Why was my math score lower?

Hi! I took the ACT for the first time earlier this month and got my results back yesterday. I (a sophomore) got a 35 in reading, 34 in English, 32 in science, and 29 in math. These are good scores and I am happy with them, but I am a bit confused. In school and state testing, I do better in math than English/reading, I enjoy math and science a lot more than English, and I studied for the math section way more than anything else. Is this a common occurrence or did I probably just get nervous and make careless mistakes? Any tips for next time? I am currently in gifted precalculus if that makes a difference. I took algebra 2 and geometry last year, and I took algebra 1 in 8th grade.

My kids had tutors who taught them strategies, went over problems they got wrong, told them why they made the mistakes. Definitely go over wrong answers on practice tests.


Thank you!

Did you prepare for the exam? If not I suggest you get a review book and prep for the math section.

As a test prep tutor, here are my thoughts on the most common reasons kids mess up on tests that they expect to do well on.

  1. By far, running out of time on the ACT is the most common reason kids don’t do as well as they hoped to.

  2. They think they know the subject already, so don’t need to prep. (I tutor the verbal sections, and many of my students come to me after bombing reading and/or English on one or two tests. They think they already know those things, so they don’t study much.)

  3. They don’t pay enough attention to the earlier, easier questions (questions generally progress in difficulty) and don’t realize they’ve done them wrong, and spend too much time on the harder questions that they might get wrong anyway. They fail to understand that the easy point is worth as much as the hard point. Get as many easy ones correct as you can.

  4. They rush at the end, ESPECIALLY with the ACT. Then they do any number of things: panic because they think they are not getting the right answers on the hard ones; careless bubbling in by putting the wrong answer in the wrong number, or by just messing up; not eliminating answers or not checking answers; leaving answers blank because they figured they would go back and do that one later.

Being good at math, or English, or just taking tests at school doesn’t mean you’re good at taking the ACT. It’s not like a regular test in school.

Have a look at this post if you decide to test again: Common sense tips to help raise your SAT/ACT score


I prepared a little but not much. I planned to use this test as a baseline because it was my first time and I’m a sophomore.

Thanks! I studied for math and I finished it, but I am pretty sure I did 3 and 4 really badly.

Not sure what you mean by 3 and 4?

You got 29 in math, which isn’t bad, but you clearly messed up somewhere when considering your other scores. I think you could improve your science score too.

I wish people would stop taking official tests for a “baseline” or as practice, when it’s going to be on their record. Practice at home or at the library using official tests from the ACT study guide or online. Prep first. Watch your time. Familiarize yourself with the test. If your parents can afford it, get a private tutor for a session or two to help you learn tricks in the math section.

I advise you not to take it again until you’re good and ready, and please, don’t just consider an official test sitting as a practice. It’s on your record and it’s a waste of time and money if you’re not really ready to take it.


Ok! I meant 3 and 4 as in numbers 3 and 4 on your list of things I could have done wrong. I did study for this test and take practice tests, I just didn’t get a tutor or take a prep course, that’s what I meant by baseline. I will take a prep course before taking it again though.

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Got it.

Can I suggest you save money and get a few sessions with a private tutor? Really. Test prep courses are very expensive. A good tutor will look at your math score, see where you need help, and target those areas. You don’t need a whole course, just extra help on the math section of the ACT.


Ok! Thanks. What would be a good studying timeline to take it again this summer? Or should I just wait until mid-junior year and only take it one more time? I also want to improve my science by a point or two. My goal is a 34 composite.

Lots of good advice so far…were you able to finish all math problems? Were you under time pressure? ACT math is really a test of time, with 60 questions in 60 minutes, and you have to do practice problems and tests at that pace to prepare.

I was in a similar situation as you the first time I took the test. My math was a few points lower than my reading and English and I was surprised. Honestly, my only advice would be to study strategically. Take as many math practice tests as you can, and make sure you understand each of the concepts well. If a question throws you off, review it after you finish the test and make sure you’re not missing any important concepts. I got my math from a 30 to a 34 by doing this. Good luck!!! The ACT can be super stressful, but as long as you study you’ll do so much better the second time.

If you plan to take it in late July, and don’t have a busy summer schedule, I think a few weeks from mid June to July will be enough. If you’re going to use a tutor, ask the tutor’s opinion. Have the specifics of your score available for the tutor. He or she can see which math questions caused you trouble.

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I finished the test, but I skipped 3-4 harder problems and went back to them because I had extra time at the end. I got the answer (I think) to 2 of them, but 2 I had to narrow down my options and guess. So I kind of finished it.

Okay thank you! A 30 to a 34 is amazing!!

Congrats of the great Reading/English scores. Science is easy to bring up, since it’s really data interpretation. Just download legally released retired ACT science sections, and do a bunch of them for practice.

Math is a bit tougher. My kid used Best ACT Math Books Ever, 1+2, and did a lot of practice sections. He still couldn’t get higher than 34 in math, despite maximum self-prep. In hindsight, an ACT math tutor might have helped.


The rest are important, but this is the main thing. ACT is really a reading test. Fast readers do well. SAT is more about reasoning and knowledge. The ACT questions usually give you all the info you need to answer the question if you can digest and process it in a timely fashion.

I may be in the minority here, but my kids’ experience was that the ACT was not a reliable test. I mean reliable in the “statistical” concept - addressing consistency of the measure. Their composites were quite stable - in practice and actual sittings - but each individual section score was not. My younger daughter took the ACT once - after many practice versions - and got her target score but her math score, like yours, was out of line (low) with practice tests and prior standardized tests. Fortunately for her, her science score (which had been her problem section in practice) was equally out of line but in the opposite direction. Clearly there are no guarantees, but I would not be surprised if your math score is not higher at your next sitting. But I would follow prior advice and prep appropriately - including managing timing (my kids relied on the ACT watch) and understanding wrong practice answers - as you prepare for your next sitting. Good luck!

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ACT Math needs a good standing of Precalculus. Especially this September one had quite some probability questions I heard (my DD22 took her ACT this time). It’s easy to make mistakes there. Besides ACT standards are getting tougher compared to the previous years. My advise would be is to prepare yourself or use a prep class and try to improve on your scores. You should try SAT if timing is an issue. For my daughter, she’s not a big reader. She’s into math and science, so she favored ACT better than SAT. But she needed to work hard on her timing for Reading. First time she took ACT she couldn’t complete her Reading test despite the fact she was able to finish practice tests on time. Sometimes these practice tests don’t give exact replica of the real test. As others mentioned, practice your strategies, improve your skills and practice with a timer. Good luck for your next ACT!

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