Is the SAT Black Book Good?
Nicholas LaPoma, Esq. AKA NickTheTutor
Disclaimer: Neither I nor Curvebreakers Test Prep have any affiliation with the SAT Prep Black Book: The Most Effective SAT Strategies Ever Published or Mike and Patrick Barrett. I do, however, own a test prep company, and I wanted to share my informed opinion.
Right now, the most popular SAT Prep Book is Mike and Patrick Barrett’s SAT Prep Black Book: The Most Effective SAT Strategies Ever Published. Plenty of parents and students have asked for my opinion on this book, so I figured that I’d test my critical chops and write a bona fide book review!
For readers unfamiliar with what the test prep community has dubbed the “Black Book,” the Barretts have become an overnight sensation. Excluding the College Board’s own book, the Black Book is the second result when you search “SAT” on Amazon. This popularity has transformed the Black Book into something of a Bible in test prep.
The authors describe the book’s content as the “most effective SAT strategies ever published.” So is it, well, any good? It depends. I find it most useful to unpack the usefulness of the Black Book by presenting scenarios that follow two hypothetical students: Arthur and Bailey.
Let’s start with Arthur.
Arthur scrambled to get any SAT testing site that would take him, but luckily, he was able to register for an SAT in one month. He does well in school and earns good grades, but he doesn’t excel in all of his classes — only the ones he really enjoys. While Arthur procrastinates a healthy amount, he still finishes most of his assignments on time. Would the Black Book help Arthur improve his score? I doubt it.
I don’t think anyone can read the 629-page Black Book in fewer than two months and actually learn from it. That’s almost like saying you won’t floss your teeth before your dentist appointment and then flossing twelve times the night before. I hesitate to compare it with cramming, because studying over two months is not cramming, but such a “short” amount of time won’t allow you to appreciate the complexity of the Black Book. Like tackling dental plaque, you need to work through the Black Book periodically and methodically to accumulate a meaningful understanding of the SAT. Arthur just doesn’t have enough time to take in everything from the Black Book and maintain a balanced, healthy schedule. I worry that the writing might also be too dense to appeal to his learning habits.
It might even be an understatement to state that the Black Book is “dense.” Had George R. R. Martin or Leo Tolstoy, writers famous for their sprawling, epic novels, published an SAT prep book, I suspect that they’d author something like this. The SAT Black Book is a monstrous tome of a prep book. The pages are stuffed full of information. The text is single-spaced and pressed up against the physical edge of the page, making it feel claustrophobic. New practice questions are scant in the Black Book. It’s mostly content and the Barretts’ own answer keys to four of the College Board’s published exams. What type of student would enjoy, or benefit from, that type of instruction? From the students I’ve tutored, only a few of the most highly motivated have been able to get through — and learn from — the Black Book. Arthur’s relatively short study duration and low self-motivation convince me that the Black Book might not be the best fit for his personality or his study plan.
What about Bailey?
Let’s say that Bailey has six months to prepare for her SAT. She wholly enjoys school and earns high grades in all her classes; she even reads a few books outside of school. Bailey’s parents and teachers find her self-motivation exemplary, and she’s one of the most driven students in her class. She prides herself on learning all there is to know about the subjects she studies. What about Bailey? Would Bailey benefit from using the Black Book?
Unlike Arthur, I think that Bailey should buy the Black Book. She’s not the opposite of Arthur per se, but she better fits the type of student that I think would thrive, and maybe even enjoy, reading the Black Book. She is self-motivated, does well in school, likes to learn independently, and has more than enough time to read through the Black Book. Purchasing the Black Book for Bailey could be a cheap but effective way for her to prepare for the SAT.
So, is the SAT Black Book good?
Whether the Black Book would be useful depends on how much study time you have, what your learning habits are, and if you’d enjoy learning all there is to know about the SAT. Depending on these factors, the Black Book can either become a comprehensive, one-stop-shop for all your test prep, or collect dust as a thirty-dollar reference book.
I’ve come to believe that the Black Book is overpraised. It works incredibly well for a particular student, but it’s misguided to expect that everyone will love the Black Book. When the Barretts published the Black Book in 2017, it certainly outdid all other available preparation materials, especially among the test prep giants of Kaplan, Princeton Review, and the College Board. The content is deeply intelligent and well thought-out. And I certainly understand the appeal: with its mysterious black cover and coveted “secrets,” it sells the edge that some students are invariably looking for. Nevertheless, my ten plus years in the standardized exam industry have shown me that there are far more efficient ways to reach your target score than learning everything about the SAT.
I think that Curvebreakers’ new books, A New Approach to Deconstruct & Destroy The ACT and its soon-to-be-published SAT counterpart, are a sort-of antithesis to the Black Book. We offer precision and readability to the Black Book’s density and verbosity. If you have just one week to prepare for your exam, and you know nothing about the exam, the Black Book won’t help. Don’t spend valuable hours learning all there is to know about circles. I’ve found that internalizing essential test-taking strategies and finding weaknesses in the test’s design are the most efficient ways to improve your score, and unlike the Black Book, that’s precisely what our book addresses.
The Barretts have vanished. Their Facebook account hasn’t been updated since December 2019; their Twitter, April 2018; their YouTube, March 2013. Even two of the four answer keys included in the Black Book cover exams are considered to be obsolete by the College Board. With Curvebreakers, in contrast, you’ll find yourself welcomed into an up-to-date, broad learning community. We offer classes, publish free resources including study guides, and reach over twenty million students on social media — you can even learn from Brittany and me, the two tutors who authored the Curvebreakers SAT and ACT books. This all demonstrates how deeply we value togetherness, especially in standardized test prep, which can often feel overwhelming and isolating.
Let’s return to the Black Book’s original claim: that it collects “the most effective SAT strategies ever published.” If you are in the minority of students who can read the entire book (which is no small feat), complete the College Board’s practice exams, enjoy learning independently, and are incredibly self-motivated, the Black Book’s assertion may be true. If you see yourself in this description, I encourage you to buy the Black Book. When in the right student’s hands, the Black Book surely earns its claim.
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If you think the Black Book would be helpful for your studying, you can purchase it here! While I have no affiliate with the Barretts, note that as an Amazon Affiliate I benefit from any qualifying purchase.