Choosing the right material: The best and worst SAT prep books
As if the SAT exam isn’t nerve wrecking enough, choosing the right books and material to prepare for the SAT is equally crucial. When you go to book stores you’ll find an entire rack loaded with endless piles of SAT books. The worst part is coming home and finding out that the book you got is not helpful at all. You’ll also learn that there are separate workbooks for every section of the SAT. Buying most of these books is not only expensive but also won’t help you a lot if you make the wrong choice. It can be very confusing when you have a dozen workbooks and rush through all of them, trying to get done with loads of concepts at once. Besides, not every book is complete, some books have really helpful Reading and Writing sections but their Math sections aren’t good enough and vice versa. Hence, it’s absolutely important that you pick the right material so I’ll walk you through the strengths and weaknesses of some books.
In my classes, I always tell my students to not rely on any single book because no book comprehensively covers the entire SAT. You must diversify your study plan and absorb the best material that is available. This has become really tricky especially after the launch of the redesigned SAT exam. All kinds of books have been published to capture the market but very few of them tackle and understand the ideology of the redesigned SAT exam: making it extremely difficult to choose the right material. That is the reason I have spent a great deal of time in collecting all the right material from various sources (some of which is not even available in the market) and have made my own booklets that cover all the concepts that you need to know. I share that material with all of my students.
Here is my take on various books that are available in the market:
The Official SAT Study Guide by Collegeboard
This is the official SAT study guide published by Collegeboard. In the past years, I told my students that Collegeboard’s book was the number one, critical book they had to have in their study arsenal. Now, I’m saying pretty much the opposite - don’t bother. Why? Because you can find all of its material for free online!
The best part of the book are the official practice tests at the end. Official SAT tests released by the Collegeboard are the gold standard for practice questions. At present, there are eight official tests and each test contains real questions given to actual students on previous administrations of the SAT. Without a doubt, the quality of official questions is far better than that of questions written by unofficial sources such as Kaplan or Barron's.
So does the book offer anything beyond the 8 practice tests which are available online? It does dedicate a bunch of pages to explaining the test structure, basic strategies, and answer explanations. Since you can find the majority of this info online, though, I wouldn’t recommend buying the book unless you really want all the material printed out for you. The book does cover most of the question types that you will come across on the SAT: all the nuances, all the traps, all the idiosyncrasies are there for you to behold, and the more you understand them, the better prepared you’ll be come test day. So if you are starting your SAT prep, the official study guide is your go-to book.
The book doesn’t provide any instructional material, so don't expect to actually learn skills and content here. If you’re bad at algebra, you can’t rely on this book alone. Most test takers buy it for the tests, and the Collegeboard knows this.
The book does provide you with various question types but does not feed you with ample practice material to master those concepts and strategies. You will need additional material with this book to fully comprehend and absorb the various strategies that you encounter on the SAT exam. Moreover, the difficulty level of the questions does not match the difficulty level of the SAT exam. The questions and examples are easier as compared to the real exam, so you need to look for other sources to improve your skills and practice more.
In sum, I’ll definitely recommend this book to a beginner who needs a head start on the exam.
Next, I’ll talk about the BIG THREE: the three biggest test prep organizations in the world: Barrons, The Princeton Review and Kaplan. To be very honest and blunt, I don’t recommend any of them! These brands just rushed in to publish their books on the New SAT that they missed out on properly adjusting their content and aligning their ideology with the test makers. I have given a detailed opinion on all of the three books below so you can choose the right content from these books and not waste time and energy learning the wrong material.
Barron's New SAT is a thorough prep book that offers content review, sample questions, and practice tests. It won’t be wrong to say that it is a very comprehensive book and covers most of the topics you need to know. Because of its dense format, it’s typically more effective for students who have already reached a higher level of understanding and want to enhance their comprehension skills. If you can divide up and scaffold the material in a manageable way, then you'll be able to gain some valuable practice with this book. The Math portion of the book is much better than the English portion! The strategies are solid and helpful, the concepts are broken down well, and it hits that Goldilocks sweet spot of around 200 pages—enough to help you enormously without being overwhelming.
Barron’s has been criticized for recycling practice questions from its old books, rather than creating new SAT content, a problem that remains in the new addition as well. There are a lot more changes to the SAT than having four answer choices instead of five, so simply re-using old questions won’t give you a realistic sense of the question types and concepts on the SAT. This book appears especially guilty of this in its math sections, where the questions tend to deviate from the original pattern and become absurdly difficult.
In addition to not being as realistic as they should be, some of the questions are overly confusing and have complicated wording. While the New SAT will feature multi-step problems that call for in-depth reasoning skills, its problems will have relatively straightforward wording. Therefore, the questions you’ll get in Barron’s, while helpful, may be too hard and not as useful as they could be for your SAT prep.
Princeton Review’s Cracking the New SAT 2018
Like Barron's, Princeton Review's Cracking the New SAT prep book provides a comprehensive review of the three sections of the SAT with four full-length practice tests as well. Princeton Review covers concepts you need to know, like grammar rules and algebraic functions, along with strategies for approaching the questions and managing your time. It has a good Math section with almost 300 pages dedicated to it. Seems overwhelming? It is, a little. And if you’re looking for practice on Reading or Writing and Language, the book does offer good advice and practice sets—just not very much advice and not many practice sets (think 50-75 pages).
The Princeton Review is one of the very few books which seems to actually understand the Collegeboard’s incorporation of graphs into the verbal section on the new SAT—a nuanced concept that few publishers get right.
It also gives thorough answer explanations which help you think about how you can approach similar questions in the future. Given that this book is similar to Barron's in many ways, does it have the same drawbacks? Cons
Yes, students do struggle with SAT math, but there’s no need to push it on them to the exclusion of the other sections. After all, you need to look at that composite score, too! The English portion needs some more working.
Princeton Review shares some of Barron’s drawbacks, mainly that some of its questions have overly elaborate wording and don’t match the straightforward style of official SAT questions as well as they should. The practice tests, while helpful, are not the best representation of SAT sample questions.
Unlike Barron's though, some of Princeton Review's content and questions err on the side of being too easy conceptually, rather than too difficult. While Barron's might be better for especially motivated students aiming for top scores, Princeton Review is more appropriate for students scoring around 600 or below. It probably won't help you break out of that range and score much beyond that, especially since it doesn’t break each content area down into as many subtopics as it could.
SAT Prep Plus 2018
Kaplan’s New SAT is one SAT book that takes students from good scores to excellent scores, especially in math section.
The good thing about this prep book is that it focuses well on test taking strategies. This SAT book offers a significant number of practice questions and gives you abundant opportunities to implement the strategies learned.
You will find some high-level questions in this book that are harder than the questions that appear in the actual exam. Hence, this is one of the best sat prep book for the students who want to go that extra mile and achieve a higher score in math.
In the verbal section, this text misses the mark. The practice questions and passages in Kaplan are not close to the real SAT and are just recycled older questions. The practice tests also do not resemble the new pattern of the SAT exam and questions tend to get really wordy and difficult at times.
Moreover, answers and other materials have a lot of errors, indicating poor quality control. You'll probably notice many of these mistakes yourself, but if you don't catch them you'll learn the wrong facts and strategies.
To summarize, you can definitely go for this book for the math section, but stay away from the verbal part.
500+ Practice Questions for the New SAT
While I could easily fault this book for the lack of any content instruction, it would be unfair to do so, because the purpose of this book is to be a question bank. The Princeton Review has created questions that, while perfectly legitimate, aren’t quite as complex and nuanced as those found on the actual test. And you know what? That’s not necessarily a bad thing—if you are just starting off. So if you are a beginner and want some good practice, you can definitely refer this book.
I should make it clear that I’m not saying, “Oh, this book is just an easy version of the test.” I’m saying it is an easier version of the real thing and it is a valid version. Unlike Kaplan’s books, for instance, which—at least for verbal—are much easier than the real test in an inaccurate way, the Princeton Review mostly stays true to the underlying subtleties of the questions and answer choices. It just doesn’t have the hard-level questions that make up 15-20% of the actual test.
Cons Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of this sat prep book is the absence of techniques and methodologies. You just get a good question bank of 500+ questions without any strategies and how to approach the questions.
To sum up, this book is a great place to start drilling, especially if you are new to the test. But for those wanting to prepare for the rigors of the actual test with practice tests and more difficult questions, you’ll need another book.
To conclude, all the books mentioned have strengths and weaknesses, but combined provide relatively comprehensive prep in all the important areas: practice questions, content review, and strategies. If you're looking to focus even more on a particular section, then you would benefit from a subject-specific test prep book. Try to find reliable sources online and discuss with an expert before starting your SAT Prep. It is extremely crucial that you have the right guidance and the right material at your disposal or all your efforts will go down the drain.
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