Best ACT Books: How to find the right one
If you’re planning on taking the ACT and are currently drowning in the depths of Amazon searches for ACT prep books, maybe you’re getting a little paranoid: Should I trust this 5-star review from KelseyKaplan2018? Just because it’s at the top of the search results, does that mean it’s REALLY the best?
We get it.
Not all test prep books are created equal, and it can be really difficult to figure out which one is the best for you.
So here are our EXPERT opinions on which ones are worth your time and money.
Here you will find a clear and comprehensive look at the best books for the ACT. We grade each book on its strategy advice (does it provides good recommendations for approaching ACT test questions?), the quality of its practice questions and tests (how close are they to the actual ACT?), and its style (is it readable and, dare we say, enjoyable)?
Use these links to jump to each review, or scroll down for them all!
- The Official ACT Prep Guide
- The ACT Prep Black Book
- Magoosh ACT ebook
- Barron’s ACT
- Barron’s ACT 36
- Manhattan 5 lb. Book of ACT Practice Problems
- McGraw-Hill ACT 2017
- McGraw-Hill 10 ACT Practice Tests, 4th Edition
- Other Free Resources
Best ACT Prep Books of 2016: Reviews
Below you’ll find even more information on the ACT books of 2016 that we recommend for students as well as links to all of our ACT book reviews.
Disclaimer: every book has pros or cons; make sure you pay close attention to what is important to you in a prep book!
The Official ACT Prep Guide (2016-2017)
The tests in the Official ACT Prep Guide are real former ACT tests. And there is no better way to hone your ACT skills than using actual questions crafted by the writers of the test.
Check out our full Official ACT Prep Guide review.
ACT Prep Black Book
This is a bare-bones publishing job, but its information is pretty awesome. In addition to providing general strategy advice, the ACT Prep Black Book walks students through many of the questions in the ACT “Red Book” (The Real ACT Prep Guide) and explains how to strategically answer them. Yes, the Red Book gives you answer explanations, but the Black Book gives you strategic advice on how to answer them: which questions should be back-solved using the answer choices, for example, or how to use the English section answer choices to find the right answer without needing to understand the grammar. It’s a pretty great resource for learning how to get inside the heads of the test-makers.
Check out our full review of the ACT Prep Black Book.
Magoosh ACT eBook
Everything you need to know about the ACT in 284 FREE pages.
It feels a bit awkward to promote our own book here, but the truth is that we made it because we realized that there wasn’t a great book out there that was up-to-date and comprehensive. Our experts poured all of their knowledge on the ACT into this book and have made it available for free here. You don’t need to go to the store or buy it online and wait for it to ship. You can start using it right now. It explains the format of the exam, all question types, strategies and practice problems. The only feature that it is missing are full-length practice tests, which you can download for free on our website in the Resources section or right here.
Check out the ACT eBook online.
Barron’s ACT, 2nd Edition (2016)
As Kristin mentioned in her review of the first edition of Barron’s ACT, this book is one of the more useful unofficial ACT guides on the market. But was Barron’s able to maintain this quality and build on it in Barron’s ACT, 2nd Edition? To some extent, the answer is yes.
Quality of the Practice Questions
As in the previous edition, Barron’s does a good job of capturing the basic format and “flavor” of real ACT practice materials. But once more, most of the practice questions are easier than the real test.
One of the best features of this new book is an updated guide to the optional ACT Writing section. Barron’s prompts for the new ACT essay are the most authentic unofficial ACT Writing tasks you can find. There are multiple scored sample essays for each question too, which is great!
The ACT English questions in Barron’s ACT, 3rd Edition are literally unchanged from the previous version of the book. It’s the exact same passages and questions as before. This means that the questions remain too easy on average. the new book has nothing new to offer in terms of ACT English practice, a downside for those who already have the first edition.
The other language arts section of the ACT– ACT Reading– has a few significant changes compared to the previous version of the book. Barron’s has now added a dual reading passage to each of their practice tests, since dual passages have become a more standard ACT feature in the last couple of years.
This change to Barron’s ACT Reading is good in some ways, since it does reflect new ACT trends. But the change is problematic in other ways. For one thing, the use of dual passages may not be as universal on the real test as it is in the Barron’s book. One of the three practice tests in the current Official ACT Prep Guide doesn’t have dual passages in its reading section. For another thing, the question sets for these dual passages are again easier than they would be on the actual exam.
All of the other practice ACT Reading passages and question sets the same as they were in the first edition. In rare cases, there are some minor changes to wording, but these changes aren’t truly significant.
The ACT Math questions in this new book are also almost 100% the same as they were in the first edition. There is one small change: on each of the practice tests, exactly two of the math problems from the original first edition have been removed and replaced with two new math problems. The two new problems always deal with statistics or percentages.
Barron’s decision to make these new changes is a little bit confusing. In recent years, there have been many small but important shifts to the mix of questions in ACT Math. But there haven’t been any significant changes in the number of questions dealing with statistics or percentages. So I’m not quite sure what Barron’s is trying to accomplish with this change.
Regardless, the ACT Math question sets in this book remain oversimplified, less challenging than the mix of math problems you’ll actually deal with on test day.
Here, no meaningful changes have been made since the last edition. This again leaves the questions easier than they should be.
The only noticeable change is that Barron’s ACT, 2nd Edition removes the seventh passage from one of the practice tests originally seen in the first edition. Barron’s then added an extra question to five of the 6 remaining passages, so that there would still be 40 questions total.
This ratio of 6 passages and 40 questions is a better reflection of the current ACT. In fact, on the new ACT, you will pretty much always see 6 passages instead of 7. This begs a question though. Why did Barron’s ACT make this update on only one of its 4 full-length practice tests? The remaining ACT Science sections in the new Barron’s ACT have the outdated 7 passages/40 questions format.
Answer Explanations, Strategies and Skills
Here, the new edition of Barron’s ACT shines. The book opens with a good, very thorough explanation of how the ACT has changed, and what the new ACT is like.
English, Math, Reading, and Science Strategies and Skills
The sections of strategy advice for ACT English, Math, Reading, and Science are near-identical to the material in the previous version, all of which was excellent. Still, this lack of change makes the new Barron’s ACT book a not-so-appealing option if you already have the last edition.
Writing Strategies and Skills
Barron’s ACT, 2nd Edition does offer one all new section on skills and strategy. The ACT Writing portion of the book is fully updated. This completely new content is really amazing, and it includes some extra practice questions and sample responses, with scorer commentary.
The answer explanations are well-written and complete, just as they were in the last book. But most of them are copied word-for-word from the first edition. So there are no real surprises or significant added values to the answer explanations in the new version of Barron’s ACT.
Practice material: B+
Answer Explanations, Strategies, and Skills: B+
Barron’s ACT 36, 3rd Edition
Barron’s has just come out with new editions for both of their ACT books, Barron’s ACT and Barron’s ACT 36. The changes made in the latest edition of Barron’s ACT are numerous and significant. In stark contrast, this new version of Barron’s ACT 36 makes no real changes to its content.
Because Barron’s hasn’t changed the actual content of their latest edition of ACT 36, I have very little to say about the substance of the book, beyond what Kristin said in her review of ACT 36, 2nd Edition.
Still, the two changes that have been made to this book are worth discussing. At the very beginning of the book, the new ACT 36 includes a 24 page section about recent changes to the ACT. The second change is a matter of formatting and style; the newest edition of ACT 36 has a markedly different look and feel.
The Update Section
First, let’s look at the updated preamble. It’s great! It includes a concise but very complete one-page summary of all of the most important changes to the test. This single page is followed by something truly valuable: practice dual reading passages and question sets for the Reading section, followed practice prompts for the new ACT essay.
While these updates are all very well and good, they can also create confusion. Because the main portion of the book has no new content, it describes the old ACT. This means that some info in the body of the book actually contradicts the more accurate information from the introduction.
It’s hard to tell exactly why ACT 36 takes this approach. It almost seems like Barron’s sent the entire book to press, realized the book was out of date after it was printed, and then bound some additional updates into the beginning of the book after the fact.
The Fresh New Design
Now let’s talk about the design changes. At the risk of sounding superficial, I really love the way the new book looks.
Barron’s 36 has always been unusually short by test prep standards. This book is designed as a “starter boo,” a short introductory course for the ACT. The new design scheme and page layout in this third edition really makes the most of the books shortness and “just the basic facts” vibe. Key ideas and small sets of practice questions are much more clearly marked than before. Certain content has been slightly re-ordered so that the organization of each chapter is more logical. And most of the answer explanations have been edited to be more short and to-the-point.
In its third edition, Barron’s ACT remains a very basic book. The book makes for a good introductory warmup before you move on to longer, more advanced prep books. If you already have the second edition though, I wouldn’t bother getting this most recent version. The update itself duplicates information that can be found on the official ACT website. And it’s probably not worth it to buy an additional book just for improved layout and design.
Practice material: C+ (brief, not sufficiently updated, especially for ACT Writing)
Answer explanations, strategies and skills: B- (again, some real issues with updates, and a full section of Writing that does not apply to the current test)
Manhattan 5 lb. Book of ACT Practice Problems
The Manhattan 5 lb. Book of ACT Practice Problems may be the best unofficial ACT practice book, and it’s a great companion to the Official ACT Guide and official ACT website. Still, this book does have some weaknesses alongside its many strengths.
Quality of the Practice Questions
Manhattan really shines when it comes to math, and their ACT Math questions are beyond reproach. The Math problems in the Manhattan 5 lb. ACT book are 100% consistent with the ones you see in official ACT practice. They follow the same format and are at the same level of difficulty. You can use the math portions of this book with complete confidence that you are adequately preparing for the real exam.
ACT English and ACT Reading
The problems in Manhattan’s ACT Reading and English practice are subtle but significant. Each Manhattan English and Reading question, when viewed individually, is 100% ACT-like. However, a problem arises when you look at these questions in their full sets. Compared to official ACT prep for these two sections, Manhattan practice questions are a good deal easier on average.
The majority of real ACT English and Reading questions test more than one skill. To correctly answer an actual ACT English problem, you might need knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and punctuation. And an authentic ACT Reading problem might test knowledge of both vocabulary and literary devices. At most, 10-15% of ACT verbal questions would test just one skill. In contrast, Manhattan’s ACT English and Reading has a 50/50 balance of harder multifaceted questions and simpler one-skill prompts. This makes Manhattan ACT verbal practice a good deal easier than real ACT practice, even though the two appear to be the same at a glance.
Manhattan misses the mark the most when it comes to ACT Science. Similar to English and Reading, Manhattan’s ACT Science question sets are easier-than-average. And some of the science charts and graphs that are simpler than any real ACT Science visuals.
In addition, at times the question types are simply wrong. In Manhattan Science practice, I saw a number of EXCEPT questions— questions that ask you to identify the one idea that is NOT in the passage. On the real test, this kind of question is very common in ACT Reading, but is rare-to-nonexistent in ACT Science. Similarly, some of Manhattan’s Science questions involve pre-algebra math operations that are appropriate to ACT Math, but seem out of place in an ACT Science Task.
Answer Explanations, Strategies and Skills
Each answer explanation really acts as a mini-lesson on academic content, and this allows you to walk away with knowledge that’s applicable to other similar ACT questions. As an added bonus, questions in this book are organized by subject. That way, you can focus your practice on the question types you find most challenging.
There is a potential shortcoming, though. Unlike the current official ACT Guide, Manhattan’s explanations don’t directly address incorrect answers. You aren’t really given any insight into how incorrect answers are designed to trick you.
Practice material: A+ for Math, B- for English and Reading, C for Science
Answer explanations, strategies and skills: B
McGraw Hill ACT 2017
I’ve been pretty harsh on McGraw-Hill’s ACT prep in the past. But I still got their current book, ACT 2017, in the hopes that they’d improved. And they have. ACT 2017 still has its flaws, but McGraw-Hill has taken a lot of steps to address the problems that I mentioned in my review of their 2014 book, 10 ACT Practice Tests.
McGraw-Hill’s ACT 2017 offers 3 print practice tests, with a link to three more online. There’s also a shorter diagnostic test at the beginning of the book, and a set of additional practice questions for every section. So you get a lot of ACT practice with this book. But how good is the practice in this current edition?
ACT 2017 hasn’t really fixed its past mistakes with ACT English passage length. The passages in ACT 2017 are up in the 400-500 word range, and this makes it difficult to finish the English sections on time.
However, McGraw-Hill has improved its ACT English questions. In the past, ACT English questions focused on grammar to the extreme. Now there’s much better balance of grammar questions and other questions; the mix of questions is now very similar to that of the Official ACT Prep Guide.
Gone too are the “too close” incorrect answers that plagued McGraw-Hill’s 10 ACT Practice Tests back in 2014. Now the correct answers are obviously correct, and the wrong ones are clearly wrong, as it should be.
In ACT 2017, the quality of ACT Math is no different than it was back in the 10 ACT Practice Tests book from a few years ago. This means that McGraw-Hill’s Math has the right range of question types: pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Unfortunately, this also means that the math in McGraw-Hill’s ACT 2017 is easier than the ACT Math you’ll deal with when you take these test. The most complicated math questions from the real exam don’t appear in ACT 2017, and there are a few too many pre-algebra and elementary algebra questions.
Once more, McGraw-Hill has worked to address some but not all of their past problems. The Reading passages in McGraw-Hill’s ACT 2017 remain shorter than they should be (600-700 words instead of 750). And the reading level is still too hard. McGraw-Hill’s fiction passages are full of dense detail instead of the dialogue and action. And the non-fiction passages are still over-packed with information.
On the other hand, you won’t see any more incorrect answers that are confusingly close to being right. In fact, it now seems as if McGraw-Hill is overcompensating for this past mistake. A small handful of their ACT Reading practice questions now have answers that are a little too obviously wrong. But this is a minimal quibble– overall, ACT 2017’s Reading practice questions are more ACT-like than ever.
McGraw-Hill hasn’t changed their approach to ACT Science since they put out 10 ACT Practice Tests. But they haven’t needed to change their approach, since it was near-perfect to begin with. In ACT 2017, McGraw-Hill continues to excel in this section of the ACT. The book’s ACT science passages are spot-on, with passages and questions that come very close to the real thing– about as close as you can expect form a third-party ACT prep book.
McGraw-Hill gets the format for the ACT essay mostly right, with some minor flaws. The introductory paragraph in the essay prompt is the right length, but the three opinions in each writing prompt are about twice as long as they should be. Bear this in mind if you practice ACT Writing with this book.
I’m sorry to say McGraw-Hill’s answer explanations for the ACT remain as insufficient as ever. Saying an answer is right because it’s “the best” or that an answer is wrong because it “doesn’t work” is not really helpful. The explanations are short and address actual academic principles minimally or not at all.
Skills and Strategy
In their ACT 2017 book, McGraw Hill has some really nice skills building practice materials for English, Math, Reading, and Science. There’s some good advice throughout their chapters on skills and strategy too. McGraw-Hill has especially good advice for pacing and multiple choice strategy.
Sometimes the activities are too short, and equal attention is not given to each section and skill. The chapter on ACT Science prep is much shorter than the other chapters. And there’s too much focus on easier ACT math skills like elementary algebra. Harder aspects of ACT Math such as logarithms and trigonometry are barely explained.
Overall, the “advice” portions of this book are written in a confusing, inconsistent way. One section labeled “Psychology of Testing” simply discusses the importance of practice, without really looking at learning psychology. Sections labeled “strategy” are not always clearly about strategy. Some of the approaches McGraw-Hill encourages may or may not be necessary or useful to all students. Be sure to pick through McGraw-Hill’s advice selectively, using only what you need, and ignoring the stuff that doesn’t make sense.
ACT 2017 (McGraw-Hill Education): Grade
Practice materials (ACT Science): A
Practice materials (everything else): B-
Answer Explanations: D-
Skills and Strategy: C-
McGraw-Hill 10 ACT Practice Tests, 4th Edition
There are some things I really like in about McGraw-Hill’s 10 ACT Practice Tests, 4th Edition. But there’s also a lot to dislike. McGraw-Hill’s ability to replicate truly ACT-like practice varies a good deal, depending on the section of the exam you’re dealing with. And their answer explanations leave much to be desired.
Quality of the Practice Material
Let’s look at passage length. On the real exam, ACT English passages are generally 300-350 words long. In McGraw-Hill, the passages are noticeably longer, ranging from 400-500 words. This makes McGraw-Hill’s mock ACT English sections more challenging, and harder to complete within the time limit.
As for the questions themselves,you’ll see a handful of questions where the “wrong” answer is too tempting. You might see two choices of punctuation or wording that both might work, depending on which ideas the author wants to emphasize.
And the question sets are grammar-happy, hammering away at grammar, grammar, grammar. On the real ACT, grammar and usage questions take up 20% of ACT English at most. But in this book, grammar takes up at least 30%-40% of the questions, edging out other important quesiton types.
In the Reading sections of McGraw-Hill’s ACT practice tests, the passages are too short rather than being too long. The 10 ACT practice tests feature reading passages that are 600-700 words long, rather than the standard 750.
While shorter, these passages, are also harder to read. The prose fiction has a lot less dialog and action, and the nonfiction passages can be poorly written, repetitive, dull, and densely packed with information in a way that’s not truly ACT-like.
Next, let’s look at the quality of the actual Reading questions. As we saw in this book’s ACT English sections, a handful of “wrong” answer choices that could plausibly be correct– two possible main ideas, to inferences that both seem reasonable, and so on. In addition, there are a few too many “trick questions.” On the real ACT, you’ll get just a few questions that try to trick you into misinterpreting the keywords from the passage. You’ll get a lot more of this extra-hard question type on McGraw-Hill’s 10 ACT Reading sections.
In the 4th edition of McGraw-Hill’s 10 ACT Practice Tests, the ACT Math section has a balance of questions that’s pretty close to the real ACT. However, the mix of questions favors pre-Algebra and Elementary algebra, moreso than the real exam. And overall, the math practice questions in this book are easier than they’d be on the real ACT. The handful of really advanced math questions you see in the Official ACT Prep Guide simply don’t appear in these McGraw Hill practice tests. Still, all the basic skills and question types are there.
OK, so I’ve been pretty critical of McGraw-Hill so far. But the tone of this review is about to change. The ACT Science sections in McGraw-Hill’s 10 ACT Practice Tests are amazing! The passages and questions are very close to the real thing.
The question sets are pretty much perfect, but I have one minor nitpick about McGraw-Hill’s ACT Science passages here. The introductory explanations for each passage are shorter than they’d be on the actual exam. Overall though, both the texts and questions offer stellar ACT Science prep.
The ACT Writing in McGraw Hill’s 10 ACT Practices might have been very useful before last year. Unfortunately, the ACT recently rolled out their new essay format, so the Writing content in the 10 practice tests is outdated.
Quality of the Answer Explanations
Here, McGraw-Hill falls really flat with their 10 practice tests. The answer explanations are maddeningly inconsistent and unhelpful. Some answer explanations simply say something like “Answer X is correct because it’s the only answer that makes sense.” Not useful!
Other answer explanations give a little bit of extra information on why an answer is correct, but they usually just reference a concept, without really explaining it. For example, an answer explanation might say “This answer is correct because it follows the rules for quadratics.” But what does that actually mean? Moreover, at least half the time, the incorrect answers aren’t addressed at all.
ACT English and ACT Reading Practice: C
ACT Math Practice: B-
ACT Science Practice: A
Answer Explanations: D-
Other FREE ACT Resources
Magoosh’s SAT Math Formula eBook
(This eBook was written for the SAT, but is equally crucial for the ACT.)
The math formulas you’ll need on the test, plus strategies and practice problems so you can learn how to use them under pressure!
High Schooler’s Guide to the Future
For this eBook, Magoosh teamed up with CollegeXpress to combine our test-prep expertise with their college admissions knowledge. This guide to getting into college provides a timeline to help you navigate the college prep process year-by-year.
More Magoosh ACT Prep Book Reviews
For reviews on a whole bunch more ACT prep books, check out our full list of ACT book reviews. This list grows all the time, so be sure to check back for new reviews! (Or send us a request for one!)