SAT self study and ACT self study can be a scary, yet liberating prospect. If you are serious about getting the best possible score on the SAT or ACT, you need to plan on putting in some serious time and effort! Showing up unprepared is a terrible idea. In fact, taking the ACT or SAT cold could dampen your chances of getting into the schools on your list.

So here are your options: take a class, or buy some books and go the ACT self study or SAT self study route. Either approach is a respectable option, depending on the degree to which you are self-motivated. Students who are highly motivated, and like studying independently can achieve results comparable to those who take a class. But only if they study as intensely.

Sample different companies

Here’s our best suggestion if you’re going the self-study route: Pick up a collection of SAT or ACT books rather than just one, so you can see the test from more than one perspective, and get special help in the subject areas where you’re weakest. And a set of vocab flash cards can be a big help.

You’ll notice we’re heavy on recommending some of the biggest companies like Barrons, Kaplan, The College Board and The Princeton Review. Why these companies over others? Well, they do it right. Some of the newcomers on the scene do a respectable job as well, and we’ve tried to include a few of those here as well. Check at the end of this post and we’ll give you some of our best overall recommendations for the best ACT or SAT books/flashcards to buy to ensure your success! Obviously, lots of other combinations will work just as well.

First, let’s start with…..


These companies and others offer free SAT or ACT prep materials to entice you to try their materials. In the case of, they offer it free with no strings attached.—Free Online SAT or ACT test prep—Free SAT or ACT practice tests, flashcards and online learning options

SAT Essay Help—Free help from in prepping for the SAT essay section

The College Board—Free SAT or ACT practice tests and tools are available from the College Board, who writes the SAT. Includes an app that offers a free question of the day—if you have a smart phone.

Varsity Tutors—Free tests, flashcards and questions-of-the-day for SAT and ACT, as well as all AP tests



The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd Edition, with DVD (The Big Blue Book)

This Official SAT Study Guide is written by The College Board, the creators of the SAT. That fact alone gives it some serious props. It’s known far and wide as “the Big Blue Book!” The latest one has 10 full length tests, which makes it unique among its peers. Cost: $12.99 on Amazon.



Kaplan SAT 2013 Premier Book (with CD)—This SAT prep book gets more use than any other. It’s filled with study materials and six full-length practice tests, plus lots of tips and tricks from knowledgeable instructors on beating the test. Cost: $21 on Amazon.

Kaplan SAT Flashcards—600 flashcards stored in handy case. Around $10 on Amazon.


Kaplan ACT 2012 Premier (Kaplan Act (Book & Online))—This ACT prep book offers in-depth subject coverage plus lots of quizzes and online and CD access. You also get six full-length practice tests and live online events you can attend, and test taking strategies. Cost: $17 to $20 on Amazon

Kaplan ACT in a Box

—600 digital flashcards in a box, to study anytime. Around $15 on Amazon.

You can also get free tests and diagnostics from Kaplan. Just create a user profile here. And you can take a free practice baseline ACT or SAT…test online, delivered by a proctor. You’ll get a report showing which areas you’re strong and those where you need help. Kaplan offers ACT or SAT at a Glance…a comprehensive look at each section of the SAT or ACT, plus quizzes to help you gauge your readiness. Plus there’s the proprietary Kaplan QuizBank…over 1,000 ACT practice questions (you get access to this with purchased study materials or a purchased class).




Cracking the SAT, 2013 Edition—Complete with five full-length practice exams, a “hit parade” of most used vocab on the SAT, a thorough review of subject matter and key SAT strategies. Cost: $14 to $19 on Amazon.

Cracking the SAT, Kindle Edition, $13 on Amazon.

11 Practice Tests for the SAT and PSAT, 2012 Edition—This is heavy stuff….944 pages heavy! But if you take enough of these PSAT and SAT tests, you’ll be comfortable when you sit for the real thing. This book includes helpful advice on conquering the writing section and help with learning from your mistakes. Cost: $19 on Amazon.

TPR Essential SAT Vocabulary (flashcards) (College Test Preparation)—Includes 500 selective vocab words plus help memorizing them. The set is easily portable and comes with a handy box. Cost: $10 on Amazon.

Math Workout for the SAT—In just 240 pages,  you can get a great math review, including a rundown of common mistakes when taking the SAT test. Includes lots of quizzes and detailed explanations. Cost: $11 to $13 on Amazon.



Cracking the ACT, 2012 Edition—Book with access to three full-length practice exams, essay help, practice questions and online tutorials. Cost: $12 on Amazon.



The Real ACT (with CD)—From the makers of the ACT test. Includes 5 full-length actual tests, plus indepth review and scoring info on the writing test, plus a CD with helpful college planning tips. Cost: $21 on Amazon.



Barron’s SAT, 26th Edition—Subject reviews plus a diagnostic test and five full-length practice SAT tests. Each test has explanations for answers. Test-taking tips and strategies, plus writing help and study tips.   Cost: $10-12 on Amazon.

Barron’s SAT Vocabulary Flash Cards—Features 500 high-frequency words used in SAT reading passages. Convenient for study-on-the-go. Cost: $9 on Amazon.

Picture These SAT Words!—Book with words and definitions used most frequently on SAT exams, by Philip and Susan Geer. Friendly cartoons in case you need some reprieve from the serious side of things. Cost: $8 on Amazon.

Picture These SAT Words in a Flash—Above book by Philip and Susan Geer in flashcard form, with words and definitions used most frequently on SAT exam. Friendly cartoons illustrate vocab words. Cost: $9 on Amazon.

Vocabulary Cartoons: SAT Word Power—This is a fun collection of words, much more delightful than some pneumonic word collections we’ve seen. It’s focused on the SAT. There’s the original book, and the Vocabulary Cartoons II version. Both are around $8 on Amazon.



Barron’s ACT 36: Aiming for the Perfect Score—A 36 on the ACT would be a perfect composite score. And that’s the title of this test prep manual. It’s filled with great practice sessions. But as with most Barron’s materials, if you can master this book, you’ll do even better on the real test. It’s better with the practice than the actual teaching of concepts.

Barron’s ACT 36: How to Prepare for the ACT—True to form, Barron makes this one tough. It’s a combination of in-depth subject reviews plus practice tests. It comes with three full-length practice ACT exams, and a whole load of exercises, tips and test-taking strategies. Use it well, and you’ll come out better on the other end! This is a good resource to add to any other ACT prep book.

Barron’s ACT English, Reading, and Writing Workbook—Okay, it’s fine to admit that writing and language aren’t your strong suit. If you’re worried about how you’ll do on the English and reading comprehension parts of the ACT, add this book to your study schedule. It will definitely life your score. $8-10 on Amazon.


Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT—This book was written by some very high scorers on the SAT, and offers expert advice and strategies used to achieve those scores. This is the perfect complement to your “big book,” whichever one you choose. It’s more a strategic look at outsmarting the test, and is very readable, even a bit edgy.

Math Study Guide for the SAT, ACT and SAT Subject Tests—This book addresses the SAT and ACT math test sections, plus the SAT Math Subject Test. It has great reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, and is considered a valuable resource. Cost: $14 on Amazon.


LD SAT Study Guide: Test Prep and Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities—This is a combination of much of what’s in the other guides, with an emphasis on the special challenges of those with learning disabilities like dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, nonverbal learning disabilities, math disabilities, and visual or auditory processing disorders. Cost: $5 on Amazon.


The Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject Tests, By The College Board—This guide has one test per subject, if you just need to brush up! $5 from Amazon.


There are countless companies in the ACT/SAT prep books business. We’re not trying to cut any of them out, but we just can’t include everything on one list. So I’m suggesting you Google “best ACT prep books” or “best SAT prep books“ and take a look at what’s out there if you want to see the universe of materials available.

Overall, Barron’s books are seen as pretty detailed and difficult, more so than those of Kaplan or The Princeton Review. And the Barron’s tests are super tough, exceeding the real thing by a mile. I liked the use of diagrams in the Barron’s books, since that’s something you come across in the SAT exam or ACT exam.

But the above is a great list to start from. Here’s my advice: Choose either the Big Blue Book for the SAT (The Official SAT Study Guide with DVD) or The Real ACT Prep Guide with CD, since they’re created by the entity that actually writes the test. Then choose a second book, so you will have the added style and emphasis of a couple of different ACT/SAT books. Finally, add a guide where needed for problem areas, such as Math Workout for the SAT or Barron’s ACT English, Reading, and Writing Workbook. Then, go ahead and spring for the 11 Practice Tests for the SAT and PSAT. If you’d rather put together another collection, feel free! But with the selection we’re suggesting here, assuming you take advantage of them all, you should be on par with those who take a SAT prep class or ACT prep class.

Tips for success

Get on a good schedule. Don’t wait till the last minute. Don’t get overwhelmed. Do take breaks. Vary your study so you don’t study the same thing all day. Read our reviews here and others online to make sure you get the best approach for you. And have confidence. If you put in the time, you’ll get the rewards. Good luck!

You might also be interested in these posts:

Best prep paterials for the SAT II Subject Tests

Should I take a class to prepare for the SAT/ACT, or is self-study good enough?

Exactly what’s on the ACT and SAT admission tests?.