First of all, this guide is aimed at students who are very serious about geting the best ACT prep books. It’s very important that you’re motivated to get a high score, and that you’re willing to put in the hard work that it takes to succeed. Getting through all the books is going to take dozens and dozens of hours, simply because the ACT covers a large quantity of material.
If you only plan on studying five hours, the book you choose won’t make much of a difference. Instead, focus on taking a sample practice test, and make sure to review your answer. Your score isn’t going to increase much, so don’t expect a miracle.
- Full Practice Tests
- Progress Tracking
- The Real ACT Prep Guide
- Cracking The ACT Premium Edition
- Princeton Review
- Kindle / Paperback
- ACT Prep Black Book
- ACT Prep Books
- Kindle / Paperback
- The Complete Guide to ACT English, 2nd Edition
- Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT
- Math Prep Books
- Kindle / Paperback
ACT Test Prep Book Reviews
Buying your study materials is the first step of preparation for the exam – and the easiest one. To get improvements in your score, you’ll have to put in serious work, though. Below, we’ll explain the best way to get the most out of the books you choose.
Secondly, this is a guide for students who want to make serious improvements, increasing their score by more than 2 points. To consistently make improvements in this level, you’re going to need a lot more than simply tricks. You have to understand the underlying mathematical concepts and rules of grammar that are being tested. This will provide a much more significant improvement than using “tricks” which will make it seem like you have learned something, even though they’re not that effective.
If you’re only looking to improve by one point, it’s likely that you’ll be able to do that simply by taking the test another time, especially if you have only taken it once. If you are serious about improving your score and want to study exclusively through books, this is the guide that will help you.
The Real ACT Prep Guide
We have written a lot on the importance of official practice questions. The ACT test is strange, and it tests concepts in ways that are very different from what you usually see in school. For this reason, it’s very important that you train with questions that are realistic so that you can get used to the patterns.
Official tests realized by the ACT organization are the gold standard for practice questions – each of them contains real questions which were given to students in previous administrations. The quality of these questions is a lot better than those written by Kaplan, Princetown Review or other unofficial sources. Informally named “The Red Book”, it is the best test source at the moment.
The best practice tests set you’re going to find anywhere.
5-full length tests, making for a good amount of practice for the majority of students. Since each of them will take at least 4 hours to finish and review, this is at least 20 hours of material.
Provides answers to every single question.
Answer explanation isn’t very helpful for self-learning in most cases. Usually, explanations read like “A is incorrect because A is incorrect. B is right for the following reasons”. This isn’t nearly as efficient as solving each question from step one, which is what students usually need. It’s important that you understand yourself quite well to learn from past mistakes.
5 steps are not enough for the most ambitious students. You’re going to have to supplement with an online course (which provides two extra tests) or other free practice tests.
The book does not provide any other instructional material. If you have a problem with, say, algebra, you won’t be able to rely on the book alone. People have been buying it for tests, and the company that publishes the book knows it.
Taking practice tests won’t do much to improve your score if you don’t have a learning system, and the book does not help you do that.
The ACT Black Book
This is the second and last Critical book I recommend. It isn’t enough on its own, and even with it, you’ll still need supplemental help as I’m going to explain below. However, it has something so good that anyone who’s studying only using books need to read it.
What the Black Book provides is a way of thinking about the exam. This may be hard to understand at first, so here are some examples:
You’re going to learn that the ACT was designed to be a standardized, predictable test. This is due to the fact it is administered nationwide to students, and it needs to be difficult even though it tests mostly basic concepts – for this reason, it distorts questions in a strange way.
You’ll also learn how every answer has to be unambiguously right, or students could complain that an incorrect answer of theirs is correct. This allows for an effective strategy of ruling out incorrect choices, which is a great tactic.
Some concepts in this book were the sort of thing I intuitively understood as I took the test – but the author articulates them in a very clear manner in the book. It has thoroughly influenced how I go about teaching students at PrepScholar. This is a book that is closely aligned with my personal philosophy on how to succeed on the exam.
A quite lucid explanation on how the ACT works. It’s ideas will change how you view it, hopefully motivating you to work hard, as you learn how any student is capable of excelling on the exam.
It contains practical strategies too, which tend to be more helpful than those on other books. It does not rely on “tricks” like many other popular books tend to.
It does not assume all students are the same – offering alternative strategies and suggesting you try the different options out to see which suits your needs best.
Features a nice set of answers and explanations for many of the hard questions in the Real ACT Prep Guide (the other book discussed). They do an excellent job of breaking down how to approach each question in the most straightforward manner possible.
Requires plenty of insight and self-discipline to effectively use. Since you’re going to learn from your mistakes instead of having someone there to help you, you have to be very self-driven and experiment with w a die array of strategies until you find what works for you. This can be quite confusing for some students.
The question explanations cover many of the hardest questions you can find in the Red Book. These are great to help you get in the right mindset for questions, but can be quite confusing if you have been scoring between 8 and 26 in a section.
Once again, fundamental content is quite lacking. If you have a problem with a particular subject area, this book isn’t going to do much to help you master it. It is more about recognizing weaknesses and figuring out what you need to study than about actually teaching the important subject.
Science and English sections aren’t too strong when compared to Math and Reading. This is due to the nature of the test – in the case of English, for instance, it’s much more about mastering grammar rules than understanding how the test is designed.
Even then, I still recommend both books for students who will prepare solely through books. In our prep program, we cover the majority of the important ideas in the Black Book and provide practice on relevant individual skills.
The Best English Prep Book – Complete Guide To ACT English
In order to excel at ACT English, one has to thoroughly understand the rules of grammar and how they tend to appear on the exam. Doing plenty of practice questions helps you achieve that.
My recommendation for those looking to study English for their study guide is Erica Meltzer’s Complete Guide to ACT English – it does an excellent job of distilling grammar into what you’ll need to know. You won’t learn obscure concepts that are not tested – and the concepts that are tested get presented in a clear manner, covering the foundations you may have forgotten since school.
Grammar rules are clearly written and articulated.
Covers only what is needed for the actual test and all extraneous material has been left out.
Practice questions are provided within a passage format that is realistic. The questions are grouped by topic, which allows you to practice the same skill repeatedly.
Expensive (around $30) for a book covering only one section.
Testing just one grammar skill within this format can potentially be a misleading form of practice for the actual test. For instance, if you know the particular section focuses on
Verb/Subject Agreement, you may be biased regarding being able to recognize the error within the practice quiz, without being able to pick it up while taking the real test. That is why the program we offer integrates full-length tests as part of your program. That allows you to learn the necessary skills within the context of an actual test.
Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT – Best ACT Math Preparation Book
When it comes to math, my philosophy is that the best way of significantly improving your math score is learning the math content underlying it. You can make some progress learning some basic strategies such as “plug in answer choices”, however, you will run into a ceiling quickly if there are any gaps in the underlying math skills you possess. To improve on your score, it is necessary to learn number theory, geometry, and algebra.
Therefore, your best bet is to find a book that can teach math content to you in an organized manner and also provide you with practice problems so that you can focus on your individual skills as well.
For all of those reasons, this is the book I would recommend you get if it is maths that you are looking to excel at. This book is very well-done and allows you to drill down into areas that you are weak in.
The lessons that teach the math concepts are helpful and very clear. The math that you don’t need to know isn’t covered.
Math is divided into smaller sub-topics in the book. For instance, the book divides Algebra into word problems, FOILing, Solving equations, etc. It is important that the smaller skills are divided up this way and is exactly the way we have designed PrepScholar so that you can learn the most effectively.
Provides higher-level strategies that teach you how to effectively prepare.
Explanations to the answers lack in detail. They just show why a certain answer is correct. However, you aren’t taught how the problem can be recognized and how it can be solved to begin with. We focus in PrepScholar on providing detailed answer explanations that will help guide you on how the question can be solved and others that are similar to it.
Although they are high-quality questions, they could be more creative. The actual ACT test contains a wide array of questions that are unusual and unique. That is why it is important to have variety to truly master the test.
The difficulty level is not distinguished in this book. However, on the actual test, the most difficult questions are a lot tougher than the easiest questions are. If you score within the average score range, then knowing how to solve the toughest 20% of the questions isn’t necessary. Attempting to understand them can be a big waste of time since you could instead be working on improving your fundamental skills. That is why PrepScholar has been designed to test you at the exact level that will stimulate your growth the most.
There are numerous typos contained in this book. It doesn’t impede you being able to understand the material, however it might prove to be distracting for you.
If you are truly struggling with basic level bath (scoring 16 or less), then I recommend that your work is supplemented with the math modules by Khan Academy. The program is free and offers an engaging way of training on very basic skills. It isn’t customized specifically for the ACT. Therefore, it isn’t sufficient for ACT preparation.
Cracking The ACT by Princeton Review
This one, like Barron’s, is a traditional and comprehensive test preparation book. It provides practice questions, strategies and thorough review of content. Math is covered the most thoroughly, with Science following. The Reading and English sections are not as comprehensive.
Important math concepts and grammar rules that you need to know are clearly stated by this book. It also suggests thought processes that you can use when you take the test. It discusses how to make to utilize the process of elimination in the best way, the order you should use for answering questions for saving time, and how questions should be thought through that you are stumped on.
Every section contains example questions and drills. There are also 6 full practice tests provided by the book, 2 are online, and 4 are contained in the book. For the essay, there is an online LiveScorer, and for the online tests, there is instant scoring.
The book’s downsides are similar to those for the Barron’s study guide. As a comprehensive, large book, at times, it can feel very overwhelming and tough to approach. Given that it is a traditional preparation book, there are some students that may find the style to be dry and difficult to remain engaged with.
They aren’t official practice questions, so don’t best represent actual ACT questions. While Barron’s material tends to be overly difficult, the Princeton Review’s has a tendency to be too easy. If you want to get your scores boosted into the top percentiles, then your best choice for getting there is probably not to use the Princeton Review book. Instead, you should use subject-specific books and one like Barron’s to achieve the highest scores.
Others You May Consider Buying
The Complete Guide To ACT Reading – Best ACT Reading Preparation Book
My experience after working with thousands of students is that the most difficult section of the ACT to improve on is Reading. Logical reasoning skills are used that aren’t as easy to master as grammar rules or math concepts. Drilling down to the kinds of questions being asked is very important, as is knowing how these questions should be approached in a systematic manner.
The best Reading book that I recommend is The Complete Guide to ACT Reading by Erica Meltzer. In this book, the Reading section is dissected by skill and question type. She does an excellent job of teaching what the core is that the question is asking you, and how the passage should be worked with to come up with the correct answer. Erica Meltzer, out of all the writers, aligns with my personal philosophy the most closely when it comes to the skill-by-skill drilling of questions so that patterns can be recognized to the questions being asked.
The Reading section is broken down in excellent fashion on the skill-by-skill level. Useful strategies for each kind of question.
Plenty of realistic, high-quality questions and passages. Passages are used that are similar to those that are seen on the actual exam.
Useful strategies are provided for how passages should be approached and how to skim effectively.
Expensive ($30) for a book that is just 120 pages and covers only one section.
The writing style of the book is clinical and dry, similar to an academic textbook. Personally, this is what I prefer – it tends to cut the fluff out. However, for the average student, it can be very dense.
Lots of text on big pages and a lack of any creative page layout can get tiresome after a while.
Best Addition Books For Achieving Top ACT Scores
Once you have considered all of the above books, you are going to be busy already. With 5 books and 9 full-length practice tests for you to draw on, you could be studying for more than 80 hours. You will most likely make significant improvements if you use all of our recommended guidelines and go through all of the practice tests.
If you would like even more practice, the Barron’s SAT books is what I would recommend, particularly if you are trying to achieve a nearly perfect score. These are the books I used when I was doing my own preparation while in high school, and although the questions they ask are inferior to the ones on actual practice tests, they are still a good backup source you can use after you have finished with everything else that we recommended above.
Plenty of content. There are detailed lessons containing many examples along with thousands of practice questions.
Very thorough – every nook and cranny is covered in terms of everything you need to know. This allows you to be very confident that little to nothing is tested outside of what these books contain.
Topics can sometimes become too difficult regarding what you need to know for the exam. This includes questions that are too tough in the wrong way – at times they get unrealistically difficult in ways that aren’t ever seen. If you aren’t yet an expert, you will be unable to detect when that occurs, and you can end up wasting time on studying things that don’t matter in the end.
Lacking in clear direction on things that are important and those that aren’t. For instance, a grammar rule appearing one time in every test is provided with the same coverage as that of a grammar rule appearing 8 times per test. This is the exact opposite of being thorough. It definitely isn’t the book you want to use if your time for studying is limited.
Best All-In-One Book For Low Scorers Who Are Less Motivated
So far my recommendations have been for ambitious students wanting to improve their scores substantially.
However, there are some students out there who would just like to put 5 hours in, get some limited exposure to the test, then take their SAT and forget all about it. Personally, I believe that for a majority of students, getting your SAT score improved is, on an hour for hour basis, the best way of improving your chances of getting admitted into college. So I would you really should re-examine your attitude if you feel this way.
However, if this is the mindset you are stuck with I would recommend that you get the Kaplan ACT book. This all-in-one book has four sections along with practice tests and practice questions. It really doesn’t excel at anything. However, the important bases are covered. It also contains more reasonable content than the Princeton Review and other all-in-one books that are out there.
This isn’t a book I love. I actually don’t really even like it.
If you are at all serious about improving your score and willing to put in the necessary study time, then I don’t recommend this book. However, if you are just looking for a single source to help you do any okay job and that is easy to digest, then this is the best one available.
All four sections are covered, and practice tests are included.
For the breadth covered is is affordable at just $15.
Some basic strategies are contained that can help you score a few easy points when you get stuck trying to answer a question.
There is a tendency for the practice questions to be unrealistic – quite often the questions aren’t phrased in the same way that they are in the exam. Also, concepts aren’t tested in the correct way. Also, these questions won’t trick you in the ways that the actual test does.
There are errors in the materials and answers – quality control is not great.
Once you most past a score level of 24 in the section, the strategies aren’t helpful.
Is Studying From A Book Your Best Option?
There are many different test preparation methods that are available. Studying from a book is only one of them. In order to explore all of the options that are available to you, let’s quickly cover whether or not book studying is the best approach for you to take.
There are different reasons why people decide to study using books. For some, it is due to cost. The top ACT preparation books sometimes are expensive. You will need to spend approximately $200 to purchase all of the best books. That is close to what some online preparation program costs, which does go beyond books since your study is guided in a step-by-step fashion and motivates you to spend the necessary time for studying.
People who are self-motivated often choose to study with books, since they like to teach themselves. However, if that doesn’t describe you, trying to study from books can be quite a disappointing way of spending your time and not improving. Studying our mistakes and learning from them is by far and away the most important thing you can do to improve your ACT score. You are going to need some additional assistance for getting started if you aren’t able to do that reliably.