If I were a student, the cover of Mike Barrett’s ACT Prep Black Book alone would sell it to me. It’s stylish, alluring and its subtitle pronounces it to include “The Most Effective ACT Strategies Ever Published.” Whaaat?!?! I’m in.
When you open its cover though, the style factor falls off quite a bit. You can tell this is a bare bones publishing job: it looks like someone just printed a Word doc off a computer and pasted a glossy cover around it. Indeed, this is a self-published work. And one of the first pages advertises a website with further help called ACTprepVideos, which, when I tried to visit it, was blocked by Google due to potential malware…so I am not quite sure what is going on there. I decided to stay in safe waters.
All in all, this book seems a little shady, but maybe that is the point. It is a “black book” after all–a book of secrets–and its name has been increasingly circulated among groups of dedicated ACT students in-the-know.
And here’s the thing: the information is pretty awesome for what it is.
This is not a book of practice problems or tests. Barrett does introduce you to the question types and provides quite a bit of strategy advice, but the bulk of the book is a walkthrough of notable questions in the ACT’s The Real ACT Prep Guide, 3rd Edition.
His argument is that the ACT’s explanations for its questions “generally point out the major issues involved in a question, and they’ll occasionally point out something of value about a wrong answer choice,” but that “at worst, they can be unclear and even misleading. Sometimes they can even be wrong.” And I completely agree with him.
The ACT’s explanations provide surface-level solutions. But what they don’t do is help you learn how to strategically answer questions. And that’s what the Black Book does. It tells you the traps in certain questions; it tells you how you can back-solve or substitute numbers on a math problem and how to use the English section answer choices to find the right answer without understanding the grammar.
Most of what the Black Book presents is really sound advice, and it can truly make you feel like you have a tutor next to you coaching you through the problems. The only frustration can be when you would really like an explanation on a problem that is not highlighted in the book. Not all of The Real Guide’s questions are explained by Barrett.
The Black Book does caution against using other companies’ test prep materials for the ACT and advises students to only use the official “Red Book” (and the Black Book, of course). This is advice I sympathize with as it is certainly difficult to perfectly replicate the ACT, but I also disagree with Barrett on a couple points. First, because many students need more than the five tests in The Real ACT Prep Guide. Second, and more importantly, because the tests in the 3rd edition of the The Real ACT Prep Guide are rather outdated. Most students have found that in recent years the test has changed in subtle but important ways, and the Red Book did not fully prepare them for this. (Shameless Plug: Of course, it’s important that you use quality outside materials, and that is why we at Magoosh are working hard to create the most ACT-like practice materials out there.)
A con to this book is that, because of its bare bones format, it can be really hard to dig through. I couldn’t wrap my head around the logic to its organization, and you really do need to be ok with pages and pages filled with text and no frills. And, of course, it offers no extra practice.
As a result, I think that this book is best suited to disciplined students who are really interested in understanding the nuances of the ACT and are truly fascinated by the idea of getting inside the heads of the test-makers. If that sounds like you, definitely check it out.
Practice Tests: N/A
Style Points: C (Despite the boringness of the book’s appearance, Barrett does have a pretty engaging, colloquial style to his writing, boosting his score here.)
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About Kristin Fracchia
Dr. Kristin Fracchia currently focuses on our MCAT and LSAT Prep, but she also has expertise in a wide range of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, and GMAT, as well as college and grad school admissions. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004. She enjoys the agony and bliss of long distance trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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