Out of the two standardized tests for college admission, more and more students are opting to take the ACT.  In fact, just in 2018, almost 2 million students across the United States took the ACT.

Although most college read full applications “holistically”, since standardized tests are very heavily weighted in the college admissions process, you might be wondering: what constitutes a good ACT score?

ACT-scores

What Exactly Is the Act?

First off, let’s talk about what the ACT is. The ACT is an approximately 2 hour and 35-minute-long (3 hours and 35 minutes if you are taking the writing section) test that assesses your comprehension of skills in the areas of English, Math, Reading, Science, and includes an optional Writing portion that some colleges require, and others recommend. 

Students typically take the ACT sometime between the Spring of their Junior year through the end of Fall of their Senior year and usually take the exam between 1-3 times, depending on how content they are with their scores.  The test is offered approximately every other month at several locations across the country (though they are usually local high schools).  Students are required to register for the test about a month in advance on the act website and below is a summary of the main exams and services offered:

The ACT (no writing) $52.00 Includes score reports for you, your high school, and up to four colleges
The ACT with writing $68.00 Includes score reports for you, your high school, and up to four colleges
Late registration $30.00 Additional fees for registration during the late period
Additional score reports $13.00 To request additional scores to be sent to colleges

This can be pretty pricey, especially if you are taking the exam multiple times, so students with financial need can request up to two exam fee waivers from their local high school. 

Typically, students describe the content on the ACT to be slightly easier than that of the SAT, but has more time constraint whereas the SAT is slightly trickier, but is slower paced.  So if you are the kind of student who is quick at thinking, the ACT seems better suited for you. Earlier this week, we published a detailed guideline about SAT Scores where we explained about SAT scoring procedures and its meaning. We will do the same for ACT as well in this post.

After taking the test, it should take between 2-5 weeks for your score to appear online if you took the ACT without writing and about 5-8 weeks to appear if you took the exam with writing.  Once they are available, to check your scores, you will need to log onto the ACT website with the credentials you registered with and then click “view scores”.

 

Act-score

After receiving your scores, you can opt to send them to additional colleges online through the ACT website by logging in and clicking “send your scores”. 

send-act-score

 

How the is Act Scored?

There is a total of 215 questions on the ACT in total. You have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions in the English section, 60 minutes to answer the 60 questions in the math section, 35 minutes to answer 40 questions in the Reading section, 35 minutes to answer 40 questions in the Science section, 40 minutes to take the optional Writing section. 

From these 215 questions, you will receive a sub-score for each section (called your raw scores) between 1-36.  This represents one point for each question you answered correctly.  No points are deducted for wrong answers, which means it is in your best interest to try to answer every question, even if you’re just making an educated guess.  Then, these raw scores are scaled according to the chart below to give you your scaled scores for each section.

 

Scaled Score Raw Score English Raw Score Math Raw Score Reading Raw Score Science Scaled Score
36 74-75 59-60 40 40 36
35 71-73 57-58 38-39 35
34 70 55-56 37 39 34
33 69 54 36 38 33
32 68 53 34-35 32
31 67 51-52 33 37 31
30 66 49-50 32 36 30
29 64-65 47-48 31 29
28 63 45-46 30 35 28
27 61-62 42-44 34 27
26 59-60 39-41 29 32-33 26
25 56-58 37-38 28 31 25
24 53-55 34-36 26-27 29-30 24
23 50-52 32-33 25 26-28 23
22 47-49 31 23-24 24-25 22
21 44-46 29-30 22 22-23 21
20 41-43 27-28 20-21 20-21 20
19 39-40 25-26 19 18-19 19
18 37-38 22-24 18 17 18
17 35-36 19-21 16-17 15-16 17
16 32-34 16-18 15 14 16
15 29-31 13-15 14 13 15
14 26-28 10-12 12-13 11-12 14
13 24-25 8-9 11 10 13
12 22-23 7 10 9 12
11 19-21 5-6 8-9 8 11
10 16-18 4 7 7 10
9 13-15 6 6 9
8 11-12 3 5 5 8
7 9-10 4 7
6 7-8 2 4 3 6
5 6 3 5
4 4-5 1 2 2 4
3 3 1 3
2 2 1 2
1 0-1 0 0 0 1

These subscores are then averaged and rounded to the nearest whole number to become your final, total score (called your composite score) and the higher the number means the better you did on the test.  This composite score is what colleges will be looking at primarily which means you need to do well on each section. 

However, some schools allow you to “superscore” your test, which means you will be able to take your highest subscores across multiple testing dates to form a new composite.  A wide range of schools with a wide range of selectivity accept superscores.  You can check to see if a school will accept them on the university’s website or by calling their admissions office.  If your dream school does accept superscores, you can take the ACT on multiple dates, each time focusing on studying for just one or two sections, to build the highest superscore you can. However, if you are also applying to schools that only accept composite scores, this strategy might not work as it would make your scores inconsistent.

What Is a Good Act Score?

So superscore or not, what is a good ACT score?  This question can be answered both objectively and subjectively.  Objectively, your ACT score will correspond to a percentile that compares how well you did to other ACT takers.  ACT scores tend to follow a normal distribution, which means that the majority of test takers score closer to the average and higher or lower the score is, the fewer the students that scored it.

 

Below is an example of the ACT percentile distribution based on the scores from the class of 2018:

 

Score English Math Reading Science Composite Score
36 100 100 100 100 100 36
35 99 99 99 99 99 35
34 96 99 97 98 99 34
33 94 98 94 97 98 33
32 93 97 92 96 96 32
31 91 96 89 95 95 31
30 90 95 87 94 93 30
29 88 93 94 92 91 29
28 86 91 82 90 88 28
27 84 88 80 88 85 27
26 82 83 77 86 82 26
25 79 78 74 82 78 25
24 75 73 70 77 74 24
23 70 68 66 71 69 23
22 64 63 60 64 64 22
21 59 59 54 57 58 21
20 53 55 49 50 52 20
19 48 51 43 44 46 19
18 44 46 38 37 40 18
17 40 38 33 30 34 17
16 36 29 28 25 27 16
15 30 18 22 18 21 15
14 24 8 18 14 15 14
13 18 3 13 10 9 13
12 14 1 9 6 4 12
11 11 1 5 4 1 11
10 6 1 3 2 1 10
9 3 1 1 1 1 9
8 1 1 1 1 1 8
7 1 1 1 1 1 7
6 1 1 1 1 1 6
5 1 1 1 1 1 5
4 1 1 1 1 1 4
3 1 1 1 1 1 3
2 1 1 1 1 1 2
1 1 1 1 1 1 1

 

 

 

This means that, for example, if you scored a composite score of 18, you scored better than approximately 40% of students who have also taken the ACT.  In order to do better than 50% of test takers, you need to score about a 21. 

And this is where we get subjective.  Is scoring better than 50% of test takers on the ACT a good score?  Some colleges may say yes, but others would say no.  The more selective a university is, the better you must do on the ACT.  For example, the students at the University of Central Florida, the largest public university in the United States, have an average ACT score of 28 and an acceptance rate of 50%.  A more selective school like Harvard with an acceptance rate of 5% and its students have an average ACT score of 34. 

This means that the determinant of a good ACT score is really no one but you, and a good ACT score would be one that makes you competitive for admission to your dream university.  Before taking the ACT, you should go to the websites of the colleges you will be applying for.  On the admissions page, it should list the 25th percentile, average, and 75th percentile scores of students admitted.  To even have a chance for admission, you would want a score above the 25th percentile and to have a better chance, you should aim to score closer to the 75th. 

In addition to greater chances of admission, a higher ACT score can help you qualify for merit scholarships with an ACT requirement and in some cases, when applying to colleges a higher ACT can help make up for a lower GPA (you can also find GPA percentiles and averages on Universities admissions webpages). 

The Takeaway

If you are considering applying for college, chances are you will probably need to take the ACT.  You should start to think about the ACT during your Junior year of high school and at the same time think about the universities you are considering applying for.  Different universities have different levels of selectivity when looking at applicants which can be determined through their acceptance rates.  If you are looking to apply for a school with a more selective acceptance rate, you will need to focus on getting a higher ACT score.

Objectively, you can look at your ACT scores in terms of percentiles compared to other test takers, but it is more beneficial and a greater indicator to look at how your scores compare to those of the average student at your university of choice.  If your scores don’t meet the 25th percentile, you have a couple of options:

  • Retake the test

If you have the time and willpower to study hard and bring your scores up, why not?  Study by taking practice ACT tests and scoring them to assess and predict how well you might do if you retake the exam.  Also, take a look at your subscores and see which sections you did poorly on the first time around and try to focus on improving those areas to bring your composite score up.  If your university of choice accepts superscores, consider concentrating on studying solely for the sections that brought your score down because you will be able to maintain your higher ones.

  •  Consider applying to different schools

If your scores are well below the 25th percentile and you don’t have enough time to retake the ACT, consider changing the list of schools you will apply to so you will have a better chance of admission.  Look for schools where your score is closer to the average of those accepted.  But remember, it’s okay to still apply for “reach” schools (selective universities where you would have a lower chance of admission) as well as “safety” schools (universities where you have a very high chance of admission) because in the end, you never know what might happen and you might either get very lucky, or you might want some back-up choices.

 

All in all, don’t let your scores be the end-all-be-all!  Universities look at more than just your test scores when considering you for admission and no matter how stressed you are about the ACT and preparing for college applications, as someone once said, “Success is a journey, not a destination.”