October 15, 2019

SAT: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've updated my review of The Official SAT Study Guide.

This is a current list of the books I'm using with my own students. I'll revise it as new books are released.


This new edition eight official practice tests with answer explanations, though the College Board is no longer recommending that students take tests 2 and 4. The 2020 edition of this book has two replacement tests that are already available online.

Pros
Official material is a true confidence builder. Every question you get wrong contains skills you need to practice.

Most prep books have poorly written questions, answer key errors, and questions that are unrealistically easy, difficult, or off-topic. If you get questions wrong or run out of time on unofficial tests, you'll have trouble figuring out whether the fault lies with you or with the book you're using.

Not all unofficial prep guides have a good feel for the SAT yet, so it's doubly important to practice with official material.

Cons
The practice tests and answer explanations are already available for free online. However, it is cheaper to buy a $16 book than to print 1280 pages. Even with a laser printer at two cents a page, you'd have to pay $25.60 to print the book out yourself.

The book itself doesn't contain the conversion tables that you need to figure out your scaled (out of 1600) scores. You can download those online by visiting the SAT practice test page and clicking on the Scoring Chart link underneath each test.

The first four tests in this book were released as practice material, and the raw/scaled score conversion tables may not be accurate. (The College Board is now recommending that students skip Tests 2 and 4.) Tests 5-8 were taken by real students in 2016 and 2017.


SAT Prep Black Book, Second Edition

If you don't have a tutor, this is the book to start with. Barrett's answer explanations are very detailed, and he uses only official SAT practice tests.

You have to use College Board practice tests 1-4 from Official SAT Study Guide, since Barrett's book has answer explanations for those tests but doesn't include the questions themselves. Fortunately, you can also download the tests online for free..

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 $27, it's a lot more affordable than hiring a real tutor.

His book really shines in its strategy suggestions for the Critical Reading section, where the right approach to the test is more important than reviewing content.

The answer explanations in this book are more organized and easy to read than the ones from the (older) ACT Prep Black Book. Unlike his ACT book, in which he skips some problems but explains others, Barrett includes explanations for every single SAT practice problem.

Cons
Since Barrett chooses to use only official SAT 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 few tests as untimed practice.

Barrett's content review for the Math section is limited, and he emphasizes the use of guessing strategies and calculator tricks over doing problems the "right" way. If you're shooting for a perfect score on the Math section, you really need to know both calculator shortcuts and the "correct" methods in order to decide which approach is the fastest. His English grammar content review is limited and written in a confusing way.


IvyGlobal's New SAT Guide

IvyGlobal's SAT 6 Practice Tests

IvyGlobal's 3 New PSAT Practice Tests

Answer Explanations for IvyGlobal's Practice Tests

These are the best unofficial SAT practice tests I've seen. Even better, IvyGlobal's Web site has detailed answer explanations that are much more helpful that the ones the College Board provides for its tests. I've been impressed enough to include two IvyGlobal tests alongside the College Board tests on my SAT practice test page.

My evaluation is based on four practice tests in a 2015 edition IvyGlobal book. One of my students took all four Critical Reading sections and one of the Writing/Grammar sections and checked IvyGlobal's answer explanations for the questions he got wrong. He made a list of the questions he still couldn't figure out and brought them to me. After spending an hour going through the list with him, I couldn't find any problems that felt ambiguous or inauthentic. Overall, I've been impressed with both the tests and my student's performance on them.

(Update: He ended up getting a 1520 on the real SAT, largely due to practicing with Ivy Global's tests.)

I've taken Ivy Global online practice test #1 on a timed basis and was impressed. The questions are tricky without being unfair, and the answer explanations are concise but accurate.

Pros
IvyGlobal continually revises its books to correct mistakes. It publishes the corrections alongside its answer explanations online for students who don't own the revised books.

Ivy Global's Web site automatically scores practice tests and generates score reports. Select the test you want to score from Ivy Global's menu and enter the answers from your bubble sheet into the online interface.

Cons
It would have been convenient for the answer explanations to have been published inside the books instead of online. IvyGlobal's Amazon book reviews reveal that not everyone is aware that the answer explanations even exist.

Errata
Ivy Global's "Six Practice Tests book" doesn't give you enough information to definitively solve #38 on page 300 (practice test #3, section 4). The third column of the table isn't labeled clearly enough.

#41 on page 476 (practice test #6, section 2) can't be solved unless you replace the phrase "no dollar signs" with "numerals only."

#20 on page 483 (practice test #6, section 3) can't be solved unless you assume that segment CG is perpendicular to segment AE.


Marks Prep: Four Realistic SAT Practice Tests
Marks Prep: Four Realistic SAT Practice Tests

These four high-quality practice tests are about as good as Ivy Global's (see the link above) and also come with helpful answer explanations at the back of the book.

I've had several students work through these tests with no issues.

Pros
The answer explanations for the tests are at the back of the book (unlike Ivy Global's, which you have to find online).

Cons
Unlike Ivy Global, Marks Prep doesn't offer online scoring. It can also be a bit of a pain to score and review the tests, as the four tests begin on page 7, the scoring instructions are on page 228, the answer keys are on pages 229-237, and the answer explanations start on page 237. You'll be flipping back and forth a lot.

There's also no bubble sheet in the book, so you'll have to find and print out your own.


Khan Academy's SAT program

Khan Academy provides an online SAT practice program that's great if you don't have time to buy and read prep books.

Pros
The practice tests are the same as the ones in the May edition of The Official SAT Study Guide, but you can print them from Khan Academy for free without having to wait for the book to arrive. Note that Khan Academy doesn't have links to the answer explanations. You can find the links at my SAT practice test page.

I consider the questions in the Web site's drills to be semi-official. They've been approved by the College Board but haven't been tested on students on actual SATs. That may change in the future if the College Board decides to add some of its real SAT questions to Khan Academy's practice pool.

Cons
Khan Academy provides good SAT practice, but its answer explanations aren't always helpful. SAT Math problems always have more than one solution, and the fastest solution takes 30 seconds or less. Khan Academy's explanations only include one solution per problem, and it may not be the one that is fastest or easiest for everyone.

Its answer explanations for the SAT's Critical Reading section can be particularly incomplete and confusing. To be fair, I've looked at most of the prep books for the SAT, and all of them have this problem to some extent.

If you miss questions, Khan Academy doesn't offer related questions for targeted practice. Khan Academy's normal math courses do do this, so I hope these features are added to its SAT program in the next few years.



Critical Reading is the hardest section to write good practice questions for. Erica does a very good job of emulating the trickiness of the real test. 

She includes great strategies for managing time, skimming, taking notes, and answering tricky questions.

Pros
Erica's practice questions and strategies are several levels better than anything else that's out there. She has detailed strategy descriptions and plenty of practice material.

The Suggested Reading list has a good sweep of different types of writing, from financial journalism to historical United States documents.

Erica's Web site offers several reading quizzes.

Cons
This is a big one: Critical Reading questions are very tricky, and Erica's answer explanations aren't long enough to fully explain why each question has three objectively wrong answer choices and one objectively correct choice.

Supporting Evidence questions on the SAT are hard, and some of them seem to have two correct answers unless you read very carefully. She mentions this in Chapter 5, but there's not enough information there for most people to apply her strategies to the toughest one or two questions on the test. To fill the gap, I've written detailed instructions for conquering Supporting Evidence questions.




IES SAT Reading: World Literature (Advanced Practice Series)

IES SAT Reading: Vice and Virtue in the Exploration of Democracy (Advanced Practice Series)

I used to use AP English Language and Literature tests to over-prep students for SAT Reading - at least until I ran across these two IES books.

Since each book focuses on a specific passage type (either Literature/Fiction or History), you can choose the one that best matches what you need to work on.

The SAT is designed to reward the use of background knowledge from AP Euro, AP U.S. History, and AP English Language/Literature classes. (Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist and that early feminism resembles modern Christianity more than it does modern feminism?) Keep that in mind as you work through these books, especially when you read history passages.

Pros
The practice tests are very accurate in their passage selections and practice questions. The answer explanations are detailed enough that most students haven't needed my help when reviewing their work.

Once you graduate from these IES books, you should be able to move on to AP English Language practice tests if you still need to over-prep. The AP Lang released exams don't have any answer explanations, so I strongly suggest either doing both IES books first or getting a tutor to help you.

Cons
These books are more about practice than strategy, so I suggest starting with the SAT Black Book unless you've taken AP English.

The science-based passage at the end of the Reading section can also be challenging, but IES hasn't produced a dedicated book to help students with that yet.

Errata
#7 on page 105 of the World Literature book has four answer choices that are all incorrect. The answer key indicates that (D) is the answer, but the passage doesn't provide evidence that the author progressively withdrew from social events during the holidays.




This two-book set is similar to Erica's ACT English book in its comprehensive grammar rules, practice questions, and answer explanations. Unlike the ACT version, the SAT version has a second volume called the Workbook that contains six extra practice tests.

Pros
If you understand every grammar rule Erica teaches, SAT Writing 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.

Since the first volume has a practice test and the Workbook has six, you get a total of seven practice tests with answer explanations.

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

Cons
Of the six tests in the Workbook, only tests 1, 3, 5, and 6 are useful for timed practice. Tests 2 and 4 contain a few confusing questions and answer key errors. It only takes one confusing question to throw your timing off for the whole test, so it's better to use tests 2 and 4 for light practice.

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 books are like textbooks (long and possibly boring). Decide now that you're going to be dedicated enough to read everything, including the answer explanations for the practice questions.



This unusual book addresses vocabulary skills that can help with both the Critical Reading and Grammar sections.

Chapter 5 is devoted entirely to the SAT Essay and includes two student essays that earned perfect scores.

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.

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.


A Guide to SAT Math (Richard Corn)

This is the closest thing to an SAT 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 SAT. 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 SAT, on the other hand, tests knowledge that ranges from 7th grade to trigonometry and includes Common Core material that not all students have seen yet.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author. I get free copies of books on a regular basis, but this one is unique enough to earn a spot on my SAT book review page.

Pros
Richard Corn's book is enough like a textbook to get you comfortable with the topics that are tested on the SAT, 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 SAT 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 SAT, 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.

This is the first edition of Corn's SAT Math book, so you may notice some typos and ambiguously written questions.


28 SAT Math Lessons - ADVANCED Course: For Students Currently Scoring Above 600 and Want to Score 800
Each of these books is a strategy guide combined with a large set of problems and answer explanations.

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

Dr. Warner presents strategy, followed by practice problems, followed by more strategy. The cycle repeats with increasingly difficult problems.

If you do one lesson a day, you can finish each book in a month, although many people will need more time than that.

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

Cons
You can use this book without a tutor, but the problems near the end of the advanced book get so hard that you might throw your pencil at the wall and give up. Dr. Warner is trying to help you get an 800 on the Math section, so you'll be seriously challenged.



If you absolutely must get a perfect score in SAT Math, you'll want Dr. Chung's 626-page tome for its extremely hard practice problems. Be warned: this is not a book for wimps.

Note that Dr. Chung's book is great for practicing difficult algebra and geometry problems but that it doesn't have nearly as many word problems as the SAT itself does. If word problems are your weakness, you're better off practicing with Dr. Warner's books and Ivy Global's practice tests.

The most recent version of this book is the fourth edition, which is basically the third edition with different page numbers and an additional practice test. (The page numbers are different because the fourth edition uses less empty space in between its answer explanations. The questions are identical.)

The answers to Tips 1-60 start on page 113.

Pros
If you want a perfect score, I'd normally suggest doing a trillion official practice tests. The SAT doesn't have that many, so the next best option is to practice with questions that are difficult while still being accurate in other ways.

Every hard problem on the SAT has an easy solution that take 30 seconds or less; the difficulty involves finding that solution quickly. What you want is a set of accurate problems that looks like SAT Math but has twice as many hard problems and almost none of the easy ones. That way, you can challenge yourself without distorting the timing of the test too much.

Dr. Chung's problems are hard, but they're still doable within the 30-second limit.

There are other books that are unhelpfully difficult: you can get Barron's New SAT if you want problems that are time-soakers or that have to be done by plugging twenty different numbers into a calculator. In case you're wondering, that's not an approach I recommend.

Cons
Dr. Chung's book will frustrate you unless you already understand everything in Dr. Warner's advanced course. The answer explanations tend to skip several steps in a row (exactly the sort of thing your math teacher tells you not to do), and he doesn't always approach problems in the fastest or most intuitive way possible. The explanations also contain numerous typos. Use his book for the excellent practice problems and ignore the answer explanations.

As mentioned earlier, Dr. Chung's book doesn't have as many word problems as the SAT does. If you're better at math than at reading, you may find that your scores on his practice tests are higher than they would be on real College Board exam.

SAT math diagrams are always drawn to scale unless the test indicates otherwise, but the drawings in Dr. Chung's book are generally intentionally distorted. In addition, the SAT always states its assumptions (segment AB is the diameter of a circle, lines CD and EF are perpendicular, lines GH and IF are parallel), but Dr. Chung sometimes doesn't do this. Don't get in the habit of making assumptions that are not explicitly stated in the problem, as doing so can hurt you on the real SAT.

I suggest starting with an official practice test, then Dr. Warner's books, followed by at least one additional official practice test. If you score 750 or higher and want to get to 800, then (and only then) should you use Dr. Chung's encyclopedic volume.

Errata
Page 22: Tip #8, problem #4 has two answers (B and C). To fix the problem, assume that a ≠ 1 and that answer choice B is not an option.

Page 30: Tip #13, problem #1 should state that points P and R are the roots of the parabola. If you don't make that assumption, the problem is unsolvable.

Page 53: Tip #27, problem #1 should state that you are solving for k.

Page 530: Practice Test 12, problem #35: The answer is 91, not 39.

Page 531: Practice Test 12. problem #38: The answer is 21.9, not 21.

Page 559: Practice Test 13, problem #31: The answer is 16, not 6. (The book's answer explanation mistakenly multiplies the trapezoid bases instead of adding them.)

Page 604: Practice Test 15, Problem #15: The problem is un-solvable without a clearer definition of what "does not support the candidate" means. (Does it include both the "Against" and "No Opinion" responses?)

Books to Avoid

I strongly suggest staying away from Peterson's Master the New SAT 2016. Two of students came to me after taking practice tests from this book. There were so many poorly written questions and typos that the students' scores went up 100 points in the Math section alone after I adjusted the answer key.

Peterson's has a 2018 edition now, but you may want to use the excellent free practice tests provided by the College Board and Ivy Global rather than risk your sanity on a new edition of a poorly written book.

Working with Official Practice Tests

If you find unofficial questions to be inaccurate or confusing, you can still prep for the SAT 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. Look up the questions on the Internet or use 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

Getting a 1600 on the SAT isn't easy.

On the ACT, you can get two 35's and two 36's, and the four scores will round to a composite of 36. The SAT doesn't offer that luxury: the section scores are added, not averaged. The SAT's Critical Reading passages are tough, and the Math sections contain a large proportion of word problems. You also face the challenge of finding enough practice tests to search for and eliminate the careless mistakes we all have a tendency to make.

You'll really have to go above and beyond in your understanding of the test. Work on improving your vocabulary. Read college-level books for practice and, preferably, for fun. Go through Dr. Chung's SAT Math practice. If you really want to challenge yourself, prep for AP English Language and SAT Literature; SAT Critical Reading will seem like child's play in comparison.

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 1550 and a 1600 doesn't say much about that potential in the long run.

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