“The blue book,” as it’s affectionately known among SAT teachers, is one of the best official SAT books in the test prep world, hands down. It’s rare that the test makers will hire somebody to write an official study guide who will give real, practical advice on how to take the test. Usually, in the books about other tests, there’s some very dry description of the exam plus the only reason people actually buy the book: authentic practice questions.
But for The Official SAT Study Guide, The College Board (the organization that makes the SAT) broke the mold by hiring somebody who can actually write and does give helpful hints about test strategy. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment. They could have just slapped together some old official material with nothing else helpful, and people would have bought it anyway. So even if you think the SAT is diabolical, soul-sucking, you have to grant the makers one thing: they made an effort here.
Why did they bother? I imagine this is related to their constant image problems. Since its early days, the SAT has had its opponents. Nowadays, the College Board is trying to strike a balance between being realistic about test strategies–they have to admit why the test preparation industry exists in the first place–and upholding the idea that the SAT is just a test of what you learn in school (a half-truth on the back of the Official Guide). If they don’t provide the information about the best test-taking strategies, they risk being exposed by test prep companies like us. Meanwhile, if they focus on that too much, they are making too obvious that the test is more than just a measure of your school work. Basically, they needed a writer to dance a very fine line. The results are pretty good, but not perfect.
Quality of Lessons and Skill Building Exercises
Yes, the lessons are generally good, and the best test strategies are almost all here. They’re a bit hard to find, though–this is an example of the writer worrying about image. Sometimes a crucial test strategy is placed in a list of common sense advice. Yes, we need to know the definitions of words in sentence completions. That’s clear. The idea that you should come up with your own word before looking at the answer choices, on the other hand, is something that many students don’t realize, and it’s one of the most important strategies for that part of the test. The writer doesn’t stress the importance enough.
In the same vein, good advice is often written as if it’s totally debatable. “Some student prefer…” makes the advice sound pretty weak, and that makes it easy to miss or forget when reading. If you want to get the most out of the book, pay careful attention to the “keep in mind” bubbles on the sides of the page. They’re small and don’t seem super important, but they contain most of the really important advice.
Occasionally, there’s some bad advice here, too. And since they don’t weight the good advice heavily enough, it’s easy to be misled by those tips. For example, you should not consider the wrong answers to each reading comprehension question carefully after you’ve identified the right answer. If you have a clearly supported answer, you should move on and save time. If you listened to everything the Blue Book says, you’d get stuck with some pretty slow-going habits for a test that rewards speed as well as accuracy.
The most notable lack of solid advice is in the writing section. In the case of the essay chapter, they’re trying to save face: they don’t want to admit to the fact that these essays are graded in just a couple of minutes and that there are definitely ways to bump up your essay score despite writing terribly. As for the rest of the writing–the sections that deal with grammar rules–I’m assuming the author was just trying to save space, because there are a whole lotta grammar topics that are just not brought up. If you want to improve your writing score, the Official SAT Study Guide alone is not enough.
Then there’s the vocab issue: there’s no list, no flashcards, no reference to work from. The SAT tests your vocabulary pretty heavily, so this is a clear flaw. That being said, by going through the official tests given at the back of the book, you’ll find quite a few of the common SAT vocab words. They’re not in a list, but you could make your own list using these and it would be pretty helpful. But that speaks more to the quality of the practice tests than it does to the quality of the study guide.
Authenticity of Material
This is the biggest selling point, isn’t it? There’s nowhere else in the world that you can legally pay for official SAT material other than from a College Board resource, and this book has the most tests for the lowest price. That fact alone makes the book worth buying. In a way, the rest of this review is irrelevant: you want to train with the real thing, and this is the best source for the real thing.
And there’s a lot of it–more than many students will actually use. The ten practice tests alone make up roughly 40 hours of material, and there are more questions worked into the lesson chapters as well.
Quality of Explanations
Within the lesson sections, there are some really high-quality explanations, especially for the reading comp and sentence completion questions. The math explanations are often a bit too short or assume too much from the reader, but they’re not bad.
Outside of the lessons sections, there are thousands of practice questions (including in the tests) that have no explanation in the book. Luckily, the practice tests do have explanations online, but they are ridiculously hard to find. I actually didn’t succeed in hunting them down, and was only able to get the the answers and sample essays for the first edition of the book (which don’t even include explanations). Only after actually emailing the College Board did I get a link to the practice test explanations as is promised in the introduction of the book. You have to sign up in order to see them, but it’s worth it if you’re using the Official Guide. There are a lot of poor explanations among those online–some of the math is especially hard to follow–but this is still a really important part and is definitely useful. Unfortunately, I think many students would miss it. Since the explanations aren’t in the book, it’s very tempting to instead pass right by those questions you get wrong, mark a red x, tally your score, and not think about it again. That’s one of the largest mistakes you can make when preparing for the test. The explanations and the time spent with them are absolutely crucial.
So if you have that link and can see the explanations, that’s great: another point for the blue book. But if you can’t find those explanations or don’t even realize they’re available, then the Official Guide falls short in a big way.
We’ve also recorded our own free video explanations for Practice Test #1, if you want to try another set of explanations. Check them out here!
Official SAT Study Guide Report Card:
Quality of Lessons and Skill Building Exercises: B-
Authenticity of Material: A+
Amount of Material: A+
Quality of Explanations: B+
The Final Word:
If you only buy one book and use nothing else for your SAT prep, you should make it this one. But I don’t recommend that. Ideally, you’ll have the blue book for some authentic material, and another source (like Magoosh) for clearer strategy and better explanations.
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About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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