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Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

Five ACT Math Mistakes to Avoid

The ACT Math test is designed to be tricky, and with good reason. How else could a standardized test take knowledge usually required of all high school students and apply it in a way that makes it extremely difficult for anyone to get a perfect score?


The test aims to not only measure your knowledge of basic math, but also assess your ability to apply this knowledge in new and complex ways. Sometimes, a question will even test your ability to understand what it’s asking or break down a seemingly complex question into simple steps. In order to make simple questions difficult, the test intentionally makes it easy for simple mistakes to really add up. Even just getting two questions wrong can sometimes be the difference between a perfect score of 36 and a score of 34.


So how do you minimize your chances of committing these costly errors? By knowing what mistakes most commonly trip up ACT test-takers again and again, you can prepare your defenses against them. In this post, we’ll outline the top five ACT Math mistakes that we see over and over, and we give our best advice on how you can avoid them.   

1. Not Using Your Calculator Effectively


Although you are technically allowed to use an approved calculator on the entire ACT Math test, ACT also states that calculators are not necessary to complete any of it. In other words, the entire ACT Math test can be completed without the use of a calculator, so your calculator should be used to improve your efficiency and accuracy, not to solve problems about which you otherwise have no clue.


Be careful not to overuse your calculator. Trying to use it on every question will not only slow you down, but also increase your chances of making a careless calculator mistake.


As you complete practice tests before you actual test day, be sure to devote at least one math practice test to evaluating your use of a calculator. Make a mark next to each question that you use your calculator on, and when you’re finished, evaluate which types of questions you marked most frequently. If you are always using your calculator on a particular question type, this may be an area of content knowledge that needs more practice.


When you do use your calculator, keep track of its use by making some quick notations as you solve the problem. This way, if you arrive at an answer that is not among the answer choices, you can go back through your notations to find your error without having to start completely from scratch.


Finally, before you fill in any answer, be sure that the answer makes sense or “feels right”. Some answer choices might represent common calculator errors, like adding instead of multiplying, and you will be more likely to catch these if you give your answer one final mental check before filling it in.

2. Not Knowing Required Formulas


The ACT Math test is one for which you can and should study specific materials. While the SAT provides a list of formulas and references for use on the test, the ACT requires that you know all of these in advance and can apply them independently.


Before the test day, you will need to make sure that you’ve memorized all of the common formulas required on the test. For more information about what specific formulas you should know, check out the CollegeVine post A Guide to the Math Section of the ACT.


Because these formulas mostly require rote memorization, flashcards or quizzes can be particularly helpful for learning them. You can create your own series of flashcards to use by yourself, or give them to a friend or family member to get some help studying.


Alternatively, there are many ACT Math Quizlets already available for free use. If you do choose to use these, remember that they were created mostly by students just like you, so you should check them for errors before studying too seriously.

3. Not Pacing Yourself


The ACT Math Test is extremely fast-paced. You will have to answer 60 high-level math questions in only 60 minutes.


It can be tempting to think of this pacing as an even 60 seconds per question, but don’t fall into this trap. The ACT Math test is roughly ordered by difficulty, which means that questions generally found to be easier will appear at the beginning of the test, while questions that are usually found more difficult will be towards the end of the test. Of course, these are only rough guidelines since the difficulty of each question for you will vary according to your personal strengths and weaknesses. In general, though, you will find that easier questions come first.


For this reason, we recommend moving more quickly at the beginning of the test, thereby allowing more time for the questions that you find later on the test. Try to spend only 30 seconds on each question at the beginning of the test, 60 seconds on the questions in the middle of the test, and 90 seconds on the questions towards the end. Of course, you should take enough practice tests that you know if this pace works for you, and if it doesn’t, come up with a target pace that does. Your target pace should be the one that maximizes your scoring potential on your practice tests.    


Finally, you can maximize your efficiency by skipping questions that immediately seem too difficult or too complex, and coming back to them later. This is sometimes called a triage strategy. To employ it, you go through the test at your target pace, but if you arrive at a question that seems impossible or if after about 10 seconds you still have no idea where to start, you mark your best guess and circle the question number before moving on. If at the end of the test you have more time, you go back through the circled questions and try to solve them again. At the very least, you’ve filled in a guess, so you have a 20% chance of getting the question correct. At worst, you get the question wrong but by skipping it, you allowed yourself more time on the questions that you’re likely to get right. 

4. Careless Errors


This is one of the most common ways to unnecessarily lose points on the ACT Math test, and there are countless ways for it to happen to you. Careless errors are actually something that the ACT counts on you making. That’s how answer choices are chosen. Remember, only one answer choice can be correct. In order to make the test difficult, the other answer choices typically reflect the most common careless mistakes you might make in solving the problem.


These careless errors commonly include ignoring the order of operations, not distributing negative signs, or solving for the wrong value. For example, sometimes a question will ask you to solve for 2y instead of y. In this case, you can be almost certain that one of the answer choices will represent y and that students who aren’t paying close attention to the question will be likely to select that answer.


While you will need to move through the test at a quick pace, don’t move so quickly that you can’t pay attention to the small details. Always double check your work and make sure that you are answering the question as it is stated.

5. Not Filling in Your Answers Correctly


This is the worst possible case scenario but also a feasible way to go from a score of 36 to 1 by making only one mistake. You could get every single answer correct, but if you fill in your answers incorrectly on the answer sheet, you’ll receive no credit for them. There are two ways we recommend to ensure that you don’t fill in the wrong bubbles on your answer sheet. 


First, if you choose to fill in each answer as you come to it, you will need to double check the question number with the answer number every time you fill in a bubble. After you arrive at the answer, take the extra second to glance at the question number. Then locate the question number on your answer sheet and fill it in. This sounds simple enough, but you’d be surprised how many students simply bubble in the next row on the answer sheet without checking that they haven’t skipped a row or question accidentally.


The other method for ensuring that your answers are filled in correctly is to answer all questions in your test booklet first, and then fill in the answer sheet at the end of the test. This strategy is fairly high risk, so you will need to decide if it works for you personally before employing it. For students who find that they can account for this method in their pacing, it can ultimately save both time and careless answer sheet mistakes. But if you aren’t cognizant of time during testing, it could spell disaster.


To employ this method, you will solve each question in your test booklet and circle the answer in the test booklet itself. Don’t even bother looking at your answer sheet; you are trying to conserve time by not flipping back and forth. You will need to be confident in your pacing to effectively employ this method, and you’ll need to be willing to abandon your test and start filling in your answers with about three to four minutes remaining, regardless of how many questions you haven’t reached.


After you’ve completed all the questions or you’re nearing your time limit, you then focus 100% of your energy on taking the answers from the test booklet and filling each in on your answer sheet. By focusing on this after you’ve answered the questions, you don’t have to shift your thinking back and forth and can devote all of your attention to making sure that your answer sheet is filled in correctly.


Again, you’ll need to be absolutely certain that this approach works with your test pacing, but if it does, it can be an effective way to manage your answer sheet. if you choose to employ this strategy, keep a close eye on the time during the test, even if you were able to complete the test well under the time limit in practice rounds. Bring a watch and know exactly when you need to start filling in your answer sheet. If you don’t have time to solve all the questions, you need to at least fill in an answer for each one. A guess is always better than a question left blank.   


The ACT Math Test is designed to trip you up, but there are many ways for you to be smarter than the test. Use the tips above to avoid the most common mistakes we see on the ACT Math Test and go into your test day with more confidence that you’ll achieve your target score. 


To learn more about the ACT test, check out these CollegeVine posts:


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.