Useful ACT Tips For Math Section

The Math Section of the ACT can be scary, especially if a student has never taken the test before. Many students already claim that math is their worst subject, or that they hate math class. This makes this portion even more daunting. The math section does not have to be that scary. Here are the best ACT Math tips that will help students and make the test feel much more manageable.

ACT Math Overview

The ACT math section accounts for 25% of your total ACT score and covers topics from pre-algebra to Algebra II.

  • Pre-algebra accounts for 20-25% of the content, including topics such as absolute value, ratios, percents, basic statistics, and probability.
  • Elementary algebra accounts for 15-20% of the questions, essentially equivalent Algebra I class material). These questions cover topics like inequalities, quadratics, and simple systems of equations.
  • Intermediate algebra (equivalent to Algebra II) makes up another 15-20% of the section as well, building upon elementary algebra concepts and introducing more complex concepts like complex numbers, matrices, and polynomial equations.
  • Coordinate geometry involves relationships between points and lines on a graph, with key topics like parallel and perpendicular lines, graphing inequalities, and distance and midpoint calculations making up 15-20% of the ACT math section.
  • Building off of coordinate geometry is plane geometry, accounting for 20-25% of questions and focusing on more advanced geometric topics such as transformations, 3-dimensional calculations, and graphing more complex shapes.
  • The final 5-10% focuses on trigonometry, testing students’ knowledge of topics like the unit circle, SOH-CAH-TOA, and trigonometric identities.

The 60 questions of the ACT math section are to be answered in 60 minutes, and the section is scored out of 36 points. This section is generally set up so that the further into the test that students go, the harder the questions become. So, questions 1-10 will go over simpler concepts than questions 51-60. That score out of 36 is then averaged with the three other section scores to determine the total score. 

Scaled ScoreMath Raw Score
ACT Math Scaled Score and Raw Score

Top ACT Math Tricks for Preparation 

1. Choose Your Study Program 

What is your timeline? How many points are you looking to increase? Use these elements of your preparation as guideposts to determine the best study program for you and your goals. Identify how much time per day or week you will have to dedicate to preparation, and create a study program and schedule you can realistically stick to. Always err on the side of caution and aim to end early rather than cutting it close to test day! Prioritize quality study sessions over sessions that are too long or arduous to make any significant progress. If this means shortening study sessions to maximize productivity, make the switch. An online ACT tutor can help you maintain focus and stay on schedule

2. Memorize Important Equations and Formulas

Unlike the SAT math section, the ACT math section does not include a reference sheet with some of the equations and formulas you’ll need to answer questions, meaning that memorizing those equations and formulas is a key part of preparation. While few ACT  math questions will include tips (usually in parentheses at the end of the question in the form of an equation), most will not. 

Here is a list of the most frequently used equations on the ACT math section: 

  • Quadratic Equation: [-b +/- √(b2-4ac)] / 2a
  • Logarithmic to exponential form: logbx = y to by = x 
  • Trigonometric functions: SOH-CAH-TOA
  • Area of a triangle: ½ (b)(h) 
  • Area of a cube: 6s2
  • Volume of a cube: s3
  • Distance formula: √ [(x2-x1)2 + (y2-y1)2]
  • Pythagorean theorem: c =  √(a2 + b2)
  • Slope-intercept form of a linear equation: y = mx + b 
  • Slope of a line: (y2-y1) / (x2-x1
  • Midpoint of a line: ( (x₁+x₂)/2 , (y₁+y₂)/2 )
  • Area of a circle: πr2
  • Circumference of a circle: 2πr
  • Probability: number of desired outcomes / total number of possible outcomes 
  • Mean: sum of terms / the number of terms 
  • Speed: distance / time 
  • Position of the median: (n+1)/2
  • Equation of a circle: (x-h)2 + (y-k)2 = r2

3. Understand Your Strong and Weak Points 

With question types repeated from test to test, it’s important to hone in on strengths and weaknesses to make sure you’re making progress from practice test to practice test. Ignoring a weakness and thinking that the concept won’t reappear will not lead you on a path to success. If you can understand the base concepts, the more difficult applications of those concepts will become much easier to tackle; however, learning to do individual questions and neglecting more curricular work won’t teach you how to adapt to different wording or presentation on exam day.

This goes for strong points as well. Understanding your strengths can help you to better manage your time and to prioritize questions you have a higher chance of answering correctly. Ultimately, it’s almost as important to understand your own comprehension of ACT math concepts as it is to understand the concepts themselves.

4. Set your Target Score

Setting a target score creates a tangible goal to work towards. Identify your stronger and weaker ACT sections to understand how your math score will factor into your overall score. 

5. Plan Out a Study Schedule

If you’ve already signed up for a test date, work backward from that date to set a study schedule that accounts for how many hours per week you can devote to preparation and by how much you want to raise your score. Divide the ACT math topics into the number of weeks until your test to ensure that you can cover all topics you could see on test day and work towards developing a sustainable schedule.  

6. Take as Many Practice Tests As Possible 

There are many ways to prepare for the ACT math section, but the best way to ensure you will not be surprised on test day is to take as many practice tests as possible. While the core content of questions from test to test remains the same, the more practice tests you take before test day, the more variations of questions on those topics you will have seen.

Don’t be discouraged if you fail to reach your target score the first time you take a practice test – or the fifth time. While progress is linear for some, it also comes in large jumps for others, meaning that if you don’t see progress right away, that doesn’t mean you haven’t made any! 

7. Mimic Test Day As Closely As You Can 

Students face test anxiety even after preparing extensively for the ACT for a number of reasons, one of which being the different environment and pressure of test day. To reduce this source of stress, try to mimic the environment and conditions of test day as closely as you can while preparing. Get used to taking practice tests in full with time limits, in a quiet environment without distractions, only with test-day permitted materials, and even at the approximate time of day when you’ll take the real exam. 

ACT Math Test Tips for Using Calculator 

The ACT allows students to use a calculator on the math section only (check this list to make sure your calculator is allowed on test day). While all problems on the test can be solved by hand, a calculator can help students to minimize avoidable mistakes and finish all questions within the allotted time.

First and foremost, knowing what is possible to do on your calculator is essential. Even before you tackle effectively using your calculator, knowing the limits of what it can and cannot do to help your calculations will lead to more efficiency on test day.

Additionally, while calculators are permitted to be used throughout the entire section, not every question will be made easier with a calculator. Every question on the ACT math section can be successfully answered without a calculator, so knowing when the tool becomes more troublesome than its worth is critical. If a question is made easier by using a calculator, remember to write down the essential elements of the steps you are taking to solve the problem in the case that you should need to revisit the problem later on. 

ACT Strategies for Math Test Taking 

Since the ACT is a standardized test, while each test’s questions are different, every exam tests similar skills and question types. Here are some of the best ACT math hacks to help get your score closer to 36. 

1. Read Every Question Carefully 

Just because you know how to solve a problem as you’ve seen it before doesn’t necessarily mean you can get a question correct on the ACT. Questions will often ask you to go one step further than the answer that would be correct on a test in a math class, so make sure you’re reading the entire question carefully to avoid overlooking small elements of the question that can have big impacts on your answer.

For example, a question might ask you which answer choice could not be a solution or ask you for the sum of the x and y coordinates of an intersection. Watch out for red herring answer choices that assume you might make these mistakes!  

2. Manage Your Time Wisely 

With 60 questions to complete in 60 minutes, you might think spending one minute per question will put you on a path for success for the ACT math section; however, questions increase in difficulty, so you want to adjust your timing to account for harder questions at the end. Try to work through the easier questions at the beginning of the test as fast as you can without sacrificing accuracy so that you can allocate that time you save to questions that require more steps and work with harder concepts. 

3. Try Different Ways to Get the Correct Answer

While official solutions to questions will show you the most direct route to an answer, there is more than one way to get there. Don’t be afraid to try different methods to check if your first answer is correct or to redo a problem with a different process if your first attempt didn’t give you a solution that matches with an answer choice.

For example, a system of equations problem can be solved using elimination or substitution. If one method isn’t going smoothly, try the other! 

4. Use Your Workspace Efficiently 

All work for the ACT math section must be done in the booklet, so minimizing the space you take up with your work can be crucial to keeping your paper organized. If a figure for a geometry problem is given, try your best to use the existing figure – don’t waste time and space drawing your own. If a question can be done entirely on a calculator, don’t bother writing out all of your work – jot down the steps you took in case you come back to check your work and save the extra space for another problem on the same page that will require more longhand math. 

5. Use Elimination by Grouping Your Answer Choices

Sometimes, you don’t need to prove an answer choice correct to choose it if you can prove the other four choices are definitely incorrect. There are often aspects of ACT math answer choices that ensure those choices are incorrect. Learning to pick up on those similar aspects can help eliminate answer choices more efficiently.

For example, negative or positive values, answers greater or less than a mean or median value, or y-intercept coordinates that do or do not have an x-value of 0. If you can cross-reference multiple ways to group your answer choices, you might be able to avoid solving altogether and choose an answer based simply on logic. 

6. Skip Anything That’s Difficult or That’s Taking Too Long

Since the ACT math section is such an intensive portion of the test time-wise, getting stuck on even one question can throw off timing for the rest of the section. Even if you end up getting that question right, you could be sacrificing other questions later on in the section that you could have gotten right if you had stuck to your original timing plan.

Especially in the first half, when questions are generally easier than those in the latter half, skipping difficult or tedious questions is essential to maintaining a good pace throughout the section. While avoiding guessing is always a preferable option, moving on after selecting the most logical answer you can guess can actually be a sound strategy for timing reasons. By ruling out completely nonsensical answer choices in the beginning, you can strategically guess in lieu of simply bubbling in a random choice. 

7. Look for Patterns! 

Very few questions on ACTs are completely unique; chances are, you’ve seen another question that can be solved with the same tests on another practice test. When preparing for the ACT math, look through multiple tests’ math sections to see how the same question type can be asked in multiple ways. The more variations of a question type you can pick up on, the more likely you are to be able to work through a new variation you might see on test day. If you can identify similar properties and repeating relevant details from question to question, you’ll be able to better understand how the questions were created and to test which skills. 

8. Use the Answers to Direct Your Process

If you’re having trouble seeing how to start a problem, looking at the structure of the answer choices can help determine what equations to use and/or what form you should be aiming for with your final answer.

For example, if you’re being asked to solve for the x-intercepts of a quadratic equation and all of your answers include a +/- and √ element, you can tell right away that you want to use the quadratic formula instead of the product-sum method to factor. 

9. Recognize Synonymous Terms and Phrases

The ACT will use multiple terms and phrases to denote the same concept, so the easier you can recognize those synonyms, the easier you can plan your steps to solve.

For example, x-values, x-intercepts, solutions, and zeros are all used as terms to mean solutions of quadratic equations. Wording can often throw off students, so making sure the end goal of the problem can help mitigate that confusion. 

10. Backsolve Starting with Equations to Identify What You Need First 

ACT math questions are often structured in three parts: a statement of fact or background information for context, a presentation of a specific situation to which we want to apply that information, and a specific question directing students to a final answer. All three are important, but the order in which you solve the problem can be equally important. A helpful strategy for the ACT math section is to backsolve, meaning starting with the specific question and taking that end goal of the problem to better understand why the context is significant.

For example, if the final portion of a question asks to find the area of a trapezoid, writing out the formula for the area of a trapezoid first will give a structure to any work inspired by the context and specific values given earlier in the problem. If you have slots to input those values set up by writing equations first, you’re more likely to have organized work with clear logic and to avoid chaotic math that you can’t make sense of if you need to return to the problem later to check your work. 

Consider Taking an ACT Prep Course from SoFlo!

SoFlo ACT tutors have all gone through the tough process of preparing for the exam, but we made it and want to help you succeed, too. Preparing for the test alone can be difficult because recognizing your own mistakes and weaknesses is never an easy task.

With someone to help point out patterns in your work, suggest techniques that are more tailored to your specific style and goals, and give advice based on personal experience about what is required to do well on the ACT math section, you could perform much better on test day.

Our expertise goes beyond equations and time management tips; we know that success on the ACT math also depends on managing test anxiety, making up for gaps in learning due to COVID-19, and a host of other factors, all of which we can work through with you with an individualized plan. 

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