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Test-Taking Strategies for the Math Portion of the ACT

Part of the ACT Math For Dummies Cheat Sheet

The math portion of the ACT contains 60 questions, and you have 60 minutes to complete that part of the test. So you have roughly 1 minute per question. Every question you answer correctly is worth 1 point toward your raw score on the test. Employing some test-taking strategies can help ensure that you answer all the questions as best you can. The following sections provide some tips to keep in mind.

Remember: Not all ACT math questions are created equally. Generally speaking, the questions increase in difficulty as you proceed from Question 1 to Question 60. Here’s the general breakdown of difficulty:

  • Easy: Questions 1 through 20

  • Medium: Questions 21 through 40

  • Hard: Questions 41 through 60

Take two passes on the ACT Math test

To maximize your time and confidence, use the tried-and-true strategy of taking two passes over the ACT, particularly when working the math section. Here’s what to do for each of the passes:

  • Pass 1: Start with Question 1 and work your way forward, answering questions that look relatively quick and easy and jumping over those that look difficult or time-consuming.

  • Pass 2: After you’ve answered all the quick and easy questions, circle back to the first question you skipped over and work your way forward to the end again.

This test-taking strategy maximizes the number of questions you can answer with confidence. It also helps you save time for the tough questions, which usually take more than 1 minute to solve. And don’t forget that you get an average of 1 minute per question!

Every ACT math section includes a few questions that are practically begging for you to skip over them. For example, you may consider passing over questions that

  • Are very long and wordy.

  • Seem purposely confusing and don’t make a lot of sense even the second time you read them.

  • Have large or complicated numbers that involve long or difficult calculations.

Of course, not every problem with the preceding characteristics is as difficult as it looks. But as you run across problems like these, feel free to jump over them — even on Pass 2. If you have time at the end of the test, you can always try to pick off a few of these questions.

But if you’re going to skip questions, you may as well skip these hairy beasts. However, do try to fill in an answer for every question in the end. (See the upcoming section for details on how best to guess on the ACT.)

Guess wisely on the rest of the ACT test

On the ACT math test, you don’t lose points from your raw score when you fill in a wrong answer. So strategically you should fill in every answer, even if you have to make a wild guess.

Of course, you don’t want to guess on math questions that you may be able to answer correctly — especially among the test’s earlier questions, which tend to be easier. And keep in mind that an educated guess is always better than a wild guess. So whenever possible, rule out answers that you know are wrong. Keep track of these wrong answers by crossing them out in your test booklet.

Don’t guess at any answers while you’re still on the first pass (see the previous section, “Take two passes on the ACT Math test,” where I discuss tackling the test in two separate passes). Instead, begin guessing on your second pass of the test. At this point, if you can confidently rule out a couple of answers but don’t know how to proceed with a question, you can save time by guessing at the answer and moving on to the next question.

Keep track of the questions that you guess on. If you have time at the end of the math test — or if you have an unexpected brainstorm — you can revisit these questions and make a more educated guess.

Monitor your time closely, and when your 60 minutes of math are almost up, take a moment to guess at all the remaining answers — don’t leave any blank. With a bit of luck, you may pick up a few additional points on some of these questions.

Remember that the ACT is different from the SAT in one crucial respect:

On the ACT, no points are taken off for wrong answers.
On the SAT, 1/4 point is taken off for every wrong answer.

So, be sure to answer every question on the ACT, even if you have to guess.

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