ACT score range: What is a good ACT score? A bad ACT score?
When you decide to take the ACT, it’s important to set some goals for yourself before you start studying. You should know what ACT score range to aim for so that you remain competitive for the schools on your list.
Of course, each student’s goal for ACT score range is going to be a little bit different. Because a good ACT score range heavily depends on what the average ACT score is for your school list, there’s not a universal answer to the question.
A good ACT score may be different for you versus someone else. In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know to determine the ACT score goal that’s right for you.
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, the ACT is a high school graduation requirement.
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. For this reason, SAT to ACT conversion is a little tricky, as they do not assess the same material.
The ACT includes a Science section, as well as English, Reading, Math, and Writing (also known as Essay) sections. Students are able to demonstrate more specialized knowledge of subjects.
Interpreting Your ACT Score
After you take the ACT, you will receive a composite score that is an integer between 1-36. 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. Only the English, Math, Reading, and Science scores are used to calculate your composite score, which is the average of those section scores, rounded up or down to the nearest integer.
For the Writing section, two graders score your essay on a scale of 1-6, and the scores are added together. 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% 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:
If your section scores are below these benchmarks, you should consider retaking the ACT.
What is the average ACT score?
Recently, the ACT released a report that outlined the national average ACT scores based on data collected from the high school Classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019:
- Average ACT English Score: 20.2
- Average ACT Mathematics Score: 20.5
- Average ACT Reading Score: 21.3
- Average ACT Science Score: 20.8
- Average ACT Composite (Total) Score: 20.8
- Average ACT STEM Score: 20.9
These numbers were gathered based on all test-takers of those class years. However, the average ACT score varies dramatically depending on the demographic groups into which students fall. For instance, the ACT published data revealing that the average ACT score was higher for families whose annual income exceeded $80,000 per year:
|Annual Family Income Range||Average ACT Score|
Source: ACT Research & Policy
Additionally, data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics indicate the following breakdown in average ACT score based on demographics. Note that these figures are taken from graduates of the high school Class of 2017:
|Sex||Average ACT Score|
|Race/Ethnicity||Average ACT Score|
|American Indian/Alaska Native||17.5|
|Two or More Races||21.2|
|State/District||Average ACT Score|
|District of Columbia||24.2|
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% range, meaning that 50% of the admitted students for a given year received scores within that range, with 25% scoring above and 25% scoring below.
Here’s an example of some middle 50% ACT score ranges from the top colleges, along with their corresponding acceptance rates:
Middle 50% ACT Range for Top 20 Universities
|Top 20 Universities||75th Percentile ACT Scores of Accepted Students||25th Percentile ACT Scores of Accepted Students||Acceptance Rate|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||34||36||6.7%|
|University of Chicago||33||35||6.2%|
|University of Pennsylvania||33||35||7.7%|
|Johns Hopkins University||33||35||9.2%|
|California Institute of Technology||35||36||6.4%|
|University of Notre Dame||33||35||8.2%|
|Washington University in St. Louis||33||35||14%|
|University of California—Los Angeles||25||33||12.3%|
Middle 50% ACT Range for Top 20 Liberal Arts Colleges
|Top 20 Liberal Arts Colleges||75th Percentile ACT Scores of Accepted Students||25th Percentile ACT Scores of Accepted Students||Acceptance Rate|
|Claremont McKenna College||30||34||9.3%|
|Washington and Lee University||32||34||18.6%|
|United States Naval Academy||27||33||8.5%|
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.
Of course, students with special circumstances may still be able to be accepted with lower scores. This is often true for recruited athletes, students who experienced illness, those from low-income backgrounds, and underrepresented minorities.
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.
Want to learn more about how the ACT is scored and receive some quick tips for test day? Check out our blog posts below.
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