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ACT Math: Strategy

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  • 0:07 Preparation
  • 0:51 Read the Question Carefully
  • 2:47 Show Your Work
  • 3:46 Use Your Calculator
  • 4:21 Don't Get Bogged Down
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Bayliss
Learn strategies that you can use while taking the ACT math exam. Practicing and using these strategies can help you boost your score and increase the number of questions you answer correctly.

Start With Practice

Doing well on the ACT math exam is largely about how well you know the math concepts. But it's also about being savvy and using math strategies to maximize your correct answers and avoid careless mistakes. In this lesson, we'll learn four strategies to help you make all your studying pay off.

But remember, although these are strategies you can employ on test day, the most important strategy you can have is to do lots of preparation. Take as many practice tests as you can, and review the math concepts thoroughly. The ACT is very repetitive from test to test. The same question types appear again and again. By doing lots of practice, you'll start recognizing question types and also master your strategies, so they are second nature on test day.

Read the Question Carefully

Our first strategy seems obvious but is actually something many students miss: read the question carefully. Most students are time-crunched when taking the test - after all, you only have 60 minutes to solve 60 math problems. In their rush to get to the end, they often skim the questions rather than reading them carefully, which can lead to careless mistakes. Do you really want to miss a point for a question you knew how to answer? No? The solution is to read the question carefully. Let's look at a few examples similar to questions I've seen on real ACT exams to see why this is so important.

Look at this equation:

x + 7 = 15

Most people would look at this equation and jump in and start solving for x. It seems pretty straightforward and is one of the easier types of problems you'll see on the exam.

But what exactly is the question? Let's zoom out and see what it's asking:

Solve for 2x:
x + 7 = 15

Now things are a bit trickier. Most of the time, you solve equations for x, not 2x. If I was rushing and not reading carefully, I would solve for x and get the answer wrong.

Now let's look at a more complicated example.

Right Triangle - ACT Prep

Looking at this triangle, I can see that it's a straightforward Pythagorean theorem problem. All I need to do is solve for the missing side, right?

Let's zoom out and read the question carefully.

Find the perimeter of right triangle ABC.

This is a typical ACT trick - a two-step problem where you have to find one value and then use it to find a second value. If I was rushing, I would have just looked at the prominent diagram and used the Pythagorean theorem to find the missing side - and gotten it wrong.

I make a lot of careless mistakes, so I personally take this strategy a step further and underline and circle the key parts of the question in order to force my brain to acknowledge the question.

Show Your Work

Our second strategy might not make sense at first glance: show your work. The ACT is a multiple choice exam, and you're only required to get the correct answer - it doesn't matter how you find it. However, showing your work can help you reduce your careless mistakes. Writing down the steps to a problem slows you down a little bit, but it also prevents your brain from moving too quickly and skipping important steps in solving the problem.

Let's look at an example.

Solve the inequality for x:
-2x > 4

This is a fairly simple problem, with a small twist - you have to remember to flip the inequality sign when you divide by the negative. If you solved this problem in your head, you might remember to flip the sign - or you might not. By writing out your steps, you're more likely to catch your mistake because you'll actually see it written on the page.

Don't take this strategy overboard - you don't want to show so much work that you run out of time. But writing out the steps can prevent careless mistakes.

Use Your Calculator

A related strategy is to use your calculator, even when you think you don't need to. It's very easy to make careless mistakes when doing arithmetic in your head, especially if you're rushing. Even if you think you can solve a problem in your head, check the math on the calculator to ensure you've done it correctly.

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