You’ve probably heard a lot about the importance of standardized tests, and you may be familiar with the scale the College Board uses to score the SAT. However, the ACT scoring system may be less familiar to you, so it can be harder to discern what you should aim for to get into a top college. In this post, we will look at the ACT scoring system and how you can prep for the test to receive the scores you need to be accepted to the school of your choice.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a standardized test used for college admissions in the United States. Most colleges require students to submit either ACT or SAT scores as part of their applications, and often schools will accept ACT results in lieu of SAT Subject tests as well.

While the ACT is not as well-known as the SAT on the East and West coasts, it is widely used in the Midwest and gaining popularity throughout the country. This map shows the percentage of high school graduates who took the ACT in 2015 in each state—as you can see, in some states, nearly every high school graduate takes the ACT.

Although the two standardized tests measure similar skill sets, the ACT differs from the SAT in several significant ways. For instance, the ACT focuses on content you may need to know to perform well in particular courses and subjects—that is, the ACT is a test of your academic achievement and the knowledge you have accrued in high school. The ACT includes a Science section, as well as English, Reading, Math, and Writing (essay) sections. This means students are able to demonstrate more specialized knowledge of subjects. Click here for more information about the differences between the ACT and SAT / SAT Subject tests.

Interpreting your ACT score

After you take the ACT, you will receive a composite score that is an integer between one (lowest score) and 36 (highest score). Your report will also show your sub-scores for each of the five sections. English, Math, Reading, and Science are also graded on a 1-36 scale, and the Writing section (which is optional, but required by most top colleges) is graded on a 2-12 scale, with two being the lowest and 12 being the highest score. Two graders score your essay on a scale of 1-6, and the scores are added together to form your Writing score. You will also receive a STEM score based on your Math and Science sub-scores and an ELA (English and Language Arts) score based on your English, Reading, and Writing scores. These are graded on the 1-36 scale. Keep in mind that the sub-scores on the various sections of the test do NOT simply add up to your composite score.

Along with your score, you will also see a matching percentile showing how you did in comparison to other students who took the ACT for both your composite score and your sub-scores. For instance, a score of 30 is generally in the 95th percentile, meaning you scored higher than 95 percent of test takers (percentiles may vary slightly in terms of how they match up to scores based on how a specific set of test takers perform in a given year). The “average” ACT score is roughly around 20. Visit the ACT website to learn more about interpreting your scores. For more on grading details, read our post, How the ACT’s Graded: A Breakdown.

Comparing ACT scores for college admissions

Whether or not an ACT score is considered “good” varies considerably by the college in question. Be sure to do your research beforehand by looking at the admissions website for every college to which you intend to apply, as well as test prep resources, college guidebooks, and so on, to determine what scores you should be aiming to receive. Most of these resources will offer a score range (generally a middle 50 percent range, meaning that 50 percent of the admitted students for a given year received scores within that range, while 25 percent scored above that range and 25 percent scored below it) to give you a sense of how your scores compare.

You can also figure out how your score might translate into an SAT score, which may be a more familiar system for some students. Take a look at this table comparing ACT and SAT scores to see how they match up.

Of course higher scores are always better, but it is important to remember that admissions committees take into account many factors when making their decisions. Some colleges have begun to adopt a testing-optional policy, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that these colleges don’t consider scores at all. (For more information, read The Reality of the Testing-Optional Trend.) Most competitive colleges have many applicants with very high standardized test scores, so you will need to find other ways to stand out. As we discuss in Can a Good SAT / ACT Score Offset a Bad GPA?, it is not enough to score well on these tests; you need to demonstrate skills and accomplishments in other areas, including your grades, essay, and extracurricular activities.

However, for most schools, standardized test scores are an important component of your academic profile, and while they may not get you into your dream school, they could keep you out. Be sure to figure out what scores you need to aim for what kind of steps you need to take to get there.

Looking to boost your ACT score? Check out our ACT tutoring program. Our tutors represent the brightest students in the world and are chosen based on their critical thinking skills and instructional ability. We will pair you with one tutor for Verbal (English and Writing) and another for STEM, so you will receive the best personalized instruction. Click here to learn more about the program and to sign up.

Want to learn more about how the ACT is scored and receive some quick tips for test day? Check out our blog posts below.

ACT vs. SAT / SAT Subject Tests

How the ACT’s Graded: A Breakdown

13 Tips for ACT Test Day

New SAT vs. ACT (or Why You Should Take the ACT Instead)

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine