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How Much Math Do I Need for the ACT and SAT?

The ACT and SAT are designed for high school juniors. But we know that not all juniors around the world are taking the same math courses. Here’s what students need to know before taking the ACT or SAT.

There is a catch.

Before I declare students are ready for either the SAT or ACT there are a couple caveats:

  • Completion of a course doesn’t always equal retention or mastery of skills. I’ve had students admit they never really learned geometry (or algebra) and just got by on homework grades and cramming. I have other students who are so far advanced (taking Calculus II as a junior for example) that they have forgotten the basics.
  • Both the ACT and SAT are difficult exams written with enough hard questions that not too many students will score in the top 10% (or top 25%.) Math questions are difficult not based on the course sequence, but based on the number of concepts combined into a single problem and the likelihood of making a mistake. In other words, there are hard questions that don’t go beyond junior high school math, but almost no students get these correct due to calculation errors, misleading answer traps, etc.

But there are some basics a student needs to complete before he or she has enough math knowledge to successfully attempt these exams.

ACT

ACT math focuses on algebra, geometry, and basic trigonometry. In general I find most students are able to adequately prepare for the exam once they have taken high school algebra and geometry.

Some problems (about 4) include basic trigonometry which most of my students have learned in geometry class. SOH-CAH-TOA is all the trig you need. (If you don’t know it, your student probably does.)

Starting in late 2016, the ACT added some harder probability questions and problems that involve more math typically taught in Algebra II. While Algebra II is not required for success on the ACT, a junior taking Algebra II might want to make sure he or she has a solid understanding of Algebra I. (In some cases a few months of Algebra II is the perfect review for the necessary skills.)

SAT

The redesigned SAT (starting in March 2016) goes much deeper into Algebra II concepts than the old SAT or the ACT. In order to be adequately prepared for a majority of SAT math, I’m recommending students complete Algebra II before preparing for the exam.

This means juniors taking Algebra II might want to give serious consideration to the ACT which does not test as many Algebra II concepts or wait until mid-spring to take the SAT.

Tips for math review

I’ve found the free SAT review lessons from Khan Academy to be a good place to start for students taking either exam. You can start here.

For a general overview, skip the diagnostic quiz and scroll down to the videos and practice problems. Start with the basic video for any concept. I like to pause a couple second into the video and see if I can solve the questions quickly and accurately on my own. If I can, I usually fast forward to the end to double check I got it right. Move to the harder example then test your skills on the practice problems.

 

Whether a student takes the ACT or SAT, it is important to have a solid understanding of the math concepts tested in order to make the most of any additional test preparation activities you may pursue.

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