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11 ACT Math Tips You Need To Know

Even though math was my least-favorite subject in high school, I still got a 36 on the ACT, through a combination of hard work (i.e., lots of practice tests) and attention to detail. Still, I remember what it’s like to struggle with math, so I’ve comprised a list of tips for the ACT Math Test that’ll help you improve your score.

Without further ado, these tips are:

Memorize, memorize, memorize.

Have all those pesky equations and formulas down pat.

While the SAT provides students with various formulas and equations at the start of its Math tests, the ACT gives you nothing. All that stuff you learn in math class—the equation of a line, the quadratic formula, the equation of a circle, the Pythagorean theorem, SOH CAH TOA, etc.—you need to have memorized.

This might seem like extra work the ACT is giving you, but I’ve found that students who have memorized these things are more confident in their abilities, and thus do better on the Math Test overall.

Since you do have to know them by heart, taking the time to make flashcards of these things, and drill them until you’ve got them down pat, will put you in a great position to perform well on the Math Test.

Write everything down—neatly.

Keep a record so you can check your work.

If you’re a self-styled math whiz or addicted to your calculator, you might be in the habit of not writing in your exam booklet very much as you work your way through the Math Test. But, you should get in the habit of doing everything by hand, writing out all the steps as you solve a problem. Doing so will prevent you from making simple mistakes, like entering the wrong number into your calculator, or giving the answer for x when you’ve been asked for 2x. It will also leave work for you to check, should you finish the exam with time left and have an opportunity to look your answers over.

Don’t be addicted to your calculator.

While your calculator is useful, overreliance will hobble you on the Math Test.

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As mentioned, write out all your work. You shouldn’t be dependent on your calculator to answer questions—if you know how to solve all the problems by hand, you’ll be more confident in yourself, and thus able to complete the test with greater ease and accuracy. The calculator is a nice tool to check your work, but if used as a substitute for detail-conscious, step-by-step work, it can be counterproductive to your performance. Not to mention, there’s always a risk your battery will die. Don’t set yourself up for a nightmare scenario!

…and don’t show up with the wrong calculator.

Check beforehand that your calculator is allowed for use on the exam.

Make sure you check the ACT website to ensure that your calculator is allowed for use on the exam. You won’t be able to use your smartphone as a calculator, nor are you allowed to use a calculator that makes noise. Most of the Texas Instruments calculators used in high school science classes are allowed, but some of the more advanced versions might not be, so it’s best to take this step as insurance. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a backup battery for exam day—no Math Test surprises or crises needed!

Answering questions correctly is more important than finishing on time.

All the problems are worth the same, so pursue a strategy that will net you the highest number of points.

Lots of students assume that their best bet is to finish the entire Math Test in the 60 allotted minutes, without guessing on any questions. The problems on the Math Test get more advanced and difficult throughout the course of the test, which means that many students rush through the easier questions, so that they have more time at the back end to tackle the tough questions.

But there’s a problem with this strategy, particularly for students who aren’t strong in math: going too fast at the beginning of the Math Test can cause you to make a lot of simple mistakes, and thus get lots of questions wrong. Then, even though you have more time left at the end of the test, you get even more questions wrong, because you’re not as agile at answering the trickier and more advanced problems. The sum total of this is lots of questions wrong.

A better approach, particularly if you are looking for a big improvement in your Math Test score, is to take your time at the beginning of the test, and make sure you answer as many of the first 40 problems correctly as you can. Remember: all the problems on the test, regardless of their difficulty, are worth the same number of points. You should have enough time to dig in to the remaining 20 questions, but the last 10 questions are extremely difficult, and most students get them wrong, anyway. So, if you’re gonna guess, you might as well guess on these ones.

Wear a wristwatch and manage your time well.

Keep your pace and track your progress carefully on the Math Test.

Of course, if you’re hoping to get a 36 on the Math Test, you want to answer all the questions correctly, which means you do need to leave yourself enough time to finish. You should budget about 30 minutes, give or take a few minutes, to answer the first 40 questions, and the remaining 30 minutes to answer the last 20 questions.

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While there will be a clock in the test center, and the proctor will make occasional time announcements, I find that it’s best to wear a wristwatch and keep your own time, so you can ensure you keep the pace, and make the progress, you need to finish the test on time.

If you haven’t made any progress on a problem after 10 seconds, move on.

Don’t waste time on a hopeless situation.

A good rule of thumb on the Math Test is to circle a problem and move on if you’ve spent more than 10 seconds on it without making any progress. If you only know one step to take on a tricky problem, take that step, and see if the problem opens up for you. If it doesn’t, circle it and move on. Fixating on a problem wastes time and can be extremely anxiety-provoking, hindering your performance on the rest of the test.

When all else fails, try plugging in the answer choices.

Insert the answer choices into the problem and see if one of them works.

If you’re unsure how to solve a problem, one trick is to plug the answer choices into the equation and see if any of them work. If they do, there’s your answer! When you’re doing this, make sure to plug in all the answer choices, so you can be sure you haven’t made a mistake. And remember, this is something you should do as a last resort—because it’s so time-consuming, it’s generally not a great first strategy for problem solving.

You don’t need to be a math savant to get a 36 on the Math Test.

The math on the Math Test is easier than you might think.

Chances are, even if you have trouble with math class in school, you’re probably already dealing with more advanced math topics than are covered on the ACT. The most difficult type of math on the test is limited to some basic trigonometry questions. So, if you’re in Pre-Calculus or higher-level math now, then you likely already have a good handle on all the math you’ll need for the ACT. And if you haven’t done any trigonometry yet, there’s no need to worry, as none of the concepts are too difficult to learn on your own.

Practice, practice, practice.

The more practice tests you complete, the higher you’ll score.

Even if you’re not so great at math, if you take lots and lots of practice tests, you’ll acquire enough familiarity with the topics covered, and the best (and quickest) approaches to solving problems, to be in a position to get a 36 on the Math Test. Of course, if you don’t like math, the test will still be a slog, and there will always be a question or two here or there that proves particularly tricky, but there truly is no ceiling on your Math Test score, regardless of your innate ability, if you’re willing to work hard.

Consider taking a test prep course for some math review.

Prep Expert can help you get a higher score.

Maybe your geometry teacher wasn’t so great, or you slacked off in algebra class, and now you’re struggling. If this is you, and you need to get a handle on math concepts in short order, then a test prep class might be your best option. A course like Prep Expert’s will review all the math concepts you need to know for the test, as well as arm you with a variety of tips and tricks to approach the exam in the best way possible to score a 36.

Prep Expert’s classes, offered both online and in-person throughout the year, have helped thousands of students improve their ACT scores. Prep Expert also offers one-on-one tutoring for those looking for more individualized help. There are lots of options to fit your busy schedule—online classes, for example, can be watched On Demand, so if you can’t make a lecture due to soccer practice or an upcoming Physics final, you can find your own time to watch.

Best of luck with the Math Test and exam prep overall!

Clay Cooper

Clay has scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, ACT, PSAT, LSAT, and ISEE, among other standardized tests. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.