There are lots of ACT prep books out there. If you’re just setting out on your test-prep journey, the variety of options can seem overwhelming.
There’s a bewildering array of ACT books out there.
As a veteran ACT coach, I’ve experimented with most of them over the years. Here are the ones I recommend consistently to students looking for reliable support across all test sections (Math, Reading, Science, English, and the essay).
1. The Must-Have
The Official ACT Prep Guide 2019-2020 (“the Red Book”)
First on the list is the one book I recommend to absolutely everyone.
The Official ACT Prep Guide uses only authentic questions upcycled from genuine ACTs from past years. The practice material, plus detailed practical information on the test, is curated by the same people who design and write the actual ACT.
Why is that so important?
Most test-prep companies write their own practice questions, hoping to approximate the content and style of the actual ACT. Students who work exclusively with that type of material may develop academic skills, but they miss out on the chance to learn about the personality, preferences, and quirks of the real ACT. On test day, they may find themselves ambushed by confusingly unfamiliar questions.
A fake ACT question may sound realistic, but if it doesn’t challenge you in exactly the same way as a real one, it’s not preparing you for the actual exam.
Five full-length practice tests (one newly released this year) with answer explanations.
Five authentic essay prompts.
Six sample student essays with detailed scoring explanations.
Access to 400 additional online questions that you can sort and organize into customized practice sets.
Strategies and study tips specific to each section of the ACT.
A comprehensive overview of test content, structure, and scoring.
Practical guidance for test day: what to bring with you, how to handle anxiety, important test center rules, and more.
In addition, TheOfficial ACT Prep Guide helps you understand how colleges and universities use and interpret your scores. It’s also:
Easy to navigate.
Free of typos and other annoying errors (a common problem among many test guides).
Even if you’re already working with another resource that you like (a book, an app, a class), you’d be smart to supplement it with The Official ACT Prep Guide.
Are There Any Downsides?
You’ll be taking the actual ACT with pencil and paper, and you should be doing all of your test prep the same way. Practicing under authentic conditions really does make a significant difference to your results.
Ideally, ACT Inc. would allow students to print out the “bank” of 400 bonus questions and work with them on paper. Unfortunately, they don’t.
Be Cautious About Older Editions
If you’re thinking about snagging an older edition of the Guide, keep these points in mind:
Only the 2020 edition includes the fifth practice test.
The third edition (The Real ACT Prep Guide) may look tempting because it contains practice materials that aren’t in the current edition. But be aware: Most of those questions appear in the online “question bank” that you get for free with the 2020 book.
In books from 2014 and earlier, the Reading section doesn’t include paired passages.
Steer clear of the Writing section in older editions. Those instructions are now out of date.
Use This Book If…
You’re preparing for the ACT: TheOfficial ACT Prep Guide should be the first book you buy.
2. Deconstructing the ACT
ACT Prep Black Book: The Most Effective ACT Strategies Ever Published (Second Edition)
Mike Barrett and Patrick Barrett
One thing that the Official ACT Prep Guide doesn’t offer (understandably) is a serious attempt to hack the test.
That’s the goal of the ACT Prep Black Book. It helps you learn how to spot the underlying design of the ACT:
How do sneaky test-writers make questions seem more difficult than they actually are?
How do they make familiar math concepts look new and strange?
What types of questions appear over and over, and how do you recognize them?
What are the ACT’s built-in weaknesses, and how can you use them to your advantage?
Black Book walks you through an analysis of each question on three of the five practice tests that appear in The Official ACT Prep Guide 2020. It also offers a wealth of test-taking strategies, some of which are probably new to you. (Have you heard of “the vertical scan”?) Wherever possible, it gives you shortcuts to help you reach answers quickly.
Instead of trying to write their own practice questions, Barrett and Barrett wisely use some of the same authentic tests that appear in The Official ACT Prep Guide 2020. That means that if you’re working with The Black Book, you’ll need a copy of the Prep Guide as well.
Which Editions of TheOfficial ACT Prep Guide Can I Use with Black Book?
If you have an older edition of The Official ACT Prep Guide lying around, you may be wondering whether it contains the same practice tests as Black Book. Here are the ones that do:
The Official ACT Prep Guide 2019-2020.
The Official ACT Prep Guide 2018-2019.
The Official ACT Prep Guide 2017-2018.
The Official ACT Prep Guide (In listings, this one shows up as The Official ACT Prep Guide 2018, but there’s no date mentioned on the cover. This is the edition that Black Book tells you to get, but the others listed here all contain exactly the same tests).
The Official ACT Prep Pack (It has the three tests you need, plus a few more).
Note that The Real ACT Prep Guide (the 3rd edition mentioned above) does notinclude the Black Book tests.
Use This Book If…
You’re already scoring high and are looking to fine-tune your test-taking skills.
You’ve tried everything, but you’re still struggling with time-management.
You’d like to try a range of techniques and see what works for you.
You enjoy exploring the ACT from a new perspective.
You’re okay with a verbose writing style.
You don’t feel intimidated by a book that’s over 600 pages long.
Everyone who’s studying for the ACT can benefit from the ACT Prep Black Book. Even if you’re short on time, it’s worth dipping into the introductory material in Part One.
3. Best Third-Party Book
Ivy Global’s ACT Guide, 1st Edition (2019)
If you want to try out some relatively good quality third-party practice questions, your best option is Ivy Global’s ACT Guide.
Ivy Global has long been a reliable source of SAT practice materials. They do a better job than most of matching the style and content of real College Board questions. They now offer the same support for students preparing for the ACT.
Why We Recommend This Book
Ivy Global’s books are clearly and elegantly laid out. It’s easy to see what’s important on each page.
The authors do a good job of matching the style and content of real ACT questions.
Ivy Global field tests its practice questions on students to minimize confusing errors. (Despite this, I’ve spotted a few mistakes in their SAT books).
Three full-length practice ACTs with essay prompts. (Answer explanations are available online).
Over 500 extra practice questions organized by content type so you can customize your drills.
Guidelines for creating a personalized study plan.
Use This Book If…
You’ve worked through all five official practice ACTs, and you’re ready for more.
The ACT Prep Black Book feels overwhelming. You’d prefer something more streamlined and reader-friendly.
You’ve tried Ivy Global materials before, and already know you like their style.