How to Prepare for the ACT Math Test: Key Info + Strategies

Photo of a young child using a pen to draw ACT math equations on a table
Updated:
February 21, 2024
10 min read
Contents

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 2/21/24

Improving your ACT Math score is key to achieving a higher composite score. Read on to learn how to make the most of your ACT Math test practice! 

The ACT is one of two standardized tests you can take to apply to colleges. While the SAT and ACT have a math section, the content on each exam differs. 

We’ll walk you through actionable strategies you can implement to make the most out of your ACT math test practice, including understanding the section’s format, taking ACT Math practice tests, reviewing foundational concepts, and incorporating test-taking strategies sure to help you achieve an excellent ACT score

Understand the Format

The ACT Math section has 60 multiple-choice questions that you must answer within 60 minutes. These 60 questions cover a lot of ground regarding the foundational math knowledge required for college success. Nine individual scores are reported in ACT Math: these are the approximate percentages devoted to each reporting category. 

pen on top of math equations

Preparing for Higher Math 

This category encompasses more than half (57-60%) of the content you’ll see in the ACT Math section. Generally, this category encompasses content and strategies students have learned recently through junior and senior courses. This main umbrella of content is further broken down into five sub-categories: 

Number & Quantity: These question types make up approximately 7-10% of Preparing for Higher Math. Your job is to display your understanding of real and complex number systems, handling numbers in many forms, such as exponents, integers, vectors, and matrices. 

Algebra: Algebra questions make up 12-15% of this category and require you to solve graphs, and model expressions. Be prepared to explore equations and linear, polynomial, radical, and exponential relationships. 

Functions: Also making up 12-15% of this category, function questions task you with manipulating and translating functions and identifying and applying important graph features. You may see linear, radical, piecewise, polynomial, and logarithmic functions. 

Geometry: Approximately 12-15% of questions in this category are geometry questions. You'll deal with themes like shapes, solids, surface area, volume measurements, and more. Be prepared to answer questions about different shapes, circles, and triangles (trigonometric ratios and equations of conic sections included). 

Statistics & Probability: The last sub-category makes up 8-12% of questions. You'll be required to calculate probabilities, describe distribution spreads, analyze data collection methods, and more. We have calculated that there is a 100% probability you'll perform your best in the ACT Math section by reviewing these categories! 

Integrating Essential Skills

Integrating essential skills means measuring how well you can apply your foundational math knowledge to more complex problems. Many concepts fall under this category, including: 

  • Rates and percentages
  • Proportional relationships
  • Area, surface area, and volume
  • Average and median
  • Expressing numbers in numerous ways
  • Solving complex problems involving combined skills in multiple steps
  • Applying your skills in varied contexts
  • Understanding connections
  • Demonstrating mathematical fluency 

Modeling 

Modeling is a broad category that refers to any question in the ACT Math section that involves producing, interpreting, understanding, evaluating, or improving models. Modeling questions will fit into the above categories.

Understanding the questions and formatting of ACT Math will help you tailor your studying to concepts you'll see on the actual test. 

Take an ACT Math Practice Test 

Taking ACT Math practice tests is a surefire way to prepare for test day. Studying this way allows you to review under test-day conditions and can help you identify a target score, your areas of improvement, and which concepts you solidly understand. 

Looking at sample questions in ACT Math practice tests helps you feel more confident with the material you’re reviewing. You can find ACT Math practice test sample questions on the ACT website.  

Source: ACT.org

Practice really does make perfect. You'll want to take a few ACT Math practice tests throughout your review to measure your progress and increase confidence in the weeks/months leading up to test day.

Learn From Your Mistakes 

Let's be honest: you may not know where your improvement areas are or how much you need to improve when you begin studying for ACT Math. While you may be able to ballpark how you're doing based on math scores, you won't know for sure until you pick up your pencil and start reviewing. 

Making mistakes is an integral part of learning how to be great at something. When you make mistakes, try not to get frustrated, even if that's your first instinct. Try to see every mistake you make as an area for opportunity and growth. 

When you make a mistake, ensure you can identify where in the problem you went wrong and what you can do to avoid it next time. Keep doing problems with the same concept that you didn't quite get the first time. This is the best strategy to ensure you don't fall into the same pitfalls on test day! 

Review Foundational Concepts 

Reviewing your foundational concepts is integral to your ACT Math test practice. ACT guides can help you lay the foundation for what you’ll need to succeed. Based on the above format of the ACT Math section, you should ensure you spend extra time reviewing: 

  • Trigonometry 
  • Logarithms
  • Functions
  • Linear equations and systems of linear equations
  • Exponents 
  • Polynomials 
  • Number properties and working with numbers 
  • Pre-algebra topics include area, perimeter, ratios, percentages, solving equations, and mean/median/mode
  • Analyzing visual elements like graphs and pictures 
  • Geometry topics such as area, circumference, radius, and diameter 

Many other concepts are related to this list, but this is an excellent starting point for your review. 

Incorporate Test-Taking Strategies 

Learning and incorporating test-taking strategies during your ACT Math test practice will help test day feel like a breeze. These ACT test-taking strategies can help you get the correct answer quicker, saving you precious time as you move through the test. 

Memorize Formulas Your Way

Unfortunately, unlike SAT-takers, you won't have access to a formula sheet on test day. However, committing formulas to memory doesn't have to be agonizing. You may have memorized many of them already!

If you're having trouble remembering your formulas, try to remember them in a way that makes sense to you. You can connect elements of the formula to something you can easily remember, make a mental song (we don't recommend belting one out on test day), make an acronym, or any other method that works for you. 

Some formulas you should definitely know for the ACT include: 

  • SOHCAHTOA
  • Slope-intercept form 
  • Midpoint formula
  • Logarithms 
  • Averages 
  • Percentages 
  • Area and volume of different shapes 
  • Pythagorean Theorem 
  • Properties of right triangles

Finding your own way to memorize formulas means you’re more likely to remember everything you need on test day. 

Translate Language Into Math, or Vice Versa 

Don’t be shy about marking up your ACT Math test booklet. Looking at a large chunk of text by itself can make it difficult to pull out the relevant pieces you’ll need to answer the question. 

Try circling or underlining crucial information to make things more manageable. You can then write them underneath the writing to see what you have and what you’ll need. 

It would be best if you also were mindful of math language. Phrases such as "the number of," "how much," or "how many" often represent variables. Other phrases, such as "equal to" or "how much more," can tell you more about how you should structure an equation. This method can also work the other way if the question calls for it. 

Brush Up on Your Multiple Choice Skills  

Although this is more challenging for math problems than it would be in the ACT's other sections, you may be able to "guess" which options are at least incorrect. If you see a number that outlandishly doesn't make sense right away when you read a question, there's a pretty good chance it won't be your answer. 

However, math can always throw a few curveballs your way. Be careful with this method: sometimes, the option you feel is the odd one out can actually be the correct answer! 

Backsolve Using Your Options

Plugging answers into an equation may not be your go-to strategy because it can be time-consuming, but it can help you if you need more time to check your work. Backsolving is a fantastic strategy to know with certainty your answer is correct. 

Determine Your Best Strategy to Tackle Questions 

Determining your best strategies is best done before test day while working through ACT Math practice tests. Do you want to read the question in its entirety first? Or do you look at the answers first before reading? Do you want to hypothesize about a ballpark answer as you read and see if it closely matches one of the answers below? 

Your best strategy may differ from your peers, and that's okay! Working out which way works best for you is personal and can help you achieve speed and accuracy. 

Draw Visuals for Yourself

You may or may not be the next Van Gogh, but quickly sketching a visual element may help you "see" the answer. This can be especially useful for geometry and trigonometry questions. Feel free to go for it if seeing numbers expressed visually helps you. 

Access 5 free ACT practice questions here

Access 5 free ACT practice questions here

close

Tips and Tricks for ACT Math Test

These ACT math tricks can significantly enhance your performance on the ACT Math test. 

  • Time Management: You have 60 minutes for 60 questions, but don't spend exactly one minute per question. Practice managing your time effectively.
  • Know the Instructions: Read and understand the instructions beforehand to save time during the test.
  • Consistent Approach: Follow a simple process for every question: read, analyze, and solve using techniques like backsolving, picking numbers, traditional math, and strategic guessing.
  • Use Numbers Wisely: Instead of dealing with complicated algebra, consider substituting numbers for variables to simplify calculations.
  • Backsolve: When answer choices are integers, try backsolving by starting with the middle choice unless instructed otherwise.
  • Translate Words to Math: Convert word problems into mathematical expressions step by step.
  • Know Number Properties: Understand basic number properties like odds/evens, primes, and order of operations.
  • Understand Relationships: Learn to differentiate between values, ratios, and percentages and be able to convert between them.
  • Memorize Triangle Rules: Know the rules for common triangles and recognize Pythagorean triplets to save time.
  • Recognize Red Flags: Be cautious of common trap answers and watch out for errors in calculations, especially with negative signs.
  • Calculator Usage: Check the official ACT website to ensure your calculator is permitted for use on test day.

Incorporating these tips into your ACT study plan and prep can help you approach the ACT Math test with confidence and increase your chances of success.

Common Mistakes

Common mistakes on the ACT math test include not knowing or remembering formulas, struggling with time management, relying too heavily on calculators, and making careless errors like filling out the answer form incorrectly. Let's take a closer look at these mistakes so you can understand how to steer clear of them. 

Not Knowing Or Remembering Formulas

It's essential to study and memorize formulas for the ACT math test. Unlike the SAT, where formulas are provided, ACT test-takers need to remember them in advance and use them wisely.

Poor Time Management

With only 60 minutes for 60 math questions, managing your time well is crucial. Divide your time wisely among questions of varying difficulty to ensure you can answer them all.

Over-Reliance on Calculators

While calculators are allowed, relying too much on them can slow you down and lead to mistakes. Practice using them sparingly to improve your efficiency.

Making Careless Errors

Simple mistakes, like filling out the answer form incorrectly, can cost you points. Take the time to double-check your work and ensure accuracy.

FAQs: ACT Math Preparation 

Preparing for the ACT Math section doesn’t have to be so intimidating. If you still have questions, check out these answers. 

1. Should I Study With My Calculator? 

Studying with your calculator is okay, mainly because you'll have access to it on test day. Feel free to use your calculator as you solve questions or take ACT Math practice tests. However, it's probably in your best interest to ensure your calculator is ACT-approved first

2. Why Isn’t My ACT Math Score Improving? 

Seeing your ACT score unchanged even after hours of studying can be stressful for students. However, there are many things within your control you can do to improve your ACT score. 

Ensure that you’re: 

  • Learning from your past mistakes
  • Tackling and managing any test prep stress in a healthy way 
  • Sticking to a consistent yet manageable study schedule that doesn’t make you feel burnt out
  • Focusing on your improvement areas 
  • Memorizing all the formulas you’ll need 

3. How Should I Tackle ACT Math Practice Tests? 

The best way to do ACT Math practice tests is under simulated test-day conditions. This means that you're timing yourself to keep in line with the 60 minutes you'll have on test day in a (relatively) quiet and distraction-free environment. 

Put your phone away, turn the music off, and ask your family or housemates not to disturb you while you're practicing. 

4. What Does a Consistent ACT Math Study Schedule Look Like? 

A consistent study schedule means you have blocks of time scheduled each week dedicated to studying for the ACT. How much time you should be studying per session depends on when the test day is, your baseline, and how much you want to improve your score. 

Ensure that you’re not overburdening yourself with your study schedule, but understand that practicing and mastering concepts takes time and effort. 

5. Should I Take All My High School Math Courses Before the ACT? 

You should at least take all your junior-level math courses before taking the ACT. According to ACT.org, the math section “assesses the skills students typically acquire in courses taken through grade 11.” 

While you don't necessarily need to take senior-level math courses before taking the ACT, it can help you refresh your knowledge and understand the basics. 

6. I Need Help Studying. What Should I Do? 

Seeking the help of a professional ACT tutor is an excellent way to break any bad habits, find new strategies, and boost your ACT Math score. ACT tutors will help you strategize, study content, identify your areas for improvement, and help you with any of the other ACT sections. 

Final Thoughts 

ACT Math test practice and review don’t have to feel intimidating. Understanding the common college assessment format, taking ACT Math practice tests, and learning from your mistakes will help you achieve a high score. 

Don't forget to implement practical test-taking strategies such as marking up problems, backsolving, and identifying your method of answering questions. With all of this in mind, you're ready to ace ACT Math! And for more preparation, be sure to check out our ACT readiness quiz.

Quad Education's Editorial Policies and Standards
Subscribe to Our Newsletter
Thanks ! You're now subscribed!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get A Free Consultation

Speak to a college admissions expert about how we can help you get into your dream school
Schedule a Call

You May Also Like

Before you go, here are a few facts about us!
The Quad Factor: Working with us can increase your chances of admission by 7x!

The Best of the Best: Our team comprises of only 99th percentile tutors and admissions counselors from top-ranking universities, meaning you work with only the most experienced, talented experts.

The Free Consultation: Our experts would love to get to know you, your background, goals, and needs. From there, they match you with a best-fit consultant who will create a detailed project plan and application strategy focused on your success.