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.

10 Tips for Taking the ACT This Saturday

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.

Ace the ACT Science Section

Don’t get too excited, ACT science has little to do with your knowledge of biology, chemistry, natural science, or physics.  In fact, you don’t need any knowledge of science to ace this section.

ACT science should be renamed to “reading with charts and graphs.”  You are given seven passages full of diagrams, data, tables, examples, and figures and you are expected to answer questions based on your evaluation of the information.According to ACT, this section tests your interpretation, analysis, problem solving, and reasoning skills.  It does not test any science.

Honestly, this is the only section on any of the admissions tests that I have trouble finishing.  I’m a great test taker and I have to keep an eye on the clock to finish 40 science questions in 35 minutes.  I don’t want to rush and make careless errors, but there is so much information to process.  Again, accuracy will be key to your success.

The best way to make it through the ACT science section is to think of it as a giant search and find.  You remember these from when you were a kid.  When we go to a restaurant the children’s menu will have a big block of letters and my kids love looking up, down, across, and diagonally for the words.  When you used to do this, I bet you had a similar approach.  To fine the word “spaghetti” you didn’t read every letter on every line; you’d scan through looking for the letters you need, slowing down only when you saw some of the letters from “spaghetti”.  This strategy will help you ace the ACT science.

Do not start by reading and attempting to understand each science passage.  Begin with the questions.  If question one asks about study 2, scan until you find study 2 then look for the information needed to answer the question.

Most questions require interpretation of information and your ability to recognize patterns.  Do the readings increase as temperatures go up?  Is there a correlation between length and pressure?  Do the results in example 1 support or contradict the results in example 2?  Look for connections and patterns, but don’t try to understand all the details.  You don’t need them to answer questions correctly.

When you can limit your focus to read question, find relevant info in the chart, compare answer choices, pick the best match, you will increase your accuracy, answer more questions, and improve your score.  Often you do not need to fully understand the passage to search out the information being tested. Remember whatever you don’t finish get the “letter of the day!”

The Single Best Strategy To Improve Your ACT Score

Your ACT score is based on how many questions you answer correctly in each of the four graded sections.  Unlike the SAT, the ACT does not deduct any points for wrong answers, so it benefits you to answer as many questions as possible.

Here’s the key to improving your ACT score:  answering everything doesn’t mean you have to attempt every question.  Accuracy is essential.

Some students make the mistake of attempting every question.  This only makes sense if you are already an exceptional test taker scoring in the top 90%.  If you are trying to earn a 28 or higher on any section, go ahead and work every question; you’ve already proven your ability to dominate the test.

Most students who attempt all questions end up rushing to finish and making careless mistakes along the way.  In their hurry to complete every question, their overall accuracy is diminished. You will do better to focus on accuracy which means you will probably have a number of questions that you either don’t know how to do or do not have time to finish.

I’m suggesting you slow down and focus on your target.  Take time to spot each question, line up your sights, and attack.  You become the sniper picking off ACT questions for points.  Most students use a buckshot method.  They hurry through the test shooting at every question in desperation to hit points.  They get some, but miss more because they never take the extra few seconds to line up a shot.

Slow down and strive to get all the questions you answer right.  You may be able to complete four of the five English passages (60 of 75 questions), 45 of 60 math questions, three of the four reading passages (30 of 40 questions), or six of seven science passages (35 of 40 questions) with this type of focused accuracy.  Now you are earning more points than you ever did before.

But what about the questions you don’t complete?  Aren’t these wasted points?  (Here’s where this strategy is exceptional.)  For any question you don’t do, fill in your “letter of the day.”  Pick a letter A, B, C, or D that you will use for every question for the entire test. (Only math has five answer choices, so E isn’t a good choice.) If you pick one letter and stick with it for the entire test, you will get some of your guesses right, statistically, 1 in every 4.

There is no better letter.  Pick your favorite and bubble straight down the line for every question you don’t know how to solve or don’t have time to work.  If you used different letters for each guess, you could get them all wrong.  You won’t get all of your “Letter of the Day” guesses right, but with four answers to choose from, you are bound to get some additional points.

Before you take the actual test, get a free, full-length practice test from your school counselor. Take the practice test timed and evaluate your results.

So now you are earning more points by targeting the questions you can focus on and solve correctly and for every hard question you don’t have time to attempt, you have a 1 in 4 chance of getting it right by guessing.  This is the single best strategy to improve your ACT score no matter what subject you are attempting.