The ACT math section has 60 questions and it’s scored by giving you one point for each question answered correctly. There is no penalty for guessing on ACT Math.
If you leave an answer blank you get 0 points; whereas, if you guess the best possible answer, you have a chance of getting it correct and earning the point. You just need to increase your odds of guessing correctly – and know when it’s appropriate to guess – to maximize your score.
This article will teach you different ways to approach problems commonly seen on the ACT math test, and provide ways for you to “guess” the correct answer if you aren’t confident that you know the right one.
How to guess on ACT Math
Guessing is not always a great strategy on the ACT. You shouldn’t go into the test with a guessing mindset, but should you find yourself taking the test and completely stuck on a question, there’s a place for (educated) guessing.
But when is it actually appropriate to guess an answer on ACT Math? And how do you narrow down your guesses to improve your chances of getting the right answer?
You shouldn’t just guess every time you feel a little bit intimidated answering an ACT Math question. That’s a bad strategy because if you get easily intimidated by taking tests you can negatively impact your score, even if you are a fantastic, smart, awesome person.
But sometimes it is better to pick an answer based on educated guessing than to pick nothing because the ACT does not penalize you for selecting a wrong answer.
Yes, you read that right! There’s no score penalty for incorrect answers, so you should always put an answer no matter what.
So the goal is to answer every question on the ACT Math test and make the most informed guesses when you have to.
When it’s appropriate to guess on the ACT Math test
Let’s first talk about the three times when it’s appropriate to guess an answer on the ACT Math test.
When it’s time to move on to a new question
The first time you should resort to making an educated guess on the ACT is when you need to move on to a new question so you don’t fun our of time.
The ACT is really difficult with regard to pacing (that’s why you take at least one ACT practice test with a tutor). The math section of the ACT is 60 minutes long, with 60 questions, so that’s about 1 minute per problem. This can help you prepare so that you know when to guess and know when to dig into a problem and spend some extra time.
Try to eliminate a couple of answer choices before you make a guess. Just by reading the question thoroughly, you have probably already narrowed it down to the best of your ability and have an answer in mind. If you’re still unsure, that’s a good time to guess.
Why? You must move on to other questions on the exam in order to pace your time appropriately and complete the test. Just a basic heads-up; students taking the ACT regularly run out of time on the Math section.
When you have run out of time
Another time when it’s okay to guess is when you are completely out of time to finish the entire test.
If you completely run out of time on the test, or your test proctors have called the 5-minute warning, and you have a handful of unanswered questions left, guessing strategically can give you an advantage. You should, at the very least, be sure you’ve filled in a bubble on your test sheet for every question.
Don’t panic and just pick your favorite letter and bubble in the whole column for all of the remaining problems. Take time to quickly reread the questions and narrow down your choices, and make the best possible guesses.
Remember: it’s appropriate and imperative to fill in something for each question on the ACT Math test, because there are no points deducted for an incorrect answer, but there are points added for each question you answer correctly…even if you just guessed.
When you’re faced with a time-consuming question
The third time when you can strategically guess on ACT Math questions is when you have a question that will take you longer than one minute to work through.
This guessing strategy is a bit more sophisticated in the sense that you have to know what time consuming questions look like (which you’ve hopefully learned in your ACT prep lessons leading up to the test). In general, on the ACT Math test, pattern questions, word problems, and problems for which you don’t completely remember the formulas can be considered time-consuming questions.
Here’s a rule of thumb: if a question takes two or three times longer to complete than the ones before or after it, then skip the question and come back at the end of the test to answer it when you have time. If you still don’t have time to come back and work through the question thoroughly to find the correct answer, then make an educated guess based on the information you do have at your disposal.
Guessing strategically on the ACT Math test
Sure, you could just bubble in your favorite letter for each guess and hope for the best, but there are some ways to make sure your guesses may actually lead you to picking up the point for an ACT Math question.
Use process of elimination
You have likely been using the process of elimination for most of your life, and this skill is super handy for the ACT. Out of all the answer choices presented to you on ACT Math questions, one or two are typically completely preposterous. Try to eliminate one or two answers quickly that just don’t make sense, because if you’re right, your guess is statistically more likely to be the correct answer.
Eyeball the diagrams
Diagrams on the ACT Math test are useful in guessing the correct answer even if you aren’t sure how to solve the problem. If you need to calculate a dimension of a shape, for example, consider how large that dimension looks compared to other parts of the diagram that are already labeled. In doing this, you can ensure that your answer makes logical sense.
In the ACT math section, though questions state that the pictures are not necessarily drawn to scale for geometry, they usually are. You can typically look at a diagram or picture on the test and eyeball it to help you eliminate incorrect answer options.
For word problems, it’s similar. If a question asks you, for example, the speed at which someone runs and you need to find half that speed, eyeball the answers and pick out which ones are clearly incorrect.
You can often work backward to find the correct answers to math problems on the ACT test, even if you’re not sure of the actual solution method.
This can take longer than just solving the problem the old-fashioned way, so it shouldn’t be your first move. But if you’re stumped, then plugging in possible answers and working backward to the question is a viable way to solve problems successfully.
Plug In Your Own Numbers
For questions that ask you to simplify an expression or find an equivalent equation to the one given in the problem, you can try making up your own numbers for each of the letters/variables in the problem, then plug them into the original equation/expression.
Then plug the same numbers that you made up into every answer choice. If you’re correct, only one answer choice will work with the expression/equation in the question. That’s your correct answer and you didn’t have to do any algebra!
If more than one answer choice gives the correct answer, however, then you will need to pick different numbers and try again. Avoid using 0’s, and 1’s when picking your own numbers. Weird things happen in math sometimes with these numbers and you’ll find they won’t help you in this guessing strategy.
Memorize Important Formulas
The ACT doesn’t give you a list of math formulas like the SAT, so you need to prepare for the test well and know the most commonly used ACT Math formulas off the top of your head. Knowing the formulas will help you choose correct answers, of course, but can also help you eliminate incorrect ones.
Make sure you take a bit of time to review this list of ACT math formulas before the test.
Understand what’s on the test and prep with a tutor
Topics covered in typical high school math classes are all found on the ACT. To be more specific, the ACT Math section usually breaks down into 6 questions types:
- Elementary algebra
- Intermediate algebra
- Plane geometry
- Coordinate geometry
An expert ACT tutor takes the guesswork out of preparing for each and every one of these concepts, and will help you isolate what you most need help mastering so you score as high as possible on test day.
For a more detailed breakdown of each type of math on the ACT and how many questions of each type are on the exam, check out this link.
How terrible would it be if you showed up to the ACT and you couldn’t use the calculator you brought on the test?
In general, the ACT clarifies that all test-takers can use “any 4-function, scientific, or graphing calculator, as long as it is not on the prohibited list and it is modified, if needed.”
Your best option is to use a calculator for the ACT Math test that you’ve used before. Yes, you could use your older sibling’s expensive graphing calculator. But if you’ve never used it before, you’ll be spending precious time struggling to calculate the basics (or just to find the “equal” button). While all of the ACT Math questions can be solved without a calculator, it’s a resource you want to use to your advantage!
A quick note: bring extra batteries or make sure your calculator is charged! The only thing worse than bringing a prohibited calculator is bringing a dead calculator.
Prepping smart for the ACT
There’s no better or more efficient way to max out your ACT scores than by working alongside an experience tutor to prepare. An ACT prep tutor can help you discover your strengths, strengthen your weaknesses, and set you up for success on the math section and every other part of your exam.
However you prepare, now you’re ready to make educated guesses on difficult questions on your ACT Math test. Go get those points!