10 ACT Math Strategies from the Experts

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

ACT Math is the second section of the ACT. It contains 60 questions to be answered in 60 minutes.

That’s quite a tight time limit! Plus, ACT Math tests a lot of content most test-takers haven’t studied since freshman or sophomore year of high school.

What can you do to improve your ACT Math score?

Besides having a firm grasp of the math topics tested on this section, it’s important to have some solid strategies in place.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

In this post, you’ll find our very best ACT Math strategies to help you get closer to your target score.

We also give you access to our ACT Guidebook, a fantastic (FREE) resource for students navigating the test for the first time. Grab it below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here’s what we cover:

  1. The ACT Math Section in a Nutshell
  2. 10 ACT Math Strategies from the Experts
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

1) ACT Math in a Nutshell

ACT Math Strategies from the Experts

ACT Math tests the math subjects most students will have learned through their senior year in high school. That includes pre-algebra, Algebra 1 and 2, geometry, trigonometry, and advanced math.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • ACT Math is the section section of the ACT
  • It’s scored on a scale of 1-36, like every other ACT section
  • There are 60 questions on ACT Math, to be completed in 60 minutes
  • Questions are arranged (generally) in order of increasing difficulty (so questions 1-20 are lowest difficulty, for example)
  • You are allowed to use a calculator
  • This section does not give you any reference information (i.e., math formulas)
  • The math topics tested include geometry, trigonometry, pre-algebra, algebra 1 and 2, and some advanced math
  • ACT Math favors word problems and “reasoning,” which basically means that it tests familiar content in unfamiliar ways

Let’s look at the strategies you can use on ACT Math to succeed!

For an even deeper dive into ACT Math, including all the math that you need to know, check out our post Everything You Need to Know About ACT Math.


2) 10 ACT Math Strategies from the Experts

Strategy #1: Prioritize easier questions.

On each section of the ACT, every question is worth the same number of points. This means that an “easy” question is worth just as much as a “hard” question.

This can be counterintuitive, because many students are used to hard math questions being worth more on exams! They race through the easy questions on standard high school tests so they can spend most of their time on the more difficult problems.

However, this approach will not serve you on ACT Math.

Prioritize easier questions first and make sure you feel 100% confident on those before proceeding to difficult questions. This typically means spending most of your time on questions 1-40 on ACT Math.

Don’t race to get to questions 41-60, because those questions are high-difficulty — in fact, the majority of test-takers won’t get these questions correct, or even have time to get to them!

If you find yourself spending more than a minute working a problem, skip it and come back. Save any remaining time at the end of the test for double-checking your work on those early questions.

Strategy #2: Make the answers work for you.

Take a look at this sample ACT Math word problem:

Do you see how all of the answers are in number form? This is a good sign that you can make those answers work for you instead of diving into complicated algebra!

You can “plug in” the answers to the problem and see which one fits the stipulations of the question. This is a much easier and faster way of solving this word problem.

Remember: on ACT Math, it doesn’t matter how you arrive at the right answer, because no one’s grading you on your work. For that reason, choose the most efficient and easiest way of getting to that correct answer.

Strategy #3: Replace abstract values with concrete ones.

ACT Math loves to ask questions that contain variables or unknown values, like this question here:

It is always a lot harder to work with abstract values as opposed to concrete ones. So replace those abstract values with actual numbers!

In the example question above, that would mean replacing ‘negative real value of x’ with something like -4. Then, plug your chosen value of x into the answer choices to see which ones are true and which ones aren’t.

When picking numbers in this way, be sure to choose ones that are relatively small and easy to work with, but avoid using 1, -1, or 0.

Strategy #4: Cut through the fluff on word problems.

ACT Math contains a lot of word problems! These can be tricky to navigate, because they’re often very wordy and do a great job of hiding the actual math involved — and the question itself.

When approaching these word problems, try to separate the “fluff” — stuff you don’t need — from the actual problem. Identify what the question is truly asking and focus on that.

This word problem is a great example of this. There are a lot of words here, but what is the question really asking?

If you realized that this is really asking which number(s) in the answer choices are divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 5, and which of these is the smallest — you’re right! This really has nothing to do with cash prizes, talent shows, or groups of students.

The actual math involved in this word problem is pretty basic, but ACT Math loves to mask that in complicated wording.

Strategy #5: Build a solid foundation of content knowledge.

ACT Math and ACT English are the two sections of the test that rely most heavily on outside content knowledge. (Reading and Science are basically 100% strategy-based.)

For this reason, a solid foundation of content knowledge can only serve you on ACT Math!

Because a lot of this content covers algebra and geometry, topics many test-takers study earlier on in high school, it’s important to review any topics you’re rusty on.

You can pinpoint what you need to review by taking a practice ACT.

Keep in mind that the ACT does not include a reference page with relevant math formulas before the Math section. You’ll have to go into the test with those memorized, so make sure to use flashcards or other study tools to lock those formulas in place!

You can find all of these ACT Math strategies and so much more in our ACT Guidebook, a free resource for students taking the test for the first time. Grab your copy below!

Strategy #6: Identify the concept the question is actually testing.

According to ACT, the organization that writes the test, there are three types of content areas tested on ACT Math:

  • Preparing for Higher Math (~60% of all questions)
  • Integrating Essential Skills (~40% of all questions)
  • Modeling (~25% of all questions)

These categories may seem pretty broad, which is why we’ve broken these content areas into the following topics they test.

ConceptTopics Tested
GeometryTriangles
Pythagorean Theorem
Special Right Triangles (30-60-90 and 45-45-90)
Area
Trigonometry
Rule of 180 (interior angles)
Isosceles triangle properties
Similar Triangles
Equilateral triangle properties
Right triangle properties
Circles
Area & Circumference
Sectors, Interior Angles, and Arcs
Tangent Lines
Chords
Radius and diameter
4-Sided Shapes
Rectangle area and perimeter
Diagonals
Area of a trapezoid
Area of a parallelogram
Internal angles of a parallelogram
Polygons
Interior angle of a polygon formula
Area of embedded shapes
Ellipses
Statistics & ProbabilityProbability formula
Percent change
Patterns and sequences
FunctionsSolving functions
Graphing functions
Composition of functions
Algebra 1 & 2Slope
Slope intercept form
Linear equations (solving, graphing)
Parallel lines
Perpendicular lines
Midpoint formula
Distance formula
Exponential decay and growth
Systems of equations
Range and domain
Matrices
Unit circle
Logarithms
Imaginary numbers and complex numbers
Combinations and permutations
Polynomials
Factorial
Radicals
Vectors
Number and QuantityAdding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing fractions
Number properties
Absolute value
Scientific notation
Pre-AlgebraMean, Median, Mode
Volume of 3-D shapes (cones, prisms, spheres, etc.)
Surface area of 3-D shapes (cones, prisms, spheres, etc.)
Area of shapes (triangles, rectangles, circles, etc.)
Perimeter of shapes (rectangles, triangles, etc.)
Solving equations and expressions
Ratios
Inequalities
Types of numbers (rational, real, integers, etc.)
Percentages
Decimals
ModelingLinear equations
Exponential equations
Analyzing graphs, charts, figures, and other data

Familiarizing yourself with these concepts is a vital part of learning the “language” of ACT Math. It can also help you cut through the fluff on word problems, one of the ACT Math strategies we’ve already discussed, and focus on the actual math involved.

Let’s try this ACT Math strategy out on this sample question. What is the concept hiding behind the question here?

If you guessed the average formula, you’re right! Of course, this question also requires a little bit of critical thinking and reasoning in order to make the average formula work in this context — that’s what makes it a medium-difficulty ACT Math question.

Strategy #7: Embrace a guessing strategy.

While you might not have time to attempt every ACT Math question, never leave a question blank. There are no penalties for wrong answers on the ACT, so make sure to bubble in an answer for every question, even if it’s a total guess! 

That being said, try to use process of elimination as much as possible to weed out unlikely answers and increase the probability of guessing correctly. Every answer choice ruled out significantly increases your odds of getting a correct answer. 

In the event that no answer choices can be ruled out, choose a “Letter of the Day” (i.e. A, B, C, or D) and use that same letter for every guess.

You can find all of these ACT Math strategies and so much more in our ACT Guidebook, a free resource for students taking the test for the first time. Grab your copy below!

Strategy #8: Be suspicious of figures.

Take a look at the ACT Math instructions that appear at the start of the test, especially the first point in the list.

ACT Math Strategies from the Experts_Section Directions

“Illustrative figures are NOT necessarily drawn to scale” — what does this mean?

Any time you see a figure associated with a problem, be careful about making any assumptions. Don’t assume an angle is 60 degrees, for example, just because it looks like it is!

Derive values from a figure based on values that are already clearly marked, and when in doubt, draw your own figure to work from.

Strategy #9: Be calculator savvy.

It’s important to understand the how-and-when of using calculators on ACT Math. (Find ACT’s policy on calculator use here.)

While many students rely on a calculator for computation, it’s not always the quickest way to solve a problem (especially on the ACT!). Practice problems with and without a calculator in advance of the test to understand which is fastest for you.

However, a calculator can be very handy for eliminating careless errors, especially on low-difficulty questions or those that involve negative numbers, fractions, and/or decimals.

Strategy #10: Show your work.

You might be tempted to answer a low-difficulty Math question in your head. But be careful — this can lead to careless errors.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to see high-achieving test-takers make most of their mistakes earlier on in the section, because of either moving too quickly or not showing work.

You won’t get credit for showing your work as you often do in high school math class. But writing out the steps in a problem you’re completing can be vital for maintaining accuracy, double-checking your work at the end of the test, and pinpointing the concepts tested.


3) Download PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

With these ACT Math strategies, you’ll be well on your way to boosting confidence, accuracy, and time management on this section!

Find these strategies and so much more in our free ACT guidebook, which contains valuable guidance from the experts for navigating this test.


Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin, Princeton graduates (and brothers) with over 20 years of education experience, are co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They apply research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. They also place a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service for successful college preparation.