Updated from May 2008 post…
God bless book stores. For the low low price of zero dollars an SAT/GRE junkie like me can go take a look at purty much every test prep book out there. I go through the various books on a semi-yearly basis to see if there is any new test fu I can bring to my students.
There usually isn’t. All the test prep books use very similar tactics and techniques but rename them and package them to sound different from the competition. This is pretty much what you would expect, isn’t it? After all, there are big bucks to be made, and I’m not the only one with access to a book store.
Which SAT or GRE prep book should you buy? The one you’ll use. One recent study compared different methods of test prep to see how much of an average increase in score each method gave. The best method of test prep was individual tutoring, followed by taking a prep class. Pulling up the ignominious rear of the prep pack was … (drum roll, please) buying a test prep book.
Buying a book earned a whopping average increase of ZERO points. My personal theory–which was not explored in the dry-as-a-dead-camel academic study–is that those who purchased a book probably spent more time deciding which book to buy than in actually studying it. So the moral is, buy a book you will actually use, then use it.
Book-store-of-your-choice to the rescue! Go through several prep books and see which is most appealing to you. Do you enjoy reading phone books? Peterson’s is probably the book for you. Juvenile humor more your line? Try Up Your Score (SAT only). Parents, the Up Your Score book is thin enough and entertaining enough that your teenager might actually read it. Prayer is also helpful in this regard.
My personal prep book picks?
For the GRE I lean towards Princeton Review’s book. It’s easy to read and covers almost everything but not in so much detail that you’ll be overwhelmed. Save your money and skip the version with the marginally useful DVD. Princeton’s book will give you most of the tricks and a basic coverage of content. It’s light on samples and practice problems but there’s so much free stuff out there in web world that you won’t have much trouble supplementing. They also leave you in the same lurch as all the other books by telling you to learn a loooooong list of new vocabulary (quotidian, anyone?) without telling you how to go about doing that. Check out this link for remedies to this shortcoming, as well as my various study methods (do a search on this blog for flash cards, stacks, memory, etc.).
For the SAT I use a combination of the Barron’s book and College Board’s practice SAT book. The Barron’s book takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. They could probably get rid of two thirds of the book, and none but the most assiduous scholars would miss it. But the sections are solidly arranged and cover all the major techniques. Careful on their practice/sample math problems. They seem quite a bit tougher than the actual SAT problems. Better too hard than too easy, I suppose, but many students may get discouraged if they don’t realize that. On the other hand, their vocabulary list is very thorough as is their coverage of the math. I use the College Board book for actual practice problems because they are the genuine article; actual SAT tests. You can pretty much chunk the first half of the book, however, since it’s a too-basic review of the SAT content and that’s what the Barron’s book is for.
Those are the books I prefer, but to each his own. Again, since they all cover pretty much the same techniques, go with what feels best. Do beware, however, prep books are notorious for designing shoddy practice/sample questions that aren’t very close to the real test. Rely on the College Board’s online materials and aforementioned book for realistic SAT questions. For the GRE look to practice problems and tests on gre.org and released versions of the old paper-based GRE.