The ACT is roughly three hours of reading things, bubbling in scantrons, erasing them — and also writing, if your dream school requires it. It’s all in the name of trying to give colleges a gauge of how prepared you are to handle their workload, and it’s a necessary evil that we understand all too well.

So how exactly is this beast of a test graded? We’ll show you. But first, let’s take a look at what kind of test the ACT is.

Test Logistics

  • Four sections to the test: English, mathematics, science, and reading. There’s an optional fifth essay section required by most top colleges.
  • The English section gives you 45 minutes to answer 75 questions about grammar and rhetoric.
  • The math section comprises 60 questions to be answered in 60 minutes, about all the math the ACT thinks you should’ve learned by senior year, including but not limited to algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.
  • The science section is actually an extended reading section testing your graph-reading and logical reasoning skills. 40 questions in 35 minutes.
  • The reading section is your typical reading comprehension test. 40 questions in 35 minutes.
  • The essay section has you write a persuasive piece in 40 minutes that requires you to summarize both sides of the argument, pick your position, and explain how your position relates to the other factions.
  • There is a short break after the English and math sections are over; that’s the only break you get.
  • No cell phones or electronics allowed, a number two pencils is required, and an approved calculator is allowed for the math section only.
  • Fun fact: if your calculator has buttons over an inch in height, you’re required to be assigned special seating where your other fellow test-takers won’t be able to see what buttons you’re pressing during the math section. So if you like solitude, the best way to go (according to the ACT, at least) is to buy an extra-large calculator.


Grading Methodology — Multiple Choice

As we can see, the bulk of the ACT consists of multiple-choice questions. This is the age-old game of counting how many graphite circles you can put in the right places. And the ACT likes to keep things simple; if your bubble is in the right place, you get a point. If it isn’t, you don’t get any points for that question, but you also don’t lose any of the points you already have.

(So if you completely draw a blank on a question, feel free to guess! Nobody’s penalizing you for it, anyway.)

After the scantron machine’s tallied up the number of right answers you got for each multiple-choice section, it generates a set of “raw scores” for you based on how many points you earned out of all the points that it was possible to earn. The graders then put your raw score up against a curve of all the other people who took the test with you in the same sitting, and assign you a “scaled score” out of 36 based on where you scored compared to the distribution of the rest of the test-taker population. So in that way, the ACT is curved.

At the end of the day, you’ll get four scaled scores out of 36 for each of the multiple choice sections, and while your scaled scores by section will show up on your score report to colleges, what’s printed in the largest font size at the top of the entire report is something called a “composite score.” It’s the average of all four of your scaled scores, rounded to the nearest whole number. In this way, the ACT favors jacks of all trades over masters of one — strengths in one or two areas won’t be able to completely mask weaknesses in others.


The Essay Section

So whether this comes as good news or not-so-good news to you, the ACT composite score does not include the writing section. However, your writing score will also be printed alongside your multiple choice section scores as a score out of — you guessed it — 36.

The ACT assigns two readers to each essay they receive, and each reader is handed a rubric with four different “domains” by which to evaluate your essay — your ideas and analysis (the soundness of your logic and the depth of your argument), your development and support (how well you back up your claims), your organization (self-explanatory), and your use of language and conventions (your grammar, rhetorical devices, tone, voice, and the like).  

For each domain, a reader can assign you a score ranging from one to six. A perfect score in any domain is 12 points, meaning that you got a six from each reader (and they probably really enjoyed your work!). But there is a catch to this — both readers must not differ by over a point in grading you in any of the domains. If there is a two-point difference or more between the two readers, a third reader will be called in to read your essay and give a third set of grades (that hopefully fall into the plus-minus one margin of error).

After the points are assigned, a writing score is calculated based on the totals from all four domains with a perfect score being a 48. This score is also scaled, like the multiple-choice, into a number 36 or less.

If you chose to take the essay section of the ACT, an English Language Arts score will appear on your grade report, which is a composite score drawn from your essay, English, and reading sections. If you skipped out on the essay, this won’t show up.


Adcoms and the Score Report

It goes without saying that yes — your composite score is probably going to be the first place that college admissions offers look when they receive any score report. But hey, you can’t really blame them. It’s literally the first thing on the page under the ACT logo, and it’s in a big green box in bold sans-serif.

In other words, it’s kind of hard to miss.

But rest assured that they do look past that; adcoms are interested in you and your individual strengths. They will take into consideration your scores in each section, especially if you’re applying with a specific major in mind. A prospective chemical engineer’s math and science scores are probably going to be given more consideration than their English score, for example.

So don’t worry — the ACT is simply a way for these colleges to get two different perspectives on your skills. The composite score shows them a holistic overview of your relative power level, while the section-by-section breakdown shows how this power is distributed. And colleges value both of these perspectives.


Jeanette Si

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).
Jeanette Si