Kate Sundquist 5 min read ACT Info and Tips, Standardized Tests

How Does the Scoring Curve Work for the ACT?

The ACT is a standardized exam most commonly taken by juniors and seniors in the United States. Many college admissions committees require either an ACT or SAT score, and some states now use the ACT as a high school graduation requirement. The test is well known nationally and its results are recognized by the most competitive colleges and universities in the country.

For this reason, it comes as a bit of a surprise that ACT scores are not as commonly understood as one might expect. In fact, there are many misconceptions about ACT scores and their meaning, including the idea of an ACT scoring curve.   

In this post, we will outline how ACTs are scored and what the implications of this scoring are on testing decisions and score comparisons. Read on to learn more about how the ACT scoring curve works.

How is the test scored?

The ACT is offered in the United States six times per year, and while it’s common to think that your test will be scored on a curve in relation to the other tests taken on your test date, this is actually incorrect. 

Your ACT is scored through a series of careful calculations. First, the number of questions you got right on each separate section is tallied. This results in what is known as a raw score. The raw score is simply the number of correct answers you submitted, and this number is not readily apparent on your score report. Instead, you see a score that is scaled.

Your raw score is converted to a scaled score ranging from 1-36. These are the scores headlining your score report and are the numbers you’re probably most familiar with if you’ve researched ACT averages or benchmarks.

Your scaled scores for each separate section are then averaged to calculate your composite score. Fractions more than or equal to one half are rounded up to the nearest whole number, while fractions under one half are rounded down to the nearest whole number. Your composite score is the first number that appears on your score report and is widely accepted as the most important indicator of your success on the test.

How are raw scores converted?

Raw scores are converted to scaled scores by using a test-specific curve designed to correct for slight variations in the difficulty of each test. The curve is not based in any way on the performance of your peers. While we’re most accustomed to hearing about curves that are plotted in relation to other scores on the test, for the ACT this is not the case.

Instead, the curve is calculated based on the specific difficulty of the ACT that you took. Because there are multiple versions of the test administered each year, it’s necessary to account for slight variations in how difficult each test is. Questions are weighted by difficulty and each test’s specific curve will take this into account.

When is the easiest test generally administered?

Again, multiple versions of the ACT are administered throughout the year and the difficulty of each test will vary. But generally, there is no single test administration that is easier than another. Even if a single test was easier, the score conversion process is designed to negate this difference on your scaled score. That is to say, if you did happen to take a slightly easier version of the exam, the scale to convert your raw score would be slightly steeper, making any mistakes more significant than they would be on a harder version of the test.

Because many people do not understand the scaling process, there are some misconceptions about choosing a specific test date. One common misconception is that you should avoid taking the test during a particular month if there may be a large group of strong students taking the test, since this would throw off the scoring curve. Some people might say that the October test date is typically the most competitive, since many high school seniors are taking the test for the last time. But this idea is actually false, since the scoring curve does not depend on the scores achieved by other students taking the test at the same time as you.

For example, if you take the ACT during a month when many strong students are also testing, and many of them score a perfect 36, your score will be the same as it would have been had they not taken the test. Your scaled score is dependent only on the independent difficulty of the particular version of the ACT that you took. The performance of your peers bears no weight on your converted score.

How can I calculate my scaled ACT from my raw score?

Unless you have an official ACT Converted Score Chart produced specifically for the version of the test that you’re trying to score, you cannot convert your own raw score to the scaled score. On official practice tests, you are given a conversion chart made specifically for that test. While the chart changes only slightly from one version of the test to another, it cannot be reliably used to convert scores from other versions of the ACT.

To get an idea of what the converted score chart looks like, and the process for scoring an ACT, check out page 60 of the official Preparing for the ACT Test booklet, which contains a complete practice test and its specific ACT Converted Score Chart.

How can I ensure that my scaled score is the highest it could be?

There is no magic formula when it comes to scoring well on the ACT. No test dates are easier than others, no test facilities will administer an easier test on any given day, and no amount of peer influence will change the way your raw score is converted to the 36-point scale.

The only way to ensure that you receive the highest ACT score you’re capable of is to maximize your studying and test preparations. Some students find a study group helps to keep them on track and hold them accountable. Other students find that a personal ACT tutor is the most effective means of preparing. Still others prefer studying independently. Whatever the case may be for you, make sure to begin your test preparations well ahead of time. Here are some CollegeVine study guides to get you started:

In addition to studying the test content, be sure to study test strategy and format as well. You should go into the test knowing exactly what to expect on test day so that there are no surprises to throw you off your game. Be familiar with the instructions for each individual section, the pacing of each section, and the general content knowledge required.

While there is no single test date or facility that will magically transform your ACT score from drab to fab, there are certainly measures that you can take in advance to set yourself up for the most successful testing experience possible. Don’t overlook the value of proper planning and prior preparation as you get ready for your ACT test day.

To learn more about the ACT test, check out these CollegeVine posts:


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.