There are a lot of hurdles that we all need to overcome in high school, some of them bigger than the others. One of those bigger hurdles is the ACT, the gateway exam that will help you determine what your future will look like. Fortunately, there’s no reason for you to take on the ACT all by yourself. Generations of high schoolers before you have taken the same test which means that, aside from being a right of passage of sorts, it can be managed and strategized.
The ACT is an exam that is given year after year which means that it is designed in a familiar and structured way. This makes it easier to study for, especially with the help of ACT prep books. Some prep books are straight up tests, designed to mirror the actual ACT so that you have a good idea of what the test will look like and how it will feel taking it. Other prep books are more strategic in nature, breaking down the ACT’s different parts and offering the best ways to tackle them.
If you’re in a frenzy trying to solve the puzzle that is the ACT, you might be inclined to just buy all of the ACT prep books that you find in the market but believe me when I say that some are better than most. The really terrible ones are just made for you to spend some money and won’t offer much except for a few tests that don’t really reflect the ACT. But you should be glad to know that there are some ACT prep books that can really make the test and studying for it more manageable.
Here are my top picks for the seven best ACT prep books for every high school senior out there gearing up for the exam.
The Princeton Review’s Cracking the ACT is a crowd pleaser because of its comprehensive content, from being a study resource and guide to providing sample tests. As a guide, the Princeton Review offers good study strategies for the ACT while also offering information on how to avoid traps within the exam. It also let’s the reader grade the sample tests the same way the actual ACT will be graded which gives us a good look at the test structure and how to overcome it.
Note that four of the six sample tests will be in the book while the other two can be accessed online.
A lot of readers commented that the Princeton Review sample tests did not reflect the difficulty level of the actual ACT; the questions in the book were much easier. This made it harder for them to gauge their performance and preparedness based on the book’s sample tests and standards.
The Princeton Review: Cracking the ACT is also stronger for the subjects of Math and Science but could be improved for English and Reading.
The good thing about Kaplan’s ACT prep book is that it is meant to be an all-in-one prep book. It contains basic strategies, it covers all four sections of the exam, and it has sample tests. It is also one of the more affordable prep books in the market.
Kaplan’s ACT prep book is better as an introductory prep book but should not be the sole resource for studying for the ACT. Use it as a starter kit but don’t forget to invest in other prep books that offer sample tests that mirror the actual ACT a lot better.
The bad thing about Kaplan’s ACT prep book is that a lot of students find that it doesn’t break the surface quite as well as other prep books do. It is a great starter kit and can be useful as the first ACT prep book you open. But I always recommend using more than one ACT book to get more exposure and a better feel for the exam.
A lot of students also found that the sample tests don’t really reflect the ACT as closely as other prep books do. Also, three of the practice tests are online which does not really give the same environment of taking the ACT.
The first two prep books, Princeton and Kaplan, are more traditional ACT prep books in the sense that they cover the subjects that you will be tested for in the exam and how to master these subjects as well as strategies for taking the ACT. The ACT Prep Black Book is different in the sense that it tackles the ACT on a more fundamental level, specifically on how the test itself works.
The author of the book, Mike Garrett, correctly points out that the ACT is a test given year after year and follows a specific structure. This makes it almost repetitive and anyone with a basic knowledge of how the test works is in a position to master it. It is a unique way of beating the ACT but the Black Book does present the idea that anyone can beat the test no matter what their academic background is.
The ACT Black Book does have one gaping hole of a downside to it – it doesn’t have any sample tests of its own. While I think the Black Book can be a very useful tool for understanding the ACT and how to study for it, I strongly advise that you use this resource right alongside the ACT Red Book which is the prep book that is one big ACT sample test made by the same people who conduct the test. Don’t buy the Black Book without the Red Book.
(Best ACT Prep Guide for Practice Tests)
This ACT prep guide has the huge advantage of having the official practice tests made for studying the ACT. We have to remember that the ACT is testing for basic concepts and knowledge but it does so in weird ways to get students to (a) exercise higher order thinking skills and to (b) test for a deeper understanding of the subject. This is opposed to rote memorization and surface value understanding.
Because the ACT itself presents ideas in a different, non-traditional way, students will need the closest representation of that test to prepare themselves with and to not be caught off gaurd during the actual test.
Unlike the more traditional prep books for the ACT, it doesn’t provide as much resources on how to study the subjects or how to strategize for taking the test. People buy this book for the practice tests. For study guides and strategies, you will need another resource.
It is best to use the official ACT prep guide alongside other ACT prep guides, the ones that complement the resources that the official ACT guide offers. Use it to gauge your performance and your learning level as well as to get a good idea of how you will perform in the actual ACT.
5. Barron’s ACT
If you are looking for a more comprehensive ACT prep guide complete with resources on the study matter and strategies for taking the exam, then Barron’s ACT is your best bet. It devotes more than 50 pages for each of the subjects covered by the ACT and it reserves more chapters just for strategies in studying for the exam as well as taking the exam. Barron’s takes studying for the ACT in measured parts, helping students assess themselves and improve their performance.
Barron’s ACT prep guide does well for Math, Science, English, and Reading but it is still a general study book despite how well it covers most of the bases. There is a more in-depth version of the guide, Barron’s 36, for those who are aiming for a perfect ACT score.
The downside to Barron’s ACT is that the questions in its practice tests are actually harder than in the actual ACT. While there’s nothing wrong with overpreparing, it does mean that you can’t get a realistic picture of your performance and preparedness. It could also mess up your time management, making you spend more time on certain subjects when you can spend it studying for other areas that still have more room for improvement.
Like the rest of the prep books, Barron’s ACT prep guide cannot stand alone as a preparation resource for taking the ACT. It needs other resources and other prep guides to complement it.
The Kaplan ACT Premier is an in-depth and an even more comprehensive take on studying for the ACT. Unlike the basic Kaplan ACT guide, the Premier is meant to go much deeper than generic ACT studying strategies and resources but it is still designed to be an all-around prep book.
The Premier is designed to be an easy-to-follow guide and is formatted for readability and for accessibility. Its smart points feature which highlights particularly vital information that will help with the ACT is a good way of drawing focus from its readers, helping with retention.
Not surprisingly, the Premier is the more expensive of the two. At about three inches thick, it can also be pretty intimidating but on the plus side, it suggests that the book has got a lot more content.
Because it is still an all-in-one, comprehensive ACT prep guide, the subject matter often only touches on general information. I recommend that you use the ACT Premier alongside other resources and definitely with a prep guide that focuses more on practice tests.
For taking the ACT compass test, this guide is about as comprehensive as it gets. It does a good job of explaining how the test works and what it’s for and, most importantly, how to study for it. The practice tests are also pretty close to what you could expect from the actual test and is a good way of measuring performance.
It is formatted in a way that it is easy to understand, making it a valuable learning tool. The subjects covered by the tests are divided and subdivided so that students can go straight to the areas that they want to improve on if they want to.
It is a comprehensive compass study guide which means that it can’t go as in-depth as any student would want. That being said, it is an uncomplicated guide that really helps facilitate the learning process. It’s a good way to get started.
A Few Final Reminders
All of the prep guides listed above are crowd favorites and are among the most purchased study guides for the ACT. However, none of them can work as standalone solutions to performing better in the ACT though all of them have their own strengths. I would recommend that you choose at least two or three of these books and use them alongside each other to improve and gauge your performance.
Remember, a good way to study for the ACT is through small but measured steps, taking it one subject at a time and one practice test at a time. Also, it is a good idea to take a practice test – as close to the official one as you can get your hands on based on time limit, difficulty, and number of questions – before you start your ACT review and after you are done studying for the test. That way, you can have a pretty good idea of how prepared you are and how much you have improved.