The ACT is like the SAT—it’s a standardized test that college admissions boards use to determine which students get admitted and receive scholarships. Doing well in this test can very well become the determining factor on whether you get in the college you want.
But how do you know if you’ve “done well” in the ACT? What’s a good score to aim for? This isn’t exactly a simple question, but we can make things a lot clearer for you with this guide.
How are ACT Scores Calculated?
You have 4 sections in the ACT. These are:
- English (with an optional essay)
You answer questions for each section, and the number of questions you get right gives you the raw score for that section.
The raw score for each section is then translated to the scaled score for each section.
Here’s how they’re converted:
|Raw Score English||Raw Score Math||Raw Score Reading||Raw Score Science||Scaled Score|
As you can see, missing a Science question and getting 39 instead of 40 for your raw score drops your scale score from 36 to 43. Also, even if you get none of the Science questions right, you still get a scale score of 1 for science.
The scale scores for all the 4 sections then combine for the average composite score, which also ranges from 1 to 36.
In the English, Math, and Reading sections, you also have subscores for categories within these sections.
- English. Usage/Mechanics (1-18), Rhetorical Skills (1-18), Essay (2-12)
- Math. Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra (1-18), Algebra/Coordinate Geometry (1-18), Plane Geometry/Trigonometry (1-18)
- Social Sciences/Sciences (1-18), Arts/Literature (1-18)
What is the Highest ACT Score?
Technically, the highest composite score you can get in the ACT is 36. That’s the “perfect score” except that you don’t actually have to get every question right.
Here are some possible instances in which you missed questions in some sections and still get a perfect composite ACT score of 36:
|Composite Score||Wrong Answers in English||Wrong Answers in Math||Wrong Answers in Reading||Wrong Answers in Science|
Keep in mind that in 2018, almost 2 million students took the ACT and only 3,741 got a 36 ACT composite score.
There are also schools (such as MIT) have entering classes in which the top 25th percentile got perfect ACT scores.
What is a Good ACT Score?
The ACT isn’t a test with a definitive score that determines whether you pass or fail. Basically, you want to do better than the other students. That’s particularly true for the other applicants to the university you really want to go to.
Since some schools are pickier than others when it comes to your ACT score, you may want to get an idea of the ACT scores achieved by the students admitted to the school of your choice. With the top elite schools, the nearer you get to 36, the better.
Still, for most students a score of at least 32 isn’t bad at all. Plenty of excellent schools admit students with a lower ACT score than 32, those these students may be in the lowest ACT 25th percentile. These include Dartmouth, UCLA, Emory, UC Berkeley, USC, and Georgetown.
It still depends on the school your aiming for, and your particular grade level when you took the ACT. Here are the ACT scores you should aim for with those factors in mind:
|Grade level||Top-ranked Schools (Ivy League, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, etc.)||Top 25 to 50||Top 50 to 75||Top 75 to 100||Lower-ranked schools|
ACT Scores for the Top 100 U.S. Universities
Here’s the top 100 US universities and colleges, with the ACT score data. The 75th percentile score is the score needed (for 2019) to beat out the lower 75th percent of the class. The 25th percentile score is the score that beats out the lowest ¼ of the admitted applicants.
|Ranking||College/University||25th Percentile Scores||75th Percentile Scores|
|3 (tie)||Columbia University||33||35|
|3 (tie)||Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)||34||36|
|3 (tie)||Yale University||33||35|
|6 (tie)||Stanford University||32||35|
|6 (tie)||University of Chicago||33||35|
|6 (tie)||University of Pennsylvania||32||35|
|10 (tie)||Duke University||33||35|
|10 (tie)||Johns Hopkins University||33||35|
|12 (tie)||California Institute of Technology (Caltech)||35||36|
|12 (tie)||Dartmouth College||31||35|
|15 (tie)||University of Notre Dame||33||35|
|15 (tie)||Vanderbilt University||33||35|
|17 (tie)||Cornell University||32||34|
|17 (tie)||Rice University||33||35|
|19||Washington University in St. Louis||32||35|
|20||University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)||28||34|
|22 (tie)||University of California—Berkeley||28||34|
|22 (tie)||University of Southern California (USC)||30||34|
|25 (tie)||Carnegie Mellon University||33||35|
|25 (tie)||University of Michigan at Ann Arbor||30||34|
|27||Wake Forest University||29||33|
|28||University of Virginia||30||34|
|29 (tie)||Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)||31||34|
|29 (tie)||New York University (NYU)||29||34|
|29 (tie)||Tufts University||31||34|
|29 (tie)||University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC Chapel Hill)||27||33|
|29 (tie)||University of Rochester||30||34|
|34 (tie)||University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)||26||32|
|34 (tie)||University of Florida||27||32|
|36||University of California, Irvine (UCI)||N/A||N/A|
|37 (tie)||Boston College||31||34|
|37 (tie)||University of California–San Diego||26||33|
|39||University of California, Davis (UC Davis)||25||31|
|40 (tie)||Boston University||30||33|
|40 (tie)||Brandeis University||29||33|
|40 (tie)||Case Western Reserve University||30||34|
|40 (tie)||College of William and Mary||30||33|
|40 (tie)||Northeastern University||32||34|
|40 (tie)||Tulane University||30||33|
|46 (tie)||University of Wisconsin Madison||27||32|
|46 (tie)||Villanova University||30||33|
|48 (tie)||University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign||26||32|
|48 (tie)||University of Texas, Austin (UT Austin)||27||33|
|50 (tie)||Lehigh University||29||33|
|50 (tie)||Pepperdine University||26||32|
|50 (tie)||Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute||29||33|
|50 (tie)||University of Georgia||27||32|
|54 (tie)||Ohio State University–Columbus||27||32|
|54 (tie)||Santa Clara University||28||32|
|54 (tie)||Syracuse University||25||32|
|57 (tie)||Florida State University||26||30|
|57 (tie)||Pennsylvania State–University Park||25||30|
|57 (tie)||Purdue University-West Lafayette||25||32|
|57 (tie)||University of Miami||29||32|
|57 (tie)||University of Pittsburgh||28||32|
|62 (tie)||Rutgers University–New Brunswick||25||31|
|62 (tie)||University of Washington||27||32|
|64 (tie)||Loyola Marymount University||27||31|
|64 (tie)||Southern Methodist University||29||33|
|64 (tie)||University of Connecticut||26||31|
|64 (tie)||University of Maryland–College Park||28||33|
|64 (tie)||University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass Amherst)||26||31|
|64 (tie)||Worcester Polytechnic Institute||29||33|
|70 (tie)||George Washington University||25||30|
|70 (tie)||Texas A&M University–College Station||25||31|
|70 (tie)||University of Minnesota–Twin Cities||26||31|
|74 (tie)||Fordham University||28||32|
|74 (tie)||Stevens Institute of Technology||30||32|
|74 (tie)||Virginia Institute of Technology (Virginia Tech)||25||31|
|74 (tie)||American University||27||31|
|77 (tie)||Brigham Young University–Provo||26||31|
|79 (tie)||Baylor University||26||31|
|79 (tie)||Binghamton University||28||32|
|79 (tie)||Gonzaga University||25||30|
|79 (tie)||Indiana University–Bloomington||24||31|
|79 (tie)||University at Buffalo||24||29|
|84 (tie)||Colorado School of Mines||28||33|
|84 (tie)||Elon University||25||30|
|84 (tie)||Marquette University||24||30|
|84 (tie)||Michigan State University||23||29|
|84 (tie)||North Carolina State University–Raleigh||27||31|
|84 (tie)||University of California–Santa Cruz||24||31|
|84 (tie)||University of Iowa||23||28|
|91 (tie)||Clark University||28||31|
|91 (tie)||Miami University–Oxford||26||31|
|91 (tie)||Stony Brook University (SUNY)||26||31|
|91 (tie)||University of California–Riverside||23||29|
|91 (tie)||University of Delaware||25||30|
|91 (tie)||University of San Diego||25||30|
|97 (tie)||Drexel University||25||30|
|97 (tie)||New Jersey Institute of Technology||25||30|
|97 (tie)||Saint Louis University||25||31|
|97 (tie)||Texas Christian University||26||30|
|97 (tie)||University of Denver||26||31|
|97 (tie)||University of San Francisco||23||29|
|97 (tie)||Yeshiva University||22||30|
What is an Average ACT Score?
Since it matters a lot whether your ACT score is better than the other students applying to the school of your choice, you should have a good idea what the scores of the other students are like.
In 2018, the average ACT composite score was 20.8. That means scoring 21 (marginally) makes you above average. For the average scores for each section, here’s a quick look:
|Test||Score Range||Average Score|
|Essay (optional English section)||2-12||6.7|
You can also recheck the table for the top 100 US universities and colleges. That table gives you the middle 50th percentile range, meaning the ACT range of scores from the 25th to the 75th percentile. If you score within that range, you’re in a good spot, or at least your score is at the average for the entering class.
What Is a Good ACT Score for Scholarships?
For scholarships, you’d expect the authorities to have higher standards. It’s one thing for mom and dad to pay for college. It’s another thing for a charity institution to pay tuition (and maybe books and board) for you.
In general, an average score (about 21 or so) just won’t cut it. You’ll want to be in the top 10th percentile of the ACT test-takers. That means scoring at least 30. But you really should aim higher—the higher the score, the more dollars you get for college expenses.
If you have a certain class rank and GPA, and then you have a 28 ACT composite score, you might get a scholarship worth $18,000 a year from institutions like Baylor University. But if everything else stays the same but your ACT score is 31, the scholarship jumps up to $21,000 a year.
Arizona State University offers up to $6,000 a year in scholarships for in-state students with a 4.0 GPA, even with a so-so score of 21 on their ACT. But if the student’s ACT score is 25, the scholarship can go up to $8,000 a year.
Scholarships are still possible for test scores in the 20s. It’s just, in some cases, you might need more than your ACT score to get these scholarships. You’ll probably need a really dramatic story, such as growing in poverty and other challenging circumstances. A valedictorian ranking plus a 4.0 GPA will certainly help.
Should I Cancel My ACT Score if I Get a Bad Score?
- That’s the short answer.
The main reason for this is that for most universities and colleges, the more important thing is your highest score.
Most people with a background in education know that it’s a lot easier to get a lower score than you deserve, than to get a higher score than what you deserve. A genius on a bad day (taking a test with a nasty headache) can really score lower than expected. The class dunce isn’t likely to get a perfect score, even if they’re feeling at their best.
So, college admissions boards won’t really care if you score low on the ACT for the first time, if you scored higher the next time. You don’t need to cancel the lower score, because they won’t matter for most colleges.
In fact, with some colleges, it’s to your advantage to take the test twice and retain the scores for both tests. Some colleges look at the subscores and only note the highest ones.
Let’s say that for test #1, you scored 32 for English and Reading, and 28 for Math and Science. For test #2, the scores are reversed with 28 for English and Reading, and 32 for Math. They just might note that you got 32 for each section!
How to Improve Your ACT Test Scores
If you think you can improve the score you got on the ACT, the good news is that you’re most likely right. You can improve those test scores.
Here are some tips that can help:
Take Note of the Lowest Subscores
You can get your ACT results after about 2 to 8 weeks after the test, through online or mail. Once you get the scores, (Composite, Section, Subsection), take note of the lowest section scores.
These are the sections you’ll need to focus on more when you prepare for the next ACT test. If you scored 34 on both Science and Math, and 24 on English and Reading, then you need to devote a lot more time on preparing for the English and Reading sections.
In fact, starting September 2020 you don’t even have to retake the entire test. You can retake only the particular sections you want. If your Math score wasn’t satisfactory for you but you got great grades for the other sections, just retake the Math section—and study just for that section.
Manage Your Test-Taking Time
By now you should now the value of taking practice tests. But when you take these tests, time yourself for each section. The ACT only allows you so much time for each section, so you need to maximize the time you have. You need to maintain a proper pace.
Improve Your Reading Speed
It also helps with time management if you’re able to read more quickly so you’re able to glean the necessary info faster. You may want to speed up your reading, and improve your skimming skills.
Try out various tactics to see which works best for you. For some sections, you may only need to read the first and last sentences of each paragraph to get by. In some cases, you may want to read the question first and then find the answer quickly by skimming the written passages for the answers.
Master the Math Basics
Make sure you also memorize the basic formulas that usually come up in the Math section. These include:
- Area of a circle
- Area of a parallelogram
- Area of a rectangle
- Area of a sector
- Area of trapezoid
- Area of triangles
- Pythagorean theorem
- Quadratic formula
- Slope-intercept formula
- Special types of triangles (equilateral, isosceles, 30-60-90, etc.),
- Trigonometry functions (sin, cos, tan, etc.)
Study, practice, and then rest on the day just before the ACT. That way, you’re primed and ready for test!