SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The Secret to ACT Math: Mastering the Time Crunch

Posted by Courtney Montgomery | Jul 30, 2016 9:00:00 AM

ACT Math


The ACT is a complex test that requires both an understanding of how the test works and a strategic approach to beat. The more you know about the secrets of each section, the better you'll be at maximizing your overall point-gain and getting the scores you want. And today we're here to walk you through how to do your very best on the ACT math section.

Each subject section requires its own unique approach, and the ACT math section can give even some of the highest math achievers a run for their money. But luckily we’re here to help! We'll take you through the most important strategy you’ll need to know and teach you how to conquer the ACT math section once and for all.


ACT Math Basics

Before we talk strategy, it’s crucial that you understand exactly what the ACT math section looks like and how it’s structured.

The ACT math section is—like all the ACT subject sections—complete and contained. This means that there is only one math section in the entire test, and you cannot come back to it once the time is complete. You must maintain your focus during your allotted time, as you will get only one chance to do well on your math section per ACT.

Every ACT will give you 60 math questions in 60 minutesan average of one minute per question—and the questions get more and more difficult as you go. So questions 1-10 will be fairly simple and quick to complete, while questions 50-60 will be considerably more difficult. 

Don't be alarmed if completing 60 math questions in 60 minutes sounds like a tricky prospect! This is a fast paced test for almost all students, but coming prepared and knowing the secrets for how to tackle the math section will help you to raise those scores.


The Secret to Doing Well on the ACT Math Section

Long story short? The biggest hurdle of the ACT math section is the time crunch.

If allowed to take the test at a leisurely pace, many students find that they only miss a small number of ACT math questions (either from misunderstanding the question or because of a lack of math content knowledge). But putting students on such a fast clock tends to ratchet up anxiety, leads students to make sloppy mistakes, and can make even the most level-headed student forget how to work through familiar problems.

Keep in mind that many students do not finish the math section in the allotted 60 minutes. The test is purposefully designed so that a large number of students don’t make it to the end of the section having read and answered each question. So don’t feel like you’ve done something wrong if you can’t complete your math section before the time is up. 

The secret to doing well on the ACT math section lies in mastering your timing. You must keep track of the clock, develop a timing plan before the test (and stick to it!), and walk that fine balance between speed and accuracy. After all, if you can reach the end of your 60 questions but get 33% of them wrong due to sloppy errors, then you’re no better off than had you slowed down and answered the first 40 questions perfectly

Do keep in mind that you won't have any kind of outside force to help you measure your time or keep track of the progression of that 60 minutes, so definitely bring a watch (or at least keep careful track of the classroom clock).

Your best friend during the ACT.


How to Improve Your ACT Math Performance

Because the secret to doing well on the ACT math section is all about your timing, you'll want to have a game plan and timing schedule worked out before test day. Your timing schedule will be based on your practice performance, your personal math pace, and your scoring goals, so don't worry if your game plan looks different than anyone else's. Keep focused on how you, and you alone, can maximize your ACT math section point gain. 

To begin, break the math section into chunks and set timing goals for completing each one. (Note that your timing will be something to fine tune as you complete your study regimen and as you take your practice tests. Over time, you will improve and will have to tweak your final timing, which is why practicing and keeping track of your progress over time is essential.)

It's simplest to break the math section into three parts: the first 20 questions (“easy”), questions 21-40 (“medium”), and questions 41 - 60 (“hard”), and allot a specific amount of time to each section. 

We'll break down more specific timing strategies based on your current and ideal scores below, but there is still one tip to keep in mind for all scorers: because the question difficulty increases in ascending order, it’s not optimal to give each math section (easy, medium, hard) the same amount of time. You'll instead make the most out of your time if you give yourself less time for the first section, spend the majority of your time on the middle section, and dedicate the remaining time to the last section. 

As you try your timing techniques, experiment by increasing your pace until the point at which your accuracy significantly drops off. Then back up a step from there. Maybe you only need 10 minutes to accurately answer the first 20 questions, or maybe you need 20 or 25 minutes. You’ll find your best pace through trial and error, so take our timing schedules as a baseline with which to start.

Now, depending on what your score goals are, let's see how this works in action by breaking down the timing into more detail and setting those baselines.


For Students Aiming for a Score of ≤ 26

If you're looking to get a maximum score of 26, then your best bet is to ignore those last 20 "hard" questions altogether. Focus your attention and your timing strategies on the first 40 questions only. This will maximize your chances for getting those first 40 questions correct, while still leaving you an opportunity to gain out a handful of points in the "hard" section.

(How will you still earn points from questions 41-60? Make sure you always guess on any question you don't know the answer to. For more information about how to make the most of your guesswork, check out the best strategy for "blind" guessing on the ACT.)

By focusing your time and attention on the first 40 questions alone, you'll be able to slow down and give each question your best shot. Start by breaking your timing down into three chunks like so:

Questions 1-20: 25 minutes

Questions 21-40: 32 minutes

Questions 41-60: 3 minutes (just to fill in the bubbles)

Again, your timing will change over time and you can feel free to tweak it here and there as it suits you, but take this as a place to begin your timing strategy. 


For Students Aiming for a Score of 26 - 30

If you're aiming for a mid-high score in the 26-30 range, you'll focus most of your time on the first 50 questions and give yourself a relatively short amount of time for the last 10. 

Start by breaking down your timing into the following chunks: 

Questions 1-20: 15 minutes

Questions 21-40: 25 minutes

Questions 41 - 60: 20 minutes

It may feel strange not to give yourself the most time on the difficult section, but remember that each question is worth the same amount of points (one). Slowing down to maximize your point gain in the mid-level section can often garner you more points overall than trying to speed through the test or spending too much time attempting to answer the most difficult questions.

Because you're focusing most of your attention on the first 50 questions, just skim the last 10 questions and select the ones you feel you can do quickly and accurately. Allot yourself 5-10 minutes for questions 51-60, but don’t approach them one-by-one in order. Instead, take a minute or two to briefly look over each question and mark the ones you feel that you can do (or even just the ones you know enough about to be able to eliminate an answer choice or two). Answer the ones you marked as best you can and make your best blind guesses for the rest.

By sacrificing some of your short remaining time to selecting the easiest or most familiar questions of the last 10, you will be able to maximize your overall points. And it will help prevent you from taking on a question that will occupy too much of your limited time, effort, and concentration.


For Students Aiming for a Score of ≥ 31

If you're aiming for a score of 31 or above, you'll need to look at and (at least attempt to) answer every question on the ACT math section. Though you'll still want to dedicate the slight majority of your time to the middle 20 questions of the test, you'll need to minimize your time spend on the first 20 questions and increase your time for the last 20 as much as you comfortably can. 

But why spend the majority of your time in the middle section still? Doing well on the ACT is a constant balance between speed and accuracy. Questions 21-40 are where the test shifts gears and these questions can be deceptive, often appearing "easier" than they actually are. 

If you can maintain accuracy in the first 40 questions while going faster, then feel free to do so. But try this timing schedule to start:

Questions 1-20: 12 minutes

Questions 21-40: 25 minutes

Questions 41 - 60: 23 minutes 

Always keep in mind that your job is to maximize your overall points, so don’t get hung up on any one question. Learning how and when to move on from a question is all about being strict with your timing and paying attention to how you’re using it.


Mastering the ACT is a matter of strategy. Take the time to prepare beforehand and you'll have the edge.


Conclusion: Mastering ACT Math Timing

For most students, the "math" part of the ACT math section isn't actually the most difficult aspect of the test—it's the time crunch. If you were allowed to take the test in as leisurely a manner as you wanted, you'd probably shock yourself with how high you scored. Thus learning how to master the timing of the test is priority one. 

Everyone will develop their own personal timing paces, but starting your practice with a baseline timing strategy is crucial. Start with one of our schedules, based on your current and projected scores, and then finagle it until you find the best balance between speed and accuracy you can manage. Stick to your plan on test day and then celebrate, because you rocked that ACT math section!


What's Next?

Want to know the number one secrets for success on the other ACT subjects? Check out the top strategies for conquering the ACT science, reading, and writing sections.

Need more ACT math section study help? We've put together a complete list of all the ACT math study you could possibly need, all in one place. 

Don't know where to get your practice materials? Check out our complete list of where to get your free ACT practice tests.


Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points? 

Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.

Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this Math lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

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Courtney Montgomery
About the Author

Courtney scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT in high school and went on to graduate from Stanford University with a degree in Cultural and Social Anthropology. She is passionate about bringing education and the tools to succeed to students from all backgrounds and walks of life, as she believes open education is one of the great societal equalizers. She has years of tutoring experience and writes creative works in her free time.

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