Preparing for the ACT, SAT Math Sections: Advice From an Expert

tackling the ACT SAT Math Section

Preparing for the ACT, SAT Math Sections: Advice From an Expert

Published March 28, 2018

tackling the ACT SAT Math Section

There are lots of ways to prepare for the ACT and SAT: private tutoring, classes, online videos, and books, but if you don’t have a good understanding of the test basics BEFORE you enter that testing site, it may not matter what you know. You need to build a good strategy.

We recently spoke with “Tutor Extraordinaire,” Bobby Hood, of NoodlePros, who gave us a rundown of the Math portion of both the ACT and SAT. Here’s a recap of our discussion with Bobby…

How do the SAT and ACT differ in WHAT they test?

SAT — Heavily, more than half, is focused on Algebra 1 and  2, plus a good assortment of other standard arithmetic: averages, medians, percentages, etc. PLUS, a very small amount of Geometry and Trigonometry. (So, students who are not strong in Geometry, may prefer the SAT.)

ACT — Tests at a higher level and rewards you for a lot of hard material that you will learn later on: 40% Algebra, 30% Geometry/Trig, and 30% of the assortment of other arithmetic. (Students who are stronger in Geometry and like questions about matrices, logarithms, and unit circles may prefer the ACT.)

There are generally, only 3 or 4 questions of actual Trig in either test.

What are the ACTUAL differences between the ACT and SAT?

ACT: 60 questions — 20 Easy, 20 Medium, 20 Hard (Calculator is allowed throughout.)

Students are given roughly 1 minute to do each question. (Students who have a hard time focusing, could be challenged by this.)

Keeping in mind how the structure of the test works, hypothetically, a student could “breeze” through the Easy and Medium questions and score a 27 on the Math.  If that same student goes through the Hard section and picks out 4 or 5 more questions to ace, that score could jump up to a 29.

SAT: 58 questions — Looks scarier than it is! There are 2 Math Sections,  (one with and one without a calculator, which could pose problems for some students).

“No calculator allowed” section has a level of difficulty that goes from Easy to Hard on questions 1-15, and then Easy to Hard once again for the last 5 (fill-in) questions, so students should keep in mind that the last set of questions gets progressively harder, but starts out easy.

“Calculator allowed” section contains 38 questions —30 multiple choice questions (Easy, Medium, and Hard) and 8 fill-in questions (again, Easy to Hard).

As far as calculators go, Bobby recommends the TI84 calculator, but suggest that you make sure the calculator you have will be accepted. (That means, ask about it.) And, don’t pick test day to try out a new calculator. Make sure you know how it works and that you’re comfortable with it before you head to the test center.

How should students study for the SAT and ACT?

Take a practice test first and make a checklist. Once you get your score, check off which category you have to work on the most. Bobby explains that the method of study and prep work will differ depending upon your math knowledge and level. A median SAT score below 1,000 and an ACT score below 20 indicates that there are still concepts in Algebra and Geometry that the student will need remedial help with before moving on with any test-taking strategies. In this situation, he recommends going over prep books and listening to Khan Academy videos.

It is expected that students at the higher level, scoring at the very top, will merely need to quickly brush up on some concepts, most likely with a tutor.

Strategy tips for standardized tests

When you open the test, know that you can do these questions in whatever order you prefer. Acknowledge that there are going to be some questions you can answer, some you should answer correctly, and some that you won’t answer correctly. Make a first pass through the Math section, and tackle every question you look at that you can do quickly. As you turn the page, bubble in the answers. In the second pass through, tackle any of the problems that you left behind during the first run-through because you knew they would require more time. What should be left will be the questions that you know you don’t know, and make an educated guess on those. If there are a few minutes left, go back and see if there is something else you can fix or change, but remember, fill in EVERY bubble!

What’s the minimum level of math someone should have under their belt before they take the ACT or SAT?

Once you have been exposed to Trig (unit circles), you can get pretty much every question on the test, but traditionally, the time is right while you’re taking Algebra 2 or right after.

Anything you would recommend to the student who considers himself to be an “average” math student?

If you’re getting below the median, one good resource for base-level help is called Math Smart. Alternatively, watch Khan Academy videos (first, “Solving an Algebra Problem,” then move on to “Solving Systems and Equations,” and so forth) and go through the list of topics. If you’re just above the median, refer to Princeton Review’sCracking the SAT Test in Math 2.” Once you’ve gotten to the level of scoring 550-600 on the SAT or 24 on the ACT, you can always take a class or go straight to a tutor. Once the student knows the basics, only THEN should he or she work with a tutor.

Tricks for handling the ACT or SAT math section

The key is not just how do you solve this particular question, but how do you recognize the pattern?

Word problems…work backwards. Go straight to the end of the problem first and find out what is being asked for. Go piece by piece through the problem and map it out.

The cornerstone of all math standardized test preparation is the method of plugging in 4 variables. Every student, no matter how strong they are, should be doing this, and if you can, buy a practice book that follows that philosophy.

Math Subject Test tips

This test is hard! It has 50 questions, but you can still get a perfect score even if you miss ten of them. Most of the schools that require the Math Level 2 Subject Test are the elite schools, and these tests align closely with what you learned in school. Princeton Review Cracking” books are perfect for the subject tests. While you’re taking Calculus or right after you finish it is when you should be taking the test, so that the material is fresh in your mind.

Bottom Line:

The goal of tutoring is to get a high score on your test. There is no such thing as a “good test taker” or a “bad test taker.” Knowing the material, being mindful, and managing your anxiety level will all help. Certain factors can definitely limit some students’ test-taking abilities, but very few students can just walk into a test cold and get a perfect score. (And to those who can, more power to them!)

The tests are designed for students to “mess up,” but once they know the patterns they can overcome that. A “good test taker” is someone who has mastered a certain amount of the material and gets all the test questions pertaining to that material correct. The goal is NOT to miss those questions, and if you do (can you say, “dumb mistakes?” ), then you know exactly what you’ve got to work on to NOT miss them in the future. If you correctly answer some of the questions that you did not really know, that’s a BONUS. As Bobby says, “Get right whatever you’re supposed to get right, based on your knowledge, and be proud of the score you get as a result of that.”








To hear more from Bobby Hood and the ACT and SAT, watch the Facebook Live here: 

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