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How to Amplify Your ACT Math Performance
When it comes to the math section, the ACT is much more straightforward than the SAT. The SAT is famous for its “puzzle-like” problems, which not only test your knowledge of the material, but also test your ability to figure out what the heck they’re asking in the first place!
“Farmer Joe had a tractor that was going at a certain speed, but the speed got cut by 1/3rd. However, he’s on a track that is 40% longer than Farmer Mike’s track, whose tractor is….”
And so on and so forth.
Fortunately for you, the ACT Math section is really just figuring out one thing: do you know your stuff?
If you’ve never taken an in-depth look at ACT math before, you can see an entire practice section for free here:
Make no mistake – many of these problems are still difficult. But they’re not particularly tricky. If you know your stuff, you should be able to get a perfect or near-perfect score. Yet many students who are awesome at math in school have a nightmarish time doing well on the ACT math section. Why?
The ACT Math section has much more to do with TIME than it does with MATERIAL
The questions in this section aren’t very tough on their own – but the time limits imposed on you by the section make them very tough.
If I ask you to put on a dress shirt and make a bowl of cereal, you’re not going to be very worried. Easy! But if I ask you to do both of these things in under 8 seconds each, you’re in a very different boat!
The ACT Math section is the same way. If you learn the following skills, you’ll find this section to be extremely doable:
- How to manage your time effectively and invest it in the right ways.
- How to enhance your speed on the most common problem types.
If you practice working on your timing strategy, you’re going to eliminate your number one impediment to high ACT math scores. This takes discipline, focus, and a lot of practice – but it’s extremely doable (and I’ve taught thousands of students to do it with big results).
Of course, you still need to know your stuff. If you don’t know your algebra, arithmetic, geometry, etc., you’re going to need to work on that too (section six will cover this in more detail). However, by working on your timing strategy as you learn your material, you’ll become a much more holistically skilled ACT test taker.
With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at each of the two key ACT Math timing strategies:
Investing Your Time Like an ACT Master
The ACT Math section contains 60 problems. You have to complete it in 60 minutes. If you do the math (get it?), this gives you one minute per problem.
Let’s make things even simpler: every problem is worth one point.
Therefore, timing shouldn’t be that big of an issue, right? Sixty problems, sixty points, sixty minutes. Now things get a bit more complicated:
ACT Math problems get progressively more difficult as the section progresses. The easiest problems are in the beginning of the section, and the hardest problems are at the end.
At first, this seems like a non-problem. After all, if the easiest stuff is in order, and the harder stuff is later on, doesn’t it just mean that you should just go in order? That would be the intuitive thing to do, but there’s an issue here:
“Easier” for most people might not be easier FOR YOU – and vice versa!
In other words, the problems are statistically arranged from easiest to hardest. The most students get #1 right, and the fewest students get #60 right. But you aren’t “most students.” If you’re awesome at functions, a #59 having to do with functions might be a joke. But if you’re not so good at fractions, a #3 having to do with fractions might be practically impossible for you.
With that in mind, the best way to invest your time on the ACT math section is to solve the stuff that’s easiest for YOU first, THEN go back to the other stuff later on.
There’s a pretty simple process for all this:
- Read each problem.
- If you know how to solve it right away, and it doesn’t seem like it’ll take a while, do it immediately.
- If you read it, and you know how to do it, but it seems like it’ll take you a while, mark it as such (with an X, a circle, whatever) and move on to the next problem
- If you read it, and you have no idea what the heck it’s even asking, mark it another way, then move on
- When you’re done with all sixty problems, fly through and answer all the problems you marked in step three.
- When you’re done with all those, go back and finish all the problems you marked in step four (if you have time)
That’s all there is to it! By working through the problems in this way – a way that perfectly matches your own skill levels – you’re making sure to scoop as many points as possible. You’re nabbing the easy points first, then the “doable but sort of time consuming problems next,” and attempting the really tricky stuff at the end. This is efficiency at its absolute finest!
My online ACT program, Green Test Prep, will give you a much more in-depth system for working through this process (and for learning all the math facts you’ll need to employ it more effectively). However, even this basic understanding of the proper ACT Math pacing strategy will pay dividends when it comes to your scores.
Once you practice this process, there’s another, even more powerful strategy that you can build into your routine:
Thievery: Your Key to Enhancing Your Speed on Every Problem
Picking the easiest problems first is a great way to save time and grab more points. However, in a perfect world, every problem would be easy and fast. Fortunately, there’s one strategy that applies to almost 50% of all ACT Math problems that automatically saves you time and helps you to get to the answer more quickly: stealing the answers.
The ACT Math section is pure multiple choice. That means that every single problem is putting the right answer in front of you. Sure, there are four wrong answers, too – but if you get in the habit of obsessing over the available choices, you’ll start to become ludicrously efficient.
Before you put any work into any ACT Math problem, the first question you should ask yourself is: can I steal, plug in, or eliminate the answer choices instead of doing any real work?
Don’t ever put pencil to paper until you’ve taken a good look at the answer choices. Not only will they show you what “form” the answer will need to be in, and give you clues as to how to solve the problem (for instance, if there’s a “root 3” in there, there’s probably a 30/60/90 triangle in the problem too) – they can actually be used to solve the problem.
For instance, if you’re asked: “what’s the smallest number that does X, Y, and Z?” You could spend minutes puzzling over the possibilities – or you could just take the answers, starting with the smallest one first, and see if they do X, Y, and Z. As soon as you find the answer choices that fulfills those criteria, you’re done!
You can use this strategy on over half of all ACT Math problems!
Which number has [these qualities]?
What’s the least common multiple of X and Y and Z?
What number does NOT fulfill these requirements?
What number solved [this equation]?
Don’t do work unless you absolutely have to! If you focus on using the answer choices to help you find the answer choice, rather than coming up with the answer and checking it against the answer choices, you’re going to be twice as fast (and half as frustrated).
Two Tricks to Rule Them All
If you focus on “picking the low hanging fruit” by answering the easiest math problems first, and if you use the answer choices to short-circuit your problem solving process, you’re going to be significantly faster. And, as you’ve learned, speed is 90% of the game when it comes to getting a great ACT Math score.
As soon as you have a chance, grab a practice ACT Math section and give both strategies a shot with a watch in hand – you’ll be blown away by how much more quickly you move through!
If you’ve had enough math in your life, it’s time to turn over to the next frontier: READING! Let’s go to the next section to figure out how to:
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