There you are, standing in the aisle at the local bookstore, staring at 17 different textbooks for the same exam, wondering which one is the right one for you. You pull out your phone, hoping there's a review somewhere out there on the internet to help you make a choice, but all the reviews sound the same. How do you pick, especially in what seems like an ocean of different study materials? Thankfully, the choice can actually be fairly simple. In this post, I'll give you the number one thing to look for in study materials, plus a few additional thoughts on bonus factors that can help.
Hands down, the most important feature of an SAT or ACT textbook is quality practice problems. Why? Because the number one thing that students can do to improve their score is not reading strategy guides. It's doing practice problems (and analyzing their mistakes!). Students will learn strategies, discover weak spots, and gain speed simply from working on practice material that mimics the real exam. That's not to say there isn't a place for reading guides, watching videos, etc, but the emphasis should always be on practice. The issue, however, is that if a student practices on unrealistic material, they are preparing themselves excellently for things that won't be on their test! In order for a student's practice to pay off, their study materials need to be similar to the real exam in their scope, level of difficulty, and format.
Scope refers to the range of content that the ACT or SAT is actually attempting to test in their exams. Nothing stinks like working extremely hard to learn a concept that doesn't show up on your test, only to find several concepts tested that you didn't know you needed to prepare for!
Practice materials should include the same things as the actual tests, and emphasize them to the same degree. Some concepts show up several times on any test (for example, comma usage is tested multiple times on any ACT or SAT), while other topics only show up once in a while (here's looking at you, modulus of a complex number!). Students will want to focus their efforts where it will really count before they move on to the less-emphasized material.
Level of Difficulty
I've worked with students before who had studied with some of the major brands in test-prep, only to find that the real exam was much harder than the problems they had been working on. They had learned the foundational material, but hadn't been challenged by anything that was truly difficult. What's worse, their practice exams had assigned them unrealistically high practice scores, so they went into their actual exams believing they were near the finish line! My work with them was not to re-make their foundations; they were already solid. But they needed help going deeper, and so we focused on the most difficult applications of each idea. Also, while it's less common, there are a few resources out there that actually do the opposite and present material far past what a typical exam tests. In either case, the issue is clear: the practice material needs to match what is normal for a given test.
If a student isn't seeing practice material that looks and feels like the real exam, there's a chance that they may have all the tools for a top score but not actually be able to achieve it. What this boils down to is the ability of the student to understand quickly and accurately what each question is asking him or her to do. The ACT and SAT both have specific ways that they word questions and present information. If those are new to a student, they may not be able to decipher what to do, resulting in simply guessing, or they may misunderstand and believe they are doing the correct work while they head in the wrong direction.
Beyond practice problems, there are two other things to think through in purchasing study materials, specifically strategy and content. Strategy can be a difficult factor to use in purchasing study materials, because I've found with my students that every student needs slightly different approaches to maximize their scores. It's my job as a tutor to pull the right strategies out of my toolbox to fit how a particular student thinks. While I have a few favorites (and also a few that I prefer to steer clear of), strategy guides are somewhat generalized and probably deserve to be a secondary factor in picking out materials.
Similarly, content needs to be matched to where students are in their development, and no single textbook can line up with what every student needs. Some of my favorite books for working with advanced students would be completely overwhelming to someone who is just cracking their first practice test, while those same advanced students wouldn't gain much reading through tutorials they had long since mastered. Again, part of my role as a tutor is knowing when to put which resource in front of a student.
The Bottom Line
Practice is the way to go when picking study materials, and there's nothing like practicing with the real thing. My two favorite textbooks for the SAT and ACT are produced by the test-makers themselves and are full of actual exams that were really given to students: The Official ACT Prep Guide by ACT and The Official SAT Study Guide from College Board (makers of the SAT). There are strategy and content guides in each book as well, but as we've noted elsewhere, the real gold is in their high-quality practice tests.
Here are links:
As we've seen, the process of picking the right study materials which can feel so daunting can actually be quite simple. Next time you find yourself wading through the sea of SAT and ACT textbooks, hunt for the ones with high-quality, realistic practice, and you'll be headed in the right direction.