Are you struggling with ACT Math scores between 14-24? You're not alone - hundreds of thousands of other students are scoring in this range. But many don't know the best ways to break out of this score range and get 26+ on the ACT.
Here we'll discuss how to improve ACT Math score effectively, and why it's so important to do so. Put these principles to work and I'm confident you'll be able to improve your score.
Brief note: This article is tailored for lower-scoring students, currently scoring below a 26 on ACT Math. If you're already above this range, my perfect 36 ACT Math score article will be better for you as it contains advanced strategies.
In this article, I'm going to discuss why scoring high is a good idea, what it takes to score a 26, and then go into ACT Math tips.
Stick with me - this is like constructing a building. First you need to lay a good foundation before putting up the walls and windows. Similarly, we need to first understand why you're doing what you're doing, before diving into tips and strategies.
In this guide, I talk mainly about getting to a 26. But if your goal is to get to a 24 or lower, these tips still equally apply.
Understand the Stakes
At this ACT score range, improving your low ACT Math score to a 26 range will dramatically boost your chances of getting into better colleges.
The reason? A 26 puts you well above the national average of all ACT test takers, at about 83%ile. This is roughly equivalent to a 1200 out of 1600 on the SAT.
Let's take a popular school, Pennsylvania State University, as an example.
Its average ACT score is a 27. Its 25th percentile score is a 24, and 75th percentile is a 29.
Furthermore, its acceptance rate is 55%. In other words, a little more than half of all applicants are admitted. Good odds, but the lower your scores, the worse your chances.
In our analysis, if you apply with an ACT score of 22, your chance of admission drops to 22.4%, or around a 1 in 4 chance.
But if you raise your score to a 26, your chance of admission goes up to 46.7% - double the chances of admission, for just 4 points of improvement.
And because your ACT Math score factors into your ACT composite score, raising your Math score will really help raise the average of your total score.
It's really worth your time to improve your ACT score. Hour for hour, it's the best thing you can do to raise your chance of getting into college.
Curious what chances you have with a 26 ACT score? Check out our expert college admissions guide for a 26 ACT score.
Know that You Can Do It
This isn't just some lame inspirational message you see on the back of a milk carton.
I mean, literally, you and every other student can do this.
In my work with PrepScholar, I've worked with thousands of students scoring in the lower ranges of 15-21.
Time after time, I see students who beat themselves up over their low score and think improving it is impossible. "I know I'm not smart." "I just don't get algebra and I can't see myself scoring high." "I don't know what to study to improve my score."
It breaks my heart.
Because I know that more than anything else, your ACT score is a reflection of how hard you work and how smartly you study.
Not your IQ and not your school grades. Not how Ms. Huffington in 9th grade said you'd never get geometry.
Here's why: the ACT is a weird test. When you take it, don't you get the sense that the questions are often different from straightforward math questions you've seen in school?
It's purposely designed this way. The ACT can't test difficult concepts, because this would be unfair for students who aren't yet at Calculus level. It can't ask you to analyze quantum physics. The ACT is a national test, which means it needs a level playing field for all students around the country.
So it HAS to test concepts that all high school students will cover. Numbers (integers, fractions), algebra (solve for x), coordinate geometry (lines and slopes), plane geometry (triangles, circles, lines), and other topics like trigonometry.
You've learned all of this before in high school.
But the ACT still has to make the test difficult, so it needs to test these concepts in strange ways. This trips up students who don't prepare, but it rewards students who understand the test well.
Here's an example:
This is a classic ACT type question. It tests really simple concepts in a complicated way.
The first time you see this, it might be confusing. How do I find the area of the entire area? How do I find the area of A? Why does this look like a brick wall?
But you've learned all the concepts you need to solve this.
This is a simple question about areas and fractions.
As the first sentence tells us, there are three rows of equal area. Each of these rows are split up into two, three or four equal areas. Each region is labeled A, B or C. The question is asking us for the fraction of the square's area in the region labeled A.
Notice that there are three regions labeled A - one in each row.
Let's use a strategy to solve this - let's plug in a number. We'll use 12 for the area of a row. Because there are 3 rows, the total area is 36.
In the first row, there are 2 equal regions - A and B. To divide 12 into 2 regions, each would have area 6. So A in the first row has 6 area.
In the next row, there are 3 equal regions - A, B, and C. Once again, to divide 12 into 3 regions, each would have area 4. So A in the second row has 4 area.
Finally, in the last row there are 4 equal regions - A, B, C, and D. To divide 12 into 4 regions, each would have area 3. So A in the third row has 3 area.
So what's the total area covered by A? 6 + 4 + 3 = 13.
What's the total area of the square? We said it above - 36.
So the "fraction of the square's area..in a region labeled A" is 13/36.
This might have been confusing the first time, but the next time you see a question like this, you'll know what to do.
The ACT math section is full of examples like this.
To improve your score, you just need to:
- Learn the types of questions that the ACT tests, like the one above
- Put together the concepts you already know to solve the questions
- Practice on a lot of questions so you learn from your mistakes
I'll go into more detail about exactly how to do this. First, let's see how many questions you need to get right.
What It Takes to Get a 26 in ACT Math
If we have a target ACT score in mind, it helps to understand how many questions you need to get right on the actual test.
The ACT Math section has 60 questions on it. Depending on how many questions you get right, you'll get a Scaled score out of 36.
Here's the raw score to ACT Math Score conversion table. (If you could use a refresher on how the ACT is scored and how raw scores are calculated, read this.)
So if you're aiming for a 26, on this test you need to get just 40 questions correct. This is just a 66% on the test!
Also, keep in mind that you'll be able to GUESS on a lot of questions. Because there are five answer choices, you get a lot of questions right with a 20% chance!
So here's an example. Let's say you know how to solve just 35 questions for sure. You guess on the remaining 25 and get five of them right by chance. This gives you a raw score of 40, or a scaled score of 26!
This has serious implications for your testing strategy. In essence, you only need to answer 2/3 of all questions right. We'll go into more detail below about what this means for your testing strategy below.
Whatever you're scoring now, take note of the difference you need to get to a 26. For example, if you're scoring a 22, you need to answer 8-10 more questions right to get to a 26.
Once again, if your goal is a score below 26, like a 24, the same analysis applies. Just look up what your Raw Score demands above.
9 Strategies to Improve Your Low ACT Math Score
OK - so we've covered why scoring a higher ACT Math score is important, why you specifically are capable of improving your score, and the raw score you need to get to your target.
Now we'll actually get into actionable ACT Math tips that you should use in your own studying to maximize your score improvement.
Strategy 1: Skip the Most Difficult Math Questions
Here's the strategy I'm starting with, because I believe it can earn you immediate points the very next time you take a practice test. It's also an easy strategy most students don't do enough.
Remember what I said above about raw score? To score a 26, you only need a 40 out of 60 raw score.
Put in another way - you can completely miss 20 questions (33% of the test) and still score a 26.
Wow - you can completely skip the hardest 30% of all questions and still hit your goal.
Why is this such a powerful strategy?
It gives you WAY more time on easy and medium difficulty questions - the questions you have a good chance of getting right.
If you're usually pressed for time on ACT Math, this will be a huge help. And this is pretty much everyone - even I (a perfect ACT scorer) feel time pressure on this section.
Here's an example. On ACT Math, you get 60 minutes to answer 60 math questions. This is usually pretty hard for most students to get through - it's just 60 seconds to answer each question, and some of these questions take a lot of time.
The average student will try to push through ALL the questions.
"I've got to get through them all, since I've got a shot at getting each question right," they think. Along the way, they'll probably rush and make careless mistakes on easy questions they SHOULD have gotten right.
And then they spend five minutes on the very last, hardest question, making no progress and wasting time.
Here's what I suggest instead. Completely skip the last 20% of questions in the math section. This is the last 12 questions. Don't even look at them, don't even read them.
Instead, focus all your energy on getting the first 80% of questions correct.
This works because, unlike Reading and Writing, Math questions are ordered by difficulty. The hardest questions are always the questions at the end of the subsection.
Let's use an example from real practice tests. This is Question #60, the very last question of the section:
Pretty tough, right? It'll take you quite some time just to even READ the question.
But here's question 39, a question you should spend more time on:
This is just finding the slope, given two points. A lot easier for you to get right.
By skipping questions like this, you raise your time per question from 60 to 75 seconds per question. This is huge! It's a 25% boost to the time you get per question. This raises your chances of getting easy/medium questions right a lot.
And the 12 questions you skipped? Like the example above, they're so hard you're honestly better off not even trying them. These questions are meant for 27-36 scorers who have mastered all the ACT math skills on the test.
If you get to a 26, then you have the right to try these questions. Not before you to get to 26.
Strategy 2: Find Your Math Weaknesses and Drill Them
If you're like most students, you're better at some math subjects than others. You might have done better in algebra than geometry. Or maybe you really like trig, but hate probability.
If you're like most students, you also don't have an unlimited amount of time to study. You have a lot of homework, you might be an athlete or have band practice, and you want to send Snaps to your friends.
This means for every hour you study for the ACT, it needs to be the most effective hour possible.
In concrete terms, you need to find your greatest areas of improvement and work on those.
Too many students study the 'dumb' way. They just buy a book and read it cover to cover. When they don't improve, they're shocked.
Studying effectively for the ACT isn't like painting a house. You're not trying to paint thin layers across a huge span of material.
What these students did wrong was they wasted time on subjects they already knew, and they didn't spend enough time fixing their weaknesses.
Instead, studying effectively for the ACT is like plugging up the holes of a leaky boat. You need to find the biggest hole, and fill it. Then you find the next biggest hole, and you fix that. Soon you'll find that your boat isn't sinking at all.
How does this relate to ACT math? You need to find the skills that you're weakest in, and then drill those until you're no longer weak in them. Fixing up the biggest holes.
If you had to study 10 hours for ACT Math, wouldn't you rather improve four points than one point? This is how you do it - focusing your attention on what will make the biggest difference for you.
Here's our complete mapping of all 24 skills tested on ACT Math:
- Rational numbers
- Single Variable Equations
- Word Problems
- Complex Numbers
- Systems of equations
- Coordinate Geometry
- Conic Sections
- Plane Geometry
- Lines and Slopes
- Misc Topics
- Solid Geometry
I know this is overwhelming. ACT Math covers most of basic high school math, which is a LOT of stuff.
Looking at this list, do you know where your weaknesses are? Do you know what you need to train on to get the most out of your study time?
If not, I'm not surprised. This is hard for even the best students to do. It takes a lot of test knowledge to be able to categorize questions, and it takes a lot of discipline to analyze your mistakes.
For every question that you miss, you need to identify the type of question it is. When you notice patterns to the questions you miss, you then need to find extra practice for this subskill.
Say you miss a lot of coordinate geometry questions (the ones involving an x-y grid and lines). You need to find a way to get lesson material to teach yourself the main concepts that you're forgetting. Then you need to find more practice questions for this skill so you can drill your mistakes.
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Strategy 3: Focus On the Most Important Skills, and Ignore the Rest
But wait, there's more.
Remember the 24 skills listed above? Not all of them are made equal.
Some are represented FAR more often than others. In fact, the most common skill (numbers-rational numbers) is 56 TIMES more likely to appear than the least common skill (complex numbers).
As you can see, it's not enough just to divide into rough subjects like algebra, geometry, and data analysis. Even within algebra, some concepts appear FAR more often than others. If you ignore this distinction, you'll waste a lot of time studying things you don't even have to know!
So I'm about to make your day. I'm going to tell you the most important skills you HAVE to practice hard, and all the skills you DON'T need to study. If you've been nervous about how much ACT Math material you need to know, you'll feel a lot better soon.
First, here are the most common ACT Math skills. I'll explain the % of questions for that skill, and the # of questions you can expect to see:
|# of Q's
|Numbers - Rational Numbers
|Algebra - Functions
|Algebra - Operations
|Numbers - Integers
|Algebra - Single Variable
|Plane Geometry - Triangles
|Plane Geometry - Polygons
|Coord. Geometry - Lines
|Plane Geometry - Circles
|Algebra - Word Problems
This is great news - with just 11 skills (46% of all 24 skills), you actually cover 77% of the test! This is huge!
For example, if you mastered just these skills and got all 45 questions right, that would already bring you up to a 28.
In reality, this is unrealistic because some of these 45 questions are going to be pretty tough, and questions I recommend you skip as mentioned in Strategy 1. But you can see how important the most important skills are to getting a great score.
Focus on what really makes up most of the pie.
Now, what skills do you NOT have to know? Here are the LEAST common skills on ACT Math:
|# of Q's
|Coord. Geometry - Points
|Numbers - Statistics
|Numbers - Probability
|Algebra - Inequalities
|Plane Geometry - Lines and Angles
|Geometry - Solid Geometry
|Numbers - Sequences
|Algebra - Systems of Equations
|Coord. Geometry - Polynomials
|Coord. Geometry - Conic Sections
|Coord. Geometry - Reflections, Translations
|Algebra - Matrices
|Algebra - Complex Numbers
Look at these 13 skills. Altogether, they add up to a measly 23% of the entire test.
Remember what % of the test you need to get right to get a 26? It's 66%.
If you completely ignored these 13 skills, you'd still be able to get a maximum score of 28.
So good news! You don't need to study complex numbers, matrices, conic sections, and other subjects above. Good riddance, because these are some of the more complicated subjects.
When you study, make sure you focus your time on what's really impactful.
Once again, I believe in this strategy so much that I designed our PrepScholar ACT program around this idea. Your PrepScholar program does all the hard work for you by automatically customizing your prep program to exactly what you need to do to improve your score most. You'll work on the most important skills first so that you get the most out of every hour you study. You just need to focus on learning and doing questions.
Strategy 4: Practice Using Only Realistic, High Quality Sources
After reading the three strategies above, you might be hyped up to go out and practice.
The question is - what are you actually going to use to study? Books? A prep program?
Be really careful about which sources you choose to use. Honestly, most of them are pretty bad.
A lot of prep programs and books don't have very realistic ACT Math questions. They're either too hard, too easy, or structured incorrectly. The root of this problem is lack of true understanding of the ACT Math section. Without going through a full question by question analysis of the test, you really can't understand the test deeply. This means your materials will be terrible.
OK - so what do you use?
The very, very best source for ACT Math questions is the Official ACT Tests. This is why as part of PrepScholar, we include these official practice tests to gauge your progress and train you on the real thing.
Unfortunately, you often need supplemental questions focused on your weaknesses above. For instance, if you're weak in rational numbers, you want to drill those questions over and over again to master your weaknesses.
If you're interested in a prep program that can provide all the test content you need to excel, I'd suggest you consider PrepScholar. Obviously as creator of the program I can be biased, but I honestly believe we have the highest quality Math questions available anywhere. This is because of the level of scrutiny and understanding of the test that I think no other company has achieved:
- We've deconstructed every available official ACT Practice Test, question by question, answer choice by answer choice. We've statistically studied every question type on the test (like you saw above). We understand exactly how questions are phrased and how wrong answer choices are constructed.
- As head of product, I'm responsible for content quality. I hire only the most qualified content writers to craft our test content. This means people who have scored perfect scores on the ACT, have hundreds of hours of ACT teaching experience, and have graduated from Ivy League schools like Harvard.
This results in the most realistic, highest quality ACT Math questions possible.
Even if you don't use PrepScholar, you should be confident that whatever resource you DO use undergoes the same scrutiny as we do. If you're not sure, or you see reviews saying otherwise, then avoid it. Make sure you avoid duds.
Strategy 5: Understand All Your ACT Math Mistakes
Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed that question, you will make that mistake over and over again.
Too many students scoring at the 14-24 level refuse to study their mistakes.
It's harsh. I get it. It sucks to stare your mistakes in the face. It's draining to learn difficult concepts you don't already understand.
So the average student will breeze past their mistakes and instead focus on areas they're already comfortable with. It's like a warm blanket. Their thinking goes like this: "So I'm good at geometry? I should do more geometry problems! They make me feel good about myself."
The result? NO SCORE IMPROVEMENT.
You don't want to be like these students. So here's what you need to do:
- On every practice test or question set that you take, mark every question that you're even 20% unsure about.
- When you grade your test or quiz, review every single question that you marked, and every incorrect question. This way even if you guessed a question correctly, you'll make sure to review it.
- In a notebook, write down the gist of the question, why you missed it, and what you'll do to avoid that mistake in the future. Have separate sections by subject and sub-topic (number theory - fractions, algebra - solving equations, etc.).
It's not enough to just think about it and move on. It's not enough to just read the answer explanation. You have to think hard about why you specifically failed on this question.
By taking this structured approach to your mistakes, you'll now have a running log of every question you missed, and your reflection on why.
No excuses when it comes to your mistakes.
Go Deeper - WHY Did You Miss a Math Question?
Now, what are some common reasons that you missed a question? Don't just say, "I didn't know this material." That's a cop out.
Always take it one step further - what specifically did you miss, and what do you have to improve in the future?
Here are some examples of common reasons you miss a question, and how you take the analysis one step further:
Content: I didn't learn the skill or knowledge needed to answer this question.
One step further: What specific skill do I need to learn, and how will I learn this skill?
Incorrect Approach: I knew the content, but I didn't know how to approach this question.
One step further: How do I solve the question? How will I solve questions like this in the future?
Careless Error: I misread what the question was asking for or solved for the wrong thing
One step further: Why did I misread the question? What should I do in the future to avoid this?
Get the idea? You're really digging into understanding why you're missing questions.
Yes, this is hard, and it's draining, and it takes work. That's why most students who study ineffectively don't improve.
But you're different. Just by reading this guide, you're already proving that you care more than other students. And if you apply these principles and analyze your mistakes, you'll improve more than other students too.
Strategy 6: Experiment With Different Strategies to Solve Math Problems
Sometimes, you get really stuck on a question. You just have no idea how to solve it, and the first step doesn't seem obvious.
When this happens, a really useful skill to learn is having a toolkit of alternative strategies to solve a question. Broadly speaking, there are two that will come up most often: Plugging in Numbers, and Plugging in Answers.
Let's see an example in action:
Let's you don't know exactly where to start and how to solve this the algebraic way. In this case, you can plug in sample numbers to see how the surface area changes.
Plug in Numbers
Let's do something simple: length, width, and height are all equal to 1.
Thus, A = 2*1*1 + 2*1*1 + 2*1*1 = 6.
Then, we double each of the dimensions, so length, width, and height are all equal to 2.
Now, A = 2*2*2 + 2*2*2 + 2*2*2 = 24.
24 is 4 times greater than 6. So the surface area is multiplied by a factor of 4.
That was pretty straightforward!
Bonus: Algebraic way
You can also solve this question by directly plugging in 2l, 2w, and 2h into the equation.
The original area = 2lw + 2lh + 2wh
The new area = 2*2l*2w + 2*2l*2h + 2*2w*2h
You might see that you can factor out a 4 in front:
= 4 (2lw + 2lh + 2wh)
And thus the area increases by a factor of 4.
In both your practice and your real test, try to get unstuck by approaching the question differently. Check out our strategy guides on Plugging in Answers and Plugging in Numbers to see more details on how these work.
Strategy 7: Monitor Your Time During the ACT Math Section
Once again, time pressure is a big problem for 14-24 scorers. Because many questions are difficult, it's easy to get sucked into a hard problem and spend minutes trying to solve it. This takes away time from other questions that you can solve and get points for.
There are two ways to ease time pressure for yourself. The first way is by getting better at the test. By doing more practice, you'll automatically get faster at solving each question. By learning patterns to what the ACT asks, more questions will just 'click' for you.
The other way is to monitor the time you're spending on each question. What you want to avoid is spending too much time on a single question, since this gives you less time for other math problems.
Remember: all points on the ACT are worth the same as each other. An easy question is worth one point, as is the most difficult question on the entire test.
So here's what I recommend: if you spend 30 seconds on a problem and aren't clear how you can get to the answer, skip and go to the next question.
If you finish the section early, you'll have time to get back to the questions you skipped. You'll especially have extra time if you follow my first skipping strategy (skip the most difficult questions).
Even if you don't have time to get back to the questions you skipped, you just bought yourself time to try a lot of other questions.
Strategy 8: Bubble In Your Answers All at Once
Here's a bubbling tip that will save you at least three minutes per section.
When I first started test taking in high school, I did what many students do: after I finished one question, I went to the bubble sheet and filled it in. Then I went back to the booklet and solved the next question. Finish question 1, bubble in answer 1. Finish question 2, bubble in answer 2. And so forth.
This actually wastes a lot of time. You're distracting yourself doing two things at once - solving questions, and bubbling in answers. This is like rubbing your belly and patting your head. This costs you time in both mental distraction and in physically moving your hand and eyes to different areas of the test.
Here's a better method: solve all your questions first in the book, then bubble all of them in at once.
This has several huge advantages: you focus on each task one at a time, rather than switching between two different tasks. You also eliminate careless entry errors, like if you skip question 7 and bubble in question 8's answer into question 7's slot.
By saving just three seconds per question, you get back 360 seconds on a section that has 60 questions. This is huge! It's six extra minutes, which you can use to solve a lot more questions!
Note: Be careful as you watch your time that you fill in all your current answers with at least five minutes remaining! Otherwise, you might run out of time before you have the chance to bubble in the answer choices all at once. Make sure you practice this on a full-length practice test so you're confident with it.
Strategy 9: Guess on Every Question You Don't Know
You might already know this one, but if you don't, you're about to earn some serious points.
The ACT has no guessing penalty for getting a wrong answer. That means there's no reason to leave any question blank.
Now, before you finish the section, make sure every blank question has an answer filled in. You do not want to look at your answer sheet and see any blank questions.
For every question you're unsure about, make sure you guess as best you can. If you can eliminate just one answer choice, that gives you a much better shot at getting it right.
If you have no idea, just guess! You have a 20% chance of getting it right.
Most people know this strategy already, so if you don't do this, you're at a SERIOUS disadvantage. This is really important when you use Strategy #1 of skipping questions - if you don't guess on the questions, you'll miss out on free points!
Those are the main strategies I have for you to improve your ACT math score. If you're scoring an 18, you can improve it to a 23. If you're scoring a 22, you can boost it to a 26. I guarantee it, if you put in the right amount of work, and study like I'm suggesting above.
Notice that I didn't actually teach you any math content. I didn't point to any formulas that you need to know, or specific math solutions that will instantly raise your score.
That's because these one-size-fits-all, guaranteed strategies don't really exist. (And anyone who tells you this is deceiving you). Every student is different.
Instead, you need to understand where you're falling short, and drill those weaknesses continuously. You also need to be thoughtful about your mistakes and leave no mistake ignored.
This is really important to your future. Make sure you give ACT prep the attention it deserves, before it's too late, and you get a rejection letter you didn't want.
If you want to review any of the strategies, here's a list of all of them:
Strategy 1: Skip the Most Difficult Math Questions
Strategy 2: Find Your Math Weaknesses and Drill Them
Strategy 3: Focus On the Most Important Skills. Ignore the Rest
Strategy 4: Use Only Realistic, High Quality Sources
Strategy 5: Understand All Your Math Mistakes
Strategy 6: Experiment with Different Strategies to Solve Math Problems
Strategy 7: Monitor Your Time During the Math Section
Strategy 8: Bubble In Your Answers All At Once
Strategy 9: Guess on Every Question You Don't Know
We have a lot more useful guides to raise your ACT score.
What's a good ACT score for you? Read our detailed guide on figuring out your ACT target score.
Want a bunch of free ACT practice tests to practice with? Here's our comprehensive list of every free ACT practice test.
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As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT. You can also find Allen on his personal website, Shortform, or the Shortform blog.