Sign up or log in to Magoosh ACT Prep.

Rachel Kapelke-Dale

The Official ACT Prep Guide 2020-2021 | Book Review

If you’re looking for an ACT prep guide, chances are that you’re considering using The Official ACT Prep Guide 2020-2021. After all, it comes directly from the test-makers, it’s recently been updated, and you can even get it as an eBook with additional online materials. What’s not to love?

Well, hold on a minute! While The Official ACT Prep Guide is definitely a volume worth using, it’s not perfect. Before we go any further, it’s really, really important to note that this book is almost identical to the 2019-2020 guide. So if you already have the 2019-2020 version of the Official Guide, you basically have the 2020-2021 version, too!

Secondly, and just as importantly: this book isn’t enough to prep you for test day. Yes, the book is great—but it alone is not sufficient. I know, I know. It seems like a book that comes right from the test-maker should have everything you need…and this book almost does.

Let’s take a look at its strengths, first.

Pros of The Official ACT Prep Guide 2020-2021

Even though you’d think that a prep book directly from the creator of the test would mirror it perfectly, this hasn’t historically been the case with the ACT’s prep guides. However, The Official ACT Prep Guide went through a major update for the 2019 version. Since then, its test questions have been reflective of what you’ll see on test day, both in terms of difficulty and in terms of content tested. This is still true in the 2020-2021 version.

Another great thing about this book is that there are really strong explanations for the five (yes, five…more on this in a moment!) practice tests. Not only does each question have a corresponding explanation of what the best answer is and why, but it also discusses why each of the other answers is not the best answer, and it does so in more than a perfunctory way! The test-makers are finally catching on that learning why the wrong answers are wrong is just as important as learning why the right answers are right!

Liam got a 35 on the ACT. Get a higher ACT score with Magoosh.

One last note on the practice tests: the book provides a great guide for using the first test you take (the “diagnostic”) and identifying your strengths and areas for improvement in all subject areas. I love this way of thinking about the ACT, because when you start studying for the test, your scores are almost unimportant; the more important thing is where to focus your studying.

As for the other information in the book—of which there is a lot—the book is incredibly thorough in terms of how it describes the test. For example, it lists the math topics you should know for the exam in great detail, such as “Write powers of 10 using exponents.”

Cons of The Official ACT Prep Guide 2020-2021

On that note, though, the book does not cover or review this material in a thorough manner! There are guides to improving your scores in each section, but just keep in mind that this book is really more about the format of the test itself and an introduction to the test. For content review, you should look elsewhere so that you can be both more methodical and more thorough.

Also—and this is really important if you also have the 2019-2020 guide—this 2020-2021 book is nearly identical to the previous edition! We say “nearly” for two reasons: they added a tiny bit about ACT sectional retesting and they rearranged the practice tests. These changes are, respectively, useful but not worth buying a whole book for, and downright sneaky.

Yup…all five practice tests are exactly the same as last year’s. However, the first three have been switched around in the 2020-2021 guide. So if you bought the 2019 book but never completed the practice tests, or if you’re just doing a casual skim of the two side-by-side, you might not notice this at first. But all five tests are the same in both books.

This probably won’t surprise you if you’ve come across our post about The Real ACT Prep Guide. You may have noticed that there’s some overlap between what I’m saying about these two versions of The Official ACT Prep Guide and what Kristin has to say about The Real ACT Prep Guide. That’s because these are updated versions of that book. In fact, Kristin notes that the 4th edition of The Official ACT Prep Guide (they’ve since switched to years rather than editions) is just about the same book as an earlier version of The Real ACT Prep Guide.

As Kristin notes about the 4th edition, “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.” The test-maker has been better in this version about website materials, but there are definitely still problems from previous versions of the book in here.

While the book is definitely thorough, it does not review material on the test in great detail. In fact, the writers at times seem to go to great lengths to avoid doing so. This makes some of the tips frustratingly vague: “Remain calm,” for example, or “Use logic.” These read as filler in what is already a long book!

Finally, while we love a good eBook, this one (probably to avoid copyright infringement issues) presents its tests as images rather than text, which makes them pretty difficult to read. We’ve tried it out on both Kindle for Mac and the Amazon Cloud Reader in full-screen, and they’re still hard to read! Since this is a paper and pencil test anyway, this is one book that is definitely better in person (just, you know, re-gift or recycle after you get that perfect score).

However, one nice thing this purchase is that the five practice tests are available online. So if you do buy the eBook, you have the option of completing them that way.

What’s New in the Official ACT Prep Guide 2020-2021

There’s very little that’s truly new here. If you have the 2019-2020 guide, there’s no reason to buy this version at all. Just make sure you read up about ACT sectional retesting so you know what options are available for you! But you can do this separately; the tiny bit of info included in this book is not a good reason to drop $31.99 for the paperback or $25.99 for the eBook (prices accurate as of this writing).

In short: if you’re looking for more instruction, new instruction, or any new content at all, really, look elsewhere: the 2020-2021 Official Guide isn’t for you.

How to Use the Official ACT Prep Guide 2020-2021

So is this a book to avoid? No, it’s a good prep book! Is it a book to use in combination with other materials? Absolutely, 100% yes. Here’s what The Official ACT Prep Guide is great for:

  • an introduction to the test
  • a diagnostic test
  • setting up your study plan in terms of your strengths and weaknesses
  • four other tests
  • online materials

And it really is great for all those things! However, if you’re looking for:

  • in-depth lessons
  • all the practice tests you’ll need before test day (particularly if you have more than a month to prep)
  • entirely new material from previous editions of the book

…you will want to supplement your prep with other great ACT materials. And of course, Magoosh ACT is a great way to round out your prep as well! Before you subscribe, you can start out with a free trial. Or better yet, you can start out with Magoosh’s free full ACT practice test, featuring questions and answer explanations from Magoosh ACT.

About Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. She writes and updates content on our High School and GRE Blogs to ensure students are equipped with the best information during their test prep journey. Rachel has helped students around the world prepare for various standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT, and she is one of the authors of our Magoosh ACT Prep Book. Rachel has a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from Brown University, an MA in Cinematography from the Université de Paris VII, and a Ph.D. in Film Studies from University College London. For over a decade, Rachel has honed her craft as a fiction and memoir writer and public speaker. Her work has appeared in over a dozen online and print publications, including Vanity Fair Hollywood. When she isn't strategically stringing words together at Magoosh, you can find Rachel riding horses or with her nose in a book. LinkedIn


Leave a Reply

Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!