Everything You need to know about the ACT Math test

Everything You Need to Know About the ACT Math Test

No matter what test – the ACT, SAT, GED, GRE, or any other standardized exam – the subject people need the most help with is math. The majority of those who struggle with math have done so since elementary school, with the confusion just compounding every time a new topic is introduced. When faced with an exam like the ACT Math test, they find themselves frustrated with questions that often don’t look like what they’re familiar with.

Well, the goal of test prep isn’t to gain a deep understanding of the material that’s covered. Rather, it’s to get a good score! Ultimately, the ACT is a test of how well you take the ACT. That means becoming familiar with the test’s structure, design, content, and nuances. 

Do you want to know how to study for the ACT? Well, the path to the score you desire is most comfortable when it’s guided by a skilled ACT prep tutor. If you are one of those people who gets anxious just thinking about the Math section, then you should reach out to a tutor for some expert help. 

An ACT tutor can make a big difference, regardless of where you’re at with your prep 

If you are just starting on your test-prep journey, the work you do getting ready for the ACT will help you if and when you start preparing for the SAT. While there are significant differences between the two tests, there is a core curriculum that both tests cover. Even if you have already prepped for the SAT Math section, however, you’ll want some professional guidance for the ACT Math Test.

Unlike the other three sections on the ACT, the Math section progresses in difficulty from easy to medium to hard. It’s helpful to think of the test as having three subsections: #1-20 is relatively easy; #21-40 will see a noticeable increase in difficulty; and #41-60 will be more complex and cover more advanced material that the previous two-thirds of the test.

It’s not unusual for students to stall out as they get into the more challenging portion of the test, as the “direct” methods they learned in high school aren’t always efficient or even applicable. That’s where expert ACT Math tutoring can provide direction on alternative strategies and test-taking skills. 


During your ACT lessons, your tutor will teach you how to make good decisions so you can efficiently navigate the test. You’ll learn what the best calculator for the ACT is and how to use it effectively. Chances are high that there is content on the test you either aren’t familiar with or are extremely rusty on. Without a tutor, that may seem like a daunting obstacle—after all, not many people are built for self-directed study. But with the assistance of an ACT Math tutor, you’ll be able to confidently attack those questions on relatively obscure material.

Every question on the ACT Math Test has the same format and the same calculator protocol

How long is the ACT Math section? You will have 60 minutes to complete 60 questions. All the questions are multiple choice with five potential answers to select from. As with all paper-and-pencil standardized exams, you will have a test booklet and an answer sheet. Each of your answers must be shaded on the bubble sheet, which is then scanned and scored electronically. While you won’t be given any scratch paper, there will be plenty of room in the test booklet to do your figuring. 

In addition to being all multiple-choice, the ACT Math section also permits the use of a calculator throughout the whole test. That means you can approach every question with the same mindset: the correct answer is one of the five choices provided, and a calculator can be used at all times to backsolve, try a different strategy, or check your work. (As opposed to the SAT, which has a No Calculator section and some questions that aren’t multiple-choice, the ACT won’t have you switching between various approaches depending on the section and the question.) 

Although the ACT lets you use a calculator through the entire Math test, it does apply some restrictions on what models you can use. The ACT calculator policy is fairly generous, though, with a list of ACT approved calculators that includes all the advanced graphing calculators in the TI-84 series. What’s not allowed is anything that is disruptive (like a calculator with a printer), can connect to the internet (like a tablet or phone), or has a QWERTY keyboard. Also forbidden is any calculator with a CAS (computer algebra system), such as the TI-Nspire CAS or TI-89.

Even if you have a calculator that is permitted by the ACT calculator policy, keep in mind that officials at the test facility may require you to modify your calculator before you can use it. In particular, they may have you delete any additional programs you have downloaded and reset it to factory defaults. 

The ACT Math Test covers a broad range of concepts and skills from algebra, geometry, and precalculus 

Roughly speaking, the questions on the ACT come from three areas of mathematics: Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra (24 questions), Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry (18 questions) and Plane Geometry/Trigonometry (18 questions). If you’ve already been using an ACT prep book, then you may have encountered another system of categorization: Number & Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, and Statistics & Probability.

In contrast to the SAT, the ACT does not provide a reference sheet. That means any formulas you need to know must be saved in your brain! Here’s a list of formulas you’ll most likely need for the ACT Math Test, although your tutor may suggest additional ones.

Formulas you need to know for the ACT

  • Area of a parallelogram, rectangle, and square
  • Area of a triangle
  • Area and circumference of a circle
  • Volume of a rectangular prism
  • Volume of a cylinder
  • Special right triangle patterns
  • Pythagorean Theorem
  • Law of Sines and Law of Cosines
  • Standard form of circles, ellipses, and hyperbolas

If you’re inclined to think that the ACT will be an easier test because it’s all calculator-allowed and all multiple-choice, keep in mind that the ACT Math Test covers a host of precalculus topics that the SAT doesn’t even touch on:

  • Trigonometric graphs, inverse trig functions, and reciprocal trig ratios
  • Law of Sines and Law of Cosines
  • Logarithms
  • Counting principles and permutations
  • Probability of compound events
  • Probability distributions
  • Matrices
  • Vectors
  • Conic sections, with an emphasis on ellipses
  • Sequences, both arithmetic and geometric
  • Imaginary numbers as solutions to equations
  • Domain and range

While content knowledge is important, it’s test-taking strategies that will really help you achieve your highest score

While you’ll always have access to a calculator on the ACT, you’ll only need to be familiar with a fraction of the features. Many graphing calculators have special pre-loaded programs that can be useful, but be careful that you don’t become reliant on them. Certain ACT calculator programs may help you solve equations or graph relations more efficiently, but it’s still necessary to have at least some underlying knowledge of the subject matter. An experienced tutor will teach you the ACT math tips that most effectively merge content knowledge and test-taking skills with proficiency using a calculator

Many questions can be solved fairly quickly using the direct approach, where you take the given information and put it into some mathematical model to find an answer. If you’re comfortable with that strategy, then use it. If the direct approach isn’t working, though, you have several back-up options. The two most powerful alternative strategies are Plugging in the Answers (PITA) and Plugging in Numbers (PIN). 


PITA is used when the answers are numeric. If the question presents an equation or a word problem that can be modeled with an equation, then you should take the answers and plug them into the equation for the proper variable(s).

When an answer choice makes the equation true, you have found your answer. Remember this: When the question is multiple choice, the correct answer is one of the five right in front of you!


PIN is primarily used when the answer choices have variables in them (i.e., they are mathematical expressions rather than equations). Pick an easy number to work with (like 0 or 1), plug it in for the variable in the original expression, and simplify to find your check value, which you’re going to use to evaluate the answer choices.

Next, substitute the original number you chose in for the variable(s) in the answer choices and look for which ones simplify to match the check value. Remember to check all the answer choices when using PIN, as more than one expression can produce the same check value. If only one answer choice matches the check value, then that’s the correct one. If more than one matches the check value, that’s all right: you still were able to eliminate the ones that didn’t match. Just choose another number for the variable and repeat the process until only one answer choice matches the check value.

Because it can sometimes be challenging to know when to use these back-up strategies as opposed to the direct approach, you should probably set up a few sessions with your ACT Math tutor in order to get some expert instruction.


Review your scores, continue practicing, and retake the test to achieve your best results

Shortly after you begin your ACT test prep lessons, you and your tutor should come up with potential test dates when you will be ready to take the test. Once you’ve set up your MyACT account on the ACT website, you’ll want to register for a specific test date. Make sure you check for test centers near your location, as Covid restrictions continue to affect available capacity in some states. Any changes in availability should be communicated to you through your MyACT account.

Within two weeks after you take the ACT, you should receive your scores. Your ACT Math score will lie on a scale from 1-36. Depending on the goals you and your tutor have set, you may want to retake the test.

Fortunately, there is a way to get access to the actual ACT you have taken (or are planning to take). Just sign up for the Test Information Release (TIR), and you’ll receive a copy of the test questions, a list of your answers, and the answer key. If you want more prep material to get ready for the retake, then you’re in luck: ACT has not only provided official practice tests, but previous tests and their answer keys are also available online. 

Your tutor will use the TIR and any other ACT tests both during the lessons and as part of additional practice between sessions. By reviewing, regrouping, and redoubling your efforts to increase your ACT score, you’ll be able to reach your goal the next time you take the test.

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