Test Prep

The Most Common ACT Math Subject, And How to Solve Its Tricky Questions

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While most of the ACT can be tackled without prior classroom knowledge, the Math test is a slightly different beast. As the writers of the test point out, the Math portion is content heavy, assessing the concepts you’ve learned in your high school Math classes. The breakdown of the section’s 60 questions looks like this:

- Algebra: 33 questions


- Geometry: 23 questions

- Trigonometry: 4 questions

Notice anything? (There’s something important in those numbers!) The Math test on the ACT is over half Algebra, and aside from a few questions dealing with Trig, the rest is Geometry. That should help inform your ACT prep when it comes time to double down on your Math skills.

Now, there’s really no substitute for a solid knowledge of Math fundamentals. But a good understanding of what to expect on the ACT can go a long way, and knowing the main types of Algebra problems you’ll face is no exception. I hear time and time again that the questions students find the trickiest are those most often referred to as "word problems."

Word problems are longer and place the math content in the context of a real-life setting. I’m sure you’ve seen these before:

The students in an after-school program are splitting into small groups in order to work on different assignments. 3/8 of the class works on a worksheet. 1/5 of the remaining students work on a lab. 1/4 of the remaining students work on a presentation. 5/6 of the remaining students work on creating a video game. The remaining students read silently to themselves. If there are 64 students in the after-school program, how many students read silently to themselves?

A. 4

B. 8

C. 24

D. 32

E. 40

When dealing with a word problem, here are the steps I recommend using to solve it:

1. Know the question. Read the whole problem before calculating anything. If you dive right in and start doing what you think you’d need to for a given problem, you could be wasting time only to realize by the end of the question that it’s asking you to do something other than what you may have thought at first. To avoid this, underline the actual question when you find it and go from there. Above, the question asks how many students read silently to themselves?

2. Let the answers help. Look for clues on how to solve and ways to use POE (Process of Elimination). Keep in mind some other useful ACT Math strategies that can help guide your approach, like starting in the middle of a set of ordered answer choices or what to do with a list of choices that includes or excludes variables. For the above questions, the answer choices are all numbers. That means it would make sense to start with the actual number in the question, 64, rather than trying to deal with all the fractions first.

3. Break the problem into bite-sized pieces. Once you know what you’re expected to do for a given problem, you can slow down your approach by breaking it into bite-sized pieces. This might seem counterintuitive (why would you want to make more work on the ACT?!) but doing so can help you avoid any tricky phrasing the test makers might throw your way. In the above question, work each fraction one at a time, and watch out for the word “remaining.”

With a good chunk of the difficulty you’ll face on ACT Math section consisting of word problems, now you’ll be on your way to rocking test day. But be sure to catch up on all of our go-to ACT approaches and check out our book Cracking the ACT for more in-depth strategies and practice tests.

P.S. The answer to the above question is (A).

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