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ACT Math Tips for Those Who Sat in the Back in Algebra Class

It’s no secret that many students in the United States are either uncomfortable with – or flat out terrified of – math. From solving algebraic equations, to finding unknown shape dimensions, to word problems, there are many places in the math section of the ACT that can throw a student off. If you are the kind of student who sat in the back of your algebra class to avoid being called on, these ACT math tips and strategies are for you.

In this post, you’ll find:

  • a quick explanation of the ACT math section
  • reasons why a student might make a mistake on test questions
  • ACT math tips to help you avoid making those mistakes
  • how to pace yourself more effectively on the exam
  • a compact document to help you remember (and share) this knowledge

You don’t have to be a star in calculus to perform on this exam. But, unlike other subjects, it is not as intuitive – so you will have to put in the work if you want to succeed.

Related: If science is also not your strong suit (and that’s okay) read these 7 ACT science tips to prepare for this section of the test.

The ACT Math Test Setup

The ACT math test contains 60 questions, which you have 60 minutes to solve. In general, you will encounter questions in the following subject areas:

  • Pre-Algebra
  • Elementary Algebra
  • Intermediate Algebra
  • Coordinate Geometry
  • Plane Geometry
  • Trigonometry

Note: The ACT math exam does not require you to know any calculus. So juniors in high school should have enough fundamental knowledge to study for the ACT.

You will not receive a formula sheet, so memorize these math formulas. When you do practice tests and come across something that requires a formula you don’t know, write the formula down. It will help you connect abstract formulas to concrete problem setups.

You may use a calculator on the ACT, but you have to bring a calculator that meets the ACT calculator policy requirements with you on exam day.

Do you struggle with finishing the test, or with finding the correct answers?

The ACT is much more fast-paced than the SAT.

On average, you have only one minute to answer each question. However, the questions start off easy, then get increasingly more difficult, so don’t except to need the same amount of time for every question.

Many students can figure out math problems when given enough time. However, under time constraints, and under a lot of pressure, you may not be able to even finish the exam, let alone check over your answers.

To figure out whether your problem is timing or content:

Get a free ACT math practice test. A lot of the time, practice exams come with all four parts of the ACT. Save the reading, writing, and science sections to practice them later.

Related: Learn more about the updated ACT reading section and tips to perform well on it.

Set up a testing environment. Set a timer for 60 minutes. Start the exam and go through the questions just like you would on the real exam.

Once the timer goes off, mark how far you got on your exam, but then finish the exam. Then you’ll know whether you need to speed up, and by how much. If you finish before the timer goes off, double check your answers (which you should always do on a test if you have the time.)

If you get most of the questions right, but your pacing is slow, see the ACT math tips for finishing the test faster below. But if you struggle with getting the correct answers, you need to figure out what mistakes you are making and why.

Common Mistakes on the ACT Math Section: Which ones do you make and why?

It’s important to take the full 60 minute exam several times to track how your pacing improves.

But it’s also important to find your weak points – the places where you make mistakes – and do practice problems that help you correct your mistakes. There are generally four reasons why you may miss questions:

  1. You lack the fundamental knowledge required to solve a question.
  2. You know the general concept behind the question, but don’t know how to approach a specific question.
  3. The question is worded in a confusing way, so you aren’t sure what exactly it is asking for.
  4. Careless mistakes – they happen (but they shouldn’t.)

Every time you do practice questions, mark the ones you get wrong. By doing this, you can figure out what general knowledge you need to learn, how to better understand the wording of questions, and what kind of careless mistakes to watch out for.

Related: Math concepts build on each other. If you feel you’re lacking a strong mathematical foundation, get a math tutor to help you build one.

ACT Math Tips to Avoid Mistakes

1.Translate word problems into math statements you can understand.

Word problems are hands-down some of the weirdest, most difficult-to-understand problem formats on the entire exam.

To tackle these problems, you need to know what certain “math words” translate into mathematically.

A simple example: “rounded to the nearest number” means that your answer needs to be in the form of a whole number. Usually, the question specifies what type of rounding you’ll do, something like “rounded to the nearest tenths place.” There is a halfway point when it comes to rounding which influences your final answer, and you need to already know these things in order to complete a problem including the word “rounded.”

This is a list of all the math ACT vocabulary words you must know to test well.

To solve a word problem, read through the question once and underline terms, functions, etc., that are important. Make a note of what the question is asking. 

Then, translate those word statements into mathematical expressions that are easier for you to work with. You might even find it helpful to draw diagrams, number lines, graphs – use whatever visuals you need to understand what information you’re being given.

For an example, let’s look at this official ACT math test practice question:

A boat departs Port Isabelle, Texas, traveling to an oil rig. The oil rig is located 9 miles east and 12 miles north of the boat’s departure point. About how many miles is the oil rig from the departure point?

At first, you might not recognize exactly what kind of formula or knowledge you need to solve this question.

But draw it out: use a dot to represent the boat’s departure point. Then draw a line moving towards the right (east) and a line up (north.) Label each line with the given lengths.

Within these words, you are given a shape – a triangle, to be specific. You can see that the unknown variable is the hypotenuse, which must be the distance from the departure point the question is asking for.

Armed with this knowledge, you can use the well-known formula derived from the Pythagorean Theorem to get an answer.

Side tip: The ACT test includes a lot of triangles. Learn all the properties of triangles.

2. Backsolve problems.

If you’re better at working with concrete numbers than abstract variables, fill in equations with answer choices and see what works whenever you can.

Let’s use another official ACT math practice test question:

What is the value of x when 2x + 3 = 3x – 4 ?

All of the answer choices are potential values. If you don’t feel confident solving this problem algebraically, just start plugging in values until this math statement is true (i.e. both sides of the equation are the same number value.)

3. Don't rely on your calculator for everything.

It’s really easy to make careless mistakes when you try to use your calculator to perform calculations or graph equations. And it can get time-consuming if you accidentally put in the wrong value.

Try to steer clear of your calculator unless you need it to perform a really tedious calculation.

Otherwise, memorize those ACT math formulas and use your mental math skills.

4. Cut down on your cognitive workload by eliminating incorrect choices quickly.

Many problems have extremely different answer choices in terms of quantities. You may have a problem that asks you to calculate volume, but the choices range from relatively low to very high.

Start by trying to eliminate ones that just don’t make sense. For example, if you are working a volume problem, think about how long and wide something is: could a vessel feasibly hold as much water as the quantity listed last in your answer choices?

Probably not.

If you have problems with not-nice numbers you need to work with (such as dollar amounts, which use decimals) round them to the nearest number. Then, you can get an approximate answer and go from there.

ACT Math Tips to Pace Yourself More Efficiently

Ideally, you should be able to finish the exam with enough time to double check your answers. 

Once you know how to tackle problems and avoid mistakes, the only thing left for you to do is improve your pacing. These ACT math tips are geared specifically towards cutting down on your testing time.

1. Use the 10/20/30 rule.

As stated above, all questions on the ACT math exam are not created with equal levels of difficulty. The first 20 questions are easy, the second 20 are intermediate, and the last 20 questions are the hardest. So, it doesn’t make sense to spend an equal amount of time on each question.

The 10/20/30 minute rule refers to the amount of time you should spend on each set of 20 questions:

  • 10 minutes on the first 20 questions
  • 20 minutes on the second 20 questions
  • 30 minutes on the third set of 20 questions

2. Don't spend too much time on any one question.

If you’ve ever taken a timed test before, you’ve probably heard this: don’t get stuck on any one question.

If you can’t understand how to approach a question within 30 seconds, skip it and make a note of it in your testing booklet. Do this with answers you’re not totally sure about, as well.

Then, once you get to the end of the exam, and know you’ve answered all of the “easy ones,” go back and spend more time on those more difficult ones.

3. Don't double check all of your answers.

Yep, that’s right.

When you double check your answers, skip questions that you are 100% sure you got right. Focus only on the ones that you’re not sure about.

And if you still can’t get the right answer, just have a “letter of the day” that you use as an answer for every question you don’t know. You do not get points off for wrong answers on the ACT, and there’s a 25% chance you’ll be right, even if you guess.

4. The easiest of the ACT math tips: don't fill out your answer sheet until the end.

Mark your answers in your answer booklet. Then, in the last five minutes, start filling in your official ACT answer sheet. This way, your brain doesn’t have to switch between abstract thinking and rote movement over and over again.

Make sure that no matter what, you leave yourself time to fill in all your answer bubbles. 

And there you have it, ACT math tips to avoid making mistakes or taking too long on your exam.

Take practice tests often, hone in on targeted questions, and then rest easy the night before the exam knowing that you studied hard.

If you find it difficult to motivate yourself to study on your own, or you’re bad at catching your mistakes, join an online test prep program, or get individual online help with ACT test prep.

8 ACT math tips infographic.
Save this and send it to your fellow students, too.

If you need support with ACT or SAT Math, enroll in our online test prep sessions 

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