Before I had to take the ACT my junior year of high school, teachers practically beat us over the head with strategies to use and practice tests. They encouraged us to buy prep books and take even more practice tests, as though we would do better with every test we took.
Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. While some people do improve every time they take a standardized test, others stay around the same score, or even do worse. And as much as we want to think practice makes perfect, depending on who you are, it might not be the case.
For me, I didn’t find test prep books that helpful. I looked at a few, but I felt that they offered me nothing more than the years of what teachers had been telling me standardized tests were like. Some friends of mine, though, found them super helpful. And others worked through every book available and still could not raise their scores as much as they wanted.
Prep books can’t really teach you what will be on the test. For math sections they may be able to teach you some of the concepts, and for other sections they may be able to help you read critically. However, the range of information that could be on the test makes it impossible to actually learn everything.
So, what are you paying for when you buy these books?
Simply put, you are paying for the format.
Prep books are excellent at teaching test takers what to expect when they take the test, from how questions are formatted, how they might be worded, and how long you can devote to each question. They may be able to help you figure out some sort of strategy in terms of eliminating answers or what to look for when reading.
And while this information might be helpful for some, it may not be for all. If you have test anxiety, for example, you may what to familiarize yourself with the test as much as possible to overcome that. If you don’t, however, taking the test three or four times before you actually have to take it might stress you out even more.
It all ultimately depends on how comfortable you are with tests. Testing can be extremely stressful for some people and a breeze for others. If test prep books weren’t helpful for anyone, they wouldn’t be on the market. However, just because they exist doesn’t mean they can help everyone either. Only you really know your comfort level when it comes to tests, so you have to determine whether you it would be beneficial to use books to prepare.
If you are not sure, though, they probably aren’t going to hurt you. Just don’t go overboard. You don’t need to buy every book on the market and take every practice test. One will probably suffice. And if you don’t get the score you wanted on your first try, it’s not unreasonable to look at a different one. However, don’t expect your score to magically get better just because you used a test prep book. And definitely do not buy every book ever written about the subject. They are fairly similar, so using several different books may get very redundant and ultimately just be a waste of your time.
The bottom line is these books aren’t going to be able to teach you what’s on the test. They may be able to give you an idea of concepts you might want to know, but they can’t give you specifics on what you need to know. The benefit they have is in learning the format of the test. While this can be very helpful, and you should definitely know what to expect, whether or not you really need books to help you with that really comes down to your personal comfort with tests.