How to Ace ACT Math: Topics and Tips

student writing complex math problem on whiteboard while smiling at camera

When you sit down for the official ACT exam, ACT Math is the second section you’ll see on the test. So just what does this section test? The ACT Math Test assesses the mathematical skills students are expected to obtain before grade 12 (meaning through advanced algebra and basic trigonometry, but not calculus). Here’s a quick breakdown of what you need to know:

  • You have a 60-minute time limit
  • You will face 60 multiple choice math questions
  • You get to use a calculator for the whole test (but it must be an approved one)

Still curious? Read on for everything you need to know about the ACT Mathematics test!

What kind of math is on the ACT?

The ACT is a standardized test–and that’s great news for test-takers! It means that the test makers aren’t just pulling questions out of thin air: there’s a standardized list of topics that questions can cover. In the mathematics section on the ACT, an ACT math question could come from any category below:

Pre-Algebra

  • decimals, fractions, integers, number properties, positive and negative numbers, square roots, scientific notation, factors, ratios, proportions, percents, averages, charts and graphs of statistics

Algebra

  • Elementary Algebra
    • exponents, evaluating algebraic expressions through substitution, using variables to express relationships, algebraic operations, and factoring quadratic equations
  • Intermediate Algebra
    • quadratic formula, rational and radical expressions (including some logarithms), absolute value equations and inequalities, sequences and series, systems of equations, quadratic inequalities, functions, matrices, roots of polynomials, probability, and complex numbers

Geometry

  • Coordinate Geometry
    • evaluating points and lines on a graph, polynomials, circles and other curves, graphing inequalities, slope, parallel and perpendicular lines, distance, midpoints, and conics
  • Plane Geometry
    • angles and relationships among perpendicular and parallel lines, properties of circles, ellipses, rectangles, triangles, parallelograms, trapezoids, transformations, area, volume, three-dimensional geometry

Trigonometry

  • trigonometric relations in right angles, values and properties of trig functions, graphing trig functions, using trig identities, solving trig equations

Is SAT or ACT math harder?

At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, it depends. It really does. The two exams test math differently (take a look at this ACT vs SAT comparison to see exactly how!). However, you’ll generally find ACT math easier than SAT math if:

You’re good at mental math, including finding shortcuts.
You have some familiarity with Algebra II/Trig, or are willing to learn
You prefer using a calculator (there’s a no-calculator math section on the SAT–but not on the ACT!)
You like multiple-choice questions, rather than grid-ins

Still not sure? Magoosh’s test prep expert, Kristin, breaks down the differences in the math sections even more here!

How do you get a 36 on the ACT Math?

Have you set your sights high when it comes to your ACT Math score? Awesome! We love it. Here are a few essential skills to get your math score into that stratospheric range. Then, for more advice, check out our guide to getting a perfect 36 on the math test!

  1. Pacing is key. Check out our tips for improving your timing on the ACT!
     
  2. Focus on high-frequency topics. Familiarize yourself with the most frequently tested math concepts as well as other key concepts for ACT Math to make sure you have them down pat by test day!
     
  3. Balance hard and easy problems. Practice with hard math problems–but don’t forget to practice easy and medium problems, too! After all, they’re just as common on the exam.
     
  4. Practice using formulas. Ensure you don’t just memorize math formulas–work on using them in context by applying them to ACT math practice questions!

Author

  • Rachel Kapelke-Dale

    Rachel is a Magoosh Content Creator. She writes and updates content on our High School and GRE Blogs to ensure students are equipped with the best information during their test prep journey. As a test-prep instructor for more than five years in there different countries, Rachel has helped students around the world prepare for various standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT, and she is one of the authors of our Magoosh ACT Prep Book. Rachel has a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from Brown University, an MA in Cinematography from the Université de Paris VII, and a Ph.D. in Film Studies from University College London. For over a decade, Rachel has honed her craft as a fiction and memoir writer and public speaker. Her novel, THE BALLERINAS, is forthcoming in December 2021 from St. Martin's Press, while her memoir, GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND, co-written with Jessica Pan, was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House. Her work has appeared in over a dozen online and print publications, including Vanity Fair Hollywood. When she isn't strategically stringing words together at Magoosh, you can find Rachel riding horses or with her nose in a book. Join her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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