The most immediately appealing aspect of the Kaplan ACT 2015 book–particularly for students who are fighting the test prep battle on their own–is its clear, concise formatting and engaging layout. Overall, Kaplan’s guide presents sound strategy advice and clear instructions. It’s pragmatic, test-specific and doesn’t mess around with stuff you don’t need to know.
However, like Princeton Review’s guide, it doesn’t quite put its money where its mouth is when it comes to actual practice questions and tests.
But let’s talk about how it does on strategy first. Kaplan uses its own “SmartPoint” structure to rank the importance of certain topics on the ACT, which is slightly confusing at first since SmartPoints are not correlated to actual points on the exam (or even numbers of questions). But once you get past this, they do help provide students with an immediate understanding of how much it is “worth it” to study certain topics for the exam.
The English and Math strategy chapters are pretty useful, although the grammar and math review is fairly basic. Students looking for more in-depth help or students shooting for top scores will need to look elsewhere.
When it comes to Reading and Science, however, Kaplan fails to understand that there is a timer ticking away on this test. The book advises students to map passages and annotate them in depth, which doesn’t help students who are already pressed for time get to the questions any faster. The same is true for its Science strategy advice. The book advises students to thoroughly map the science passage: scanning figures, identifying patterns, looking for independent and dependent variables, determining if these variables vary directly or inversely, and on and on. While it is true that familiarizing yourself with the Science passages can increase your speed and accuracy on the questions, I don’t know anyone who has that kind of time.
As a rule, you should not go to any extra effort that is not going to directly pan out on the questions. The book also deals poorly with the possibility of outside knowledge on the Science section. There is a good section on writing an effective ACT essay, but no reference at all to the new essay being released in the fall of 2015 (despite the fact that this is a “2015” guide).
Kaplan, like its arch-nemesis Princeton Review, is a bit misleading in terms of the practice tests it actually puts in your hands. True, as the cover states, there are a total of six tests you have access to, but only three are in the book itself; the others are online.
Overall, the practice tests are not very good. The English questions are not as sophisticated as those on the ACT. Similarly, the math is a little too straightforward and not nearly as imaginative as the ACT on its word problems. A few math questions are of a type that appears only on the SAT, not the ACT, and there are some repetitions of the exact same questions on the same test, with just some variation in the numbers! The Reading sections are better than Princeton Review’s, but not great.
Some questions are way too easy (e.g. “The name of Emma’s sister is….”). And some are just wrong for the ACT (e.g. “What does ‘crotalid’ mean in context?”). Science is also oversimplified and does not present students with the same variety as the ACT. A few questions are laughably direct, asking students “What is the hypothesis?” and “What is the control?” While the ACT might ask questions that require an understanding of experimental setups, it doesn’t do it this directly.
However, I do have to say that Kaplan has some pretty great answer explanations for its questions. Each answer is tagged with a specific concept or question type for students to review. And many of the explanations provide strategy advice on the given question, such as “This is an excellent problem for backsolving,” not just the “academic” answer, which I think is awesome.
Overall, this is a guide best paired with the Official Guide to the ACT for practice questions–listen to what it has to say about strategy, and take its practice tests with a grain of salt.
Practice Tests: C-
Style Points: B+