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Kristin Fracchia

Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition Update: Official ACT Prep Guide | Book Review

Curveball: The ACT finally released the Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition … but they named it the Official ACT Prep Guide. And that’s where the creativity ends.

Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition

The Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition with a New Name

Granted, a test prep book may not have the same mass appeal as say, Harry Potter, but 2 stars on Amazon is pretty terrible for a guide that is only official test prep guide for the ACT out there. But, sadly, at the time of the writing of this review, that’s the current rating for The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017, the reincarnation of the Real ACT Prep Guide from the folks at the ACT. It has a new publisher, but the cover is still fire engine red, so ACT tutors don’t have to change its nickname: the “Red Book.” At least that’s a relief.

So here’s the deal:

We’ve been waiting for this book for a LONG time. (See the bottom of this post for our laments on the overdue-ness of this guide.)

And honestly, as someone who likes to consider herself one of the biggest champions of ACT test-takers everywhere, I’m pretty disappointed for the kids. The ACT could have done a much better job of addressing the complaints with the out-of-date real ACT Guide, 3rd Edition that has been around for five years (ancient in standardized test years), and it fell short.

But let’s start with the good stuff. There are definitely some things the ACT got right with the Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017.

Pros to the Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017

The Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017 4th edition

  • I like the very specific lists of concepts and skills that are tested on the ACT in the first chapter. This gets quite detailed, particularly on Math, such as “[students need to know how to] solve equations in the form of x + a = b, where a and b are whole numbers or decimals” or “find where a rational function’s graph has a vertical asymptote” This makes it very easy for students to know specifically what bits of school knowledge they need to brush up on.

  • I also appreciate that the ACT’s Official Guide truly embraces the test prep mindset, even more than the old guide did. Part 3 is specifically entitled “How to Improve Your Score” and the book does actually give some real, helpful advice to improve your ACT score in all sections: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing.

  • There are better answer explanations to the practice test questions. Some could use work, but in general, answer explanations are comprehensive and go beyond just stating the right answer (The College Board could learn a few things here regarding the Official SAT Study Guide). I particularly like the Math incorrect answer explanations. For example, “If you chose A, you may have incorrectly used the radius of the circle instead of its diameter in the formula.” This is real. This is what students do. An explanation like this actually gives you good insight into how the ACT constructs incorrect answer choices by anticipating where students might get tripped up along the way.

  • It has official practice tests that have actually been given to students. You aren’t going to get official ACT questions any place other than from the ACT, and these official tests should always form a core part of your test prep. But my enthusiasm here is tempered. See the first Con below for why.

Cons to the Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017


  • The reason why the old Real ACT Prep Guide, 3rd edition has been such a travesty for the past few years is that it no longer matched the test students saw when they actually went to go take the ACT. In the years since this guide was released, the ACT changed the format of the Science section, added comparison passages on Reading, and introduced an entirely different essay. The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017 fixes these issues, thankfully. Format-wise the test now matches what students will actually see. However, this is a downgrade from the previous book for a couple reasons. One, as many students (and tutors like myself) have reported: the ACT tests of recent years have gotten more nuanced and complex and indeed a bit harder and trickier. But even though this is a refreshed guide for 2016-2017, the tests are a hodgepodge of old and new material, including material you could access in old ACT prep materials or on the ACT website.

  • And, what’s more, there are only 3 practice tests in this book, not 5 practice tests as there were in the old Real ACT Prep Guide! Come on! Students need more to practice with.

  • There are other oversights as well: such as the fact that the book says it will address in Chapter 1 the proportion of Data Representation, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints questions that will appear on the ACT Science test, but it never does that. This is actually kind of a big deal since many students prep with a specific pacing strategy on the hard-to-finish Science section and the unannounced format change has seriously thrown off students in the past. In addition, the guide has the same practice essay prompt in both in the first practice test and as a prompt to practice with in the Writing chapter of the book.


So, overall, if you’re studying for the ACT, you should buy this Official Guide. It’s an indispensable part of your ACT test prep. But, like the disgruntled test prep tutors and students low-balling the star rating on Amazon, I agree that the ACT could have done a much better job with the guide based on past history, and hopefully it heeds this for next year’s guide!

Check out our video book review of the Official Guide below!

See below for our previous thoughts in this post on why a new edition was badly needed for more context on why the new book falls short

Like many students and tutors out there, we think a 4th Edition of The Real ACT Prep Guide (The “Red Book”) is ridiculously overdue.

The 3rd edition (the current edition) was published in 2011, so, yeah…nearly five years ago. The tests in the book are from the 2005-2010 period, and since this time, the ACT has changed in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Here’s what’s not-so-subtly out of date in the 3rd edition:

  • The Writing test entirely changed in September 2015. This means that all of the example essays, scoring guides, and advice in The Real ACT Prep Guide no longer apply.
  • The Reading test has added a comparison passage as one of the four passages to read on the test. There are no examples of comparison passages in the Red Book.

More subtly, but still incredibly important:

  • Most tutors and students agree that the ACT has gotten more complex and harder to finish since around 2010. This means that students who prep with the Red Book are often panicked when they sit for the actual test administration and find it to be harder than the official tests they practiced with.

It’s honestly really a travesty. For a test that is so important to so many students and families, workarounds such as a website disclaimer (on the same page where they are continuing to sell the book) that the Writing advice and examples in the guide are no longer valid really doesn’t cut it.

But, there’s hope!

(And hopefully sooner rather than later)

The ACT expects that it will be releasing a 4th edition of The Real ACT Prep Guide in 2016, although it is not clear exactly when. The new guide will not be published by Peterson’s, which published the previous versions of the guide, but likely by the ACT itself (or some other company it employs in that effort).

Here’s what you can do while we wait:

I still recommend that students use the 3rd edition of the Red Book, until we have a Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th edition. There’s still nothing quite like questions from the testmaker to model the test you will actually see. But you need to supplement this with good practice materials that mimic more recent developments of the test and with the materials the ACT has released online to match the new test. These include:

In addition, look for practice materials that have been created to mimic the newer ACTs. This is our goal at Magoosh; we’ve created our questions and strategy advice with the more recent ACT tests in mind, and we will continue to update them as we see changes in the test.

When we get more information on the release of The Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition, we will be sure to pass it along here!

About Kristin Fracchia

Kristin makes sure Magoosh's blogs are chock-full of awesome, free resources for students preparing for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agonizing bliss of marathon running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.

7 Responses to “Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition Update: Official ACT Prep Guide | Book Review”

  1. Jim Hendrix says:

    But isn’t the fourth edition of the book already published. I understand that it is a reprint, but is that what you were referring to as the third edition? And do you know, by any chance, the day or week when the book will be published in May?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert Magoosh Test Prep Expert says:

      The fourth book isn’t out just yet. There doesn’t seem to be an exact publishing date available yet, Jim. Your confusion about the third edition reprint is understandable. There really is only one third edition, in terms of content. But the reprint of the third has a very different-looking cover. Beneath he cover, they’re the exact same book tough. The real updates will be coming in the fourth edition, sometime in May.

  2. Khoa says:

    so the 2016-2017 edition above is the 4th editon ???

  3. Kim Germano says:

    The science section changed from seven sections to six but has the same number of problems. The math has a reduction in trig questions but an increase in word problems. Also, the English/grammar section has more comprehension problems.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert Magoosh Test Prep Expert says:

      Thanks for sharing this information, Kim! We (and I’m sure our students) appreciate it 🙂

    • Josh T says:

      Kim Germano’s statement that the ACT science section changed from seven to six passages is not entirely correct. The ACT used to always feature seven science passages and 40 total questions. However, since about 2013, ACT science sections occasionally contain only six passages, thought always still contain 40 total questions. When there are six passages instead of seven, each passages has one or two more questions than that passage type normally would have. Nonetheless, the vast majority of ACT science sections still contain seven passages, not six.

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