Before reviewing specific math tips, let’s ensure you know the structure of the ACT Math section.
WHAT’S THE STRUCTURE OF THE ACT MATH SECTION?
The ACT Math section has 60 questions in 60 minutes. All questions are multiple choice (not grid-in questions like the SAT) and a calculator can be used during the entire section (also a key difference from the SAT). The ACT Math questions increase in difficulty throughout the test with 1-20 being “easy,” 21-40 as “medium,” and 41-60 as “hard.” All the questions are worth 1 point, so you want to maximize the number of points you get from the easy and medium questions.
Now for the top 10 expert tips…
tip 1: Answer the question being asked
This may sound silly, but if you don’t read carefully, you might solve for x when the question asks for x+1. This is a common trick because it works on a lot of students. If you get 5 for x, then 5 will be an answer choice, even if the correct answer is 6 because you’re supposed to add 1. Imagine doing the hard part right – solving for x – but then missing the question because you didn’t read the directions carefully.
tip 2: Know thyself
When it comes to math, you need to understand exactly where to focus your studying. Do a timed practice and an untimed practice. Is your issue accuracy or time? If it’s accuracy, then drill down on which concepts you’re struggling with most. If you’re scoring well but you go over the time limit, focus on time management.
tip 3: There’s no shame in using your calculator
Colleges don’t know if you solved question 20 with a calculator or not. Even if you’re doing 5+3 and you’re the type of person who might make a mistake when stressed or working quickly, use your calculator.
tip 4: Avoid tough algebra
Use this strategy when you have variables in the answer choices. Remember, a variable just replaces a number. So instead of solving for n, m, or p, just make up numbers for those variables and solve the question. This makes the math much more straightforward. Just avoid ever using 0 or 1 because they have special properties.
tip 5: Mark questions when you’re unsure
When you aren’t confident about a difficult question, mark the question and come back to it. This allows you to use your time efficiently and focus on the easier, less time-consuming questions first and then go back to the harder ones. Remember, if there’s a question you believe you have no shot of answering correctly, then just guess and move on.
tip 6: Review algebra & geometry formulas
The ACT takes a “broad but shallow” approach to math, which makes this section blissfully predictable! They test the same concepts from algebra, geometry, algebra II, and arithmetic, so just put in the time to review the equations.
tip 7: Know fundamentals
When’s the last time you thought about prime numbers? So many students show up to the test thinking 1 is a prime number. It’s not. Two is the smallest prime number.
tip 8: Watch for unit swaps
This tip ties back into reading carefully. So many questions change units. They go from seconds to minutes, from inches to feet. Remember to read carefully.
tip 9: Draw diagrams or label theirs
You don’t have to solve the questions in your head. If a diagram is described, draw it. If you’re given a diagram, label it. Use that information to visualize the problems.
tip 10: Be honest about your math gaps
This tip is very important. You’ll only grow in math if you know your knowledge gaps. The math section is hard; you have to know five years of equations and content to do well, so be honest with yourself about reviewing fundamentals, equations, and formulas and how to apply them.
What’s the take home message?
The best way to improve on the ACT math is to practice both the content and the pacing. Students should be prepared to look at a question, recognize that it won’t be a good use of time, and guess immediately. But they should also be prepared to recognize difficult questions that test familiar concepts, in which case they should give it a try.
For the other ACT sections, you can also see Expert Tips for ACT English, Expert Tips for ACT Reading, and Expert Tips for ACT Science. To learn how the ACT Writing section is organized and different from the SAT Essay, see ACT Writing vs. SAT Essay. Happy studying!
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