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Best ACT Prep Books 2017

​Going to college is a major milestone. More and more, you begin making decisions and actions that have a considerable effect on where you will go in life.

Taking the ACT is an important part of this transition before you finally step foot on the college or university of your dreams.

With that, to say that you need intensive preparation is a huge understatement!

Don't worry because help is on the way. Through this article, we will give you valuable tips on how to choose the best prep book.

Yes, there's a lot of them. And we don't want you to waste precious money, time and effort on one that you will not find useful.

ACT Prep Comparison

The Ultimate Prep List

If you want an impressive composite score, you should invest time and effort on reviewing for the ACT.

There are a lot of prep books and each of them has a unique approach. To obtain maximum benefit, we highly recommend that you use as many books as possible.

Here are the prep books that will surely make you equipped and confident to take the ACT.

1. Barron's ACT, 2nd Edition

Barron's ACT

It is generally advisable to use as many prep books as your time will allow.

But if there is one ACT prep book that you have to get, it's Barron's ACT.

​The material packed in this 800+ page book is so comprehensive that you will feel confident about the extent of its coverage.

​The book starts with a diagnostic test, an accurate way of gauging your level of knowledge. It allows you to assess yourself objectively and helps you identify what you need to focus on as you go along the test preparation.

After the subject review material for each of the ACT sections, there are three practice tests.

One of the strengths of this book is how it thoroughly explains every detail about the test answers. Remembering something you truly understand is so much easier than simply memorizing empty facts!

Having the Barron's ACT prep book is similar to being personally tutored by somebody wise and caring. Why? Because aside from the academic principles and lessons, it also has easy-to-follow advice, like increasing the speed at which you answer the test. Things like this may seem small, but they can actually make a huge difference come test day.

The Barron's ACT may be a great prep book, but it does have its shortcomings.

Being extensive carries with it some disadvantages as well.

First, it can get quite overwhelming. Unless you can efficiently manage your study goals and stick to your plan, you will find it difficult to sustain your drive.

​Second, the practice questions are actually more difficult than the ACT questions. Some may argue that this is better than having a more difficult time during the actual test. But preparing for something that you will actually not encounter could mean a waste of time and effort.

Overall, the Barron's ACT is still your best ACT prep buddy!

Pros

  • Comprehensive
  • Has 1600 practice questions
  • Explanations for answers are very detailed
  • Practical test-taking tips are helpful

Cons

  • Too much material can be overwhelming
  • Practice questions are not reflective of actual test quality

2. Cracking the ACT, 2017 Edition by Princeton Review

Princeton Review Cracking the ACT 2017 Edition

This one by Princeton Review is another helpful prep book that you should get your hands on.

In terms of scope, this 832-pager is comparable with Barron's ACT. It covers all sections but the most comprehensive parts are math and science. If those are your areas for improvement, this book is perfect for you.

You will appreciate the book's intention to prepare you for most of the things that you will encounter during the test.

The subject matter content is a given. But it also gives ​advice on test-taking strategies that will best complement the expertise that you will gain.

​One of these street smart tips is using the process of elimination, a test-taking strategy in multiple choice questions.

The book helps you practice critical thinking so that you can eliminate the wrong answers and make an intelligent guess if you are down to that last option.

The ACT is quite long, so managing your time efficiently is also critical. The goal is not only to answer most if not all of the questions, but to do so with the highest possible percentage.

Princeton Review gives you tricks on how to answer in such a way that you will allocate just the right amount of time and careful thought to each question.

Cracking the ACT by Princeton Review has a total of 6 practice tests, 2 of which are online. 

​The online practice tests have an instant scoring feature and a LiveScorer for the essay questions.

However, a common criticism about this prep book is the degree of difficulty of its practice tests. While Barron's test questions are too complex, Princeton Review's version lacks the challenge that will completely prepare you for the actual test.

In general, Cracking the ACT is a decent prep book. But if you are aiming for really high scores, we recommend that you use it together with supplementary review materials.​

Pros

  • Comprehensive
  • Good overall study material but particularly helpful for math and science
  • Has good tips on managing time during the test and using the process of elimination
  • Has instant scoring feature for online practice tests and LiveScorer for the essay questions

Cons

  • Practice tests are too easy.

3. The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016 - 2017 1st Edition

The Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017

The fact that this prep book is authored by the creators of the ACT themselves makes it a logical choice for a review material.

​The book, in general, is easy to read and understand - just how you would want a review companion to be. Nobody wants further complication at this point!

It has bonus online content that includes general college tips: preparing applications, getting into the school that you really want, and how to be a successful student.

It also guides you through the steps of taking the ACT, beginning with the registration and all the way to getting the results.

​While these tips are helpful, there is no doubt that the strength of this prep book lies in the practice tests.

Since it comes from the makers of the ACT, this is the closest that you can get to the real thing. The whole point of practicing is preparing for the actual battle, right? The tests in this book help you do that because they reflect the recent changes in the ACT.

However, the tests also carry certain disadvantages.

First, there are only three tests compared to five in the previous edition. The third test being a rehash of the old version adds insult to injury.

Another observation is regarding the physical presentation of the book. The quality of the paper appears inferior. In addition, parts of the tests are printed in such a way that the user would have to flip the pages back and forth.

Although these are minor flaws, there are people whose concentration and thought processes are affected by these details.

Here is a tip on how you can maximize the use of the Official ACT Prep Guide: use other study materials in this list first. Towards the homestretch of your preparation, take the first two tests in this book. That way, you can accurately assess your readiness for the ACT.

Pros

  • Only true source of official ACT material
  • Reflects recent changes in ACT
  • Practice tests, especially the first two, are its main strength
  • Has detailed explanation for test answers
  • Online bonus content includes tips that are non-ACT related but are important in starting and surviving college

Cons

  • Limited number of tests
  • Poor page quality and organization

4. ACT Prep Black Book

ACT Prep Black Book

This book has a different approach from the usual test prep materials.

While most of the prep books lay out fundamental subject matter content, this one focuses on making you understand what the ACT really is and how you can best tackle it.

Think of it as a boxing match where an important part of your preparation is scouting your opponent. You need to understand the way he works and what his fighting style is. Only then can you map out your strategies and come up with a suitable game plan.

The author of the Black Book, test-prep expert Mike Barrett, claims that the ACT is actually composed of basic concepts, most of which you already know.

However, the way it is structured makes it difficult for you to even figure out what the real question is.

The questions are presented in a way that is very different from what you encounter in typical high school exams.

Imagine how difficult it is to answer something that you don't understand in the first place - very tricky and intimidating!

The beauty of this book is uncovering that mystery.

That being said, it is important to note that you will not find a lot of lessons on concepts in this book. There are no puzzle pieces that fit automatically.

Instead, expect a lot of in-depth explanation that will require extra attention, focus and motivation.

​Another crucial fact about this book, which has become its main weakness, is the lack of practice questions. It refers to question in the Real ACT Prep Guide 3rd Edition, otherwise known as the Red Book, so you need to get a copy of this as well. Unfortunately, you need to be extra resourceful as new copies of this version are no longer being sold today.

But given the value that it can add to your ACT preparation, the Black Book is undeniably a useful tool.

Pros

  • Has a unique focus, which is understanding how the ACT works
  • Author has a humorous writing style
  • Acknowledges the difference among students and offers different strategies

Cons

  • No practice tests
  • Needs to be used in conjunction with another book which is no longer sold

5. The Real ACT, 3rd Edition

The Real ACT Prep Guide

Also called the Red Book, its main advantage is being a product of the makers of the ACT.

​There is no doubt that the most compelling reason for buying this book is the practice tests, which are accurate representations of the real test questions.

It has 5 official tests from the past runs of the ACT. Aside from familiarizing yourself with the way ACT questions are structured, it also serves as a good predictor of how you are going to fare in the actual exam.

Although it does not adhere to the recent changes, especially in the essay part, the tests are still some of the best among the prep books out there.

One distinctly valuable characteristic is the way it thoroughly explains every single choice for each question.

It does not only state why a certain choice is the correct answer. It also explains why the rest are incorrect. It's that detailed!

This thoroughness is balanced by the book's friendly tone. ​It's such a relief because the last thing you need is a prep book that will add intimidation to the anxiety brought about by the test.

An important thing to note about the Red Book: it is made to complement the ACT Prep Black Book.

While the Black Book teaches you unique strategies, the Red Book gives you official ACT questions for realistic practice.

They are good materials separately, but they pack the most punch when used together.​

Pros

  • Official ACT tests from past administrations
  • Detailed explanation of all answer choices
  • Has a friendly tone

Cons

  • Less effective without the Black Book
  • Outdated essay tests

6. 5 lb. Book of ACT Practice Problems

5 lb. Book of ACT Practice Problems

If you want tons of practice questions, this book is exactly what you are looking for.

​You will not find concepts or test-taking strategies. Instead, you will immerse yourself in 1,800 problems that will help you gain the expertise and the discipline needed for the ACT.

​The book starts with an introduction followed by a diagnostic test for an honest self-assessment.

​Then comes the meat - the practice tests.

Besides the sheer volume, what we like about the tests is the way they are arranged. Within each section, you will find the questions organized per skill.

This allows you to easily spot your weaknesses and address them accordingly. The answers are explained in detail so working on those lapses should be smooth.

Unlike majority of prep books these days, all tests are printed on over a thousand pages. None of them are online.

You may have your own preference but allow us to point out the advantages of having printed tests.​

First, answering on paper and in digital versions are very different mechanisms. The ACT is a pen-and-paper test so practicing on written tests will make you accustomed to the feel and pace of the actual exams.

​Second, users sometimes encounter trouble accessing online components of prep books. Anybody preparing for the ACT doesn't need added stress!

​However, a prep book this thick may be intimidating for some. 

But with mind conditioning and discipline, the time you spend on all those pages will eventually result in ​commendable ACT scores.

Pros

  • Organized to easily identify and focus on areas of improvement
  • Detailed explanations
  • All practice tests are printed

Cons

  • Huge and heavy
  • Size can be intimidating

7. Barron's ACT 36, 3rd Edition

Barron's ACT 36

Another book from Barron's rounds up our list of recommended ACT review materials.

Although it is not as voluminous as the other prep books in the list, it is still a useful review companion.

It is only a little over 300 pages long but you have an option to get the CD-ROM which has a full-length practice test with answers.

The makers of the Barron's ACT 36 know how stressful preparing for the ACT can be. The book has a nice length that makes it less intimidating.

In addition, its overall tone is light and engaging, which is unlike the dry, serious style of most prep books.

We all know that sustaining interest and drive to review can be challenging so this book's style is very much appreciated by a lot of college-bound students.

​Barron's ACT 36 does not include test-taking tips or strategies. Instead, it focuses on the practice tests.

It covers all sections of the ACT but the English and Reading parts​ are the most solid.

A few errors in Math have been spotted but Barron has acknowledged the blunders and has committed to correcting them.

Barron is known for having practice tests that are more difficult than the actual ACT questions.

This is actually a double-edged sword. It can make you self-assured because you have already tackled more challenging test items. On the other hand, it can also make you overconfident. Remember, nobody know what the actual test really holds.

​Overall, Barron's ACT 36 is a good prep book for those who have already done a more comprehensive review.

Pros

  • Manageable length
  • Has an engaging tone
  • Sufficient coverage in English and Reading

Cons

  • Practice tests are not patterned after ACT questions
  • Some errors in Math

ACT Books to Avoid

​Run a quick Google search of ACT prep materials and countless books will pop up. You will feel your head spin even without reading anything yet!

The dilemma is made even worse by false reviews claiming that these books helped them ace the test or improve their composite scores.​

Although they don't cost a fortune, time and effort are far more important resources that will be put to waste by buying these books.​

Apply the process of elimination and veer away from these inferior choices.

The Real ACT Prep Guide (Reprint, Official ACT Prep Guide) 3rd Edition

Don't get fooled. Released in January 2016, you would expect that it is up to date with recent changes in the ACT.

You guessed it - it's not. ​Its contents are exactly the same as the one released in 2009!

We absolutely don't get the logic behind releasing a new version without updating anything aside from the cover. The practice tests and even the test-taking strategies do not reflect any of the recent changes.

As if that's not enough reason to avoid this book, it is also laden with errors. A missing word here and a wrong formula there are not what you want in your prep book.

The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2018 Edition

Here's another old book repackaged as up to date.

From the previous edition's 5 tests, this one has only 3. And they are all recycled material!

Two of the three tests are from the last edition while the other one is from an even older ACT book.​

​In addition, do not expect to find the online content that is supposed to come with the book as it remains to be unavailable.

If you already have the 2016-2017 edition, stick to that because this "new" release is a complete waste of time and money.

ACT FAQ

Whatever stage of ACT preparation you might be in at the moment, you surely have a few question in mind.

We get you, and that is why we have compiled some common ACT questions from test-takers​.

Why should I take the ACT?

There are several good reasons why you should bother to take the ACT but allow us to give you the top ones.

First, the ACT is accepted by all four-year colleges and universities in the United States.

So what? This simply means that taking the ACT shows colleges and universities, including Ivy League schools, how prepared you are for this higher level of studies. You can even choose up to 4 schools to which the ACT can directly send your scores.

​If you are concerned about the test format, calm yourself down because the ACT is curriculum-based. This means that there is nothing in there that is not covered in your high school courses.

It isn't just about the tests. The Student Profile presents your high school record as well as your career choices to the colleges while the Interest Inventory which summarizes your strengths and weaknesses. Both are really valuable career planning tools!

When should I take the ACT?

Here is the best timeline that we suggest:

Take the ACT in the fall of your junior year and, if needed, retest in the spring.

This way, all the test scores and information are in place as you plan for your senior year. For example, you can take additional classes in an area where you got a low score.

Come fall of your senior year, you should be ready to focus on your college applications.

Should I take the ACT Writing test?

Taking this optional test gives you the opportunity to showcase your writing and analyzing abilities. Therefore, it can boost your college application. 

But it is important to note that not all colleges and universities require it. Therefore, the answer to this questions depends whether or not the institution you are aiming for requires you to take it.

If you still do not have target schools, we suggest that you take the Writing test. You cannot take it on its own, so if you decide to skip it and you eventually ​decide to apply for a college that requires it, you have to retake the entire ACT.

What ACT score should I aim for?

The ACT has four sections (English, Math, Reading, Science) and each of them is scored between 1 to 36. The average of these four scores is referred to as your composite score.

The national composite score average is 20, the 50th percentile. This means that if you get a 20, your score is higher than 50% of all the test-takers.

It is recommended to aim for at least the 75th percentile, which is ​a composite score of 24 or higher. This gives you a good chance of getting into your preferred tertiary school.

However, you should be aware that colleges and universities have different standards. A 30 means you scored higher than 90% of those who took the test. It may be impressive for some colleges and universities, but not for prestigious institutions like MIT, Stanford, or Harvard.

​Therefore, give it your all and aim for the best score that you can get. Imagine yourself being accepted in all of your chosen colleges and you end up being the one who has to select from them. How sweet is that?

My Roundabout Way of Getting a 35 on the ACT

I had a weird path to getting a 35 on the ACT.

I didn't buy any study guides or prep books, and I didn't look up stuff online.

Instead, I had a secret test-taking weapon: I started early.

Super early.

My First ACT Exam

I took the ACT for the first time at the end of 6th grade.

Mom signed me up and told me this test could help me get into an "advanced kids" program online (NUMATS for those who know what that is), but told me not to worry and just to my best because it's not very important right now.

I listened to her advice and didn't worry. At all.

I did no studying or prep, and the only advantage I had going into the test was that I was taking Algebra 1 for math which put me ahead of the average by 2 or 3 years. 

On the day of the exam I woke up early, went to the testing center, and sat with all the "smart kids" who were there to take the exam.

This tells you something about my area because they had a special room reserved for middle school students taking the test! Would you believe it? 

Anyway, I did my best as any other hard-working and people-pleasing 6th grader would, but the science section completely stumped me.

I didn't realize that it was all just basic graph understanding and that I didn't need to know science at all to get a good score on it.

I don't remember what my score was, but even with that blunder I got a 24 or a 26.

The Next Couple Years

I continued my real life exam practice by taking either the SAT or the ACT once a year up until my sophomore year of high school.

I even took both of them in the same year a couple times. Crazy, right?

All of these exams combined with the SAT subject tests I took, the AP exams I took, and the random exams that schools have to administer prepared me for the exam that actually mattered.

To be honest I stopped trying very hard sometime during my freshman year because my score was good enough at about a 31. ​However, I knew that if I wanted to get into a good college I would have to get a better score (I was hoping to get into Stanford).

So I treated the exams as practice, and with every passing year I got less and less nervous every time I had to take them and more and more confident in my abilities.

Test proctors are talking? Whatever. I bubbled in the front of the test in the 5 minutes I was sitting here. Might as well meditate before the exam.

Different testing center? Great! I can get used to a different testing environment.

Constantly sniffling kid sitting behind me? Practice laser-like focus for the first half of the test and then give him a tissue during break.

All of this led to the final exam I had to take my junior year that would determine my fate (or so I thought.)​

My Last Exam

I went into this exam confident that I would succeed. By this time I finished all of the math courses my school had to offer, and even though I haven't had algebra in more than 4 years, my stats knowledge was solid and I knew I could do everything I needed to do algebra wise with a calculator and some simple manipulations.

The science didn't worry me because I realized it was simple graphs and graph analysis, and while I wasn't as ready for the other two sections, I was glad that I wasn't taking the SAT because of their stupid vocab section. (Who cares what the meaning of diseastereotitis is? Seriously.)

Anyway, when the scores came I was surprised by my 35, but I was also frustrated because I actually thought I got a 36!

Overachiever problems, right?

So why did I do so well on the exam?

Multiple reasons.

I obviously had the advantage starting out. I knew more math than the average student and I was in a highly-competitive school district with great teachers.

However, the rest comes from how I "prepared" for the exam.

Instead of taking tons of practice exams right before, I ended up taking 10+ "practice exams" that were exactly like the real thing (because they were the real thing) before the important one.

That helped me get used to the format of the exam, the way everything works, and I got practice with real ACT questions and not ones that are made up to be like the real thing.

This also helped me avoid nervousness and anxiety that many students associate with exams because after taking them a dozen times it all just gets kind of old.

So what's my advice for you?

Should you take the ACT/SAT over and over starting from a young age?

If you have the option to, my answer is a definitive yes!

Sure, it's expensive, but I think it's a better way of preparing than buying a bunch of books and hoping that you do well on them.