A Guide to the Math Section of the ACT
Like the SAT, the ACT is a common standardized test designed to measure college-readiness. It is generally used by college admissions committees as they make decisions about college applicants and, in some states, is also a high school graduation requirement.
The ACT consists of four required sections and one optional section. The required sections are: Reading, English, Science, and Math, and the optional section is Writing. The Math section is the longest section on the ACT, and it is well known for its fast pace, broad content, and predictable format.
In this post, we’ll guide you through what to expect when you get to the Math section of the ACT. First we’ll outline the format and scoring process, and then we’ll move onto the skills and content it assesses. Finally, we’ll share some of our favorite strategies for the Math section of the ACT.
Read on to learn more about the Math ACT.
What is the format of the Math ACT?
The Math section of the ACT is the second section on the test. It follows the English section and precedes a 10-minute break. For some students, the first challenge of the Math section is shifting gears from humanities-based thinking to computational thinking.
If this is the case for you, we recommend practicing some mind-clearing strategies during your practice tests that you can employ on the real test if they seem to work for you. Try taking several deep, meditative breaths while the test proctor reads the instructions. As you do so, roll your shoulders or arch and relax your back. Repeatedly practicing these simple relaxation tricks during practice tests will help to create a mental cue for test day when you need to be able to shift gears quickly.
Once you’ve cleared your mind of all the thinking you just did on the English section, you’re ready to get started on Math. The Math section of the ACT consists of 60 questions delivered in 60 minutes. The questions are not arranged by subject area or topic, but they are generally ordered by level of difficulty. This means that questions that are commonly found easiest will be found at the beginning of the test and that the questions will progress to become more difficult or complex.
But don’t worry if you get to a question at the beginning that completely stumps you. While these are generally arranged according to difficulty, each student will find some variation that results from his or her own strengths. It is not uncommon for even well prepared students to find a few of the earlier questions difficult or a few of the later questions much easier. Just do your best and move on if you find an early question that seems quite tricky for you.
Approved calculators are allowed on the ACT, but test designers note that all questions can technically be solved without a calculator. Be sure to review the full ACT calculator policy. It’s worth noting that the popular TI-89 calculator is not permitted. In fact, use of a TI-89 is the most common reason students are dismissed from the ACT test for prohibited calculator use.
You should also be aware that unlike on the SAT, there are no references provided on the ACT. This means that you will need to know all necessary common math formulas on your own. These generally include y = mx + b, the area formula, the quadratic formula, and others, but nothing too complex. Read more about this in our strategy section below.
How Is the Math ACT Scored?
Like the other required sections of the ACT, your score report for the ACT Math section will not directly indicate the number of questions that you got correct. The number that does represent the number of questions you answered correctly is called your raw score, and it is used to equate your scaled score.
Your scaled scored will be between 1-36. The scaling process is different from grading on a curve in that it does not take into account the performance of other students taking the same test as you. Instead, it ensures that the same level of knowledge and mastery is required for every student who achieves the same score, regardless of which version of the test he or she takes. Basically, it accounts for very slight differences in test difficulty to create an even scoring platform across every version of the test.
While your scaled score is the most important number from the Math section and is used to average into your composite score, it is not the only score you’ll receive. You will also receive three subscores based on the six content areas. These subscores are: Preparing for Higher Math, Integrating Essential Skills, and Modeling. The Preparing for Higher Math subscore is further broken down into specific content areas including Number & Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, and Statistics & Probability.
Each of your subscores will be displayed on a bar graph with a corresponding ACT Readiness Range indicated above the graph by a purple line. A check mark will appear beside it if you met the ACT College Readiness Benchmark. These benchmarks are standards of performance intended to predict a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding first-year college courses.
Don’t worry too much about subscores and ACT Benchmarks. Most colleges will weigh your composite score most heavily and may give some consideration to your section scores, but they will not generally weigh subscores into admissions decisions. Instead, the subscores and the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks should be used to guide your studying for any future ACTs.
What skills does the Math ACT assess?
The Math ACT covers a lot of content knowledge and is one of the test sections best suited for direct, rote studying of specific curriculum. The content on the Math ACT breaks down as follows:
- Pre-Algebra (20-25%)
- Elementary Algebra (15-20%)
- Intermediate Algebra (15-20%)
- Coordinate Geometry (15-20%)
- Plane Geometry (20-25%)
- Trigonometry (5-10%)
More specifically, in terms of Algebra content the test will contain approximately 14 pre-algebra questions based on math terminology like integers and prime numbers, basic number theory including rules of zero and order of operations, and manipulation of fractions and decimals. It will include about 9-10 elementary algebra questions that cover topics like inequalities, linear equations, ratios, percentages, and averages, and about 9-10 intermediate algebra questions that will be based on exponents, roots, simultaneous equations, and quadratic equations.
The geometry content on the test will include approximately 14 plane geometry questions. These will be based on content including angles, lengths, triangles, quadrilaterals, circles, perimeter, area, and volume. There will be 9-10 coordinate geometry questions covering topics like slope, distance, parallel and perpendicular lines, points of intersection, and graphing.
Finally, there will be about 4-5 trigonometry questions covering basic sine, cosine, and tangent functions, trig identities, and graphing.
Looking to start studying somewhere? The content listed above is a great outline for a study sheet. Going through it piece by piece will help to organize your studying and guide you as you prepare for the Math section of the ACT.
What are some good strategies on the Math ACT?
1. Move more quickly at the beginning to conserve time for the harder questions at the end.
It can be easy to think of the pace of the test as about one minute per question, based on 60 questions to be completed in 60 minutes. This actually isn’t the best pacing guide, though. Because of the test’s design, which organizes generally easier questions at the beginning and more difficult questions towards the end, you should endeavor to reach the midway point of the test much earlier than an even pace would predict. Instead of answering the first 30-40 questions in 30-40 minutes, try to answer them in 20-30 minutes. This will leave you about 30 minutes for the last 20 questions, which are generally more difficult or complex.
One solid strategy to accomplish this is to skip over questions that seem initially very difficult for you. If you find that you’ve spent 10 seconds thinking about a question and still have no idea how to begin solving it, write down your best guess, circle the question number, and move on. If you have time left at the end of the section, and you can come back and revisit these questions. If you run out of time, at least you’ve filled in a guess and at worst have a 25% chance of getting it correct.
2. Write down at least part of your mental and calculator calculations.
There will undoubtedly be some questions that you immediately know how to solve quickly, either in your hand or with the use of your calculator. On these questions, you are probably tempted to fill in the answer as quickly as possible and move on. While time is definitely of the essence and your instincts aren’t completely off base, you should write down at least part of your mental or calculator calculations.
If you arrive at an answer that doesn’t seem quite right, or that isn’t one of the answer options, you will want to know where you went wrong. Going back to re-solve the question from scratch will ultimately cost you more time.
If you’ve written down part of your calculations, at least you may have a better idea of where you went wrong. Maybe you pressed a wrong button on your calculator. Maybe you added in your head instead of multiplying. Whatever the case may be, hopefully you’ve notated enough of the equating that you do not have to start again from the beginning to find or check your answer.
3. Break down word problems.
For even the most savvy math students, word problems can present a real hurdle. Sometimes there is irrelevant information included. Sometimes the actual question isn’t immediately obvious. In any case, you should have a strategy for breaking word problems down as you read them.
Most often, this includes underlining figures that indicate numerical value, crossing out numbers that are irrelevant, and circling words that indicate function. For example, words like per, each, and every usually indicate a rate, so you will likely need to use multiplication or division to arrive at your answer.
Sometimes, it can even help to draw a quick sketch of the scenario to help you envision it. Whatever the case may be, make sure you have a clear idea of what the question is asking before you begin solving it. Otherwise, you could get stuck with calculations that ultimately bear no relevance to the real question being asked.
4. Know when to use your calculator, and when to leave it alone.
Although an approved calculator is allowed on the entire test, it is not required on any of it. That is to say, the entire ACT can be completed without the use of a calculator. For that reason, it’s best to think of your calculator as a helpful tool, but not a crutch. If, during your practice tests, you find yourself using it for every question, or even for most of the questions, particularly at the beginning of the test when questions are not particularly complex, you should evaluate why you are using it so much.
Always try to use mental math first. For example, when you’ve finally reduced an equation down to 3x + 6 = 21, you should be able to solve for X without using your calculator. You may think you are doing yourself a favor by checking your mental math, but really you are eating up precious time and sometimes even putting yourself at risk of making careless errors by trusting your calculator more than you trust yourself.
As you practice for the Math ACT, try to gauge your use of the calculator. If you think you are using it for more problems than you are not, try to identify why. Take a practice test and note each question on which you use a calculator. Then, when you’re finished with the section, look at which types of questions they are. This could reveal some gaps in your content knowledge that are easily remedied. It is always better in the long-term to fill in these gaps before the test rather than use your calculator unnecessarily on the actual test.
5. Backsolve from answer choices.
This strategy is particularly helpful on algebra questions. On a test with multiple-choice answers, it is fairly simple to work backwards when trying to solve for an unknown variable. All you need to do is take each answer choice, plug it into the equation, and see if it works.
To maximize your efficiency, start with the value that seems most reasonable to you and go from there. If it doesn’t work, move on to the remaining answer choice that seems next most probable. Even if you have no idea how to solve for the variable using your algebra skills, back solving will allow you to arrive at the correct answer in a fairly efficient timeframe.
6. Be familiar with the content covered.
As we mentioned earlier, there is no reference sheet provided for the Math section of the ACT. For this reason, you should arrive at the test having already memorized the formulas that you’ll most likely need to apply on it.
Formulas that you should know ahead of time include:
- Slope-intercept formula
- Quadratic formula
- Area of triangles
- Pythagorean theorem
- Special types of triangles (30-60-90, isosceles, equilateral, etc.)
- Area of a circle
- Area of a sector
- Area of a rectangle
- Area of a parallelogram
- Area of trapezoid
- Trigonometry functions (sin, cos, tan, SOHCAHTOA)
You can study these by creating flashcards, making your own Quizlet, or taking turns quizzing friends. You could even enlist the help of a friend or family member once you have the list written out. For some students, the simple act of writing each equation in its entirety can be an important learning tool.
Where can I find free study resources for the Math ACT?
The ACT website provides a number of sample test questions that can be used to guide your studying and to practice skills. The website also provides a free ACT study guide that includes a test overview and some test strategy tips.
For access to the ACT Question of the Day, create an account with ACT Profile. Each daily question will come with an in-depth answer explanation. You will also need this account to register for tests online and to access your online score report, so it’s a good idea to open one, regardless of whether you plan to use the Question of the Day feature.
You may also find an official, full-length printable ACT practice test here.
Finally, you can find an extensive collection of free ACT Quizlets to reinforce specific math knowledge such as formulas and vocabulary. These are great for reviewing with a friend or family member. There are also free practice questions with detailed solutions available here.
To learn more about the ACT test, check out these CollegeVine posts:
- What Is a Good ACT Score?
- ACT vs SAT/SAT Subject Tests
- When Should I Take the SAT or ACT?
- 13 Tips for ACT Test Day
- How the ACT’s Graded: A Breakdown
- Which Section of the SAT and ACT Is Most Important?
- 3 Grammar Rules Every Student Messes Up On the ACT
- ACT Statistics: Participation and Rankings By State
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