Many students struggle to finish the ACT math paper. This is either because they run out of time, or because they can’t solve the more difficult problems. One good way to get around that is to aim to complete only part of the paper. This is a great strategy if you’re aiming for a math score in the 20-30 range. If you want above a 30, you need to attempt all the questions (you can probably get away with 2 or 3 guesses).
Here’s a strategy for getting to a 21: You need to get roughly half the questions right.
- First 30 minutes: Aim to answer questions 1-20. Count the number of questions you have to skip, and put a * by any questions that you’re unsure of.
- Next 20 minutes: From questions 20-45, try to answer 15, plus the number you needed to skip from the first 20. This means you’ll have answered 35 questions without guessing any. Fill in the bubble sheet with what you have so far.
- Last 10 minutes: Go back to the * questions, see if you can finish any.
Here’s a strategy for getting to a 25: You need to get about 38/60 to get this score.
- First 30 minutes: Work through questions 1-30. Count the number of questions you have to skip, and put a * by any questions that you’re unsure of.
- Next 20 minutes: Focus on questions 30-60. If you read the question and have no idea, cross through it. If you can solve it, but it’s taking too long, put a * by it and come back to it later. Don’t forget that although the questions go in order of difficulty, there are sometimes some easy questions at the end of the test. Don’t write of questions 55-60, you may be able to do them. Fill in the bubble sheet with what you have so far.
- Last 10 minutes: Go back to the * questions, see what you can do.
Here’s a strategy for getting to a 30: You need to get approximately 50 questions right. This means you need to attempt almost the whole paper.
- First 20 minutes: Do questions 1-30. Work at a steady pace, don’t rush. If you can get this bit right, you have a huge time bonus for the harder questions. It’s essential that you practice this a lot so that you know what pace enables you to do 30 questions in 20 minutes.
- Next 20 minutes: Tackle questions 30-50. You’re now working at 1 minute per question. If you have to skip any, replace them with questions from 50-60. For example, if you skip questions 37 and 42, you need to do questions 51 and 52 instead. Put a * by any you think you should come back to.
- Next 10 minutes: Investigate questions 50-60. See what you can do. If there’s any that you don’t have a clue about, put a line through. Also fill in your bubble sheet in this time.
- Last 10 minutes: Go back over your * questions. Anything you can get here is a bonus, because you’ve already answered 50+ questions.
What’s your timing strategy? Is it working for you?
Start your prep off right! Make a list of the topics that appear on the test and rate yourself on each one – I use the traffic light system: red if you can’t usually answer questions on this topic, orange if it depends on the question, and green if you’re always fine at those questions. Then, make sure you have a list of formulae for the green questions if you need them, then read over notes/textbooks/internet for the orange questions. For the red topics, you probably need someone to teach it to you again. Ask your math teacher nicely, or a friend. Khan Academy has some great video resources if you’re still stuck and can’t ask anyone.
Here’s my list of topics on the test. You can use this for your traffic light system. It’s split up by level of difficulty as well.
Know your skip questions! In my experience, most students don’t finish the math section, and at least some of the last 10 questions are guesses. Unless you have no trouble finishing the math at all (in which case you’re probably not reading this page), pick which questions you’re going to guess. This means that you won’t have the pressure of answering 60 questions hanging over you the whole time. Look at your past tests and see where you’re making mistakes – is it on long wordy questions? Do you hate trigonometry? Are you better at questions with diagrams? Think in advance about which questions you might skip, and this will give you fewer decisions to make when you’re actually doing the test.
Keep track of your own time. Don’t rely on the adjudicators for the 5 minute warning – they sometimes forget. From the time that the test starts, add 20 minutes and write that time at the bottom of question 30. Add another 20 minutes and write that at the bottom of question 50. The last 10 questions are bonus questions – do them if you get time. This way, you won’t get lost in the test and not know how much time you have – you’ll know if you are ahead or behind, and by how much. (I’m assuming that you’re currently scoring between 26-32 on the math section – you might need to adjust where you put your 20 minute markers depending on what you want to achieve).
Play to your strengths and don’t waste time on questions that you find harder. I regularly find that my students can do at least 3 of the questions between 50-60, but they usually don’t even see them because they spent 3 minutes on question 45 before giving up. Make sure you’re using your time wisely. If a question is taking too long, write down any steps you’ve already thought of, put a star by the question, then come back to it if you have time at the end.
Practice your strategies! If you’re considering doing any of the above, make sure you do practice tests where you apply them. I like my students to have them on an index card in front of them while they practice as a reminder. If you try them for the first time on the test, it could throw you off more, and make things worse. You want to be in your comfort zone when you’re writing the math section, so confidence is key!