Even before reading this article, you’ve already finished years of ACT Math practice. Yet until now, you never knew it.
Calm down! There’s a reason for this fortunate turn of events. Compared to the English, Reading, and Science Tests on the ACT, the ACT Math Test is very similar to multiple choice tests you’ve taken in middle and high school. In other words, you’ve practiced for the ACT Math with every Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry, or Trigonometry test.
There are a few more things you need to know and do to be successful on the ACT Math test. This guide provides some strategies for test prep—but it’s still up to you to take care of the ‘practice’ part of ACT Math practice.
The ACT Math is like the most unorganized buffet you’ve ever seen. Yet instead of having the hot dogs in the fruit section, the ACT math may have a Pre-Algebra question right after a Trigonometry question. In short, your mind is going to have to change gears many times throughout the test.
This is where the benefit of taking multiple ACT practice tests comes in handy. Even if you’re a straight A Math student (good for you if that’s the case), you still need to get used to the ACT Math’s format.
Getting to Know Your Calculator
As you’re going through your ACT Math practice, be sure to use the calculator you plan to bring on test day. But first, make sure that ACT will let take your calculator into the test room. You’ll find full info on allowed calculators here.
Even if your calculator has only the four basic functions, practicing with it will make you more comfortable on test day. Remember, typing in numbers takes up valuable seconds.
Going (Almost) Calculator-Free
Because using your calculator does take time, there’s a really important strategy for the ACT Math that is going to help you instantly improve your score even when you don’t know how to do the problems. It’s that good. And it’s called estimation.
This video walks you through three incredibly helpful ways (with examples!) that you can use estimation to your advantage on the ACT.
1. Eliminate answers that are unrealistic.
It’s so important that you take advantage of the fact that this test is multiple choice. The answer is right there in front you of, and, for whatever reason, the ACT often includes some incredibly unrealistic answers amongst your choices—values that are way too high or too low. However, they might be numbers that you would obtain if you messed up your calculations. And that’s why it’s so important that you break the habit of the “school way” of doing problems and use some common sense. If you determine that a $85 dollar sweater on sale for 20% off would cost $17….well, that wouldn’t make sense. So get in the habit of eliminating too small or too large answer choices right off the bat.
2. Simplify equations by approximating values.
When answer choices are very much spread out, you can often get the answer more quickly by approximating easier values for the numbers than by reaching for your calculator. (See the video for an example!)
3. Estimating on geometry problems.
For the most part, you can assume diagrams are drawn roughly to scale on the ACT. This means there are few tricks you can employ on the paper test to get an answer even when you don’t know how to do a problem. For example, you can turn the side of your answer sheet into a ruler by making light pencil marks to show the known lengths of lines in a diagram and then put this “ruler” up against an unknown line in the diagram to estimate its length. You can use the corner of your answer sheet as a handy right angle to help estimate the size of an unknown angle. Even just eyeballing a diagram can often help you eliminate unrealistic answer choices.
Even if you don’t know how to do a problem and need to take a guess, in many cases on the ACT, you can greatly improve your odds of guessing correctly through estimation, so don’t just assume* you have to just blindly guess!
*Magoosh does not claim responsibility for the terribleness of this pun.
As with all sections of the ACT, don’t forget about time management in the math section. Fortunately for you, the ACT Math Test provides one minute per question, making it significantly easier to track your progress than the other three tests.
Don’t forget, though, Math questions do take more time than other questions on the ACT. As difficulty varies throughout the ACT Math, some questions may take less than a minute, but other might take more. (Another reason that estimation is so handy!)
But I’m Stuck on a Question! What Do I Do?
If you’ve given a question just over a minute, and there’s still no clear answer, guess. There’s no penalty for wrong answers, and you may just get it right.
If you find through taking practice tests that you usually finish with a few minutes to spare, mark questions in your test booklet where you had to guess. This will let you go back when you finish. Yet if you’re the type of test taker who needs every single second, it’s best to just guess and move on for good.
But I Always Struggle with (Insert Math Topic Here) Questions!
Though it’s always frustrating to see the same types of difficult questions appear on different practice tests, being mindful of your struggle is the first step towards improvement.
It’s best, if possible, to take an example of the question to your Math teacher. He or she will be able explain the root concept and work through the problem with you. If the teacher is unavailable, it doesn’t hurt to ask one of your peers for help.
That’s all for now, mathematicians. And don’t worry: when Math gets tough, just remember what Albert Einstein had to say on the topic:
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About Thomas Broderick
Thomas spent four years teaching high school English, social studies, and ACT preparation in Middle Tennessee. Now living in Northern California, he is excited to share his knowledge and experience with Magoosh's readers. In his spare time Thomas enjoys writing short fiction and hiking in the Sonoma foothills.
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