Everything You Need to Know about ACT Math to Work Towards a Perfect Score: Format, Content, Strategies, and Master Tips

What is ACT Math? Why does your score matter? What are the key differences between ACT Math and SAT Math, and how do you choose between them? What are key strategies and master tips to help you work towards a perfect score in ACT Math?

In this article, you will find the right answers to these questions as well as others. Let’s get started.


What is ACT Math?

ACT Math is a 60-minute, 60-multiple-choice question exam designed to assess the student’s knowledge in 6 major math areas including:


  1. Pre-algebra: (12-15) questions
  2. Elementary algebra: (9-12) questions
  3. Intermediate algebra: (9-12) questions
  4. Coordinate geometry: (9-12) questions
  5. Plane geometry: (12-15) questions
  6. Trigonometry: (3-6) questions

ACT Math Test
Format60 questions, Multiple-choice, 1 section (all calculator questions)
ContentAlgebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Trigonometry
ScoringMath score: 1 - 36
Time Per QuestionAverage of 25 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions gradually increase in level of difficulty
Equations ProvidedEquations and formulas are NOT provided
Time60 minutes

Why the ACT Math Score Matters

  1. The Truth: Your Test Prep Scores Matter for College Admissions: It’s one of the sure things in the college admissions process: your scores on the SAT and ACT do matter. All colleges in the country and abroad consider students’ ACT scores and GPA during the admissions process. Each college has a unique process and considers the two factors differently. To put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which school may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. So you are aware, with few exceptions, most colleges look for a minimum score on one of these two tests as part of their admissions requirements. This means that you need a high score to be classified with other top students and, therefore, to increase your chances of going to the college or university of your choice.
  2. You’re Investing in Your Future – Higher Test Prep Scores Equal More Merit Based Scholarships: More importantly, college is often the most expensive financial decision most families make. More points on either standardized test (SAT or ACT) will put you in the running for merit based scholarships and financial aid. While test prep resources may cost some time and money in the short term, merit aid saves you tens of thousands of dollars on college tuition in the long term.
  3. Your Test Prep Scores Impact Your Future Major: A high score in the Math section can make up for less-than-perfect scores in other areas of the test. A high grade in the Math section can help you to compete effectively for a place at the colleges or universities to which you are applying. If you expect to major in mathematics or the science, your ACT Math score may have a significant impact on your application.

ACT Math Scoring

Regardless of your top schools, to put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which schools may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. Confidence matters and you need to believe that it’s possible for you to work towards a perfect score. In fact, a perfect score may be more likely than you think. By understanding the test and by knowing how to prepare for it, your chances of achieving a high score increase remarkably.

Once you believe that a high score is possible and commit yourself to studying, then you need to understand the test’s scoring method and structure.

There are two kinds of scores in the ACT Math test:

  • RAW SCORE: it’s the point for point score — you get a point for every correct answer and no points for incorrect or omitted answers.
  • SCALED SCORE: your raw score is converted to a scaled score out of 1 – 36. This scaled score is based upon the level of performance and data collected from all other test takers. Simply put, you want to do as best as possible by answering as many questions correct as you can.


ACT Math: Format and Structure

Questions are not ordered by topic. However, level of difficulty increases as you move forward with the test. The first 30 questions are the easiest. With practice, you learn how to solve these questions as quickly as possible in order to save more time for the other problems and a thorough check up in the end.

The major types of questions are the following:

  1. Problem Solving and Data Analysis – 19 questions

Topics include: averages, percent of a number, part/whole relationships, percents, ratios, rates, probability, proportions, dimensional analysis, median/mode/mean, strong/weak/positive/negative correlation, controlled experiments, studies, surveys, and data graphics.

  1. Heart of Algebra – 17 questions

Topics include: absolute value, simplifying, distributive property, equations, factoring, fractions, expressions, systems of equations, inequalities, elimination method, substitution method, slope, parallel lines, slope-intercept form, graphs of equations, graphs of inequalities, and linear models.

  1. Passport to Advanced Math – 16 questions

Topics include: equations with fractions, exponents, radicals, evaluating functions, compound functions, quadratic formulas, completing the square, polynomial solutions, and dividing polynomials.

  1. Additional Topics in Math – 6 questions

Topics include: angles, lines, midpoints, right triangles, Pythagorean theorem, similar triangles, circles, area of sector, length of arc, center-radius equation, completing the square, SOHCAHTOA, complementary angle identities, and degrees and radians.

Key Differences between ACT Math & SAT Math

Colleges do not usually prefer one test over the other (if they do, they will tell you). As a rule, the ACT and SAT tests are treated equally in the admission process. Both tests have points of similarity and points of difference. In our experience if the decision is difficult for you to make, practice both tests under real test conditions, score yourself, and pay attention to your strengths in each test as well as your rate of improvement as you continue to practice. In addition, consider carefully the difficulty of all the sections before making a final decision.

Given that both tests have slightly different questions with different nuances and timing, we strongly recommend for you to take practice tests under real test conditions to evaluate which test may be in your best interest.

SAT Math TestACT Math TestPSAT Math Test
Format58 questions, Multiple-choice and grid-ins, 2 sections (1 section without calculator (20 questions), 1 section with calculator (38 questions)) 60 questions, Multiple-choice (1 section (all calculator questions)) 48 questions, Multiple-choice and grid-ins, 2 sections (1 section without calculator (17 questions), 1 section with calculator (31 questions))
ContentProblem Solving and Data Analysis, Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Additional Topics in Math Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Trigonometry Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Additional Topics in Math
ScoringMath score: 200 – 800 Math score: 1 - 36Math score: 160 – 760
Time Per QuestionAverage of 45 secondsAverage of 25 secondsAverage of 45 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions gradually increase in level of difficultyQuestions gradually increase in level of difficultyQuestions gradually increase in level of difficulty
Equations ProvidedEquations and formulas are providedEquations and formulas are NOT providedEquations and formulas are provided
Time80 minutes (25 minutes for no calculator section, 55 minutes for calculator section) 60 minutes70 minutes (25 minutes for no calculator section, 45 minutes for calculator section)

Key Strategies For Preparing and Taking The ACT Math

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

This test is unique; it is designed specifically to assess millions of students in all 50 states regardless of the school they come from. That’s why it requires exclusive preparation and special strategies to help you get a perfect score.

You have started with defining the test, determining its significance for you then learning about the format and how scores work. Now, it’s time to learn the key strategies and master tips for getting a full mark in ACT Math.


STRATEGY #1: Understand the Overall Format of the ACT Math Section in Terms of Your Time

A few immediate need to knows 1) the entire ACT Math Test is 60 multiple choice questions in 60 minutes 2) you are permitted to use a calculator 3) no math equations are provided outside of the figures and information within the problems and 4) the problems generally increase in level of difficulty and time as you advance through the test. It is highly recommended for you to identify the best way to solve the problem before reaching for your calculator. For more information on calculators permitted for the test, please follow this link.

The point being is that by understanding the format and types of questions, you’ll become more accustomed with an approach, pace, and style.

Going back to the understanding that the problems generally increase in level of difficulty and time as you advance through the test, be mindful that you will want to complete the first 25 – 30 questions in less than 20 minutes to allow you more time per problem to focus on the remaining more difficult problems.

As a quick-tip, if you feel very confident in your math abilities, approach, and time, we would also recommend starting from question 60 and working backwards. Questions 35 – 60 are layered with multi-step problems and equations which you of course will use smaller pieces of to solve questions 1 – 34.


STRATEGY #2: Memorize All Formulas and Common Math Facts Prior to Taking the Test

The ACT Math section does NOT provide equations outside of the figures and information within the problems. You will be faced with a number of multi-step problems and time is your greatest factor. As you’re practicing, you will need to become comfortable enough with the information to move strategically through each problem. For your convenience, we’ve provided a helpful list of all math formulas and common math facts here.


STRATEGY #3: Plug in the Answers

A really helpful strategy that will help you to solve the problems faster or even evaluate if you have the correct answer on math problems is to plug in the answer choices. When plugging in the answer choices for x, you typically want to start with C which is the middle choice as the answer choices A – E are in increasing numerical order. This allows you to gauge if you should then evaluate A or B or D or E if not C. If is C too big, then attempt A or B, whereas, if C is too small, then attempt D or E. By attempting only two choices, you’ve saved yourself more time. Do be aware, however, that this strategy comes with practice and anticipation for which types of questions work best for setting up algebraic expressions.


STRATEGY #4: Provide Real Numbers in Place of Variables

The basic idea of plugging in your own numbers is that you provide real numbers in place of variables or unknowns in your problem. This method can work for a number of problems but first look and see if the question or answer choices involve variables. If they do, aim for using numbers such as 1, 2, or 3 to keep the math fairly simplistic and to focus on the relationships between the numbers. As long as your proposed numbers are consistent with the math you are presented with in the equation, you can find the right answer using your own numbers.

In summary:

  1. Identify that variables exist within the problem or answer choices and that plugging in numbers is a possible problem solving method.
  2. Choose a number to represent each variable and use those numbers to solve the original equation.
  3. Use the number you chose for your original variable to replace that same variable in your answer options. By doing this, you can test your answer choices and see which answer matches your result. Understanding that this will take some practice, we’ve provided a helpful video below.


STRATEGY #5: Translate Your Word Problems Into Math Equations That You Can Readily Solve

Within the ACT Math Section, word problems are based mostly on written description and do not provide you with an equation. Using your critical reading skills and your understanding of math terminology, however, you are able to translate the description into a workable math problem.

For key terms such as “Sum, increased by, added to, total of” a plus sign is typically used. For “Difference, decreased by, or subtracted from” a minus sign is used. The key words Product or times represent multiplication while the key words divided by or quotient represent division. The key terms “equals, is, are, equivalent, and same” are represented by an equals sign. You must also be familiar with the “is less than or equal to” and “is greater than or equal to” symbols shown here.


STRATEGY #6: Review Your Calculator Functions

Remember that the ACT Math Section does NOT provide given formulas or equations, so you need to be as effective with your time as possible. Outside of memorizing the most useful equations, you will also need to be extremely well versed in several “quick-tip” calculator functions to plug in and answer the problems. Because you are only going to be asked to perform basic calculations on the ACT math section, you do not need the most high-tech or advanced calculator, but it is in your best interest to 1) verify that your calculator is permitted on the ACT and 2) practice with the same calculator you intend to use on test day. Do everything possible to make sure you familiarize yourself with your calculator before test day. Some of the basic calculator functions include:

  1.    Finding the square root of a formula
  2.    Logarithms
  3.    Exponents
  4.    “Pi” Functions
  5.    Sin, Cos, Tan Functions
  6.    Taking a Decimal to Fraction or vice versa

For the ACT test, you should try and think of your calculator as a tool but not a crutch.  You do not technically need a calculator to solve the math problems on the ACT. Lastly, it is important for you to be aware that the real focus of your calculator comes with the last 18 – 20 math questions that cover more multi-step geometry and basic trigonometry problems.


STRATEGY #7: Practice! Practice! Practice!

This is not just taking random math practice problems and checking your score but digging deeper and categorizing each mistake until the answer is fully justified.

Start by taking several authentic ACT diagnostics measuring your progress and identifying areas of weakness for you to go and review. Embracetutoring.com provides a number of free supplemental materials to get you started.

60 minutes is enough time to finish the exam. Work on your approach and your timing. When evaluating your practice tests, be absolutely brutal about understanding your mistakes. Deep practice is being your own toughest critic. More important than finding the mistake, is seriously understanding why you may have missed that question in the first place. You need to always be able to justify your answer earnestly. This process is important because it allows you to identify your high level weaknesses early on to manage your time more effectively. As you are studying, I would recommend keeping a log and categorizing your mistakes and questions you’re unsure of.

Write down 1) the general idea of the question, 2) what you believed the question was asking, and 3) the strategy you will use in the future to answer the question correctly.




Use the Resources at Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services

  1. Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services has exceptional resources, many of them are custom-designed to help you review the basics of mathematics, including the content areas discussed in this article.
  2. Because our diagnostic tests break out the precise types of questions on each test, you’ll be able to quickly identify those areas in which your skills are strong or those areas in which you need improvement.
  3. In addition to practice resources, we offer the best in person and online tutoring services to help you achieve your goal score.


Check out the link here to our video “The #1 Best Tip for Preparing for the ACT: Deep Practice:”




Test Day and Beyond

Readying Yourself The Day Before The Test

  • Plan how you will get to the test site. If it’s in a large school or office building, be sure to find out which door you should enter to register for the test. If you haven’t been in the building before, find out how to get to the room.
  • Set two alarms. Even though alarms rarely fail, it can happen. You always want to have a backup.
  • Pack your items the night before.
  • Review the test directions so you’re aware of what is expected on test day.

What To Pack

  • Photo admission ticket and valid photo ID: A valid driver’s license, school, or state-issued ID are acceptable. Remember that the photo must resemble you on the day of the exam and comply with the rules posted on www.act.org.
  • Several number 2 pencils with soft erasers.
  • Approved calculator with fresh batteries.
  • Watch
  • Snacks
  • Water in a clear bottle, label removed.