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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 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.)


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.

10 Tips for Taking the ACT This Saturday

10 ACT Study Tips

Clearly it is too late to do an in-depth study for this weekend’s ACT, but there are things all students can do in the next couple days to help improve their performance (and scores) on Saturday’s ACT. These 10 quick tips for taking the ACT will help students who have been preparing and those who are attempting to cram at the last minute.

1. Plan Your Food

This tip doesn’t top most test prep lists, but I think it is an easy thing every student can do.  Think about it; marathon runners closely monitor and plan the food and drink they will consume. While you are not expending energy through prolonged physical exertion, you are working for four hours in a state of heightened mental exertion.  You don’t need to have your blood sugar plummet for lack of food or spend half the test with the jitters from the double espresso you had that morning.  Think through your breakfast and pack appropriate snacks to eat during breaks.

2. Set a Target Goal for Each Section

Whether you’ve been studying for weeks or just started thinking about the ACT, you should have score goals for each of the four graded sections:  English, math, reading, and science.  If you have previously taken the test, use those scores to guide your expectations.  If you have never taken the ACT or PLAN, you may want to take one of the free full-length practice tests available from your guidance counselor’s office.  Make sure your target goal for each section is realistic based on your abilities.

3. Familiarize Yourself with the Scoring System

Once you have a score goal, you can determine how many questions you need to answer correctly in order to reach that score.  You may only need four of the five English passages or 60% of the math.  Because there is no penalty for guessing on the ACT, you may choose to focus your attention of a portion of the questions and guess on the rest; this gives you more time per question and may help you reach your target goal.

4. Print Admissions Ticket & Verify Test Date and Location

Seems stupidly obvious, but I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of students I’ve worked with who were surprised to find they were registered for a test date or a location other than the one they expected.  Also, when you print your admissions ticket in advance you have time to call tech support if you have trouble accessing your registration online. Avoid surprises on test day; check in advance.

5. Review Basic Math Formulas

Unlike the SAT, which provides basic formulas at the beginning of every math section, the ACT expects students to have this information memorized.  You should know area for triangles, area and circumference for circles, and volume for cubes and cylinders.  A2 + B2 = C2 is essential and can save you from memorizing the distance formula for coordinate geometry problems.  The ACT has a handful of trigonometry questions, most of which are quickly solved with knowledge of sin, cos, tan, and the unit circle.  Students are assumed to know the slope intercept equation for a line (y=mx + b) and occasionally questions will ask for the equation for a circle [ (x-h) 2 + (y-k) 2 = r2 ] or parabola (y=ax2 +bx + c).  Make a formula chart you can review this week and look over before you go into the ACT on Saturday.

6. Work a Few Timed Passages

You don’t need to complete multiple full-length tests before Saturday.  You do need to become familiar with the material tested and the pace you intend to keep in order to reach your goals. If you can complete a full 45-minute English section or a 35-minute reading or science section, great.  If not, do one or two passages.

If you need to complete 80% of English section in order to reach your score goal, then you have 45 minutes for four passages.  Before Saturday, set your timer and see if you can finish a passage in 10-11 minutes.  If so, you know you are on track; if not, you know you either need to speed up or adjust your goal.

7. Verify You Have an Approved Calculator

The ACT limits the calculators students can use.  You MAY NOT use your TI-Nspire or TI-89 and you do not want to be dismissed from the exam for using an unapproved calculator.  Generally TI-83, TI-84, and non-graphing scientific calculators are approved.  You can always get a scientific calculator from your local drugstore for under $20.  For more information see: What Calculators Are Allowed on the ACT: Common Mistakes to Avoid.

8. Brush-up on Grammar Rules

Just as you will want to review common math formulas, it is helpful to brush-up on the commonly tested grammar rules.  Start with punctuation (something not tested on SAT writing).  Make sure you understand how to use a semicolon, colon, and dash.  Review the difference between plural and possessive so you won’t have apostrophe questions.  Spend some time with practice questions looking for the following errors:  subject / verb agreement, passive voice, pronoun-antecedent agreement, pronoun case, parallel structure, modifier placement, adverb / adjective use, verb tense, and idioms. Most students will have studied these rules in school, but it may have been a few years, so a quick review can be helpful.

9. Practice Reading & Analyzing for Specific Details

You have probably figured out that ACT reading and science are more about your ability to ferret out particular details from a passage or data set than your ability to read or recall basic principals of science.  However, if you are in the habit of reading slowly, absorbing information, then drawing conclusions based on the information provided, you will struggle to finish. Work through a couple reading and science sections untimed.  Take note of where you found the answers.  Once you see the pattern and understand how most questions simply want you to find details, you can improve your accuracy on these sections.

10. REST!

Your brain can’t perform at its best if you are exhausted.  Take some extra time to rest.  Start by unplugging from technology each night.  It might be a good idea to turn off your phone, computer, etc. by 9 pm each night and plan to get an extra hour or two of sleep.  Of course, you can’t put off assignments or tests for this week, but you can trade in some free time for extra sleep.

Do what you can to prepare for this weekend’s test.  Remember colleges are looking for a student’s best scores, so if this ACT isn’t your best, you can always retest.



Top 5 Tips for ACT Math

Albert Einstein said, “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics, I assure you that mine are greater.”  While Einstein’s mathematical woes were weighty, the challenge of accurately completing 60 ACT math questions in 60 minutes appears equally serious to most test takers.

The ACT math section covers fundamental skills, algebra, geometry, and basic trigonometry.  The questions begin easier and become progressively harder as you work through the section.  Some students prefer the ACT math because it seems more like problems they see in school and tends to be less tricky that SAT questions.  But don’t be fooled, ACT math isn’t easy.

Here are 5 tips to improve your ACT math scores:

1.  Know your formulasYou will not be given any formulas on the test, so be sure to review area, circumference, triangles, and basic math equations you usually look up on the  SAT or other standardized tests.

2.  Plan for the 4 or 5 trig questions.  Students who are taking pre-calculus or trigonometry in school should be fine.  You need to know sin, cos, tan; the sin & cos curves; and the unit circle.  If you have not studied these topics in school, I’d suggest you “letter of the day” these questions and move onto problems you are more likely to get right.

3.  Remember it is multiple-choice math.  Before you begin long, complex calculations, look at the answer choices.  Could you test these five options by plugging them into the problem?  Can you eliminate some choices using estimation?  The answer is on the paper; you just need to find it.

4.  Bring an approved calculator.  ACT calculator rules are stricter than those for the SAT.  You may NOT use calculators with built-in computer algebra systems, cell phones, computers, or tablets. TI- 89s, TI-92s, HP 48GIIs, HP 40Gs, 49Gs or 50Gs are NOT permitted.  According to ACT, “using the TI-89 is the most common reason students are dismissed fro the ACT for prohibited calculator use.”  Make sure your calculator is permitted.

5.  Write it out.  Do not attempt to do all the math in your head.  I’m a math person by nature.  (Maybe you didn’t know this, but I was captain of my high school math team!) I understand how tempting it is to do all the calculations in your head.  You may be able to answer some of the easier questions at the beginning with no calculations, but by the time you reach the middle of the ACT math section, problems require multiple steps and students who write out at least part of the problem, earn higher scores.  Avoid careless errors, increase your accuracy, and improve your score by working problems in the test booklet.

Remember to apply strategies such as the “letter of the day” because accuracy and educated guessing are key to your ACT success.  As Paul R Halmos said, “”To be a scholar of mathematics you must be born with talent, insight, concentration, taste, luck, drive and the ability to visualize and guess.”