March 2, 2019

ACT: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've added a link to the 2019-2020 Official ACT Prep Guide.

ACT Prep Black Book, Second Edition (Mike Barrett)

If your score goal is 30-34 and you don't have a tutor, this is the book to start with. Barrett's answer explanations are very detailed, about five to ten paragraphs per question, and he uses only official ACT practice tests.

This new second edition addresses the weaknesses of the first edition: it uses the updated 2018 Official ACT Prep guide as its companion, it explains every question on every practice test instead of skipping questions, and it presents solutions in a much more organized way.

You have to get either the Official ACT Prep Guide or the Official ACT Prep Pack, since Barrett's book has answer explanations for that edition but doesn't include the questions themselves.

Pros
A top tutor can explain any officially released ACT question to you in as much detail as you want. Barrett's answer explanations are almost as good. At $28, it's a lot more affordable than hiring a real tutor.

His book really shines in its strategy suggestions for the Reading and Science sections, where the right approach to the test is more important than reviewing content. If you apply Barrett's advice with enough practice tests, you can eventually reach a Reading score of 36 and a Science score of 34.

His treatment of ACT Math focuses on strategic guessing. It's faster to cross off three or four answer choices and choose from what's left than it is to solve problems traditionally. Unless you're very good, you'll need to use strategic guessing for the first forty questions in order to garner enough time for questions 41-60, which tend to be much harder.

The Math content review is limited. If you're shooting for a perfect score on the Math section, you really need to know guessing strategies and the "correct" methods in order to decide which approach is the fastest. Unless your math skills are already very strong, you might have trouble breaking above 32 without additional content review.

Barrett's English grammar strategies are very easy to learn: for example, he uses the term comma sandwich instead of the more common but technical term non-essential clause. This is a strength if you want to learn the material quickly but a drawback if you want a deeper understanding of the ACT's grammar rules.

Cons
Since Barrett chooses to use only official ACT practice questions, he doesn't include any practice questions in the content review chapters. You have to read the entire book and then take an official practice test. For this reason, I suggest treating your first test as untimed practice.


Cracking the ACT with 6 Practice Tests

This is a good all-around study guide with content review, basic test-taking strategies, and six practice tests. It's a good choice if your final target score is 30 or lower.

Pros
For unofficial practice questions, these are pretty good. My students almost always buy this book and do some of the practice tests before deciding to hire me to review the material with them. I haven't seen the kinds of confusing, badly written questions and answer key errors that plague other unofficial study books.

The strategies in this book are basic and easy to apply.

Cons
The Princeton Review is all about giving you what you need and not one iota more. The ACT is a difficult test that requires students to think critically and pay attention to detail, and the basic strategies in this book may not be enough to reliably raise your ACT score above 30.

Its advice for ACT Reading, to skip directly to the questions without reading passages first, makes it hard for some students to grasp each passage's main point.


1,471 ACT Practice Questions

This is the best bank of unofficial practice questions I've seen. It's useful if your can't get access to official ACT practice tests.

Pros
For unofficial practice questions, these are pretty good. I haven't seen the kinds of confusing, badly written questions and answer key errors that plague other unofficial study books.

Cons
It's not a full prep guide. It has answer explanations but doesn't contain content review or organized strategy suggestions.



The Complete Guide to ACT English (Erica Meltzer)

This book is a winner: it has grammar rules, practice questions, and answer explanations. It's a great choice if you're shooting for a 30-36 in ACT English.

Pros
If you understand every grammar rule Erica teaches, ACT English questions become objective, and you can tackle them like math questions. This doesn't mean they're easy, but it does mean that you can figure out why the wrong choices are actually wrong.

Erica also has some grammar exercises on her Web site.

Cons
Erica's strategies are great for all of the question types except those that involve adding and deleting sentences. For those, read the Relevance and Purpose article on the College Panda's blog.

Her book is like a textbook (long and possibly boring). Decide now that you're going to be dedicated enough to read the whole thing, including the answer explanations at the end of the book.


The Complete Guide to ACT Reading (Erica Meltzer)

Another winner from Erica, this book has great strategies for managing time, skimming, taking notes, and answering tricky questions. It's a good choice if you want a 30-36 in ACT Reading.

Pros
Erica includes a lot of practice questions, including two full practice tests with answer explanations. Her book is more convenient than the ACT Prep Black Book, which requires you to buy an out-of-date edition of the Real ACT Prep guide.

Erica's Web site offers several reading quizzes.

Cons
Erica's practice questions are good, but they're not as good as real ACT questions. You should supplement her book with real ACT practice tests or consider getting the ACT Prep Black Book instead, which has excellent answer explanations for official ACT Reading questions.



This unusual book addresses vocabulary skills that can help with multiple sections of the SAT and ACT.

Pros
Instead of drilling vocab words using flash cards, Erica groups words by their function in the English language and provides practice questions for those functions. This is a practical approach that will pay dividends in college later: words like hypothesis, tentative, and analogous often occur in science-related passages, so it makes sense to group them together.

Because Erica's focus is on practical reading, her book is equally helpful for ACT English and Reading passages. The section on passage-based vocabulary for science passages (pages 31-35) will even help you on the ACT's Science section.

Erica's Web site has a complete list of grammar rules and and reading/grammar quizzes.

Cons
If you already score higher than 700 on SAT Verbal and 30 on ACT English/Reading/Science, this book might be too easy. You'd benefit more from taking practice tests and reading 10th-to-12th grade level books to build an advanced vocabulary.


Ultimate Guide to ACT Math (Richard Corn)

This is the closest thing to an ACT Math textbook I've seen. It organizes content review and practice drills by topic. If you don't feel comfortable with high school math, start your prep with this book.

Students who get A's in school math often struggle with the ACT. A school test focuses on one chapter of your book at a time, and a good teacher tells you exactly what's going to be on that test. The ACT, on the other hand, tests knowledge that ranges from 7th grade to precalculus and includes Common Core material that not all students have seen yet.

Pros
Richard Corn's book is enough like a textbook to get you comfortable with the topics that are tested on the ACT, but it's not long enough to be truly intimidating.

Cons
The main strength of Corn's book, its textbook-style organization, is also its weakness. The real ACT won't tell you whether a particular problem is testing the standard-form equation of a circle, the area of a circle, or right triangles within the unit circle. It could potentially test all three topics at the same time!

To truly be ready for the ACT, you have to learn how to think on your feet. Corn's book is great if you need content review as a primer, but you'll want to graduate quickly to more advanced practice materials.


28 ACT Math Lessons to Improve Your Score in One Month: ADVANCED Course (Steve Warner)

28 ACT Math Lessons to Improve Your Score in One Month: INTERMEDIATE Course (Steve Warner)

28 ACT Math Lessons to Improve Your Score in One Month: BEGINNER Course (Steve Warner)

320 ACT Math Problems arranged by Topic and Difficulty Level (Steve Warner)

These excellent practice books can get your ACT Math score into the 30-36 range. They're banks of practice problems with detailed answer explanations.

Pros
The practice material is very similar to real ACT Math tests.

The problems are arranged by topic and difficulty level, so students who don't need any content review can jump straight to the chapters that contain what they want to work on.

The answer explanations provide more than one way to do each problem, and the fastest method is marked with a star.

Cons
Content review is minimal. Dr. Warner does define terms like range and domain in his answer explanations, but his book doesn't have an index. You'll need to label important pages with Post-It notes.

If you need content review, start with Richard Corn's Ultimate Guide to ACT Math and come back to Warner's book later.

If you feel rushed on ACT Math practice tests - a common problem - you need to make answer choice elimination and guessing your primary strategy on the easiest 80% of the test. If you correctly eliminate four choices, the fifth one has to be right, even if you haven't solved the problem traditionally. Eliminating answer choices is usually fast and less error-prone than traditional solutions, but (unfortunately) isn't taught directly in Richard Corn's and Steve Warner's books.

Errata
#2 on page 242 of the Advanced book is unsolvable unless you assume that shape at the upper left of the picture is a semicircle. (You should not make assumptions unless they're explicitly stated on the ACT, so the book shouldn't expect you to, either.)

#8 on page 244 of the Advanced book is unsolvable unless you assume that the two triangles shown are right triangles. (Again, you should not be expected to make assumptions that are not explicitly stated in the problem.)

#11 on page 328 of the Advanced book should state that the pyramid has five isosceles triangular faces (not four) and needs to point out that the pyramid is a right pyramid (in which the height is perpendicular to the base).


For the Love of ACT Science (Michael Cerro)

Cerro's book is an excellent strategy guide that can get your ACT Science score into the 30-34 range. He goes over each question type in detail and provides drills, practice tests, and answer explanations.

Pros
It's hard to write good practice questions for ACT Science. I suspect this is because most teachers don't know how to read scientific literature. You have to read journals regularly to understand concepts like correlation and causation, experiment design, and hypothesis evaluation, and even then, most scientific articles read like alien writing.

Given the difficulties involved, Cerro does a great job putting realistic-looking questions together. If you want a dedicated book for ACT Science that's written by a tutor and not a big test prep company, Cerro's book is the only option.

Mike Barrett's ACT Prep Black Book also has excellent strategies for ACT Science, but it requires you to buy The Official ACT Prep Guide.

Cons
The pro is also a con: Cerro's attempt at the impossible, writing accurate ACT Science questions, results in a book that's very good but has some weaknesses. You might feel that a few of his questions and answer explanations are written in a confusing way. If that bothers you, get Barrett's book instead and stick to official ACT questions.

If you want a 34-36 in ACT Science but struggle with finishing the test on time, Cerro's book probably won't be enough. You'll need to work on using your background knowledge to identify the answer that's probably correct before looking at the passage and then use the passage to verify that answer you chose. I'm not aware of any book that teaches this strategy, but I use it in my own tutoring.


The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2018 Edition

NOTE: A 2019-2020 version of this book is now available. It's almost identical to the 2018 edition but contains a fourth practice test and no CD. The fourth test appears to be ACT Form 74C, which was administered June 2017. 

I'll update this review once I have a chance to take a closer look at the new edition.

Unfortunately, the 2018 edition of this book is nearly identical to the 2016-17 edition. It doesn't address the 2016-17 edition's weaknesses.

If you need official practice tests and don't want to buy this book, you can use the 2016-17 edition or the free Preparing for the ACT booklets. The ACT essay changed in fall 2015 and again (slightly) in fall 2016, so all of the practice essay questions in the older books in this paragraph are out-of-date to some extent.


ACT Essay Sample Responses

Because the instructions for the ACT essay have changed recently, you'll have to go to the ACT's essay page to see the most recent version. That page also has sample essays written by students along with comments on how the essays were graded. There are a total of six sample essays; click on the links in the horizontal, purple Sample Essays bar in order to see all six.

Here's a copy of the updated instructions as of June 2018. Note that instead of having to write about all three perspectives, you can pick only one, giving you the ability to write with more clarity and focus.

The test describes an issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue. You are asked to read and consider the issue and perspectives, state your own perspective on the issue, and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective on the issue. Your score will not be affected by the perspective you take on the issue.

Books to Avoid

Kaplan's series of ACT prep books generally focuses on material that's too easy. The initial diagnostic practice test may give you an inflated score that is unlikely to repeat itself in a real ACT sitting.

Working with Official Practice Tests

If you find unofficial questions to be inaccurate or confusing, you can still prep for the ACT using only official practice tests.
  1. Take a practice test under timed conditions.
  2. Score your test and clearly mark the questions you missed. Use a different symbol to mark the questions that you got right by guessing.
  3. Review the questions you missed or had to guesss on. Spend at least ten minutes on each one. You have to prove to yourself that each question objectively has one right answer and three incorrect ones.
  4. Make a list of the questions you're not able to figure out on your own. Use Mike Barrett's answer explanations, the Internet, or a tutor's help to get to the point where you can clearly identify one correct answer and three incorrect ones for every single question. Your job isn't done until you can do this.
  5. Repeat the process using a new practice test. Keep the cycle going until you're happy with your scores.
This method can work really well if you have a tutor. Do a practice test and hire a tutor to go over some of the answers with you, then spend time at home going over the remaining answers on your own. In your next session, you can go over any questions that are still confusing. When you and your tutor are satisfied that you fully understand the first practice test, repeat the process with a new test.

Going for a Perfect Score

Since the ACT is an established test, you have plenty of resources to draw on if you want to practice for a perfect score.

If you get two 35's and two 36's, the four scores will round to a composite of 36. In addition, difficult test sections give you free points, so you might potentially miss one or even two questions on a section and still get a 36 on it.

Take an official test to get a baseline score and then go through all the books in the list above. After you're done, do as many official practice tests as you can. Since the ACT gives you some leeway to get questions wrong, you should work on improving your speed and accuracy on official tests rather than on unofficial books with questions that are intentionally harder than the real thing.

Most of all, go easy on yourself if you don't make it. Colleges want students who will bring them glory, and the difference between a 34 and a 36 doesn't say much about that potential in the long run.


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