ACT Math: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

ACT Math is the second section of the ACT. It comes right after ACT English, and it’s a long one — students have 60 minutes to answer 60 questions.

Timing can definitely be a challenge on this section for that reason. What’s more, ACT Math is 100% content-based, which mean that test-takers do have to know things like the Pythagorean Theorem, trigonometry, probability, and other foundational math topics.

What do you need to know about Math on the ACT? What math concepts in particular does this section test? And what can you do to improve your score?

As the test prep experts, we’ve got the answers to these questions — and much more!

Plus, we give readers access to our ACT Guidebook, a comprehensive guide for students navigating the test for the first time. It’s free and you can 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. ACT Math in a Nutshell
    1. Format
    2. Scoring
    3. The Math You Need to Know
  2. How to Improve Your ACT Math Score
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

1) ACT Math in a Nutshell

ACT Math Section

Here’s what ACT, the organization that produces the test, says about the math section:

The ACT mathematics test is designed to assess the mathematical skills students have typically acquired in courses taken up to the beginning of grade 12. The test presents multiple-choice questions that require you to use reasoning skills to solve practical problems in mathematics. The material covered on the test emphasizes the major content areas that are prerequisites to successful performance in entry-level courses in college mathematics.

What does this actually mean?

In simpler language, 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.

In fact, the test heavily emphasizes subjects from Algebra 1 and 2, which is why we encourage students to take the test only after they’ve completed Algebra 2.

Of course, ACT Math is not like your typical high school math test. We like to say that it tests familiar math concepts in unfamiliar ways. That’s what ACT is getting at when it says the questions “require you to use reasoning skills to solve practical problems.”

For example, here’s a typical ACT word problem from an official practice test:

This might look intimidating at first glance, because there are a lot of words and numbers! But hiding behind all those words and numbers is a single concept: representing linear equations.

Let’s take a look at the format of ACT math next.

Format

ACT Math is the second section of the test, appearing right after ACT English and before ACT Reading.

There are 60 questions on this section, to be completed in 60 minutes. These questions are arranged generally in order of increasing difficulty, which means that questions 1-20 are approximately low-difficulty, 21-40 are medium-difficulty, and 41-60 are high-difficulty.

Of course, “difficult” is a relative term on the ACT! It’s not uncommon for a student to find question #10 difficult, for example, and question #55 easy.

That’s why it’s so important to establish your own strengths on ACT Math, which you can do by taking a practice test. (Find 6 official ACT practice tests right here.)

While the questions on ACT Math generally get harder as they progress, the concepts typically tested can appear in any order. For example, #18 might be a trigonometry question, while #40 might test pre-algebra.

Take a look at question #1 here from an official practice test, which is a word problem about proportions:

Question #39 from the same test is also about proportions, but it’s a lot more complicated!

Students are allowed to use a calculator on ACT Math, which is important. Using a calculator can be very helpful for preventing careless errors, checking your work, and tackling harder questions! Find ACT’s calculator policy here.

Scoring

How is ACT Math scored? Every section on the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. So, 1 is the lowest score you can earn on this section and 36 is the highest score. 

The test graders calculate this based on section-specific algorithms that boil down to converting your raw score (the number of questions you get right) to a number between 1 and 36.

All ACT section scores are averaged to generate a composite score on a scale of 1-36. You can find out more about how this works in our ACT scoring guide.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. This means that you don’t lose points for getting a question wrong on Math — you simply do not get any points. Students can use this to their advantage by never leaving a question blank on this section!

How many questions do you have to get right in order to achieve a high score? The answer: it depends.

Even though the ACT is a standardized test, no two Math sections are the same in terms of difficulty and content. A 30 on one Math section likely doesn’t equate to a 30 on another. 

The key to improving your ACT Math score thus lies in maximizing your raw score — the more questions you ace on this section, the higher your odds are of earning a competitive score.

We’ll talk more about how to improve your Math score later on in this post. If you want more insight into what counts as a “good” ACT score overall, check out our other post on the subject.

If you’re enjoying this post, you’ll love our ACT guidebook, which contains all of this information about ACT Reading and so much more. It’s a great, free resource for first-time test-takers, and you can grab it below right now!

The Math You Need to Know for the ACT

So what math do you actually need to know for the ACT?

ACT outlines three broad categories of math content areas tested on this section:

  • Preparing for Higher Math (~60% of all questions)
  • Integrating Essential Skills (~40% of all questions)
  • Modeling (~25% of all questions)
ACT Math CategoryConcepts Tested
Preparing for Higher MathGeometry
Statistics & Probability
Functions
Algebra 1 and 2
Number and Quantity
Integrating Essential SkillsPre-Algebra
Rates and Percentages
Ratios and Proportions
Volume, Surface Area, Area
Average and Median
Modeling“Producing, interpreting, understanding,
evaluating, and improving models”

However, because these concepts are pretty broad (especially that Modeling category!), we’ve broken them down even further below based on our analysis of official ACT practice tests.

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

How to Improve Your ACT Math Score

What can you do to improve your ACT Math score? Start with these five strategies, and then check out these 10 ACT Math Strategies to Get a High Score.

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.

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!

These are only a handful of our expert ACT Math strategies. Find even more in this post here.


3) Download PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

We’ve covered everything you need to know to jumpstart your ACT Math prep in this post.

But you’ll find even more helpful information about navigating the ins and outs of ACT test-taking in our free ACT Guidebook, which you can download 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!


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.