How is the ACT Scored?
The Highest Score Possible
The ACT composite score ranges from 1 to 36 and is an average of four subject scores – English, Math, Reading, and Science – also ranging from 1 to 36. In order to get near a 36, you need to be able to succeed in all four subjects, not just one or two. Keep this in mind when preparing; don’t put all your attention towards one subject and neglect the others!
Each of the sections is scored from 1 to 36 after converting the raw score (the raw number of questions correct out of the total number of questions for that section) into a scaled score. The scale varies slightly from test to test, so in some cases, one question wrong might mean a 35 scale score, but in other cases, one question wrong might still count as a 36. This varies from test to test, but it also depends on the section. For example, the scale for the science section is usually more sensitive to incorrect answers than the math section because the math section has many more questions.
Composite Scores and Superscoring
The ACT has recently updated its policies regarding superscoring: the ability to combine your highest section scores from multiple tests to create the highest composite score possible. You can now superscore the ACT, meaning that you can potentially focus on one or two sections at a time to make preparation more manageable.
According to the official ACT website, “ACT will now provide an automatically calculated ACT Superscore to all students who have taken the ACT more than once from September 2016 to the current day”. While previously, your composite score was only the average of all sections taken together, superscoring means you can lock in a high score for one section at a time if that strategy works best for you and your study schedule.
ACT subscores are not used to calculate the composite score, but they are included in score reports sent to colleges and universities. Scored from 1 to 18, subscores are essentially more specific subject scores that tell you what types of questions/topics you are still struggling with. Colleges are not likely to scrutinize these subscores; they are much more concerned with the composite and section scores, so if you take the ACT more than once, the subscores are probably going to be most important for your own ability to improve for next time.
As shown on the score report, the percentiles for each ACT test represent the percentage of fellow test-takers who scored worse than you did. For example, if you scored around a 20 or a 21, approximately the average score in 2020, you would be around the 50th percentile. A score of 36 would put you in the 100th percentile, while scores of 11 or lower typically land you in the first percentile. While schools look for students who perform well compared to other applicants, the percentile is just a result of your composite score, so focus on running your own race and working toward your own goal score rather than chasing a certain percentile. Below is a chart of percentile scores for 2020-2021, for reference:
What is a Good ACT Score Overall?
The English section of the ACT is comprised of 75 questions to be completed in less than 45 minutes. Despite the quick pace and a high number of opportunities for error, the English section drops from the 99th percentile to the 96th percentile between a 35 and a 34, making it a more competitive section than other sections. The average score in 2020-2021 was approximately equal to the composite average at 20.1. The percentiles indicate that while a higher percentage of students were able to score the highest scores, a higher percentage of students also scored below average, making the first percentile cutoff much lower than other sections.
The Math section of the ACT drops to the 96th percentile at a 31 (compared to the 34 of the English section), which would signify that the section is typically more difficult for students (making the percentile competition less intense). The average score in 2020-2021 was 20.4, but the first percentile cutoff was 12, about five points higher than the English section and three points higher than the Reading and Science sections.
The ACT Reading section seems to be the most competitive percentile-wise. Even a one-point drop to a 35 puts a student in the 98th percentile, and the average Reading score in 2020-2021 was 21.2, the highest of any of the section mean scores.
The Science section’s percentile breakdown is similar to that of the Math section, meaning that a higher number of questions wrong yields a higher percentile than those of the English and Reading sections. The average 2020-2021 score for the Science section was 20.6, virtually the same as the composite score average.
What is a Good ACT Writing Score?
While the ACT composite score is not affected by the writing portion of the ACT, the essay is still scored and included on the score report sent to colleges and universities, so it’s important not to neglect this section. Since the essay is only required or requested by some schools, it is an optional section, so be sure to check the requirements of schools you are interested in before deciding whether or not to include the essay portion. If you’re preparing before having a solid idea of the schools to which you are planning to apply, play it safe and include the essay to avoid having to retake the exam if you add a school that does require it.
The essay score is comprised of five subscores, all of which are scored from 2 – 12. Four of those subscores are known as domain scores:
- Ideas and Analysis
- Development and Support
- Language Use and Conventions
Each of these scores addresses an aspect of the ways in which you express your ideas and address the prompt and is scored by two readers, whose scores from 1 – 6 are added together. The fifth subscore is known as a single subject-level writing score, which is simply the rounded average of the four domain scores.
What Are Average Scores For The Test?
For the class of 2020, the average ACT score was 20.6, with state averages ranging from 18.8 to 24.9. State averages are much less important than university score ranges, however.
If you’re an international student applying with an ACT score to an American university, be sure to check average school scores because the national average includes many students who might not end up going to colleges or universities, especially private, four-year schools, so 20.6 is significantly lower than the average for most schools that you would likely be applying to.
How to Determine What’s a Good Score for Me?
A good first step is taking a diagnostic or practice ACT to get an idea of your starting point. Once you have that initial score, think about other factors like:
- Your timeline: how much time do you have before you have to be done taking the test?
- Your typical grades in school: are you someone who typically excels at Math and English, or do your strengths lie elsewhere?
- Your college goals: what type of school are you aiming for?
- Other aspects of your application: do you need test scores to be a way to improve your profile as an applicant or are your extracurriculars, grades, etc. already where you want them to be?
ACT Range at Your Target Colleges
Test scores aren’t everything, but if you are planning to send your ACT score (voluntarily or because a school requires it), it’s good to know where you stack up against other applicants and in comparison to other accepted students in prior years. Each school lists these statistics on its admissions website.
Often, these score ranges will be included in something like a “student profile” or “class profile” along with other helpful admissions information. The scores are typically reported with the middle 50%, so the numbers listed will represent where 50% of the accepted applicants or current students scored. If the range seems a little too high, remember that there are still 25% of students on both above and below those scores, so achieving a grade between those two scores is not essential to admission. However, having a good idea of score ranges for test-optional schools can be a critical factor in determining whether or not sending your score will help or hurt your chances of admission.
Scores Required by Popular Schools
Colleges and universities are often grouped by the selectivity of admissions, and those with more selective admissions typically have higher score ranges. Below is a list of popular schools, grouped by selectivity, and their ACT score ranges.
Most Selective Schools
Schools that typically admit fewer than 20% of applicants (typically top-tier academic institutions and/or very small with extremely limited spots for new students)
- Harvard University: 33 (25th percentile); 34 (75th percentile)
- Stanford University: 32 (25th percentile); 35 (75th percentile)
- Vanderbilt University: 33 (25th percentile); 35 (75th percentile)
- Johns Hopkins University: 33 (25th percentile); 35 (75th percentile)
- Columbia University: 33 (25th percentile); 35 (75th percentile)
- California Institute of Technology: 35 (25th percentile); 36 (75th percentile)
- Georgetown University: 31 (25th percentile); 35 (75th percentile)
- Duke University: 33 (25th percentile); 35 (75th percentile)
- University of Chicago: 33 (25th percentile); 35 (75th percentile)
Specialized Selective Schools
Schools that look for applicants interested in a specific topic (Ex: music, military service, visual arts)
- The Juilliard School: 24 (varies by program)
- Pratt Institute: 24 (25th percentile); 30 (75th percentile)
- US Naval Academy: 26 (25th percentile); 32 (75th percentile)
- US Military Academy West Point: 25 (25th percentile); 30 (75th percentile)
Schools that typically admit between 20% and 50% of applicants
- Rutgers: 25 (25th percentile); 32 (75th percentile)
- Colgate University: 31 (25th percentile); 34 (75th percentile)
- Bucknell University: 28 (25th percentile); 32 (75th percentile)
- University of Virginia: 30 (25th percentile); 34 (75th percentile)
- University of Michigan: 31 (25th percentile); 34 (75th percentile)
Schools that typically admit more than 50% of applicants
- University of Delaware: 24 (25th percentile); 30 (75th percentile)
- New Jersey Institute of Technology: 24 (25th percentile); 31 (75th percentile)
- University of Arizona: 21 (25th percentile); 29 (75th percentile)
- University of Colorado – Boulder: 25 (25th percentile); 31 (75th percentile)
- Auburn University: 19 (25th percentile); 23 (75th percentile)
- Seton Hall University: 24 (25th percentile); 29 (75th percentile)
- Penn State University: 23 (25th percentile); 30 (75th percentile)
- Virginia Tech: 25 (25th percentile); 31 (75th percentile)
- Purdue University: 25 (25th percentile); 32 (75th percentile)
- Clemson University: 27 (25th percentile); 32 (75th percentile)
What is a Good Score on the ACT to Apply for a Scholarship?
A competitive ACT score for scholarships will depend on the competitiveness of the scholarship itself, but as a general rule, a score of 25 is a good starting point for the average scholarship you might be applying for. Smaller, more local scholarships will typically have score requirements (or just look more favorably on) that are not as demanding, while larger scholarships, those available to a wide applicant pool, are highly publicized, or are worth larger amounts, are more likely to demand a higher score.
An impressive score is typically viewed as a score of 30 or higher for any scholarship. Make sure, like in your college search, to find scholarships that have score suggestions and competitiveness that are in line with your ability level and potential. Put the effort in to apply for scholarships that are most likely to help alleviate the burden of college expenses; if provided, score recommendations can be an easy way to judge if a scholarship is worth putting in that time and energy to apply.
How to Improve Your ACT Score
Practice and Be Consistent
While every test is unique, the ACT is extremely repetitive in the type of questions it asks and the manner in which it asks them. However, that manner is not always the same as that which you might have been introduced to concepts in school. Many students who excel at math and are at much higher level courses than those required for the ACT still struggle with the exam’s math portion not because of the content, but because of how that content is presented.
In order to learn the ways in which the tests present their topics, a consistent practice schedule and as many practice exams as possible are crucial. Since you can’t mimic the exact environment that you’ll see on test day, consistently practicing will give you the best idea of the score you can expect. The average score of your practice tests will control for tests where things went uncharacteristically well (maybe you guessed well or happened to get reading passages you felt particularly comfortable with) or uncharacteristically badly (maybe the reading passages were particularly difficult or the math section included a high number of questions whose topics you were shaky on).
Start Preparing in Advance
In order to make sure you can fit in as much practice as possible, start preparing as early as you can (within reason!) before your exam. With four distinct sections (plus the essay if you choose to include it), the ACT covers more material than the SAT, which does not include the science section and doubles up on the math sections instead. With more content to learn or review, more time will undoubtedly be beneficial. Like the SAT, the ACT is only offered seven times per year, so preparing early and achieving your goals earlier rather than later is helpful to ensure no last-minute scrambling to send a score to a college or university by the deadline.
Determine Your Strong and Weak Points
Understanding the test itself is a great achievement, but understanding your tendencies when taking the test is arguably just as important. As you prepare with practice tests, keep track of what types of questions and passages you get wrong to try to pick out patterns. Then, when you study curriculum, you can focus your efforts on topics that are the most problematic for you and stay as efficient as possible.
If you can’t fix all of your weaknesses by test day, this strategy will also help you to know which questions to guess during the exam so that you can allocate more time and energy to questions that you have a higher chance of getting right.
Whether this is a study partner, a parent or sibling, or a tutor, preparing for the ACT is much easier when you have someone to keep you on track. There are also numerous resources online, such as Khan Academy that offer free videos and explanations for ACT content. Don’t be afraid to prepare using SAT resources as well; except for small differences of formatting and wording, as well as the Science section, the ACT and the SAT are very similar in the material they test.
Make Sure You Get a Perfect Score With SoFlo
SoFlo ACT Tutoring‘s team of experienced tutors has the tools to help you reach your goal score on the ACT. Having prepared for the test ourselves, we know how difficult it can be to find your own mistakes and keep yourself to a strict study schedule without a little outside motivation. Through one-on-one weekly sessions in an online format, SoFlo gives you the flexibility of learning on your schedule to work toward your goals while receiving personalized feedback and tips and tricks from tutors who want to see you succeed.