Test Prep

Self-Study SAT Books that Spark Joy

August 14, 2019

Over the past 8 years as an SAT tutor, I’ve collected a lot of prep books. They fill my bookshelves, make a nice backdrop for my Instagram, and mostly, they collect dust. So when I recently decided to Marie Kondo my office I had to sort through the covers, flip through the pages, and ask […]

Over the past 8 years as an SAT tutor, I’ve collected a lot of prep books. They fill my bookshelves, make a nice backdrop for my Instagram, and mostly, they collect dust.

So when I recently decided to Marie Kondo my office I had to sort through the covers, flip through the pages, and ask myself, Does it spark joy?

Most of the prep books did not spark joy.

But the ones that did, they are books worthy of sharing. These are the self-study test prep materials that high scores are made of. 


NOTE: Preparing for the SAT by yourself takes serious discipline. These books will help, but for most students, working with a tutor will help you raise your scores higher, faster, and stress-free. You get all of the same information, and more, delivered in a more entertaining and engaging format. If that sounds like a better option, you can sign up to prep for your SATs with me!

#1 – The Official SAT Study Guide

When you’re preparing for the SAT exam, it’s helpful to practice by taking actual SAT exams. This is just a really big book with 8 practice exams in it straight from the test-makers themselves. It’s the most accurate reflection of what you’ll see on test day and College Board provides the scoring guide for each test so that you can get an accurate scaled SAT score to measure your progress.

You can also get PDFs of these exams for free on the CollegeBoard website, but you’ll spend more money on paper and ink to print them than you will spend purchasing this book. 

The first 300 pages are pretty useless in my opinion, they just go through each question type with samples, but the explanations are lacking. Skip to the practice exams, work through a few to familiarize yourself, and then take a timed exam to see what you’ve mastered and what still needs some work.

It’s also worth noting that several of the other test prep books on this list utilize The Official SAT Study Guide for practice questions, so it would benefit you to have a copy.


#2 – SAT Prep Black Book

If you’re set on getting your highest possible score, you’re going to need a mix of content knowledge and strategy. And though this book provides a mix of both, the strategy side is where it really shines.

The author of this SAT book is skeptical of the resources that test makers provide, and for good reason. He has in-depth walkthroughs of over 600 SAT problems (that’s 4 full SAT practice exams) and his explanations are much more substantial than the ones you’ll get from official resources.

Much of the strategy he outlines requires getting into the mindset of the test maker, a world in which every question has one and only one correct answer choice. Often, that means looking for why any given answer choice must be wrong in order to pick out the one that is right. Once you shift to that mindset and get in the habit of focusing on details, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your score can climb. 

This book has incredible potential, but plan on setting aside entire days flipping through its pages to get the full benefits. And while you’ll get hundreds of walkthroughs, there aren’t practice problems provided, so it should be used in combination with the Official SAT Study Guide so you can apply the strategies and check your skills.


#3 – College Panda SAT Math 

This is a no-fluff guide to the concepts you’ll need to get a perfect score on the SAT Math section. It takes up less room on my bookshelf than any other math book I own and it offers the most value. When you’re preparing for the SAT, conciseness is the key to keeping your sanity.

Each section is categorized by topic, making it easy to plan your study time. You can skim the areas in which you just need a quick refresher and review the areas you struggle in at depth. 

My favorite chapters of this book are “Manipulating & Solving Equations” and “More Equation Solving Strategies” because they transfer to every component of the math section. You’ll also develop math endurance, which is critical to completing every section of the math section on time. If you can keep manipulating and moving forward, even on the problems that don’t make sense, you have a good chance of eventually stumbling into the answer.

All of the chapters in this book come with exercises, but there is a major limitation to them. When you’re completing math exercises by topic, you lose the entire element of unpredictability that makes the SAT exam tricky. You’re learning how to solve the problem, then solving similar problems, so you go into the problems knowing exactly what approach to take.

It’s great for building a foundation, but you’ll need to mix in math sections from practice exams to really master the math section with this book.


#4 – The Complete Guide to SAT Reading

Gone are the days when test prep books advise you to annotate, summarize, and circle words as you go. Erica Meltzer’s book is all about saving time in the reading section by understanding the questions.

As someone who struggled with the reading section as a student, I can honestly say I wish this book was around when I was in high school. The book breaks down the reading section into 12 distinct question types with strategies and guidance for each.

Nearly every student can benefit from her chapter “Paired Passages” which breaks down one of the most notoriously difficult sections of the exam. Most students will also benefit from her insight on the “Reasonable Inferences” questions which ask students to go beyond the text, then trap them with fallacies and assumptions. 

After reading this book, you’ll be able to identify the question type on any SAT Reading question. And with that, you’ll understand exactly what the College Board is asking you to do so you can choose the right answer and dodge their traps. 


#5 – College Panda SAT Writing

Most students can tackle the writing section of the exam purely by picking out the answer choice that just sounds right. However, that’s not an official strategy I would push.

When you’re tackling the writing section, it’s good to keep in mind that shorter is better and to review your punctuation rules. That’s most of the prep that native English speakers will need. 

If English is your second language, or if you’ve always struggled with grammar and punctuation, then I would recommend this book to learn the nuanced rules that will be tested in the writing section. Again, The College Panda delivers a book that is concise, to the point, and broken down by topic so you can learn the rules that you don’t know and skip through everything else.

Unlike its math counterpart, this book has three practice writing exams in the back that mix up everything that you’ve learned so you get a realistic test-day experience to measure your knowledge against.


P.S. – When you click on any of the links above and make a purchase, we earn a small commission through Amazon that helps to keep our blog up and running, so we can continue to provide sweet and simple college advice to students like you. We never, ever link to a product that we don’t believe in or wouldn’t purchase ourselves. Only the best for our hive, honey!

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