Test Prep 101: Common ACT Math Mistakes
By: Priyam, IvyWise Master Tutor
The spring semester is a big test prep season, and for a lot of students, the math section of either the ACT or SAT can be challenging – and often the difference between their goal scores or slightly missing the mark. There are a number of mistakes that students make on the ACT Math section that can be avoided with proper test prep and guidance.
For students not as strong in math, or confident in their abilities, frustration with the ACT math structure, content, formulas, and calculations can be mistaken for a weakness and, as a result, those students become unmotivated. In reality, it’s simple to overcome these hurdles and common mistakes can, and, in the end, dramatically boost students’ scores on the ACT Math section.
The first step in preparing for the ACT Math section, and correcting common errors, is to become familiar with the section content and structure. The best way to prepare for the SAT or ACT is to take a diagnostic exam and continue to take practice tests, under timed conditions, in order to track your progress and adjust your test prep strategy if needed.
Next, it’s important to recognize when you’re making mistakes that can work against you when taking the ACT Math section. Here are some common ACT Math section mistakes that many students make during their test prep and on test day.
Not Skipping and Revisiting Questions
The Math section of the ACT consists of 60 questions to be done in 60 minutes, an average of one minute per question. A mistake many students make is working through each problem in order, rather than skipping around based on whether they are able to quickly solve it or not. Rather than trying to do a question per minute, in order, it may be easier to aim for strategies that can facilitate getting as many questions right as possible. For example, it may be beneficial to skip over questions that seem initially very difficult for you. If you find that you’ve spent 10 seconds thinking about a question and still have no idea how to begin solving it, write down your best guess, circle the question number, and move on. If you have time left at the end of the section, you can come back and revisit these questions. If you run out of time, at least you’ve filled in a guess and, at worst, have a 25% chance of getting it correct.
Not Studying Relevant Formulas
The Math ACT covers a lot of content knowledge and is one of the test sections best suited for direct studying of specific curriculum. There are no references provided on the ACT, which means that you will need to know all necessary common math formulas on your own. Students who are used to having these formulas provided in their regular school work often make the mistake of not familiarizing themselves with the proper formulas before taking the ACT Math section.
Formulas that you should know ahead of time include:
- Slope-intercept formula
- Quadratic formula
- Area of triangles
- Pythagorean Theorem
- Special types of triangles (30-60-90, isosceles, equilateral, etc.)
- Area of a circle
- Area of a sector
- Area of a rectangle
- Area of a parallelogram
- Area of trapezoid
- Trigonometry functions (sin, cos, tan, SOHCAHTOA)
You can study these by creating flashcards, making your own quiz, or taking turns quizzing friends.
Relying Too Much On Calculators
Approved calculators are allowed on the ACT (TI-30 until 84, Casio Prizm & GII), but test designers note that all questions can technically be solved without a calculator. Be sure to review the full ACT calculator policy. It’s best to think of your calculator as a helpful tool, but not a crutch. Relying too much on your calculator can actually hinder your timing, rather than helping you work faster. As you practice for the Math ACT, try to gauge your use of the calculator. If you think you are using it for more problems than you are not, try to identify why. Take a practice test and note each question on which you use a calculator. Then, when you’re finished with the section, look at which types of questions they are. This could reveal some gaps in your content knowledge that are easily remedied. It is always better in the long-term to fill in these gaps before the test rather than use your calculator unnecessarily on the actual test.
Second Guessing Your Mental Math
When working on a problem, always try to use mental math first before reaching for your calculator. For example, when you’ve finally reduced an equation down, you should be able to solve for X without using your calculator. However, at this stage, any students second-guess themselves and use their calculator to double-check their work. You may think you are doing yourself a favor by checking your mental math with your calculator, but really you are eating up precious time and sometimes even putting yourself at risk of making careless errors by trusting your calculator more than you trust yourself. When taking practice tests work on relying on your mental math and building up your confidence in your abilities leading up to the test day.
Not Writing Down Calculations
There will undoubtedly be some questions that you immediately know how to solve quickly and on these questions you are probably tempted to fill in the answer as quickly as possible and move on. While time is definitely of the essence and your instincts aren’t completely off base, you should write down at least part of your mental or calculator calculations. Why? Because if you arrive at an answer that doesn’t seem quite right, or that isn’t one of the answer options, you will want to know where you went wrong. Going back to re-solve the question from scratch will ultimately cost you more time. If you’ve written down part of your calculations, at least you may have a better idea of where you went wrong. Maybe you pressed a wrong button on your calculator, or maybe you added in your head instead of multiplying. Whatever the case may be, hopefully, you’ve notated enough of the equating that you do not have to start again from the beginning to find or check your answer.
There are a number of ACT Math mistakes that students make when taking the exam, however, it’s easy to avoid these common problems by creating a comprehensive test prep plan. Ensure success by taking diagnostics, incorporating multiple practices tests into your test prep timeline, and continue to make adjustments to your test prep plan based on your progress.
Still not reaching your goal ACT or SAT score? Need help with the ACT Math section, or another portion of the exam? Contact us today for more information on how our test prep experts can help you improve your SAT or ACT score with customized tutoring and test prep services.