Top ACT Math Tips From A Pro ACT Tutor
The ACT Math test is one of the most important sections of the ACT test - and one of the most challenging. Yet, it’s one of the most vital sections for you to perform well on if you want to get accepted to your favorite colleges.
In the ACT Math section, you’ll be tested on math knowledge, speed, and accuracy. Your confidence will be also challenged - and your endurance will be pushed to the limit.
In this article, I’ll be sharing my overview of the ACT Math test from the point of view of a professional ACT tutor and perfect-scorer.
I’ve included many of my best ACT Math tips, so you’ll not only learn more about the ACT Math section, but also how to deal with it like a pro.
My Experience with the ACT Math Section
I’ve been lucky to always have an easy time with the SAT and ACT Math sections, and my time teaching ACT Prep Classes has only strengthened my skills.
This article is coming from a perfect-scoring ACT tutor who’s worked with hundreds of teens and high schoolers. So, not to brag, but I definitely know this Math test inside and out 🙂
In my experience, keys to the ACT math section are:
- Confidence with the basic math skills of Algebra, Geometry, etc.
- Reading skills with attention to detail and the big-picture.
- Awareness of common math mistakes and how to fix them.
- Experience and hours of practice in the official ACT book.
None of these four points are enough on their own. All four skills must be well-developed if you want any hope of scoring above a 30 on the ACT Math section.
What is on the ACT Math Test?
The ACT Math test is similar to a comprehensive final exam on your last 6 years of math classes.
You’ll be tested on everything from basic arithmetic to Algebra 2. In fact, basic Algebra skills (Algebra 1) are incredibly important.
Geometry also makes an appearance. You aren’t given any formulas, and you’ll need to know “the greatest hits” by memory: volume of a cylinder, the distance formula, Pythagorean Theorum, etc.
Trigonometry also gets a quick mention. Expect several relatively simple questions of the “SOH CAH TOA” variety. You may even see a question or two about logarithms, or occasionally something even weirder.
The ACT Math section favors “breadth” over “depth” - so you’ll see a lot of little topics, but you don’t have to go very in-depth to most of them.
Algebra Topics on the ACT Math Test
On the ACT Math test, Algebra rains supreme.
Some problems are “pure” algebra, while many others incorporate algebra as part of the solution process.
Most of the algebra is just solving equations with either one or two variables. You also will deal with “polynomials” from Algebra 2.
Be ready to deal with some graphing questions as well. Parabolas and standard lines of the mx+b form all show up frequently on the ACT Math test.
Geometry Topics on the ACT Math Test
Geometry topics are second only to Algebra in their importance to the ACT Math test.
Unlike the SAT, the ACT test does NOT give you a list of useful geometry formulas. You’re 100% responsible for memorizing them on your own.
Important Geometry topics include right triangles, circles, and area and volume formulas.
Keep in mind that many Geometry-based problems will also incorporate some Algebra steps into their solutions.
Word Problems on the ACT Math Test
Word problems are everywhere on the ACT Math - enough to say that the ACT Math is just as much about careful reading as it is about careful math solutions.
There’s no Geometry or Algebra problem that can’t be made more confusing by adding a word problem to it. The ACT test-makers know this, and have used word problems throughout the test to make your life more difficult.
When it comes to word problems, invest extra time into determining what the question is asking, and what key info has been provided for you to use.
Expect word problems to take more time than the math-only version of the same question. You’ll need to slow down and read carefully. Rushing is your enemy!
Statistics Problems on the ACT Math Test
The ACT Math test also covers a fair amount of statistics-based math questions.
You may be asked to find the mean (average), mode, median, or range of a data set.
Statistics topics also combine with Algebra methods to create multi-step problems in the intermediate and difficult questions.
Watch out for familiar-looking questions being asked in unexpected ways. For example, instead of finding an average from a data set, you may start with the average and work backwards to find a data point.
Careless Mistakes on the ACT Math Test
For many students, careless mistakes cost more points on the ACT Math than difficult math questions do.
In other words, students tend to stress out on hard questions so much, they forget to double-check their work on the easy questions.
Read carefully, write your work out, and never rush. Every question is worth the same amount of points, whether it’s an easy question that takes 10 seconds, or a super-difficult question that takes 5 minutes.
By the way - any time you feel like your answer might be wrong - trust me, it’s wrong. Some part of our brain just knows when we’ve made a careless mistake, and sends a warning bell. If you feel like something is wrong, slow down and check your work.
Easy vs. Hard Questions on the ACT Math Test
The ACT Math section is in order of “difficulty” - easy questions at the beginning, medium questions in the middle, and hardest questions at the end.
“Easy” questions are usually straightforward. You’ll only need to know 1 or 2 math techniques or formulas to solve them.
Interesting to know - the “hard” ACT Math questions aren’t actually about how “hard” the question is, or how many steps it takes.
Actually, “hard” questions are just the questions that most high schoolers don’t correct - so, I’ve seen Question 60 be a simple percent problem that only takes 3 steps and about 15 seconds - but almost every student misses it, because of a common misunderstanding about how percentages work.
Never believe that a “hard” question is impossible!
How to Use Question Difficulty Ratings to Your Advantage in ACT Math
One tactic that many students don’t think of on the ACT Math: consider how difficult the Math question is “supposed” to be, and act accordingly.
Questions 1-20 are “easy”, so hopefully you can move quickly and accurately through these questions. Watch out for overconfidence and misreading the question - and be sure to show your work. The most common issue is rushing, leading to careless mistakes.
Questions 31-40 are “medium,” so expect to be tested more thoroughly on deeper math skills. Be careful not to “overestimate” the question… you shouldn’t have to work too hard to get the questions. However, these questions will look more complicated, and it’s easy to get bogged-down in reading the question.
Questions 41-60 are “hard,” and the most important advice I can give is this: If you’re not confident in your answer, it’s probably wrong. But, if you are confident in your work - and best of all, if you can identify the traps and common mistakes in the question - then there’s no reason to second-guess yourself.
Showing Your Work on the ACT Math Test
Most students make a big mistake on the ACT Math - they don’t show their work.
Relying on mental math is a big mistake. The same goes for over-reliance on your calculator.
When you write out your work, the benefits are incredible. Your thinking becomes clearer. It’s easier to catch your mistakes and correct your work.
The best ACT Math is always done by hand, written down in clear steps on paper.
How To Practice for the ACT Math Test
As with all sections of the ACT and SAT tests, practice makes perfect.
Get a copy of the Official ACT book and complete every math section. Check your answers, go over your mistakes, and correct them. Study your errors until you understand them. Make a list of your common mistakes, and learn to avoid them.
Be sure to take several full-length practice ACT tests as well.
A serious student will invest at least 6 to 10 hours of homework and practice into the ACT Math section before taking the official ACT.
You could easily spend much more time - up to 20 hours or more of ACT math practice.
Considering how important ACT scores are to college acceptances (and your future), I don’t think it’s excessive to prepare for 20+ hours to ace your ACT Math test.
Time and Speed Tips for ACT Math
In my experience as an ACT tutor, students and parents focus way too much on speed and time limits in the ACT Math section.
The truth is, without accuracy and confidence, speed doesn’t mean anything at all. Think about it… does it matter if you can shoot 10 arrows in a minute, if none of them hit the target?
It’s better to only shoot 1 arrow per minute, but actually hit what you’re aiming at. You can always get faster in time… but accuracy always comes before speed.
Go slow to get fast. Practice calmly and carefully… then invest extra time into finding and fixing your mistakes.
When you understand every math topic, you don’t waste time being confused. When you’ve seen every type of math question on the ACT, you don’t lose energy being intimidated.
Speed on the ACT Math comes from mastery of each individual math topic, plus experience and practice. Rushing doesn’t help, and there are no shortcuts.
Endurance Tips for the ACT Math Test
There’s no way around it - the ACT Math section is extremely long! 60 minutes, 60 questions. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.
You’ll need to make sure you save some energy in the tank for the late game. Plus, you’ll still have to finish several sections after the Math section.
This is another reason it’s crucial to write your work as a habit of taking the ACT. Writing your work gives your brain something to focus on, and gives you more chances to catch any mistakes you make as you get more fatigued.
Practice is key - preferably with a timer, and doing complete ACT Math sections.
But, don’t worry about endurance until your accuracy is looking good. If you’re missing a lot of questions, slow down and figure out what’s going wrong - before you worry about your test-taking endurance.
Reviewing My Top ACT Math Tips
In this article, we’ve covered a brief overview of the ACT Math section, some key ACT Math tips, and my experience as an ACT Math tutor.
You’ve learned a bit more about what’s on the ACT Math test - from basic Algebra to Geometry and statistics. This should help you understand what you can study and practice to get a higher ACT Math score and overall score on the entire ACT test.
We’ve covered some key mistakes and difficulties in the ACT Math test - from careless mistakes to the toughest problems - and I’ve given you some ideas for how to overcome those difficulties.
Finally we’ve reviewed some ACT Math tips for speed, endurance, and practice. In the ACT Math section, remember that accuracy and confidence come first; speed is only a result of careful and thorough practice.
Don’t Forget the Other ACT Test Sections
Even though it’s important to invest time preparing for the ACT Math, you can’t forget about the other four sections of the ACT Test:
- ACT English
- ACT Reading
- ACT Science
- ACT Essay
Each ACT section features its own challenges and difficulties.
One reason it’s so important to start ACT prep early - there are so many sections, and so much to study!
ACT Math Tutoring and Classes
You don’t have to study for the ACT Math test by yourself! At Love the SAT Test Prep, we offer 1-on-1 ACT Tutoring and Small-Group ACT Classes. We can help with a FREE consultation to help you make a plan for ACT test prep.
Be sure you’ve picked up a copy of the Official ACT Book, and contact us with your questions, or leave a note in the comments section below. Don’t forget to pick an upcoming ACT Test Date and schedule in advance.