In this post we'll share 8 strategies for improving your score on the ACT-Math section. We have worked with hundreds of students, and these ideas are almost always helpful.These strategies are written in a “top 8” list format, but they aren’t necessarily in order. Depending on the student, any given strategy might be more or less effective.
1. Write all over the test booklet.
Nothing you write will be scored, but this will have a huge impact on your score. This includes writing equations, drawing diagrams, and labeling angles or lengths when applicable.
2. Use the answers to plug into the question when possible.
This is additional information they don’t expect you to use. Always start with the middle answer (C). Even if you do know how to work out a problem, this method, when combined with process of elimination, may be faster.
3. Don’t always go in order. Answer the easy questions first.
Don’t fall into the trap of “doing the more difficult problems first, while I still have time.” Remember, you are trying to get as many questions correct as possible; that’s what earns you a high score. So, make sure you answer everything correctly that you know how to answer correctly, which means you should feel free to skip questions if you can’t think of how to even approach them. While the questions generally go from easy to hard, this isn’t always the case for your mathematical background. Circle the questions numbers that you skip to make it easy to return to them.
4. Re-read the last sentence of the question before answering to avoid simple mistakes.
5. Assume nothing.
This often comes up in geometry questions. If you have a triangle that looks like a right triangle and would be easy to work with as a right triangle, you might be tempted to assume that it’s a right triangle. While that assumption might help you get the right answer, it could be a trap, or just a fluke. There must be information provided in the question that would allow you to know that the triangle is a right triangle.
6. Answer all the questions (with just a little bit of thought, even if you’re pretty much lost or completely running out of time)!
There is no penalty for guessing. You can, at times, squeeze out 1,2, or even 3 additional points from simply making sure you leave nothing blank. Let me repeat. Don’t leave anything blank. Leave 60 seconds to randomly choose answers if you have to. But, even if you’re very short on time, thinking about the question just long enough to make a decent guess is much more beneficial than guessing completely at random. Think about it. With four possible answers, you have a 25% chance of getting the answer right by guessing randomly. If you can just eliminate two answers, your odds of success double. In other words, even if you don’t have time to start plugging in possible answers and checking to see if they’re right, the first step of the process of elimination can still help you get points.
7. Make abstractions concrete.
Math tends to be difficult for many people simply because it’s so abstract. You can’t often touch and feel math. So, making something somewhat abstract more concrete can be a powerfully way to understand and comprehend. Think of how a grade-school teacher tackles division. It’s hard to really understand what 12 divided by 3 means until the teacher brings in twelve cookies and doles them out evenly to three students. ACT-Math questions can sometimes be made much more concrete by subbing in example numbers for variables. Learn to recognize when this is possible.
8. Proactively (and strategically, and calmly…) manage your time.
On ACT-Math, you have 60 seconds to answer 60 questions. That’s one minute per question. Running out of time is one of the most common issues in this section. Many students feel they can do almost all of the problems, but they just can’t do them fast enough to score well. So, time management is a critical skill if you want to score particularly well. Managing your time is really just about knowing how often to look at the clock. If you look too often, you’ll distract yourself with the pressure it suggests. If you don’t look often enough, you’ll find yourself without enough time to finish a section, forced to guess more often than you should. Really, you just need to find some balance.
Don’t let yourself give in to thoughts like this: “I’ve spent 1 minute and 28 seconds on this question, so on the next question I should spend 32 seconds to make up for the extra time.” This is at worst counterproductive and at best unnecessary.
Questions don’t always take the exact length of time you might expect. That’s OK. However, you must remain aware of the clock so you don’t completely lose track of time. The goal is to know at a few checkpoints in a section whether you’re ahead, behind, or right on schedule so you can modify your strategy accordingly, possibly by making more estimated guesses or skipping more time-consuming questions. (Of course, if you have extra time, you can check your work more carefully.)
In our next post, we'll address perhaps the single most powerful strategy. The process of elimination.