In general, books are much less flexible than online programs in the fact that they are unable to mold to your individual strengths and difficulties, and so it is much harder to find a workbook that suits your skill level and learning style throughout the entirety of the duration of your SAT practice. For example, when studying for my Math 2 SAT subject test, the book that I initially began studying with made little sense to me as it was clearly not designed for someone of my tragic math level, but after lots of studying with other resources, when I revisited the material it suddenly seemed to make much more sense. Different books will likely suit you during different stages of your prep, but purchasing a variety of workbooks can be costly and confusing.
Books provide a valuable opportunity to unplug during your study sessions, which can help increase your prep effectiveness by up to 100% (especially if you’re particularly susceptible to clickbait youtube videos). So how do you figure out which SAT prep books are right for you?
Head to your library!
Some libraries have copies of test prep books for you to use to aid your studying. Even if you aren’t allowed to check the books out, you can use the library as a place for concentrated SAT practice where you have few things to distract you. In addition, if you’re not sure which prep book you’d like to purchase, you can take a peek into each of them at your library or local book store.
I’ve added links to amazon for the books that I review below so you can check out the reviews on there, too 🙂
The Official SAT Study Guide is essentially a large, thick book that contains all 8 official practice tests, answer explanations, and bubble answer sheets printed out and ready to go. As the SAT is a paper-and-pencil test, everyone should practice filling in the bubbles with an HB non-mechanical pencil in preparation for test day. While these are the exact same tests that are available on Collegeboard’s website, it’s important for you to emulate test day by physically flipping the pages and doing your working directly on the test paper. Another option is to print the online tests out, but printing is very expensive and the multitude of pages can be difficult to keep together– purchasing The Official SAT Study Guide for $20 may be well worth the cost.
Taking the practice tests away from the distractions of your computer may also help you stay focused and perform to your full ability, which is extremely important in eliminating careless mistakes and helping you to understand how much you have to improve to reach your target score. If you’re the type of person who does better studying without access to youtube and snapchat, then you might want to consider purchasing this book.
One popular SAT book that I used in the very beginning of my prep was Kaplan’s SAT Prep Book, and as I progressed with my practice, I later found that the questions presented in this book were not similar at all to those on the real SAT test in composition or level of difficulty. The questions asked in this book are often easier or test concepts in ways that don’t reflect that of the real test, which is a glaring issue when you have a limited amount of time to prep so you need the best quality of practice material possible.
Despite this, what Kaplan excels at is giving you practice with the skills and concepts that you need to know on the test. Can’t remember how to solve for the zeros of a function? Kaplan can help you with that. Should you use a comma or a colon? Kaplan will give you a rundown. If you need to review basic foundational skills, then Kaplan is the right place to start.
While the Kaplan book does give you opportunity for valuable practice with basic math concepts and effective reading strategies, practicing for the SAT only with the Kaplan books is almost like preparing for a tennis match by playing ping pong– you might become an excellent ping pong player, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your skills will translate to tennis, which is what really counts. That being said, training for ping pong can help with your performance when playing tennis. If you’re student who needs to brush up on the basics (learning the uses of semicolons, commas, the quadratic formula, cubic functions etc.) then the Kaplan book might be a great starting point for you to ensure that you’re building your figurative SAT house on a solid foundation of knowledge. As you get more comfortable with the material on the test, you can later consider switching to a different book or method of prep.
I personally purchased 2 panda books— the Writing and Language Panda Book and the Math Panda Book— and these were the two main workbooks that I used to study aside from the official practice tests. The information is easy to process (much easier than in books like Barron’s), but is also extremely thorough and covers all of the topics you need to know to succeed on the SAT.
The Panda Books are excellent in helping you hone in on your skills and ensuring that you are ready for test day. They provide pages of drills to help you drill in your understanding of the use of commas in sentences or the function of imaginary numbers, but they are far from the type of book that holds your hand along the way. If you’re already decently confident in your SAT abilities, this book will definitely help you gain the confidence to perform to the best of your ability on test day. The Writing and Language Panda Book contains model tests in the back, but the math practice tests must be purchased in a separate book and were not included in the main Math prep book. The book also breezes through topics fairly quickly and assumes that you already have all of the basic knowledge nailed down, focusing on polishing instead of building your SAT “house” of knowledge.
In addition, separate books focused on math and writing means that you have to spend twice the amount of money if you want full coverage for your prep, but even then there’s a gaping hole in the fact that there is no such thing as a Reading SAT Panda Book. For these reasons, I would focus on building your foundational skills first with a full-coverage prep book such as the Kaplan book or with a flexible online program such as Khanacademy before purchasing The Panda Books coming up to test day.
The SAT Black Book is another popular SAT prep book that provides detailed explanations behind the correct solutions of the questions in 4/8 of the Official SAT Practice Tests, beyond what is provided by collegeboard. This is especially helpful for the reading section, where I often waffled between two answer choices, because the author writes out the thought process they used to eliminate all of the incorrect potential answer choices. I never owned a copy of this book, but I did use the copy at my library a few times after taking a practice test. This book does a great job at providing detailed justification for why the correct answer is, in fact, correct, and in providing chapters about strategizing your preparation for the test. The author comes off as a cynic, albeit a well meaning cynic, who wants to help you face the reality of the SAT and help you set realistic goals.
However, the book’s format with a tiny font size crammed on pages much larger than A4 can quickly become dizzying and it can be hard to stay focused, particularly after you’ve just spent 180% of your brain power taking the practice test that you’re now going over. In addition, The SAT Black Book does not provide any exercises to practice the skills you need to take the test, so if you need help with your algebra or factoring, then you’ll have to look elsewhere.
The Official SAT Study Guide
- Helps you concentrate better when taking practice tests
- No need to print full tests/answer sheets out
- The same content is available online for free!
Kaplan’s SAT Prep Books
- Helps you practice foundational skills that you need to succeed
- Questions are not realistic
SAT Panda Books
- Helps you to refine your skills and feel prepared for test day
- Contains lots of practice drills
- Cute panda illustrations!
- Does not guide you through understanding the skills needed for the test
- Separate books for Math and Writing, meaning you have to purchase two books for the effect of one
- Math practice tests must be purchased in separate book
- No coverage of Reading
SAT Black Book
- Provides in depth explanation for Official Practice Tests 1-4
- Walks you through strategizing for the SAT
- Sense of humor
- Chapters are long and dreary
- No skill practice
Remember that when in doubt, head to your local library for a taste test to decide which SAT prep book you like best— or if you’d rather not lug a 400 page textbook around in your backpack, then consider an online resource instead. (Read about my reviews of online SAT prep resources here.) As always, if you have any questions, leave a comment and I will get back to you as soon as I can!
Until next time!