Standing out with the irreverently snappy title, “Get Your ACT Together: The Fabulous Guide to the ACT,” Applerouth presents its first ACT textbook with a bang. The bright cover features bold colors and smiling Scooby Doo-like cartoon characters. Is it all just a little too cute? Maybe. Is the book any good? Surprisingly perhaps, but yes!
Now that the ACT has surpassed the SAT in absolute number of test takers as more and more states are using it as a graduation requirement or for other standardized assessments, it’s high time for the publication of more and better ACT study resources. Until now, students have been limited to the usual suspects – The Princeton Review, Kaplan and Barrons – and the test maker’s “The Real ACT Prep Guide.” Unlike the College Board’s “Official SAT Study Guide” with ten real tests for practice, the ACT people only offer five practice tests. Like the College Board though, the makers of the ACT offer no more than a few pages of instruction in their book, which means that serious students will have to supplement it with a real textbook to guide them in test-taking techniques.
Applerouth seems intent in blowing the roof off the staid and scary atmosphere that infuses most test prep guides. Staid because the material is dry and boring. Scary because, well, these tests count a lot in competitive college admissions. Applerouth’s textbook has BIG type, lots of silly cartoon illustrations, corny mnemonic tools to remember key points, and a lot of excess white space. For some, the approach may seem juvenile and the silliness may be off-putting. At its heart, however, is an excellent teaching tool.
The book is organized by test subject: English grammar and rhetorical skills, Math topics, Reading, Science and Essay. Each one consists of a comprehensive approach to the knowledge base needed for the test and, most importantly, techniques to approach the questions. In the reading section, for example, the text introduces “the Sparrow” with a large cartoon of a bird representing the simple, unflashy answer and how to spot it. In the very time-pressured Science section, Applerouth walks students through the techniques of putting your finger on the graph as you find it mentioned in the question, with question and passage texts highlighted and grayed out to demonstrate the reading and skimming process. It’s almost like having a tutor by your side to advise you. As a test prep tutor of many years’ experience, I was surprised and gratified to see that Applerouth uses many of my favorite techniques, too, and shows students very clearly how to approach the passages and the questions. There are helpful arrows and explanations to all the lesson questions, and smart reminders in the margins, comparable to Barrons’ and The Princeton Review’s, but much more fun, and thus, memorable.
The book has its flaws, too. For more advanced students, it is probably too basic. Students already scoring above 30 in Math or Science should check out The Princeton Review’s “Math and Science Workout for the ACT” or Barron’s “ACT Math and Science Workbook.” And unlike The Princeton Review, Applerouth does not offer explanations to the answers in the practice tests. Furthermore, this expensive book ($29.95 on Amazon, compared to $13.59 for The Princeton Review’s ACT textbook) has only two full practice tests, while The Princeton Review gives two in the textbook plus one extra online and Barron’s has three in the book, itself. As a first edition, there are quite a few typos and other annoying errors. Most egregiously, on its inside cover the book touts “A World of Online Support.” There is, however, no online support at all. Applerouth says they are planning all that, but the promised “more fabulous materials” do not exist; the link on the textbook cover leads to a page promoting their tutoring services. It amounts to shoddy, deceptive advertising and is a major failing of this publisher.
On balance, though, this is a fun textbook and for those who don’t mind spending a little more, a useful tool in ACT prep that will help most students raise their scores. I’m a convert: I’ve chucked my old favorite, The Princeton Review, and have now adopted this book as the new companion to “The Real ACT Prep Guide” for my ACT students in New York and around the world. So far, everyone likes it, finds the material engaging, and is picking up points as a result.