ACT score range: What is a good ACT score? A bad ACT score?

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When you decide to take the ACT, it’s important to set some goals for yourself before you start studying. You should know what score range to aim for so that you remain competitive for the schools on your list.


Of course, each student’s goal score is going to be a little bit different. What you consider a good score heavily depends on what your schools’ average range is. So unfortunately, there’s not a universal answer to the question: what is good and bad ACT score?


Don’t worry, though. We at CollegeVine have outlined everything you need to know to determine your ideal ACT score range.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a standardized test used for college admissions in the United States. Most colleges require either ACT or SAT scores, and they allow students to pick either one. The ACT has become quite popular, with more students taking the ACT than the SAT in recent years. In fact, 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 more on high school course content rather than general aptitude and test-taking strategy. That is, the ACT is more 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. For more information on the differences between the ACT, SAT, and SAT Subject tests, read this post.


What is the average ACT score?


Recently,  ACT released a report that outlined the national average ACT scores based on data collected from 2016-2018. Here is what you need to know from that report:


  • Average English Score: 20.9
  • Average Mathematics Score: 20.6
  • Average Reading Score: 21.3
  • Average Science Score: 20.8
  • Average Composite (Total) Score: 20.9


If you are interested in learning more about these distributions, you can read the full report here.


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 don’t simply add up to your composite score.

Along with your own score, you will also see a corresponding percentile showing how you did in comparison to other students. 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 based on how other test takers perform in a given year).


ACT College Readiness Benchmarks


While most colleges don’t have a minimum required ACT score, there are official ACT benchmark scores that indicate your ability to succeed in college coursework:


English: 18

Math: 22

Reading: 22

Science: 23


If your section scores are below these benchmarks, you should consider retaking the ACT. 

How do your standardized test scores affect your chances?

Find out with our free Chancing Engine, which uses your standardized test scores, GPA, extracurriculars, and more to determine your real chances of admission.

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 research the average scores for the schools on your list to determine what you should be aiming for.

Most of the schools publish their middle 50 percent range, meaning that 50 percent of the admitted students for a given year received scores within that range, with 25 percent scoring above and 25 percent scoring below. You can also figure out how your ACT score might translate into an SAT score, which may be a more familiar system for some students. Take a look at this ACT and SAT concordance table to see how your score matches up.


Here’s an example of some middle 50% ACT score ranges from some top schools:


Harvard: 32-35

Yale: 32-35

UC Berkeley: 30-36

Stanford: 30-35

Of course, higher scores are always better, but it is important to remember that admissions committees consider many factors. Some colleges have begun to adopt a test-optional policy. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, 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. While a high score may not give you a guaranteed acceptance, a low score could keep you out. Extremely competitive schools may employ academic cutoffs, so applicants with schools below this cutoff may not even have their file read. By taking standardized testing seriously, you can at least increase the chances that your application will be reviewed.


How To Improve Your ACT Score


If you’re unhappy with your score and want to retake the ACT, you’re not alone. Many students end up taking these college entrance exams more than once! You have ample opportunity to improve your score as long as you start early and plan ahead.


We at CollegeVine have extensively how you can best study for the ACT. Here are some of our most commonly used strategies:


  • Start As Early As Possible: If this is going to be your first time taking the ACT, we at CollegeVine highly recommend taking the exam in the fall of your junior year. This way, if needed, you’ll have plenty of time to retake it in the spring and you won’t have to worry about taking the exam in time for your college applications.
  • Target Your Weak Spots: Once you receive your ACT score report, you’ll be able to see which sections you struggled with the most. These weaker sections are where you’ll want to focus your studying on. If you haven’t taken the test yet, you can take a diagnostic ACT exam to see what specific types of questions are more difficult for you. That way, you can troubleshoot not just the subject you can improve, but the specific types of questions too.
  • Change It Up: Maybe the study strategy you were using the first time wasn’t the best one for you. If you went through test prep books last time, try online prep courses and tutorials this time. If you didn’t do many practice questions last time, make that your focus this time. Changing it up can not only help you retain the concepts better but it can also help keep you motivated for a few more months of studying.


If you want a more detailed overview of things you can do to improve your ACT score, see 10 Tips To Improve Your ACT Score.

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)

For more help with test prep or making a test prep plan that works best for you, consider the benefits of CollegeVine’s full service, customized SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 250 points.

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Sadhvi Mathur
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Sadhvi is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in Economics and Media Studies. Having applied to over 8 universities, each with different application platforms and requirements, she is eager to share her knowledge now that her application process is over. Other than writing, Sadhvi's interests include dancing, playing the piano, and trying not to burn her apartment down when she cooks!