: $14.31

Pros

Barron's SAT has a comprehensive review of all sections of the SAT. It explains the various question types on Critical Reading and the grammar skills you need for Writing. It's especially thorough in its coverage of SAT math, which it breaks down into numerous subtopics, like percents, solid geometry, coordinate geometry, and logical reasoning, to name a few.

Barron's helps you build your vocabulary with a High Frequency Word List and a 3,500 Word List. If you purchase the book, you can also access an online component that helps you design a study plan. Barron's encourages you to start out with a diagnostic test and pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses.

In addition, it includes 6 full length practice tests with answer explanations. That's an additional 24 hours of testing and 1,020 practice questions! Combine that with the Blue Book practice tests, and you'll be well on your way to becoming an SAT expert.

 

Cons

Barron's SAT is a very thorough book, which is both a strength and a weakness. Because it covers so much, it can feel overwhelming to students. While the book suggests you customize your study plan based on your diagnostic test, this can feel like a lot of added planning.

Another weakness of Barron's has to do with its strategies. The introductory chapters offer some suggestions for time management and identifying question types, but it doesn't go much beyond the obvious. It doesn't offer as insightful a take as the Black Book or some of the subject-specific books.

Finally, many students find that Barron's SAT actually overshoots the SAT with overly advanced concepts, and that its practice tests are unrealistically hard. While overpreparing isn't necessarily the worst problem, you don't want to waste time with concepts you don't need or get an unrealistic sense of your scoring level.

When using Barron's SAT practice tests, try to keep an eye out for its similarities and differences with official College Board practice tests. Having a critical eye will help you make the most use out of these unofficial practice questions.

Another approach to delving into SAT material is to divide it up by section. These are my recommendations for the best books for SAT math, reading, and writing.

 

Best SAT Prep Books to Study Math

These three books - PWN the SAT, Dr. John Chung's SAT Math, and the Powerscore Math Bible - are designed for motivated students looking to gain a top math score. Let's consider the pros and cons of each.

 

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PWN the SAT: Math Guide

Amazon price: $28.28

Pros

According to the author, Mike McClenathan, he wrote PWN the SAT to help "ambitious, highly motivated kids maximize their SAT math scores. He takes a more engaging, personable approach than a lot of other test prep books, as you can tell right away in the introduction: "Do you crave a higher score? Are you willing to do a little hard work to achieve it? Good. I knew I liked you."

Given the fact that other test prep books can be a little, ahem, dry, PWN the SAT is a welcome departure in style and tone. He spends the first 30 pages on test-taking strategies and techniques, discussing how best to read the math questions, how to not get fooled by questions that appear easier than they are, and useful guessing strategies that go beyond the obvious.

McClenathan breaks each math concept into numerous subtopics, like ratios, prime factorization, symbol functions, circles, and probability. This detailed approach will truly help you leave no stone unturned in your review of any and all math concepts that may show up on the SAT. 

Like the Black Book, PWN the SAT is best used in conjunction with the Official Study Guide, or the Blue Book. It refers directly to official practice questions, giving detailed answer explanations for all the math questions you'll find there. These go beyond the answer explanations in the Blue Book and are useful for understanding your errors and applying the same skills and thought process to similar questions on future tests. 

In addition to referencing official questions, PWN the SAT has its own diagnostic drills to assess your skills. You can also check out the PWN the SAT website for useful blog posts and a discussion forum where you can connect with other students and leave questions and comments for the author himself.

By the way, for any non-gamers out there (myself included), PWN means to conquer and is pronounced "pone." The more you know.

 

Cons

PWN the SAT excels in instruction and review, but it doesn't have a ton of its own practice questions. It has to be used alongside the Blue Book, to which it explicitly refers. You should also seek out more practice questions if you need to drill particular skills, like shape geometry or functions. 

Similar to Barron's SAT, PWN the SAT has been criticized for having overly challenging math questions and examples. Again, you want to keep a critical eye. If you become familiar with the SAT, then you'll be able to sense when a concept or wording of a question exceeds the difficulty level you'll actually encounter. It's also relatively expensive for a book that covers only one section of the SAT.

Finally, some students find this book too wordy. I personally find it engaging and funny, at least as far as test prep books, but how much it resonates with you is a matter of individual opinion. You can check out a free preview at Amazon and decide if it speaks to you.

 

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Dr. John Chung's SAT Math: 58 Perfect Tips and 20 Complete Tests

Amazon price: $26.59

Pros

While some books are on the wordy side, Dr. John Chung's SAT Math is not one of them. It cuts down the math section to rules and practice problems. The 58 "tips" are the most important concepts you need to know for math, like linear functions, slope, and proportions.

There isn't much here in the way of explanation, so it's geared towards highly achieving math students with a strong foundation in these concepts. It gives you lots of practice problems - 20 practice tests - to drill each of the 58 skills, with thorough, if concise, answer explanations. 

 

Cons

One downside of this book is the cost, considering it covers only one section of the SAT. It is definitely geared towards more advanced math students, and doesn't offer much in the way of clarifying instruction. Students who don't want to do a lot of reading in their math review will like this approach. Again, check out the free preview on Amazon to see if this style resonates with you.

Another con is that the questions can be overly challenging. They are still valuable, especially with the answer explanations, because they drill all the important math concepts. That being said, you want the most realistic practice questions possible to get a true sense of the SAT.

Finally, this book has some typos and errors in layout. While this doesn't detract from the quality of the instruction, it can be distracting.

 

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Powerscore SAT Math Bible

Amazon price: $25.08

Pros

The Powerscore SAT Math Bible is a great resource for students with strong math backgrounds and those who feel less confident in this area. It starts with an "operation mastery" section to review important concepts, along with drills to reinforce each skill.

It offers 8 main practical strategies for attacking SAT math questions, along with example problems that show you exactly when and how to apply each strategy. It also explains confusing SAT wording with its "highlighted arithmetricks" and "SAT traps."

The chapters are divided by content area - arithmetic, algebra, algebra II, geometry, coordinate geometry, data analysis, statistics, and probability - which are further broken down into subtopics. It also has a glossary to ensure you understand all the math-related terminology.

Overall, the Powerscore SAT Math Bible has over 375 high quality example and practice questions, along with detailed explanations. Its online supplementary component also refers to official questions from the Blue Book and has extra study aids like math flash cards.

One particular strength of this book is its frequency guide, which rates the importance of concepts from 1 to 5. This helps you prioritize your studying. While books like Dr. Chung's 58 Perfect Tips throw all the concepts at you at once, the Powerscore SAT Math Bible helps you sort them by frequency and importance.

 

Cons

While this book has numerous example and practice questions, it's not as substantial when it comes to actual practice tests. You'll want to make sure to incorporate at least a pre-test and post-test into your study plan to gauge your progress, as well as others to measure it along the way. 

Because this book is geared for students at all levels, it may have extra material you don't need if you're already well versed in the math concepts. For more advanced math students, it may not be immediately challenging because of its introductory sections and material.

All three of these math books have strengths and can be effective as you work towards a high score. If you're looking to focus especially on Critical Reading and/or Writing, I recommend the guides by Erica Meltzer.

 

Best SAT Prep Books to Study Critical Reading and Writing

Erica Meltzer, who runs the blog, The Critical Reader, has written complete guides to the Reading and Writing sections of the SAT. They're both high quality books useful to students looking to master these sections.

 

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The Complete Guide to SAT Critical Reading by Erica Meltzer

Amazon price: $31.95

Pros

Erica Meltzer has a very lucid take on the SAT Critical Reading. She was an English major in college, but she recognizes that the skills you pick up in English classes don't necessarily translate to a high score on the SAT Reading. Instead, she teaches students about the types of questions and specific skills that SAT Critical Reading calls for. 

With these insights, she demystifies this section of the test that can otherwise be quite tricky to study for. She breaks down questions into types, like main point and vocabulary in context, and drills each skill with practice questions. Her passages are highly realistic, and she gives practical strategies for managing time and processing key information easily and efficiently.

Besides the questions and in-depth explanations, this book has a comprehensive vocabulary section with high frequency words, multiple meaning words, and common roots. To help you prep for sentence completions, she has 75 practice questions featuring commonly used SAT words.

 

Cons

One con of this SAT book is the layout and visual presentation. It packs a lot of small font words into each page and doesn't break them up with graphics. This can get old when you're tired from studying for the SAT for hours.

Some also find Meltzer's style on the dry side, while others appreciate that she doesn't add unnecessary fluff. It's also on the expensive side, especially taken together with The Complete Guide to SAT Grammar.

Another aspect to consider is the way she organizes content by skill. It can be helpful to drill each skill you need for Critical Reading, but remember that the actual tests will present questions in random order.

You'll need to both learn the skills and be able to identify what skill each question is testing on your own, without it already being labeled into categories for you. Her guide to SAT grammar similarly organizes content by rule and skill, which is especially useful for reinforcing your knowledge of grammar.

 

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The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar (and SAT Grammar Workbook) by Erica Meltzer

Amazon price: $27.86 ($28.45 for workbook)

Pros

The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar is a must-have if you're looking for a detailed breakdown and drill of each and every grammar rule that is likely to appear on the SAT. There are dozens of exercises and practice questions to reinforce each rule. This book will help you recognize and correct errors, as well as identify question types so you can predict exactly which rule each question is testing.

There are thorough explanations for each practice question, and you can find additional practice questions in the SAT Grammar Workbook. Similar to PrepScholar's approach to SAT Writing prep, Meltzer breaks the section down by skill and clearly instructs students on each one.

 

Cons

One major con of these SAT books is the price. If you purchase the reading, grammar, and grammar workbook together, then you're looking at almost $100 already. Since these books don't have a ton of practice tests, you'd also be using at least one or two other books for additional practice testing.

While this book helps you drill each skill, you'll want to make sure you can identify and predict the skills on your own. This is another reason why you'll want to reinforce the lessons with practice tests, in which the skills tested by identifying errors, improving sentences, and improving paragraph questions are all mixed up in random order.

Now that you've read my recommendations for the best SAT books to read for intense study, you might be wondering how best to use these books to prepare. Stacking them up in a huge pile will just be daunting, increasing the risk that all these books just end up collecting dust in a corner of your room. Let's talk about how you can approach these hundreds of pages of material in a manageable, scaffolded way.

 

 

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One step at a time to reach your target scores...

 

 

How to Study from these SAT Prep Books

How can you take this daunting amount of material and break it up into smaller, manageable goals, like taking steps up a long ladder? First, I would recommend taking a diagnostic practice test from the Blue Book. Score your test and use your results to gauge your level and determine which areas require the most focus from you.

Depending on how long you plan to study, you can spread out other practice tests in increments. These can be used as benchmarks to track your progress. Remember to leave one for the end of your test prep, close to your actual SAT, to record your score improvements and if need be, do any last minute studying.

Review each practice test section by section and mark the questions you miss by practice type and skill. Mike Barrett's Black Book can help you identify question type more clearly, as well as apply strategies to save time and eliminate "distractor" answer choices quickly and easily. 

After analyzing your results, I would suggest reviewing content and skills where you need to most. If you're strong in math, you could start out by drilling yourself on reading, vocabulary, and grammar. If you scored well on reading, then you might turn to math first. 

Throughout, you can use practice tests to gauge your improvement and shift to another section once you've improved in the first. If you are a freshman or sophomore, you can start studying a year or so before your first real test. You can devote several hours a week to studying and then ramp up this time commitment in the months leading up to your test. 

To customize your study plan to your individual needs, I highly recommend analyzing your practice tests and then diving into your weaknesses with relevant recommended SAT prep books. This can help you build up both skills and confidence where you need it most. As planning and sticking to an effective study schedule is a challenging aspect of your test prep, you also might want to look into other options that help you with this planning. 

 

 

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Which option will get you the prize of a high SAT score?

 

 

Is Studying from Books the Best Option for Intense Prep?

Some of these recommended SAT books are highly comprehensive, while others dive into specifics. There are ones that focus on math, reading, and grammar instruction, and others that reveal test-conquering strategies. Taken together, they have the content you need to become an expert in the SAT and achieve top scores. 

At the same time, self-study from these books requires a ton of discipline. You need to customize your study plan to you, and make sure you sit down and put in the time. There's no one else who's going to know whether you're making time to prep or doing it effectively (except maybe your parents staring over your shoulder).

Some students are able to chip away one day, week, and month at a time keeping their end goal in sight, but for most this is a trying test of willpower and motivation.

Apart from the isolation of self-study, all these SAT preparation books can get expensive. If you wanted to draw on the strengths of all of them, you'd already be spending over $200. Sadly, there's no great SAT preparation books with free pdf downloads.

PrepScholar's online program was developed with all this in mind. It has the expert content, strategies, and practice questions, while also understanding the stress, pressure, and challenges of scheduling surround test prep. It's not like you have all the free time in the world to study for the SAT, nor do you want to waste time on concepts you already have down.

We understand that you want to make the most of your test prep, while getting the intensive prep you need to achieve top scores and be a competitive candidate on college applications.

Because PrepScholar has an affordable, all-in-one program that helps you devise a study plan, keep track of your progress, and focus on the areas you need to the most, it has helped many highly achieving students find success. It also has the additional option of a one-on-one tutor, combining the best parts of customizable educational technology with the motivating coaching of an experienced tutor. 

Besides online prep, you can also find a plethora (10 points for SAT vocab!) of online resources with information and practice for the SAT. Among PrepScholar's SAT strategy guides are

Before adding all these SAT books to your Amazon cart and clicking purchase, I would encourage you to explore and compare the various methods of test prep. If you're committed to working hard for your SAT scores, then make sure you're going about it in the way that's most enjoyable and above all, most effective for you. 

 

What's Next?

The strategy guides listed above are just a few of the free resources we provide on the SAT. You can explore more practical strategies for the math, Critical Reading, and writing sections of the SAT here.

Have you decided when exactly you're taking the SAT and how many times you plan to take it? Read about all the important considerations in choosing your SAT test dates here.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points? We have the industry's leading SAT prep program. Built by Harvard grads and SAT full scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so you get the most effective prep possible.

Check out our 5-day free trial today:

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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

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.



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