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July 7, 2020

Timing Rules for the SAT and ACT

Update: I've added additional comments to the Math section.

The easiest way to avoid making "stupid mistakes" on the SAT and ACT is to slow down. Skipping steps and not reading questions carefully tend to lead to small mistakes. You can slow down if you have a way to keep track of time.

For example, on SAT Critical Reading, you have 13 minutes per passage (65 minutes for a total of 5 passages).

That means that if you know the multiples of 13, you can check the clock and make sure that every passage is finished by its appropriate multiple of 13 minutes. That means you need to have read the passage, done the questions, double-checked, and bubbled within the 13 minutes that you’re allowed.

Passage 1: 13 minutes
Passage 2: 26 minutes
Passage 3: 39 minutes
Passage 4: 52 minutes
Passage 5: 65 minutes

If you find that you can't finish the Reading section even with the timing rule given above, you can choose to skip the passage type that's hardest for you. For example, it's okay to skip the 1800's-era passage and to spend 65/4=16 minutes per passage instead of 13 minutes. If you do this, choose "D" for all of the questions in the passage you're skipping and don't even bother to read that passage.

Whenever you do a problem, whether it's math, grammar, and reading, read the question carefully, but don’t stare at it for more than 10 seconds. If a method for solving the problem doesn’t become apparent within 10 seconds, look at the answer choices and try to eliminate some. For about a quarter of the questions, you can eliminate three of the four choices immediately.

Math

Show all your work on math problems. Speed increases come from using fewer steps, not from skipping steps. (For example, solving a 3-4-5 triangle using ratios is faster than using the Pythogorean theorem. We don’t skip any steps, but we do solve the problem in one step instead of five.) Small mistakes come from either mis-reading the problem or by skipping steps. If you show all your work, you’ll know immediately if you re-read everything that you solved for the right variable and plugged the numbers in correctly.

When you’re done, read the problem carefully a second time. Doing this catches about 90% of small mistakes, including ones that involve setting up equations incorrectly, solving for the wrong variable, or forgetting to convert units (for example, hours to minutes). Double-check to make sure the problem was set up correctly, that you plugged the right variables in the right places, and (importantly) that you solved for the correct variable.

If you have a lot of time, do each question two or three different ways if it looks like there’s an easy opportunity to do so. Doing this will eliminate almost all small mistakes and nearly guarantee an 800 on the Math section. (One way to teach yourself creative ways to solve problems is to work through a practice book without using any paper: this will force you to look for simple solutions. I started trying this in May 2017 and have been doing it during actual tutoring since September 2018.)

I personally like to circle the variable I'm supposed to be solving for when I first read the question, solve the problem, and put a vertical bar next to the question when I've read it a second time. This allows me to mentally be finished so that I can move on to the next question. (If I've solved a problem two different ways, I also place a check mark next to the question to remind myself not to double-check it if I have time at the end of the test.)


Doing the Math section very quickly and going back to double-check very quickly doesn’t work. That’s because the test is purposefully designed to be difficult to interpret, and if you try to go through the problems too quickly, you’ll mis-read them. Even though you’re double-checking, you’re likely to mis-read twice if you’re in a rush. Again, it makes more sense to slow down and be careful than to rush through and double-check later.

Bubbling

Work on two pages at a time and don’t bubble until both pages are finished. This will (1) minimize the distraction of moving from the test page to bubble sheet and back again and (2) reduce errors from accidentally bubbling in a question that was skipped and then being off by one.

If you want, you can print each practice test out onto double-sided pages and put the pages in a binder. Your test will then have two pages that face each other, just like the booklets you'll be using on test day.

Timing Rules

The table below has timing rules you can use for each section of the SAT and ACT. If necessary, you can modify the rules if you plan to skip a passage or to go faster in order to spend more time on difficult material.

Section Total Time Number of Questions Time for each set of 10 questions Comments
SAT Critical Reading 65 minutes 52 questions 13 minutes Instead of checking the clock every ten questions, give yourself 13 minutes per passage. If there's a passage type that's particularly hard for you, try finishing the others in 12 minutes so you can spend 17 minutes on the difficult one.
SAT Grammar 35 minutes 44 questions 8 minutes Since this section of the test has four passages (11 questions each), you can give yourself 8 minutes per passage with 3 minutes left at the end of the test to check your bubbling.
SAT Math (no calculator) 25 minutes 20 questions 12 minutes

SAT Math (calculator) 55 minutes 38 questions 14 minutes

ACT English 45 minutes 75 questions 6 minutes

ACT Math 60 minutes 60 questions 10 minutes You have one minute per question on this section.

ACT Reading 35 minutes 40 questions 8 minutes Give yourself 8 minutes per passage. The science-related passage at the end is hardest for most people, but note that 8*4=32 and that you have 35 minutes to finish the test, so you actually have 11 minutes, not eight, to finish the final passage.
ACT Science 35 minutes 40 questions 8 minutes


In order to use these rules effectively, you need to have your own timing device. Most test centers don't have digital clocks, and even if you're good at reading analog clocks, there's no guarantee that the clock on the wall is going to to be in sync with the proctor's timing device, which will probably be his phone.

Finally, remember that these timing rules are designed to make the test less stressful for you. If you forget your watch or find it inconvenient to check the time, you can still do very well if you've practiced a lot and know that you can work quickly enough.

June 27, 2020

SAT: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've revised the Errata section of John Chung's SAT Math book.

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 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; even the errors in the Third and Fourth editions are the same.)

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 107: Tip #58, problem #1 asks for the correlation coefficient, which is not actually tested on the SAT.

Page 272: Practice Test 4, section 4, problem #22: All four answers are incorrect.

Page 490: Practice Test 12, section 4, problem #35: The answer is 91, not 39.

Page 491: Practice Test 12. section 4, problem #38: The answer is 21.9, not 21.

Page 519: Practice Test 13, section 4, problem #31: The answer is 16, not 6. (The book's answer explanation mistakenly multiplies the trapezoid bases instead of adding them.)

Page 564: Practice Test 15, section 3, 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?)

Page 594: Practice Test 16, section 3, problem #20: The answer is 41°, not 39°.

Page 605: Practice Test 16, section 4, problem #30: In the last sentence, replace the phrase "number of algebra workbooks" with "price of each algebra workbook." If you don't do this, all the answer choices will be wrong.

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.

April 29, 2020

GRE: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've updated a few of the links to GRE practice materials.

If you're taking the GRE to get into grad school, take heart: the test is very similar to the pre-2016 "old" SAT. My list of recommend prep books, below, even includes manuals for the old SAT.

You survived the old SAT and did well enough in college to apply to grad school. With some practice, you'll do fine on the GRE, too.




The GRE is a computer-adaptive test, and PowerPrep software is the only place you can find computer-based official practice tests.

Pros
GRE questions are tricky and constantly force you to double-check your assumptions. Only official test questions allow you to safely make the assumption, "The problem is with me and not with the way the question is written or with the answer key."

Since there are only two practice tests, I recommend taking the first one before you start studying and the second one once you think you might be ready to take the GRE.

Cons
The pre-July 2017 version of the software has a user interface that's laughably 1990's. I had to look multiple times to find the button that allowed me to review my answers. If you're still a fan of Windows ME and Mac System 7, you might be okay with this.

The post-July 2017 version is Web-based. I made an ETS account just so I could access the Web-based version of Practice Test #1, but as of June 14, 2017, my attempts to log in to my ETS account have failed. (There's no error message; I just get returned to the login page, where I have to type in my user name and password over and over again.)



This is the only place you can get paper-based official practice questions. The old 2015 edition is nearly identical to the 2017 edition I've linked to above, so check the prices on both before making your purchase.

Pros
This resource has hundreds of practice questions, far more than the practice tests in the PowerPrep software do.

Cons
The practice material is great, but you may find the strategies and answer explanations unhelpful.



Manhattan Prep is the gold standard when it comes to GRE prep. This is their very long, very heavy book of practice questions and complete answer explanations.

Pros
If you've taken a practice test and just want hundreds of questions to practice with, this is the book for you. They're not official GRE questions, but they're close.

Cons
This book is so thick that you might have trouble keeping it open when you practice. The actual GRE only gives you scratch paper to write on instead of a printed test booklet, so you have to manage your practice scratch paper, calculator, and Manhattan Prep book at the same time.

Errata (2nd edition)
Ch. 11, #18 (p. 453): The answer is (B). The book has the correct answer explanation but says the answer is (C) instead of (B).


Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides

You can buy all eight of Manhattan Prep's strategy guides as a package, but you only need to choose one of the eight to get the most important benefit: one-year access to Manhattan Prep's six computer-adaptive practice tests.

Pros
It's a lot cheaper to buy a $15 book than to pay $39 for the practice tests on Manhattan Prep's Web site. You can also try one of their practice tests for free if you create an account on their Web site.

Cons
Don't buy all eight of their strategy guides unless you have a lot of time to kill. Spend the majority of your time studying for the areas in which you need the greatest score gains.



This bank of GRE Quantitative practice questions contains accurate material and detailed answer explanations.

Pros
This book has the same format as Dr. Warner's SAT and ACT Math books. You can jump right in and start working without having to wade through preliminary reading.

The problems in this book 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.

Cons
Most of the content review is in the answer explanations, so you can't treat this book like a textbook. You really have to engage with the material to receive the maximum benefit.

Errata
On page 77, problem 79 has a graph drawn in such a way that it's unclear whether you should include (G) as a possible answer. The book's answer, AEFG, is still correct, however.



Nova's GRE Math Prep Course

This is the closest thing I've seen to a GRE Quantitative textbook. It's very heavy on practice problems, though, and the problems for each topic are sorted into categories (Easy, Medium, Hard, and Very Hard).

Pros
You can get content review here without feeling like you're skipping the hardest questions on the GRE. In fact, the questions labeled "Very Hard" are more difficult than the questions you're likely to see on the GRE itself.

Cons
This book, like any math textbook, is pretty dense. Expect hard work without any entertainment!


Cracking the GRE Premium

This is a decent all-around study guide. It focuses on strategy, not content review, which is advantageous if you have less than two weeks to study.

Its strategies for Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence are excellent. Unless your vocabulary is already post-graduate level, you're going need those strategies to help you guess on sentence completion questions.

Pros
The book's strategies are well-written and clearly explained.

Cons
The practice tests may not feel 100% like GRE questions to you. Some of them are worded in confusing ways, and the answer explanations are cryptic enough to leave you wondering whether the bewilderment is truly your fault.

The paper practice tests aren't computer-adaptive, so the book itself won't give you a diagnostic GRE score. You have to take an online test or use PowerPrep software for that.


The Official SAT Study Guide (2009 edition)

SAT Prep Black Book (2015 edition, Mike Barrett)

When the old SAT died in 2016, ETS didn't throw all of those SAT words away. It's using them on the GRE!

The old SAT's Critical Reading section is an excellent source of semi-official GRE Verbal questions. The old SAT's question types don't match up precisely with the GRE's, but since both tests were written by ETS, you can still use the former to practice for the latter.

Mike Barrett's SAT Prep Black Book provides excellent strategies and answer explanations for official old SAT Critical Reading questions. I recommend going through pages 39-118 in conjunction with the 2009 edition of the Official SAT Study Guide.


Flocabulary: The Hip-Hop Approach to SAT-Level Vocabulary Building

If you want to ace Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions, you need to build your vocabulary.

I've said before that reading is the best way to build your vocabulary. That's definitely true for most standardized tests, including the post-2016 SAT, which test your knowledge of vocabulary in the context of longer passages.

The GRE, however, tests vocabulary using only one sentence at a time. You can get away with memorizing definitions and even with using flash cards.

That's why I'm recommending Flocabulary, which embeds the definitions for advanced vocabulary words into rap songs. Rhythm and rhyme have always made large amounts of text easier to memorize, and vocabulary definitions are no exception.

You can rip Flocabulary songs from the included CD onto your phone and then play them in your car. The Flocabulary book contains the lyrics to all the songs, definitions for the songs' vocabulary words, and multiple-choice practice questions.

Pros
This is the easiest way I've seen to memorize the definitions of words like myopic and recapitulate.

Cons
The stories in some of the songs don't feel quite finished. Phobia, for example, is a song about a guy who's scared to go outside because of a dilapidated house in his neighborhood. We get to the end of the song and never find out what happens to the house or whether the protagonist eventually rallies the courage to face his fear.

You're only going to get the superficial dictionary definitions of words, which may or may not help you in real life. You're doing this to get a vocabulary fix for the GRE, but you'll learn the words properly later by reading them in normal contexts, right?


The Yo Momma Vocabulary Builder

Instead of using music like Flocabulary does, this book relies on humor and silly imagery to help you learn word definitions.

Pros
Any learning tool that connects with preexisting knowledge in your mind is going to work better than flash cards. If funny works for you, go for it!

Cons
Like Flocabulary, the Yo Momma method divorces meanings of words from the ways those words are used in real contexts. You'll get a distorted, oversimplified understanding of vocabulary, but it might be enough to get you through the GRE.

If you're going to pick up a book, though, why not read something you're actually interested in and look up the vocabulary words in the process?

Essay Topics

ETS publishes lists of all the possible Issue and Argument topics.

Going for a Perfect Score

In theory, you can get a perfect score on the GRE if you study hard enough. A perfect 170 in Quant is only 97 percentile, and a 169/170 in Verbal is 99 percentile.

In practice, it's not just about studying and strategy. You have to have a strong enough vocabulary to successfully guess on all of the Verbal questions, no matter what words the test throws at you. Crutches like Flocabulary can help, but there's no way you can memorize all of the words you need in a couple of months.

Improving your vocabulary is a lifelong process, so the GRE may be less vulnerable to tips and tricks than we'd like.

April 4, 2020

ACT: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've added an Errata section to my review of For the Love of ACT Science.

The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2019-2020 Edition

This is a much-needed update addressing the weaknesses of the 2018 and 2016-17 editions. The ACT essay changed in fall 2015 and again (slightly) in fall 2016, so all of the practice essay questions in the older editions were out-of-date.

The ACT has gradually been getting harder over time, and the 2019-2020 edition addresses that by making its own practice tests pretty tough and then making the scoring curves pretty generous to compensate. The first three tests are identical to the ones in the 2018 edition. The fourth one appears to be ACT Form 74C, which was administered June 2017. The fifth test is ACT Form A10 (December 2017).

Pros
This is one of the best and most convenient sources of practice material you'll find. The book is heavy and unwieldy, but you can tear out the practice tests and bubble sheets and take them on a flat surface.

Cons
The scoring instructions are hard to find. You'll find answer explanations immediately after each practice test, but the actual answer keys, scoring instructions, and score conversion tables are at the back of the book. It's important to use the correct score conversion table for each practice test you take, as harder tests also have more generous curves. You can miss some questions and still get 36 if you get a difficult section; this tends to happen most often for Math and English.


ACT Prep Black Book, Second Edition (Mike Barrett)

If your score goal is 30-33 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 and 2019-2020) 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 un-timed practice.


Cracking the ACT with 8 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.


1,511 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, Fourth Edition (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.

The new Fourth Edition adds a Parts of Speech Preliminary Exercise (p. 14), includes answer explanations for the practice problems (p. 247), and fixes some typos, including a major problem with the practice tests (incorrectly labeled problems).

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 quizzes 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.

Minor annoyances include
  • the way that practice questions are numbered (passage number, followed by question number)
  • the fact that you have to remember to flip to page 247 to grade the practice problems
  • the lack of any guidance regarding the use of the score conversion chart (p. 304).

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 also 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
#1 on page 86 of the Advanced book has three possible correct answers: A, D, and E.

#4 on page 121 of the Advanced book is unsolvable unless you assume that the marbles need to be close to evenly distributed between the boxes.

#9 on page 205 of the Advanced book has a confusing answer explanation. The answer key is correct, though.

#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.

Errata
#34 of the Chapter 5 Test (page 89): There is not enough information to answer the question. Based on background knowledge, the answer should be G (methane), which is the answer in the book's answer key, but Student 3 (whom we are being asked about) might argue differently.


The Master Key to ACT Science (Hugh Hung Q. Vo)

There is a noticeable lack of advanced prep guides for ACT Science on the market. My own preference is that students work on building their background knowledge so that they can reduce their reliance on reading the (often long and confusing) passages.

I don't know of any prep book that will teach you how to do this, so if you can't sign up for tutoring, the next best thing is probably this Hugh Hung Q. Vo's book.

It's very dense and will require a lot of self-discipline to get through, as the author's purpose is to help you look at science passages and break down experiments as an actual scientist would. There's also less of an emphasis on background knowledge than I would prefer.

Pros
The table of contents clearly lists the types of questions that students struggle with. If you've taken and reviewed your own practice tests and know exactly what you need help with, this book can be a useful reference manual.

Cons
There's a lot of information packed into this book's pages, and you could easily get cross-eyed trying to figure out what's going on. Unless you're a very serious student, it's probably better to go with Michael Cerro's book.

ACT Essay Sample Responses

Because the ACT essay has changed over the past few years, old editions (pre-2019) of the Official ACT Prep Guide have the wrong essay instructions. If you have one of those older editions, 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.