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Get Your ACT Together: How to Prep for the ACT Math Section

By Priyam, IvyWise Master Tutor

The ACT is an important exam and your score will be used not only for college admission purposes, but also to determine qualification for scholarships and even course placement. Your performance on the ACT Math section may be particularly important for admission into a technical school or a quantitative major. So if you choose to take the ACT, how should you prepare for the math section?

The good news is that the ACT is meant to be a test of what you have already learned throughout most of your schooling. Taking challenging math classes, working hard, and taking interest in what you learn are the key things you can do to be primed for the ACT well ahead of actually preparing for the exam.

Below we’ll take a deep dive into the ACT Math section including what it covers, what to expect, and how to prepare.

What’s So Special About Math?
The English, Reading, Writing and Science sections of the ACT do not require specific outside knowledge, but rather they test your understanding of grammar, critical reasoning, reading comprehension, pattern recognition, chart analysis and other general skills you have likely already acquired throughout your schooling.

The math section is a little unique in that it requires a more thorough recollection of specific approaches, formulas and techniques in order to tackle the problems. The ACT Math section can be viewed as a cumulative exam of the math courses typically taken in middle school and high school.

The specific breakdown of the ACT Math section is:

  • Pre-Algebra (20-25%)
  • Elementary Algebra (15-20%)
  • Intermediate Algebra (15-20%)
  • Coordinate Geometry (15-20%)
  • Plane Geometry (20-25%)
  • Trigonometry (5-10%)

The section consists of 60 multiple-choice questions with increasing difficulty and an allotted time of 60 minutes.

Many times you will be given reference information with the contingency that you need to know how to use the information to get the right answer. You will be tested on your knowledge of the math topics in conventional and unconventional ways, the latter of which requires constant practice and exposure to previous ACT and ACT-like questions.

The general consensus among students taking the ACT is that the first 40 questions require a basic to intermediate understanding of the tested topics, and the last 20 questions require an intermediate to advanced understanding.

The ACT Math section is scored like the others in that you gain points for every question answered correctly and are not penalized for incorrect answers. From your correct answers, the raw score is converted to a scaled score out of 36 points. It is averaged with the scaled scores from the other sections to give an overall composite score, also out of 36 points.

When to Start Test Prep
Before developing a test prep strategy, it’s important to first gauge your abilities and grasp of the material. The ACT website offers free official practice tests and practice questions, so plan to take a practice exam during sophomore year in order to further acquaint yourself with the exam.

When you’re ready to develop a test prep plan, a timed diagnostic exam can show you where you stand currently score-wise, and will give a benchmark for measuring progress, identifying weaknesses, and helping to create a plan for your preparation leading up to exam day.

After your diagnostic, it’s important to interpret the results and use them to build a testing timeline. At least three to six months of preparation may be necessary to feel well prepared for the exam, so take this into account when deciding how much time you need to prep and when you plan to take the ACT. Taking a diagnostic and measuring your abilities is the first step toward success on the ACT, especially the math portion.

Learn How to Pace
Even with content mastery, many students have difficulty with the math section given the heavy time pressure.

On average you have a minute to solve each of the 60 questions, hence pacing is very critical without losing accuracy. It is also important to keep in mind that there is no penalty for guessing, so narrowing the answer choices and making an educated guess can be very beneficial.

Although there will be mathematical computations, the questions are more focused on mathematical reasoning. The setup of the problems – equations, formulas, diagrams, and drawings – will generally be more important for answering the questions rather than the calculation. If too much time is being spent on the problem, then you should re-calibrate and look at the problem with a fresh perspective.

Make Your Mark!
During you preparation, it is a good habit to mark the questions that looked unfamiliar, required more time, or hindered your overall pacing so that those questions can be given extra attention in your preparation.

It is not enough to just read the answer explanations and move on, but rather you should reflect on why you specifically missed them. By taking a structured approach to addressing your weakness, you are giving yourself an edge in preparing for the exam.

If the specific topic or type of problem continues to be a struggle despite your persistence, it may be time to utilize external resources to help you master the material. This can include self-studying with books or online resources, or by engaging a tutor to help you analyze why this problem is difficult and aid you in developing a strategy to better address the material.

Don’t Waste Time – Strategize!
To the relief of many test takers, you are allowed to use a calculator on the ACT Math section. However, keep in mind that the vast majority of the problems can be done without a calculator.

Unless you know how to approach the problems, do not jump to using a calculator right away as it can eat into the valuable time you need to setup the problem. The ACT Math section is an ideal section to try using many useful testing strategies to manage pacing and arriving at the answer using short cuts.

Picking numbers can be a very useful strategy to try substituting numbers for variables in the question with the caveat that you use smart numbers i.e. using the number 100 for percent, cost and other part/whole problems.

Alternatively, plugging in numbers from the answer choices via back-solving can be equally useful, starting with the middle answer choice and strategically moving up or down depending on if the more suitable answer choice is higher or lower in value. The answer choices are always in ascending order from top to bottom.

Be Prepared!
Preparing for the ACT Math requires dedication, hard work, strategy and the right resources. Many colleges will request to see all test scores, so you should never go into a test unprepared, as to avoid having to take it too many times.

This can often be a daunting process but here at IvyWise we specialize in helping you navigate through the overwhelming amount of information out there and steer you in the right direction such that you can achieve your highest potential. As with any major milestone, being prepared is half the victory!

Still need help preparing for the ACT? Contact us today for more information on our test prep services.