ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites
Articles / Preparing for College / The Most Common ACT Math Subject, And How to Solve Its Tricky Questions

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

Rob Franek
Written by Rob Franek | March 27, 2019
The Most Common ACT Math Subject, And How to Solve Its Tricky Questions

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 ACT Prep for more in-depth strategies and practice tests.

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



Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

More on Preparing for College

See all

Moving Away from Home for College: The Tales of an International Student in Boston

Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, I was used to small-town living. I attended an international boarding school as a day …


2023 AP Exam Score Distributions

This year’s AP Scores have been released and Trevor Packer, head of the Advanced Placement Program has shared the details of this…

SummerApply_Article Headers

10 Summer Programs Still Open For Applications

Summer is here, marking one of the best times for motivated high schoolers to enroll in summer programs where they can diversify …


Summer STEM Prep: Start Strong and Avoid These Common Pitfalls

College-level STEM programs are notoriously rigorous, and getting off to a strong start can make a huge difference for students w…


A Solid Résumé is Worth the Effort for More Reasons Than You Can Imagine

Building a strong personal résumé in your first years of high school is recommended by counselors, college & university admis…

Get a student loan that goes beyond tuition.

Ascent offers cosigned and non-cosigned student loans with exclusive benefits that set students up for success.

Explore Now!
Find Your Scholarship

Want to find money for school that doesn’t need to be paid back? Access insights and advice on how to search and apply for scholarships!

Search for Scholarship