SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

What's Tested on the ACT Math Section? Topics and Practice


Are you preparing for the ACT? You’re probably wondering what you need to know to be ready for the math section. For many students, the math section can be the most stressful part of the ACT because of its breadth and time difficulty.

In this post, we'll break down exactly what will appear on the ACT math test, with sample questions. We'll also give you the resources you need to start studying so you can get the best score possible.


What's the Format of the ACT Math Section?

The ACT math section is 60 minutes long, with 60 questions total – so you’ll have just one minute to complete each question. You’ll definitely have to work quickly if you want to answer each one! Every question is multiple choice, and there is no penalty for guessing.

Pacing and problem solving are the big challenges on the ACT math section. Pacing is tricky because you have to answer questions as quickly as possible without losing accuracy. In addition, you have to be able to quickly identify ways to solve problems. This is why studying specifically for ACT math is so important, since it requires you to work faster and more strategically than you have to in math class.

You need to be able to problem solve, or use what the ACT calls using reasoning abilities. In addition, the math questions are not ordered by topic, so you need to be prepared to quickly switch between topics like statistics, algebra, and geometry.


Test Content and Requirements

The ACT tests math skills that most students know by the beginning of grade 12 – which in practice means nothing beyond Algebra II. If you’re an advanced student, ACT math content will be very straightforward.

The content breakdown for ACT math is:

  • Pre-Algebra (20-25%)
  • Elementary Algebra (15-20%)
  • Intermediate Algebra (15-20%)
  • Coordinate Geometry (15-20%)
  • Plane Geometry (20-25%)
  • Trigonometry (5-10%)

We’ll explore those sections in-depth with example problems and explain how you get scores for each section.

You can use a calculator – but it has to be a permitted one. However, you’re not required to use a calculator, meaning all problems on the ACT can be solved without one. Be careful not to rely too much on your calculator if you use one, as it can actually slow you down. (For an expert discussion on the best calculators for standardized tests, see our post.)

Unlike the SAT, you’re not given a reference sheet, so you have to know basic math formulas (y = mx + b, the area formula, the quadratic formula, etc) but nothing too complex.


What Are ACT Math Section Subscores?

Your score is based on how many total points out of 60 possible you earn. That raw score is converted to a section score between 1 and 36 (for more on that process, see our ACT scoring guide).

You also receive three subscores based on the six content areas: pre-algebra and elementary algebra, intermediate algebra and coordinate geometry, and plane geometry and trigonometry. The subscores basically give more detailed information about your performance, but are generally not looked at too closely by colleges (your overall math section score and ACT composite are most important).

However, you can use the subscore areas to focus your studying by math topic. We will explore the three math subsections and show some example questions for each. You might find that you are more than prepared for one area but need to focus your practice on one topic, like trigonometry or coordinate geometry.

While we will give a detailed overview of what you can expect to see on the math section, we also recommend doing full practice tests so you can really get a sense of what the ACT math section is really like.


#1: Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra

Pre-Algebra (20-25%)

  • Basic operations using whole numbers, decimals, fractions, and integers
  • Place value
  • Square roots and approximations
  • The concept of exponents
  • Scientific notation
  • Factors
  • Ratio, proportion, and percent
  • Linear equations in one variable
  • Absolute value and ordering numbers by value
  • Elementary counting techniques and simple probability
  • Data collection, representation, and interpretation
  • Understanding simple descriptive statistics


body_operations.jpgA basic operations problem.


body_stats.jpgA probability problem based on a real-world situation.


Elementary Algebra (15-20%)

  • Properties of exponents and square roots
  • Evaluation of algebraic expressions through substitution
  • Using variables to express functional relationships
  • Understanding algebraic operations
  • The solution of quadratic equations by factoring



Two elementary algebra problems. The first uses variables to express a real-world relationship. The second tests evaluation of algebraic expressions through substitution.


#2: Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry

Intermediate Algebra (15-20%)

  • The quadratic formula
  • Rational and radical expressions
  • Absolute value equations and inequalities
  • Sequences and patterns
  • Systems of equations
  • Quadratic inequalities
  • Functions and modeling
  • Matrices
  • Roots of polynomials
  • Complex numbers





Coordinate Geometry (15-20%)

  • Graphing and the relations between equations and graphs, including points, lines, polynomials, circles, and other curves
  • Graphing inequalities
  • Slope
  • Parallel and perpendicular lines
  • Distance
  • Midpoints
  • Conics




#3: Plane Geometry/Trigonometry

Plane Geometry (20-25%)

  • Properties and relations of plane figures, including angles and relations among perpendicular and parallel lines
  • Properties of circles, triangles, rectangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids
  • Transformations
  • The concept of proof and proof techniques
  • Volume
  • Applications of geometry to three dimensions



Trigonometry (5-10%)

  • Trigonometric relations in right triangles
  • Values and properties of trigonometric functions
  • Graphing trigonometric functions
  • Modeling using trigonometric functions
  • Use of trigonometric identities
  • Solving trigonometric equations

 body_trig.jpgExample questions via Preparing for the ACT.


Where Can You Find ACT Math Practice Materials?

Now that you know what's on ACT Math, your next step is to start practicing! The most important way to prepare for the ACT is to take practice tests. We have links to free, official online practice tests to get you started. If you need to especially practice math, you can just take the Math sections, but for everyone we recommend you take at least a few full-length practice ACTs so you can get an idea of how well you'd do on the entire exam and get experience taking such a long test.

A prep book can also be a major help while you're studying ACT Math, especially if there are some concepts you're still struggling to understand. However, it's important to get a high-quality prep book. See our guide to the best ACT prep books on the market.


What’s Next?

Not sure what your target ACT score should be? Learn what a good, bad, or excellent score looks like, and the type of score you should aim for based on your dream colleges.

Want some help studying? Consider using our PrepScholar program. We take the hard part out of studying so you can focus on practicing for the test, using high-quality practice questions, and improving your weak areas.

Are you not a big fan of geometry? See if it’s possible to take the ACT without geometry.

Looking for a perfect ACT math score? Get tips from our 36 full-scorer.



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Halle Edwards
About the Author

Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.

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