Strategies for ACT Math: How to Conquer the Section

Once you have a firm grasp on what content will be tested in ACT Math, the next step is mastering the best strategies for the section. Part of the shortcut to getting a good score on the ACT Math section is finding the right balance between reviewing math concepts and practicing technique. Some amount of content knowledge is important: you’ll struggle to get many geometry questions right if you don’t know what a radius is and how to identify one. It’s important to remember, though, that many questions can be answered correctly even without a strong knowledge of the concepts being tested. Here are some of the best strategies to help you get a great score on the ACT Math section.

ACT Math Strategy #1: Quantity over quality


Because the Math section scales in terms of difficulty, with the questions getting harder as you progress, you’ll notice a significant difference between the problems at the end of the section and those at the beginning. Therefore, even though you have an average of one minute to spend on each question, it’s unrealistic to expect the questions to take you a consistent amount of time to solve.

With that in mind, we recommend that students divide this section up into thirds: questions #1-20, #21-40, and #41-60. These three subsections correspond roughly to the easiest, medium-est, and hardest portions of the ACT Math section, and you can time each portion separately with that in mind. I typically have students start with a 15/20/25 split; that is, spending 15 minutes on the first third, 20 minutes on the second, and 25 on the third.

Dividing the section up in this way makes it easier to pace yourself and gives you increased flexibility to refine your approach. Having trouble with careless mistakes in the first 20 questions? Take a couple of minutes from the last third, the questions you’re less likely to get right anyway, and add it to your time for the first third to ensure that you bank those easier points. Consistently cruising through the first 40 questions with excellent accuracy and time to spare? You’re probably ready to shave a minute or two off your time allotted for each of the first two thirds and give yourself more time on the harder problems.

By tracking your accuracy in each subsection, you’ll also gain a clearer picture of exactly where in the section you’re having the most trouble. This ‘Rule of Thirds’ is one of the best section-wide strategies, as it gives you increased control over your prep in the ACT Math section.

ACT Math Strategy #2: The answer is always plug-ins


Very early in my work with students, I tell most of them “if I ask you a question when we’re going over a Math section together and you weren’t paying attention, just say ‘plug-ins’ because that’s pretty much always the answer.” While that’s a slight exaggeration, it’s fair to say that if I could only teach a student one thing before they took ACT Math, it would be plug-in strategy.

Plug & Chug

There are two main flavors of plug-ins. Answer plug-ins represent a strategy that is familiar to almost every student who’s taken a multiple-choice test before: when the answer choices are simply a list of numbers, plug each one back into the question until you find the one that works. This is a fantastically intuitive technique that, while it can sometimes be slightly time-consuming, rarely leads students astray.

Make Some Stuff Up

The other, and arguably more useful, side of the plug-in coin is the variable plug-ins technique. This approach is designed to allow students to remove the abstraction from questions in the ACT Math section so that they can focus on the core math mechanics. If you notice that most or all of the answer choices in a given problem are in terms of a variable or variables, then the numerical answer to that question depends on the value of those variables. There’s a pretty good chance that you have the flexibility to come up with your own numbers to stand in for the variables and answer the question using those values.

The best part about variable plug-ins is that the steps in the process are generally very consistent and don’t depend on which topic is being tested:

  1. Recognize the opportunity.
  2. Identify your variables.
  3. Determine the restrictions that the problem has placed on the values of those variables.
  4. Come up with some numbers that satisfy those restrictions.
  5. Solve the problem based on those numbers.
  6. Plug your numbers into the answer choices and see which one spits out that same solution.

Or, if it’s easier, just remember the acronym RIDCSP! (Yeah, we’ll keep workshopping that one.) Bad acronyms aside, plug-ins are a fantastic ‘side door’ method that can compensate for a lack of content knowledge in a number of areas, and you should constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to utilize them.

ACT Math Strategy #3: You have a calculator, so use it


I’m not going to dive into too much detail in this portion, since we have an entire separate post dedicated to the best ways to use your calculator on the ACT Math section. Check it out here for some of the best ACT Math calculator tips and tricks.

What I will do here is summarize by saying that one of the biggest differences between the ACT and the SAT is that you have access to a graphing calculator for the entirety of the Math portion of the ACT, compared to only half on the SAT. Two of the best things you can do for yourself on the ACT Math section are 1) know how to use your calculator and 2) look for opportunities to save yourself time by letting the calculator do the heavy lifting for you!

ACT Math Strategy #4: Two-pass method


Our final entry into the pantheon of ‘best strategies to use to approach the ACT Math section’ is something that we call the two-pass method. The concept behind this is simple, and it’s a theme that we’ll see repeated in pretty much every section of the ACT: address the section in the way that makes the most sense for you, not the way the test lays it out for you.

In this section, that typically means prioritizing some questions over others based on difficulty level, the amount of time you think a question will take you to answer, and how the concept that it’s testing lines up with your content strengths & weaknesses. This is especially relevant in the last 20 questions of the section, where the amount of time it takes you to solve a question where you’re comfortable with the material can be noticeably smaller than one where you’re not, even if the former is supposedly “harder” than the latter.

Added to this is the fact that the ACT likes to play dirty when it comes to section design. One of their favorite tricks is putting an extremely difficult and/or time-consuming question somewhere in the range of #48-52; the inexperienced test-taker spends too much time trying to answer that question, tanking their pacing and compromising their ability to answer the last 8-10 problems in time.

To counteract this, remember that every question counts the same, and work through the last third of the ACT Math section in two passes. On the first, answer any questions where you’re very comfortable with the content or you can see that they shouldn’t take much time; skip everything else. Then, with whatever time you have remaining, work through the questions that you skipped the first time, again prioritizing them in order of easiness. That way, if you do run up against the clock in the end, you’ll know that any questions you guessed on were the ones that you were least likely to get right anyway.

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And that wraps up our summary of the best strategies and shortcuts for the ACT Math section. If you follow this approach to the section and practice it consistently, you’ll be in a great position to get a good score on ACT Math. If you’d like more specific advice on how best to approach the ACT Math section or strategies in any other area of the test, head over to InspiricaPros’ ACT headquarters. Our squad of ACT gurus would love to help you crush the test.

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