Saturday, June 24, 2017

Study Materials Review: The College Panda ACT Math

Ever since a student introduced me to the College Panda SAT math books by Nelson Phu, I’ve kept an eye out for an ACT version.  A couple of weeks ago I spotted it.  I ordered both the ACT Math:  Advanced Guide and Workbook and the ACT Math Workbook:  More Advanced Practice by Topic.  Like the SAT book, the ACT book is light on test strategies.  Any gains you make will be strictly due to improvements in your math capabilities. 

In the first guide, the explanations are clear, but strictly math-based.  There is no mention of calculator use.  Math purists often make it a point to take their college entrance exams without using their calculators, but I rarely see those students.  Most of my students appreciate a word or two on the best use of their calculators.  The answers to the exercises are explained, but the explanations are ….succinct.  Usually, they just walk you through any algebra involved.  There is no mention of ways to avoid the algebra altogether by, say, noticing that the slope of the line must be positive and that there’s only one answer choice that offers that option. 

Most of the time, the primary weakness in an ACT math book is a failure to cover certain topics at all.  This book is better than the competition in this area.  The only topic I couldn’t find – I haven’t read it cover to cover – is vectors.  I will say that the coverage of the miscellaneous topics (matrices, Venn diagrams, sequences and ellipses) is cursory, but it is there.  There is a nice selection of problems at the end of each chapter.

When I ordered the books, I wondered about the title of second one:  Did the “more” mean more practice, or did it mean more advanced?  It means more practice, and I’m not sure whether I’m pleased or disappointed.  The ACT Math Workbook covers the same topics as the Advanced Guide.  The main difference is that the explanations have been left out, so the volume is slimmer – and less expensive.  The problems in each book are different, and, unfortunately, if you wanted to see the full spectrum of problem types for each topic, you would need both books.  However, if you are working with a tutor, you could use the slimmer Math Workbook and count on your tutor to fill in any missing problem types.

Overall, I recommend these books.  Up until now, I have used my own ACT materials with my students,  but I will consider having those students who are comfortable with their calculators purchase the ACT Math Workbook and then supplementing with my own materials.

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If you need to order one – or both – you can do so here:

Monday, March 6, 2017

Study Materials Review: A Guide to the Math SAT

Richard Corn has updated his SAT math guide to reflect the revised test.  (Full disclosure - he sent me a copy to review.) This guide has a number of things I like.  First, I like the organization.  The topics are grouped in a logical manner.  Second, I really like the variety and range of difficulty level of the problems.  There is some really good practice in here.  Third, this guide includes tips on getting the best use out of your calculator which most guides leave out.  There are one or two topics I would have like to see covered more fully, but Mr. Corn has promised to add updates as released tests warrant.

When I reviewed Mr. Corn's guide for the "old" SAT, I mentioned that the formatting and explanations weren't particularly "friendly" and that the book might not be the best choice for a student working on his or her own.  I am happy to report that the explanations are much improved in this book.  There are some nice examples, some solid advice, and plenty of targeted practice.  I have uncovered a few typographical errors, but only one might affect your ability to understand or work the problems, and the author has promised to post a list of errata on his website.

This guide is an excellent resource for students who are working with or without a tutor.  I plan to purchase another copy or two for my resource shelf.  If you need one of your own, you can order it here:


Monday, January 30, 2017

Study Materials Review: College Panda SAT Math

I am often introduced to a new resource by my students.  That's how I became aware of The College Panda SAT Math Advanced Guide and Workbook.  The students was one for whom I would usually recommend PWN the SAT Math Guide: an advanced math student who has covered most of the material but who needs practice with looking at problems from different angles.  He had already been through PWN the SAT and was looking for more problems.  Somehow he stumbled across College Panda.

The tag line on the back of the book reads, "If it's not in this book, it's not on the test," and that's pretty nearly true.  This is a comprehensive book with a LOT of problems.  The problems represent a wide range of styles and difficulties and are nicely divided into categories so you can target your problem areas.  The problems also "feel" right.  The most difficult problems in each sections tend to be a tad more difficult than the most difficult problems on the SAT.  That's a good thing.  (Actually, in a few spots the problems resembled those on the SAT Math II subject test.)

The book does not include any practice tests to work on strategy or timing, so you will need access to some practice tests for that purpose.  (The same company has helpfully provided a book of practice tests in case the 7 - as of this writing - provided by the College Board aren't enough.  I haven't taken a good look at it, yet, so you can expect a review of that eventually.)

If this book has one weakness, it is that it is light on strategy.  It consists of examples, practice problems, and annotated answers.  There is little in the way of advice about timing, approaching multiple choice questions, or anything else that might fall under the category of "testing tip."  The author, Nielson Phu, seems to feel that the road to a perfect math score shouldn't involve any sign-posts for students who can't answers questions through sheer math prowess.  While I agree with that in principle, even the best math students needs a toolbox of techniques to pull out for when she or he doesn't immediately see how to approach a problem.  Students in the 600's to low 700's might get the most out of this book when used in conjunction with a tutor.

If you would like a copy, you can order it here:


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Study materials review: Top 50 Skills for a Top Score SAT Math 2nd edition

I reviewed the 1st edition of this book in 2014.  It was a staple on my shelf for several years, but I put it away when the the SAT was revised.  I forgot about it until a student showed up one day with the 2nd edition.

Brian Leaf has a series of four college entrance exam study guides - two for the SAT and two for the ACT.  One of the SAT guides focuses on math and the other on critical reading and writing.  Unlike many study guides which can be thick and difficult to navigate, these guides are very user-friendly.  Each guide begins with a pre-test.  Each question in the pre-test corresponds to one of 50 "skills."  If you miss a question, there is a page of explanation and a page of targeted practice for that skill.

The guides, which run about 180 pages also include flashcards and an online component.  These study guides are ideal for the student who is currently scoring in the 500's, but wants to score in the 600's and who wants to study on his or her own.

Top 50 Skills for a Top Score SAT Math:

Topics have been updated for the new test, and include proportions, systems of linear equations, averages, geometry, functions, sequences, counting, probability, some math vocabulary and cautions against common algebra errors.  There is a good mix of test-taking advice and content review.  There are 50 flash cards - one for each of the 50 skills.  A few involve specialized vocabulary, but most of them are simply aids in remembering the author's advice.  I used to think that flashcards for test-taking advice were silly, but after watching my advice go in one ear and out the other for scores of students, I am beginning to come around.

Much of this book is taken straight from the old book, although the questions have been updated to reflect the fact that the new test has only four answer choices per question.  A few questions have been added, and several sections are new.  I need to start pulling this book out more often.  If you are interested in owning one, you can order it here:


Monday, November 28, 2016

Study materials review: PWN the SAT Math Guide, 4th edition

It has taken me far too long to review the latest update of PWN the SAT Math Guide.  Author Mike McClenathan went to a great deal of trouble to update the guide for the new SAT.  My hesitation was, in part, due to the low number of clients taking the new SAT last spring.  I just didn't have as much call to use SAT materials in general, so I didn't get to see how the book worked out with actual students.  That is gradually beginning to change, and I'm beginning to get a feel for how much I'll be using this book and with whom.

Like earlier editions, the book is designed to be used in conjunction with the practice tests that were released by the College Board.  (These were once compiled in a book that we in the test prep field referred to as The Blue Book.  The book is now teal, but the tests can also be accessed online here.)

I reviewed the 2nd edition - for the old SAT - in April 2013. At the time I said, "PWN the SAT is well-organized, comprehensive and entertaining.  It introduces a concept or technique, provides some practice problems, and then supplies a list of relevant problems in the Blue Book. You are encouraged to use the Blue Book tests for testing practice, but if nothing else the length of the list will tell you how likely you are to run into that type of problem on the SAT.  At the end of the book is a breakdown of all of the problems in the Blue Book tests with difficulty level and techniques or concepts needed along with PWN page numbers for those techniques."

These things are still true.  There are, however, a couple of things that will keep my copy of this book from becoming as well-worn as it's predecessors.  First, the problems in the former additions "felt like" SAT problems.  Many of the problems in the 4th edition don't feel like new SAT problems.  They are excellent exercises that will build skills, but their application to the test is less direct.

Second, the previous book worked well for students who had been scoring above 550, but wanted to be scoring above 600.  Many of the problems in this book are too difficult for a large portion of my students.  I would recommend it for students who


  • are strong math students who are underperforming on the SAT AND
  • are currently scoring at least 650 on the math section.

If that describes you, and you would like to order a copy, there is a link at the bottom.  The price makes this book a good value and there are additional resources available online for people who purchased a copy.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Study Materials Review: Dr. John Chung's New SAT Math 2016

The content of this prep book is divided between 54 "Perfect Tips" and 10 practice tests.  The bulk of the book (over 300 pages) is the practice tests. I am unimpressed by the tips.  He included a few I would have left out and failed to include a few I would have added.  There is targeted practice for each tip, which I appreciate, but the explanations are minimal.  I am, however, somewhat impressed by the practice tests. I've only done the first two so far, but the problems are interesting and they "feel right."  I will caution the reader that in most non-College Board SAT books the tests tend to deteriorate as you go through the book.  That could be true for this one as well;  I don't know, yet.

As tests, they might not give you an indication of how you would do on an actual SAT:  I feel like the mix of problems skews towards the more difficult ones.  For students trying for a top score, that could be a good thing, but a more average student might get discouraged.  I do plan to add this book to my arsenal of test prep materials, but I won't use it with everyone.  I can, however, recommend it for the confident math student.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The new ACT book is out - and it's interesting

Cut to the chase take-away:  Rising seniors who retake the ACT in the fall should be prepared for a math section that includes up to three AP Statistics multiple choice questions.

The new ACT book has been released a month before I was expecting it, and the first interesting change is the title:  The Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017.  The "old" book (referred to among tutors as "the Red Book") had been published in 2011 and has been out of date for at least two years.  It did not reflect the addition of paired passages in the reading section, the change from seven passages to six in the science section, new emphases in the math section, or the new essay prompts.  (Note that the essay prompts were the only change that the ACT officially announced, and were likely the reason we get a new book.)  A new book was long overdue and greatly anticipated.  There were few practice tests available that reflected the new changes, and we were eager for more.  I took the April 2016 test for the sole purpose of getting a copy of the test - I paid for the question and answer service - and that brought my number of complete, up-to-date practice tests up to a grand total of 2.

The Red Book included five practice tests, but it was the 3rd edition, and they had slowly been adding to it since 2005, so I figured five tests was overly optimistic.  I was hoping for three newly written practice tests.  I was expecting the book to contain the December 2015 test, the April 2016 test and the June 2016 test.  (Remember that I thought the book would be published in July.)  I got a book with three practice tests.  One is the June 2015 test, except for the math section.  One is the April 2015 test, except for the math section.  One is sort of out of the Red Book, except for the math section.

First, let's address that Red Book test:  They did alter it by dropping the last science passage and then adding questions to the other passages to bring the total up to 40.  This reflects recent changes to the science section.  They did NOT, however, replace one of the reading passages with a paired passage.  As someone who has scrambled to find good paired-passage practice, I am more than a little annoyed.

On all three tests, the math section is a strange jumble of June 2015, April 2015, Red Book questions, and a few questions I don't recognize.  The second test is actually based on the second Red Book test with questions from April 2015 and other Red Book tests, along with a few new questions.  How odd.  The last test is based on the fourth Red Book test.There has been a lot of online speculation as to why.  Why not just put the June 2015 math test in as-is?  If it was good enough to give to students at the time, why isn't it good enough to practice with now?

There has been a great deal of speculation as to what they were trying to accomplish.  One theory is that they wanted to prevent people from being able to say, "Well, I won't bother buying this book.  I'll just access the released tests online instead."  Another is that they are signaling a change to the math section.  To examine that last question, we should ask, "What did they pull out, and what replaced it?"

The most interesting thing to me is the 23 questions that I saw for the first time.  It's extra work to write brand-new questions, assuming that is what they did, so what are these questions about?  Ten of them are on probability and statistics.  Many of those actually use notation that a student would be familiar with if he or she had taken the AP prob/stat course, but likely will NOT be familiar with otherwise.  They aren't difficult questions, but many students will be stymied by the notation.  There are also two questions on vectors.  I think it's clear that we can expect to see more questions on these topics on future ACT tests.

Students who plan to take one last shot at the ACT in the fall will want to learn some rudimentary probability and statistics to increase their chances of a top score.

You can order The Official ACT Prep Guide below: