12 Essential Steps for Writing an Argumentative Essay (with 10 example essays)

Bonus Material: 10 complete example essays

Writing an essay can often feel like a Herculean task. How do you go from a prompt… to pages of beautifully-written and clearly-supported writing?

This 12-step method is for students who want to write a great essay that makes a clear argument.

In fact, using the strategies from this post, in just 88 minutes, one of our students revised her C+ draft to an A.

If you're interested in learning how to write awesome argumentative essays and improve your writing grades, this post will teach you exactly how to do it.

First, grab our download so you can follow along with the complete examples.

Then keep reading to see all 12 essential steps to writing a great essay.

Download 10 great example essays


Why you need to have a plan

One of the most common mistakes that students make when writing is to just dive in haphazardly without a plan.

Writing is a bit like cooking. If you’re making a meal, would you start throwing ingredients at random into a pot? Probably not!

Instead, you’d probably start by thinking about what you want to cook. Then you’d gather the ingredients, and go to the store if you don’t already have them in your kitchen. Then you’d follow a recipe, step by step, to make your meal.

Preparing to cook a dish in an organized way, just like we prepare to write an essay

Here’s our 12-step recipe for writing a great argumentative essay:

  1. Pick a topic
  2. Choose your research sources
  3. Read your sources and take notes
  4. Create a thesis statement
  5. Choose three main arguments to support your thesis statement—now you have a skeleton outline
  6. Populate your outline with the research that supports each argument
  7. Do more research if necessary
  8. Add your own analysis
  9. Add transitions and concluding sentences to each paragraph
  10. Write an introduction and conclusion for your essay
  11. Add citations and bibliography
  12. Revise

Grab our download to see the complete example at every stage, along with 9 great student essays. Then let’s go through the steps together and write an A+ essay!


1. Pick a topic

Sometimes you might be assigned a topic by your instructor, but often you’ll have to come up with your own idea! 

If you don’t pick the right topic, you can be setting yourself up for failure.

Be careful that your topic is something that’s actually arguable—it has more than one side. Check out our carefully-vetted list of 99 topic ideas.

Let’s pick the topic of laboratory animals. Our question is should animals be used for testing and research?

Hamster, which could potentially be used for animal research

Download our set of 10 great example essays to jump to the finished version of this essay.


2. Choose your research sources

One of the big differences between the way an academic argumentative essay and the version of the assignment that you may have done in elementary school is that for an academic argumentative essay, we need to support our arguments with evidence.

Where do we get that evidence?

Let’s be honest, we all are likely to start with Google and Wikipedia.

Now, Wikipedia can be a useful starting place if you don’t know very much about a topic, but don’t use Wikipedia as your main source of evidence for your essay. 

Instead, look for reputable sources that you can show to your readers as proof of your arguments. It can be helpful to read some sources from either side of your issue.

Look for recently-published sources (within the last 20 years), unless there’s a specific reason to do otherwise.

Support all your points with evidence

Good places to look for sources are:

  • Books published by academic presses
  • Academic journals
  • Academic databases like JSTOR and EBSCO
  • Nationally-published newspapers and magazines like The New York Times or The Atlantic
  • Websites and publications of national institutions like the NIH
  • Websites and publications of universities

Some of these sources are typically behind a paywall. This can be frustrating when you’re a middle-school or high-school student.

However, there are often ways to get access to these sources. Librarians (at your school library or local public library) can be fantastic resources, and they can often help you find a copy of the article or book you want to read. In particular, librarians can help you use Interlibrary Loan to order books or journals to your local library!

More and more scientists and other researchers are trying to publish their articles for free online, in order to encourage the free exchange of knowledge. Check out respected open-access platforms like arxiv.org and PLOS ONE.

How do you find these sources?

If you have access to an academic database like JSTOR or EBSCO, that’s a great place to start.

Example of a search on JSTOR

Everyone can use Google Scholar to search for articles. This is a powerful tool and highly recommended!

Google scholar search

Of course, if there’s a term you come across that you don’t recognize, you can always just Google it!

How many sources do you need? That depends on the length of your essay and on the assignment. If your instructor doesn’t give you any other guidance, assume that you should have at least three good sources.

For our topic of animal research, here’s a few sources that we could assemble:

Geoff Watts. "Animal Testing: Is It Worth It?" BMJ: British Medical Journal, Jan. 27, 2007, Vol. 334, No. 7586 (Jan. 27, 2007), pp. 182-184.

Kim Bartel Sheehan and Joonghwa Lee. "What's Cruel About Cruelty Free: An Exploration of Consumers, Moral Heuristics, and Public Policy." Journal of Animal Ethics , Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2014), pp. 1-15.

Justin Goodman, Alka Chandna and Katherine Roe. "Trends in animal use at US research facilities." Journal of Medical Ethics, July 2015, Vol. 41, No. 7 (July 2015), pp. 567-569.

Katy Taylor. “Recent Developments in Alternatives to Animal Testing.” In Animal Experimentation: Working Towards a Paradigm Change. Brill 2019.

Thomas Hartung. “Research and Testing Without Animals: Where Are We Now and Where Are We Heading?” In Animal Experimentation: Working Towards a Paradigm Change. Brill 2019.

Bonus: download 10 example essays now.


3. Read your sources and take notes

Once you have a nice pile of sources, it’s time to read them!

As we read, we want to take notes that will be useful to us later as we write our essay.

We want to be careful to keep the source’s ideas separate from our own ideas. Come up with a system to clearly mark the difference as you're taking notes: use different colors, or use little arrows to represent the ideas that are yours and not the source’s ideas.

We can use this structure to keep notes in an organized way:

Source Quotes and key paraphrases Your notes about the source
Bibliographic details - Specific evidence that the source uses
- Ideas and themes in the source that seem useful
- Figure out the main arguments in the source
- Figure out the supporting arguments in the source
- How does this source relate to the other sources that you’re using? Does it agree/disagree? Does it use the same or different evidence and reasoning?
-  What kind of bias does the author have?
- Any other thoughts or observations

Download a template for these research notes here.

Petri dish in laboratory research

For our topic of animal research, our notes might look something like this:

Source Quotes and key paraphrases Your notes about the source
Kim Bartel Sheehan and Joonghwa Lee. “What's Cruel About Cruelty Free: An Exploration of Consumers, Moral Heuristics, and Public Policy.” Journal of Animal Ethics , Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2014), pp. 1-15. Because there are many definitions of the phrase “cruelty-free,” many companies “can (and do) use the term when the product or its ingredients were indeed tested on animals” (1).

The authors compare “cruelty-free” to the term “fair trade.” There is an independent inspection and certification group (Flo-Cert) that reviews products labeled as “fair trade,” but there’s no analogous process for “cruelty-free” (2).

Companies can also hire outside firms to test products and ingredients on animals (3).

→ So anyone can just put that label on a product? Apparently, apart from in the European Union. That seems really easy to abuse for marketing purposes.
Andrew Knight. “Critically Evaluating Animal Research.” In Animal Experimentation: Working Towards a Paradigm Change. Brill 2019. Knight cites “significant methodological flaws” in “most published animal experiments” (326). For example, “randomized allocation of animals to test groups was reported in only 12%” of a set of 271 studies—in the rest of the studies, researchers could select (whether consciously or not) weaker animals to serve as the control group, for example (326). Similarly, only 14% of papers in a different survey reported the use of blinding in making qualitative assessments of outcomes (327). 

The ARRIVE guidelines have been widely endorsed by leading research journals (including Nature, PLoS, and BioMed Central) and major UK funding agencies, and they’re part of the US National Research Council Institute for Laboratory Animal Research guidelines (330).

But…compliance with the guidelines “remains poor” (330).

→ Many people championing or opposing animal testing have their careers at stake. They’re either researchers who use animals as a fundamental part of their research, or they are working on alternatives to animal testing (like Harding). This seems like a potential problem with the debate.

→ So one way to improve the methodological quality of studies would be to encourage (or regulate) randomization and blinded assessment of outcomes.

(continued) Andrew Knight. “Critically Evaluating Animal Research.” In Animal Experimentation: Working Towards a Paradigm Change. Brill 2019. Knight advocates that compliance with the ARRIVE guidelines and other standards “must become mandatory,” and that “compliance with such standards should be a necessary condition for security research funding and ethical approval; licensing of researchers, facilities, and experimental protocols; and publication of subsequent results” (331).

Knight also argues that “prior to designing any new animal study, researchers should conduct a systematic review to collate, appraise, and synthesize all existing, good-quality evidence relating to their research questions,” and that this step should also be required by grant agencies, licensing bodies, and journals (332). He notes that systematic reviews are really helpful and should be funded more frequently (332).

The article then covers impacts on laboratory animals—invasive procedures, stress, pain, and death (333). These aren’t very widely or clearly reported (333).

→ This seems like a reasonable position. What would there be to lose from requiring compliance with these guidelines? I suppose it could make research more difficult or expensive to conduct—but probably it would weed out some bad research. 

→ Good to remember that research requires money and is shaped by market forces—it’s not some neutral thing happening in an ivory tower.

Grab our download to read the rest of the notes and see more examples of how to do thoughtful research!

Student taking notes on research project

4. Create a thesis

What major themes did you find in your reading? What did you find most interesting or convincing?

Now is the point when you need to pick a side on your topic, if you haven’t already done so. Now that you’ve read more about the issue, what do you think? Write down your position on the issue:

Animal testing is necessary but should be reduced.

Next, it’s time to add more detail to your thesis. What reasons do you have to support that position? Add those to your sentence.

Animal testing is necessary but should be reduced by eliminating testing for cosmetics, ensuring that any testing is scientifically sound, and replacing animal models with other methods as much as possible.

Add qualifiers to refine your position. Are there situations in which your position would not apply? Or are there other conditions that need to be met? 

Cancer research

For our topic of animal research, our final thesis statement (with lead-in) might look something like this:

The argument: Animal testing and research should not be abolished, as doing so would upend important medical research and substance testing. However, scientific advances mean that in many situations animal testing can be replaced by other methods that not only avoid the ethical problems of animal testing, but also are less costly and more accurate. Governments and other regulatory bodies should further regulate animal testing to outlaw testing for cosmetics and other recreational products, ensure that the tests conducted are both necessary and scientifically rigorous, and encourage the replacement of animal use with other methods whenever possible.

The highlighted bit at the end is the thesis statement, but the lead-in is useful to help us set up the argument—and having it there already will make writing our introduction easier!

The thesis statement is the single most important sentence of your essay. Without a strong thesis, there’s no chance of writing a great essay. Read more about it here.

See how nine real students wrote great thesis statements in 9 example essays now.


5. Create three supporting arguments

Think of three good arguments why your position is true. We’re going to make each one into a body paragraph of your essay.

For now, write them out as 1–2 sentences. These will be topic sentences for each body paragraph.

Laboratory setup

For our essay about animal testing, it might look like this:

Supporting argument #1: For ethical reasons, animal testing should not be allowed for cosmetics and recreational products.

Supporting argument #2: The tests that are conducted with animals should be both necessary (for the greater good) and scientifically rigorous—which isn’t always the case currently. This should be regulated by governments and institutions.

Supporting argument #3: Governments and institutions should do more to encourage the replacement of animal testing with other methods.

Bonus: download 10 example essays now.


Optional: Find a counterargument and respond to it

Think of a potential counterargument to your position. Consider writing a fourth paragraph anticipating this counterargument, or find a way to include it in your other body paragraphs. 

Laboratory mouse

For our essay, that might be:

Possible counterargument: Animal testing is unethical and should not be used in any circumstances.

Response to the counterargument: Animal testing is deeply entrenched in many research projects and medical procedures. Abruptly ceasing animal testing would upend the scientific and medical communities. But there are many ways that animal testing could be reduced.

With these three arguments, a counterargument, and a thesis, we now have a skeleton outline! See each step of this essay in full in our handy download.



6. Start populating your outline with the evidence you found in your research

Look through your research. What did you find that would support each of your three arguments?

Copy and paste those quotes or paraphrases into the outline. Make sure that each one is annotated so that you know which source it came from!

Ideally you already started thinking about these sources when you were doing your research—that’s the ideas in the rightmost column of our research template. Use this stuff too! 

A good rule of thumb would be to use at least three pieces of evidence per body paragraph.

Think about in what order it would make most sense to present your points. Rearrange your quotes accordingly! As you reorder them, feel free to start adding short sentences indicating the flow of ideas.

Research at the National Cancer Institute

For our essay about animal testing, part of our populated outline might look something like:

Argument #1: For ethical reasons, animal testing should not be allowed for cosmetics and recreational products.

Lots of animals are used for testing and research.

In the US, about 22 million animals were used annually in the early 1990s, mostly rodents (BMJ 1993, 1020).

But there are ethical problems with using animals in laboratory settings. Opinions about the divide between humans and animals might be shifting.

McIsaac refers to “the essential moral dilemma: how to balance the welfare of humans with the welfare of other species” (Hubel, McIsaac 29).

The fundamental legal texts used to justify animal use in biomedical research were created after WWII, and drew a clear line between experiments on animals and on humans. The Nuremburg Code states that “the experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment” (Ferrari, 197). The 1964  Declaration of the World Medical Association on the Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects (known as the Helsinki Declaration) states that “Medical research involving human subjects must conform to generally accepted scientific principles, be based on a thorough knowledge of the scientific literature, other relevant sources of information, and adequate laboratory and, as appropriate, animal experimentation. The welfare of animals used for research must be respected” (Ferrari, 197).

→ Context? The Nuremberg Code is a set of ethical research principles, developed in 1947 in the wake of Nazi atrocities during WWII, specifically the inhumane and often fatal experimentation on human subjects without consent.

“Since the 1970s, the animal-rights movement has challenged the use of animals in modern Western society by rejecting the idea of dominion of human beings over nature and animals and stressing the intrinsic value and rights of individual animals” (van Roten, 539, referencing works by Singer, Clark, Regan, and Jasper and Nelkin).

“The old (animal) model simply does not fully meet the needs of scientific and economic progress; it fails in cost, speed, level of detail of understanding, and human relevance. On top of this, animal experimentation lacks acceptance by an ethically evolving society” (Hartung, 682).

Knight’s article summarizes negative impacts on laboratory animals—invasive procedures, stress, pain, and death (Knight, 333). These aren’t very widely or clearly reported (Knight, 333). → Reading about these definitely produces an emotional reaction—they sound bad.

Given this context, it makes sense to ban animal testing in situations where it’s just for recreational products like cosmetics.

Fortunately, animal testing for cosmetics is less common than we might think.

A Gallup poll published in 1990 found that 14% of people thought that the most frequent reason for using animals to test cosmetics for safety—but figures from the UK Home Office in 1991 found that less than 1% of animals were used for tests for cosmetics and toiletries (BMJ 1993, 1019). → So in the early 1990s there was a big difference between what people thought was happening and what actually was happening!

But it still happens, and there are very few regulations of it (apart from in the EU).

Because there are many definitions of the phrase “cruelty-free,” many companies “can (and do) use the term when the product or its ingredients were indeed tested on animals” (Sheehan and Lee, 1).

The authors compare “cruelty-free” to the term “fair trade.” There is an independent inspection and certification group (Flo-Cert) that reviews products labeled as “fair trade,” but there’s no analogous process for “cruelty-free” (Sheehan and Lee, 2). → So anyone can just put that label on a product? Apparently, apart from in the European Union. That seems really easy to abuse for marketing purposes.

Companies can also hire outside firms to test products and ingredients on animals (Sheehan and Lee, 3).

Animal testing for recreational, non-medical purposes should be banned, like it is in the EU.

Download the full example outline here.

Research at the National Cancer Institute

7. Do more research if necessary

Occasionally you might realize that there’s a hole in your research, and you don’t have enough evidence to support one of your points.

In this situation, either change your argument to fit the evidence that you do have, or do a bit more research to fill the hole!

For example, looking at our outline for argument #1 for our essay on animal testing, it’s clear that this paragraph is missing a small but crucial bit of evidence—a reference to this specific ban on animal testing for cosmetics in Europe. Time for a bit more research!

A visit to the official website of the European Commission yields a copy of the law, which we can add to our populated outline:

Animal testing for recreational, non-medical purposes should be banned, like it is in the EU.

“The cosmetics directive provides the regulatory framework for the phasing out of animal testing for cosmetics purposes. Specifically, it establishes (1) a testing ban – prohibition to test finished cosmetic products and cosmetic ingredients on animals, and (2) a marketing ban – prohibition to market finished cosmetic products and ingredients in the EU which were tested on animals. The same provisions are contained in the cosmetics regulation, which replaced the cosmetics directive as of 11 July 2013. The testing ban on finished cosmetic products applies since 11 September 2004. The testing ban on ingredients or combination of ingredients applies since 11 March 2009. The marketing ban applies since 11 March 2009 for all human health effects with the exception of repeated-dose toxicity, reproductive toxicity, and toxicokinetics. For these specific health effects, the marketing ban applies since 11 March 2013, irrespective of the availability of alternative non-animal tests.” (website of the European Commission, “Ban on animal testing”)

Alright, now this supporting argument has the necessary ingredients!

You don’t need to use all of the evidence that you found in your research. In fact, you probably won’t use all of it!

This part of the writing process requires you to think critically about your arguments and what evidence is relevant to your points.

Cancer research


8. Add your own analysis and synthesis of these points

Once you’ve organized your evidence and decided what you want to use for your essay, now you get to start adding your own analysis!

You may have already started synthesizing and evaluating your sources when you were doing your research (the stuff on the right-hand side of our template). This gives you a great starting place!

For each piece of evidence, follow this formula:

  1. Context and transitions: introduce your piece of evidence and any relevant background info and signal the logical flow of ideas
  2. Reproduce the paraphrase or direct quote (with citation)
  3. Explanation: explain what the quote/paraphrase means in your own words
  4. Analysis: analyze how this piece of evidence proves your thesis
  5. Relate it back to the thesis: don’t forget to relate this point back to your overarching thesis! 

If you follow this fool-proof formula as you write, you will create clear, well-evidenced arguments.

As you get more experienced, you might stray a bit from the formula—but a good essay will always intermix evidence with explanation and analysis, and will always contain signposts back to the thesis throughout.

For our essay about animal testing, our first body paragraph might look like:

Every year, millions of animals—mostly rodents—are used for testing and research (BMJ 1993, 1020). This testing poses an ethical dilemma: “how to balance the welfare of humans with the welfare of other species” (Hubel, McIsaac 29). Many of the fundamental legal tests that are used to justify animal use in biomedical research were created in wake of the horrors of World War II, when the Nazi regime engaged in terrible experimentation on their human prisoners. In response to these atrocities, philosophers and lawmakers drew a clear line between experimenting on humans without consent and experimenting on (non-human) animals. For example, the 1947 Nuremberg Code stated that “the experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment” (Ferrari, 197). Created two years after the war, the code established a set of ethical research principles to demarcate ethical differences between animals and humans, clarifying differences between Nazi atrocities and more everyday research practices. However, in the following decades, the animal-rights movement has challenged the philosophical boundaries between humans and animals and questioned humanity’s right to exert dominion over animals (van Roten, 539, referencing works by Singer, Clark, Regan, and Jasper and Nelkin). These concerns are not without justification, as animals used in laboratories are subject to invasive procedures, stress, pain, and death (Knight, 333). Indeed, reading detailed descriptions of this research can be difficult to stomach. In light of this, while some animal testing that contributes to vital medical research and ultimately saves millions of lives may be ethically justified, animal testing that is purely for recreational purposes like cosmetics cannot be ethically justified. Fortunately, animal testing for cosmetics is less common than we might think. In 1990, a poll found that 14% of people in the UK thought that the most frequent reason for using animals to test cosmetics for safety—but actual figures were less than 1% (BMJ 1993, 1019). Unfortunately, animal testing for cosmetics is not subject to very much regulation. In particular, companies can use the phrase “cruelty-free” to mean just about anything, and many companies “can (and do) use the term when the product or its ingredients were indeed tested on animals” (Sheehan and Lee, 1). Unlike the term “fair trade,” which has an independent inspection and certification group (Flo-Cert) that reviews products using the label, there’s no analogous process for “cruelty-free” (Sheehan and Lee, 2). Without regulation, the term is regularly abused by marketers. Companies can also hire outside firms to test products and ingredients on animals and thereby pass the blame (Sheehan and Lee, 3). Consumers trying to avoid products tested on animals are frequently tricked. Greater regulation of terms would help, but the only way to end this kind of deceit will be to ban animal testing for recreational, non-medical purposes. The European Union is the only governmental body yet to accomplish this. In a series of regulations, the EU first banned testing finished cosmetic products (2004), then testing ingredients or marketing products which were tested on animals (2009); exceptions for specific health effects ended in 2013 (website of the European Commission, “Ban on animal testing”). The result is that the EU bans testing cosmetic ingredients or finished cosmetic products on animals, as well as marketing any cosmetic ingredients and products which were tested on animals elsewhere (Regulation 1223/2009/EU, known as the “Cosmetics Regulation”). The rest of the world should follow this example and ban animal testing on cosmetic ingredients and products, which do not contribute significantly to the greater good and therefore cannot outweigh the cost to animal lives.

Edit down the quotes/paraphrases as you go. In many cases, you might copy out a great long quote from a source…but only end up using a few words of it as a direct quote, or you might only paraphrase it!

There were several good quotes in our previous step that just didn’t end up fitting here. That’s fine!

Take a look at the words and phrases highlighted in red. Notice how sometimes a single word can help to provide necessary context and create a logical transition for a new idea. Don’t forget the transitions! These words and phrases are essential to good writing.

The end of the paragraph should very clearly tie back to the thesis statement.

As you write, consider your audience

If it’s not specified in your assignment prompt, it’s always appropriate to ask your instructor who the intended audience of your essay or paper might be. (Your instructor will usually be impressed by this question!) 

If you don’t get any specific guidance, imagine that your audience is the typical readership of a newspaper like the New York Times—people who are generally educated, but who don’t have any specialized  knowledge of the specific subject, especially if it’s more technical.

That means that you should explain any words or phrases that aren’t everyday terminology!

Equally important, you don’t want to leave logical leaps for your readers to make. Connect all of the dots for them!

See the other body paragraphs of this essay, along with 9 student essays, here.


9. Add paragraph transitions and concluding sentences to each body paragraph

By now you should have at least three strong body paragraphs, each one with 3–5 pieces of evidence plus your own analysis and synthesis of the evidence. 

Each paragraph has a main topic sentence, which we wrote back when we made the outline. This is a good time to check that the topic sentences still match what the rest of the paragraph says!

Think about how these arguments relate to each other. What is the most logical order for them? Re-order your paragraphs if necessary.

Then add a few sentences at the end of each paragraph and/or the beginning of the next paragraph to connect these ideas. This step is often the difference between an okay essay and a really great one!

You want your essay to have a great flow. We didn’t worry about this at the beginning of our writing, but now is the time to start improving the flow of ideas!


10. The final additions: write an introduction and a conclusion

Follow this formula to write a great introduction:

  1. It begins with some kind of “hook”: this can be an anecdote, quote, statistic, provocative statement, question, etc. 

(Pro tip: don’t use phrases like “throughout history,” “since the dawn of humankind,” etc. It’s good to think broadly, but you don’t have to make generalizations for all of history.)

  1. It gives some background information that is relevant to understand the ethical dilemma or debate
  2. It has a lead-up to the thesis
  3. At the end of the introduction, the thesis is clearly stated

This makes a smooth funnel that starts more broadly and smoothly zeroes in on the specific argument.

Essay intro funnel

Your conclusion is kind of like your introduction, but in reverse. It starts with your thesis and ends a little more broadly.

For the conclusion, try and summarize your entire argument without being redundant. Start by restating your thesis but with slightly different wording. Then summarize each of your main points.

If you can, it’s nice to point to the larger significance of the issue. What are the potential consequences of this issue? What are some future directions for it to go in? What remains to be explored?

See how nine students wrote introductions in different styles here.


11. Add citations and bibliography

Check what bibliographic style your instructor wants you to use. If this isn’t clearly stated, it’s a good question to ask them!

Typically the instructions will say something like “Chicago style,” “APA,” etc., or they’ll give you their own rules. 

These rules will dictate how exactly you’ll write your citations in the body of your essay (either in parentheses after the quote/paraphrase or else with a footnote or endnote) and how you’ll write your “works cited” with the full bibliographic information at the end.

Follow these rules! The most important thing is to be consistent and clear.

Pro tip: if you’re struggling with this step, your librarians can often help! They’re literally pros at this. :)


12. Revise

Now you have a complete draft!

Read it from beginning to end. Does it make sense? Are there any orphan quotes or paraphrases that aren’t clearly explained? Are there any abrupt changes of topic? Fix it!

Are there any problems with grammar or spelling? Fix them!

Edit for clarity.

Sharpening a pencil, just like you should sharpen your argument.

Ideally, you’ll finish your draft at least a few days before it’s due to be submitted. Give it a break for a day or two, and then come back to it. Things to be revised are more likely to jump out after a little break!

Try reading your essay out loud. Are there any sentences that don’t sound quite right? Rewrite them!

Double-check your thesis statement. This is the make-or-break moment of your essay, and without a clear thesis it’s pretty impossible for an essay to be a great one. Is it:

  • Arguable: it’s not just the facts—someone could disagree with this position
  • Narrow & specific: don’t pick a position that’s so broad you could never back it up
  • Complex: show that you are thinking deeply—one way to do this is to consider objections/qualifiers in your thesis

Try giving your essay to a friend or family member to read. Sometimes (if you’re lucky) your instructors will offer to read a draft if you turn it in early. What feedback do they have? Edit accordingly!

See the result of this process with 10 example essays now.


You're done!

You did it! Feel proud of yourself :)

We regularly help students work through all of these steps to write great academic essays in our Academic Writing Workshop or our one-on-one writing tutoring. We’re happy to chat more about what’s challenging for you and provide you customized guidance to help you write better papers and improve your grades on writing assignments!

Want to see what this looks like when it’s all pulled together? We compiled nine examples of great student essays, plus all of the steps used to create this model essay, in this handy resource. Download it here!

Download 10 great example essays



Converting SAT to ACT Scores (and vice versa)

Bonus Material:
Step-by-step plan for choosing between the SAT and ACT

Want to know how to turn your SAT score into an ACT score? Or convert your ACT score into an SAT score?

Fortunately, this is easy to do using the 2018 ACT®/SAT® concordance tables. These tables are the only official way to compare SAT and ACT scores.

Comparing SAT and ACT scores is an essential part of test prep and college applications. You can use the concordance tables to determine which score is higher, and submit scores from only that test to college.

Download our
step-by-step guide
for how to try both the SAT and the ACT at home and make a test prep plan that plays to your strengths.

SAT or ACT? Follow our step-by-step guide to decide

Bonus Material: Step-by-step guide to decide whether you should take the SAT or ACT


Why SAT to ACT conversion is powerful

These concordance tables are very powerful tools that allow students to see what an equivalent score would be on the other test.

There are two big moments to use score conversion: when you're making a test prep plan, and when you're submitting your college application.

About half of the students in the US take the SAT, and about half of the students take the ACT. These days, colleges are accepting both tests equally for admissions.

Comparing SAT and ACT participation rates

Use SAT to ACT conversion for test prep planning

The SAT and ACT are similar tests that are both designed to measure college-readiness, but they are different enough that many students score better on one test than on the other.

For this reason, we often recommend that students try both tests. 

We know from admissions data that about 20% of students admitted to top-tier schools actually submitted great scores for both the SAT and the ACT. This is not necessary and does not improve admissions chances, but it highlights how it has now become common practice for students to try both tests.

Some students feel much more comfortable with one test than with the other.

We explore the differences between the ACT and the SAT in this post, and we can use those differences to predict which test will play to a given student’s strengths.

Play to your strengths and prep the test with the higher score

Sometimes the results are surprising, though, so we recommend that students try both the SAT and the ACT, at least with a full timed practice test at home. We also recommend that students try the other test if they reach a plateau in their score improvements. We regularly help students navigate these decisions in our one-on-one test prep tutoring.

Use SAT to ACT conversion when you're submitting college applications

When you're sending in your college applications, submit only the test on which you scored more highly.

If you scored exactly equally on both tests, then submit both. Otherwise, just send in the test for which your score is higher! There is nothing to be gained from sending in scores from both tests.

Submit only the test with the higher score

Over the years, we’ve worked with many students who have scored significantly better on one test or the other. 

For example, we’ve seen a student with a 1230 SAT earn a 32 ACT — which is equivalent to a 1430 SAT. That’s a 200-point difference! This student scored above average on the SAT but very highly on the ACT. She should absolutely submit only the ACT score to colleges.


How the concordance tables were made

Back in 2018, the ACT and the College Board (the organizations that make the two tests) got together and made an official way to convert between the ACT and the SAT.

The result—the 2018 ACT®/SAT® concordance tables—are the only official way to compare SAT and ACT scores.

The ACT and the College Board worked hard to make sure that the tables represent equivalent scores for the two tests. They used data from 589,753 students who were graduating seniors in 2017. These students took both the ACT and the SAT, allowing the test organizations to compare scores for individual students. 

ACT vs SAT concordance histogram

You can read the fine print about the statistics used to make the concordance tables in the official report from the ACT and College Board.

These concordance tables were made shortly after the 2016 redesign of the SAT (aka the “new SAT”). Don’t use the old concordance tables, which were for the pre-2016 SAT! The SAT will change again in 2024, and the ACT and College Board will surely publish an update soon afterwards.

Bonus Material: Step-by-step plan to decide whether you should take the SAT or ACT


How to use the concordance tables

To use the concordance tables, just look up your score in the left-hand column and see the equivalent score on the other test in the right-hand column!

The SAT has more possible score values than the ACT, so there are several SAT scores that line up with each ACT score. For this reason, converting from the ACT to the SAT will give you both a single score and a score range.

For example, Rosa scored a 27 on the ACT. Her equivalent score for the SAT is 1260–1290, and if she needs a single number, she uses 1280.

There is no conversion between the ACT and the SAT for scores lower than a 590 Total SAT or a 9 Composite ACT. These scores account for less than 1% of students in the US.

Pencil shavings

Wondering what’s a good score? We’ve done detailed explorations of the average SAT scores and the average ACT scores for the Ivy League, the most competitive research universities, the best liberal arts colleges, and the top-tier public universities in the US. We tell you what SAT score or ACT score you likely need in order to get into your dream school. 


The SAT-ACT concordance tables

Convert SAT Total to ACT Composite

conversion table, SAT to ACT

Convert ACT Composite to SAT Total

conversion table, ACT to SAT

Convert SAT Math to ACT Math

conversion table, SAT Math to ACT Math

Convert ACT Math to SAT Math

conversion table, ACT to SAT Math

Convert SAT Reading & Writing to ACT Reading + ACT English

For this conversion, compare the SAT Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (EBRW) score against the average of the two section scores for the ACT, ACT Reading and ACT English.

conversion table, SAT to ACT Reading

Convert ACT Reading + ACT English to SAT Reading & Writing

For this conversion, compare the SAT Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (EBRW) score against the average of the two section scores for the ACT, ACT Reading and ACT English.

conversion table, ACT to SAT Reading 1.2


Next steps

Wondering what SAT or ACT score you need to get into the Ivy League, a top-tier liberal arts college, or one of the best public universities in the US? We’ve got the answers (and lots more data) for the SAT and for the ACT

What's next? Download our step-by-step guide for how to take both the SAT and the ACT at home and make a test prep plan that plays to your strengths.

We regularly help students navigate deciding between the SAT and the ACT in our one-on-one test prep tutoring, so feel free to reach out for additional support.

SAT or ACT? Follow our step-by-step guide to decide

Bonus Material: Step-by-step guide to decide whether you should take the SAT or ACT



Average SAT Scores: The Latest Data

Bonus Material:
SAT score ranges at 499 schools

Every day, students and families ask us to help them understand SAT scores. 

In this post, we’ll do a deep dive into the data to answer all of your questions about average SAT scores. 

We’ll answer what’s the average SAT score in the US for this year—but also the average SAT score for the Ivy League, the average SAT score at the best universities and liberal arts colleges in the US, and average SAT score at the top public universities

We’ll find out which states have the highest average SAT scores, and how the SAT scores have changed over time.

Finally, we’ll show how to use this data to help navigate the college admissions process more successfully.

We did exhaustive original research to get the latest data that’s not easily available, from dozens of separate sources (including working directly with admissions offices at universities throughout the country). As Princeton grads who love data, we did all the hard work so you don’t have to!

In this post we’ll cover:

SAT score ranges for 499 schools

Bonus Material:
SAT score ranges at 499 schools


How to use average SAT scores to improve your college admissions strategy

Average SAT scores can be a powerful tool in crafting your admissions strategy.

For example, imagine you had a 1360 SAT. That’s a great score!

In fact, it’s in the 93rd percentile of all students who take the SAT! That means that you would have scored higher than 93% of students in the US.

BUT this core is in the bottom 10% of scores of students at the top schools in the US.

This graph shows how common different SAT scores are at six top US universities:

Distribution of SAT scores at top universities

Almost all of the students had scores in the 700s for Math and for Reading & Writing! For example, we can calculate that only 67 freshmen at Harvard and 72 freshmen at Princeton had a SAT Math score in the 600s.

The graph shows that if you scored in the 500s for either section, there would be single-digit numbers of students at these top schools with a similar score to yours . . . and we can assume that those people had something REALLY amazing about them—they are probably Olympic athletes or published scientists or students who fought exceptional circumstances (refugees from war zones, etc). 

On the whole, we can see that at these top schools, roughly 90% of students scored in the 700s on each section, and 90% of students have total SAT scores in the 1400–1600 range.

What does this mean for students hoping to apply to the Ivy League and other top schools?

Princeton University

Uncovering the data for the distribution of SAT scores at colleges and universities throughout the US allows us to get a better sense of an applicant’s chances at a given school. A good general rule is that your SAT score should fall within the 25th and 75th percentile at your target schools (also called the "middle 50"). 

(Percentile means the percentage of students compared to whom your score would be higher. So 15th percentile means that your score would be higher than that of 15% of other students, but that 85% of students would have a higher score than yours. Or 80th percentile means that you scored higher than 80% of other students. We use percentiles to talk about where an individual student falls within a given distribution.)

It’s okay to apply to a few schools where your SAT score would be below the 25th percentile, but those are “reach” schools for you, and you should expect that your chances of admission are low at those schools, especially if you don’t have exceptional grades, extracurriculars, and essays.

On the other hand, schools where your SAT scores are above the 75th percentile—assuming your grades are okay—are probably “safe” schools with higher odds of acceptance.

We also like for “safety” schools to have an acceptance rate higher than about 30%, since even for an amazing applicant there’s a significant element of chance at the most competitive schools.

In this way, you can use your SAT scores to craft a balanced college application list, with at least two safety schools, two target schools, and two reach schools. 

SAT target range

(By the end of your junior year, it’s hard to change your GPA or your extracurriculars—but it’s definitely possible to improve your SAT scores and your college essays. Want to boost your SAT scores so that they’ll be within range for your dream school? Check out our SAT classes or one-on-one SAT tutoring.)

Test scores are obviously not the entirety of a college application—all the other elements matter, especially your high school academic record.

A note about test-optional: although many schools have temporarily implemented test-optional policies to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see from the data that at the top schools the vast majority of admitted students did submit SAT or ACT scores. Looking at detailed information from the admissions offices, SAT and ACT scores will still be used for admissions purposes if they’re submitted, so good scores can still be part of a compelling application. It’s also unclear how long the test-optional policies will last, so we still advise students to take the SAT and/or ACT and try to get the best scores possible.


What’s a good SAT score?

It depends!

We go into this in more detail in another post.

But generally speaking, a “good” SAT score for you will be in the range between the 25th and 75th percentiles for your target schools, and it should be above the 75th percentile for your safety schools.

Your score can be below the 25th percentile for your reach schools, but know that they’re exactly that—a reach—and your chances of admittance are low, especially if you don’t have some other aspect in which you’re exceptional (or at least above-average for that particular school).

Read on below to see if your score is above-average for the US or for your state!


National average SAT score

What’s the average SAT score in the US for 2022? The short answer is 533 for Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, 528 for Math, and 1060 total.

But we have a lot more useful data than just this number! For starters, we learn a lot more when we look at a graph showing the distribution of scores on a national level:

Distribution of SAT scores

We see roughly a bell-shaped curve—fewer students receive scores on the very low or very high end, and most students have scores around the middle.

Very few students score in the 200s. Roughly 60% of students score in the 400s or 500s for each section, or in the 800–1200 range for their total SAT score. 

Only 8% of students scored in the 1400–1600 range.

In 2021–2022 this was roughly 120,000 students across the entire US.

As we’ll see below, almost all of the students at the top-tier schools come from among these 120,000 students (and from among a roughly comparable number who were top scorers on the ACT).

One interesting thing to note is that even though the average score is a bit higher for Reading & Writing than it is for Math (533 vs 528), more students score very highly in Math than in Reading & Writing—in 2022, only 118,165 students across the US scored in the 700s for Reading & Writing, compared to 155,923 who scored in the 700s for Math. 

One guess is that this is because it’s easier to improve your Math scores with focused study and targeted practice than your Reading & Writing scores. 

For Math, the test is more content-based, and smart studying can help students review or learn the concepts that they might have forgotten or never mastered in their high school classes.

For Reading & Writing, there are still test strategies that you can learn and ways to improve your score, but it’s comparatively harder to get those gains within only a few months. 

If you're looking for help building reading comprehension and grammar skills, check out our SAT classes, writing classes, and one-on-one tutoring.

The average scores for Reading & Writing haven't always been higher than the average scores for Math! Looking at the historic SAT score data, we see that it's shifted over the years:

SAT historical averages, 1967-2021

From 1967 to 1989, average scores for Reading were higher. During this time, the average scores gradually decreased.

Then, from 1990 to 2016, average scores for Math were higher. In this period, scores rose a bit, then decreased again.

Between spring 2005 and spring 2016, the SAT had a third Writing section made up of multiple-choice and an essay. (During this time, students received three section scores and total SAT scores went up to 2400.)

In spring 2016, the SAT went back to two sections, with Reading and Writing combined into one section. (The College Board calls this "Evidence-Based Reading & Writing.) The average scores leapt up quite a bit with this change!

Since 2016, the difference between the average Math score and the average Reading & Writing score has been smaller. These averages have hovered around 530 for both sections.


Which schools have the highest average SAT scores?

Wondering which schools in the US have the highest SAT scores? The answer may surprise you!

The schools at the top of the list aren't in the Ivy League! Stanford isn't on the list, either!

Since not all schools provide data for the total SAT scores, we looked at the individual scores for Math and for Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (EBRW).

We focused on the middle 50% of students at each school—the range between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile—because that gives us a much clearer picture of the distribution of scores than a single number.

Using this 25/75 range, we get a good sense of the “average” student at one of these schools. 

Here’s a graph of the schools with the highest SAT Math scores:

US schools with the highest SAT math scores

The schools with the highest SAT Math scores aren't in the Ivy League—they're all STEM-focused schools!

CalTech (California Institute of Technology), for example, has the highest scores for SAT Math: 75% of students scored at least a 790 on the Math section.

That means that most students at CalTech have a near-perfect SAT Math score!

California beach

At the best schools for math, science, and engineering in the country, we can see that SAT Math scores are very consistently high. If you're aiming for CalTech or MIT, you'll need to have a perfect or near-perfect score!

The range of the middle 50 gets a little bit wider as we go down the list, but at all of these 15 schools, at least a quarter of the students scored a perfect 800 on the SAT Math section. That's impressive!

At CalTech, MIT, University of Chicago, Harvey Mudd, Washington University in St. Louis, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Vanderbilt, University of Pennsylvania, Rice, and Johns Hopkins, most students on campus (over 75%) scored a 750 or above for SAT Math.

The graph looks a little different when we look at the schools with the highest SAT Evidence-Based Reading & Writing scores:

US schools with the highest SAT reading & writing scores

Even at the top schools, the scores for Reading & Writing are a bit lower than the scores for Math.

In fact, we know that fewer than 25% of students at the top schools have a perfect 800 for Reading & Writing.

This makes sense, since we know that across the country, fewer students score in the super-high range for Reading & Writing.

A perfect 800 for Reading & Writing is just much more rare than a perfect 800 for Math.

Which school has the highest SAT scores for Reading & Writing?

Surprisingly, the top 3 are CalTech, MIT, and University of Chicago again!

University of Chicago
University of Chicago

More of the Ivies have crept up on the list, with Harvard and Yale now tying for fourth place. What percentage of students at these schools have a perfect 1600?

We can’t tell this exactly from the published data, but for some schools we know that at least 25% of the students have a perfect 800.

We also know that at the top schools roughly 90% of students have scores in the 1400–1600 range.

This is perhaps a good reminder that a great SAT score alone doesn’t guarantee admission to the most competitive schools, since (unfortunately) it’s not particularly exceptional at those schools.

Wondering how your dream school compares? Check out this
list of SAT score ranges at 499 schools across the US.


What is the average SAT score for the Ivy League?

What is the Ivy League, and what is the average SAT score for the Ivy League schools? 

Average SAT scores for the Ivy League

Technically the Ivy League is actually an athletic league! The term was coined in the 1930s and made official in 1954, when Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Dartmouth, and Cornell formed an agreement to balance competition in football with high academic standards. From the 1950s, these eight schools organized athletic competitions in many sports, and they gradually also added committees to develop intercollegiate policies for admissions and financial aid. 

The Ivy League represents some of the oldest and most prestigious schools in the country. Here’s the complete list:

  • Harvard University, founded 1636, in Cambridge, MA
  • Yale University, founded 1701, in New Haven, CT
  • University of Pennsylvania, founded 1740, in Philadelphia, PA
  • Princeton University, founded 1746, in Princeton, NJ
  • Columbia University, founded 1754, in New York City, NY
  • Brown University, founded 1764, in Providence, RI
  • Dartmouth College, founded 1769, in Hanover, NH
  • Cornell University, founded 1865, in Ithaca, NY

Here is the range between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile at the eight Ivy League schools:

SAT score ranges for the Ivy League

These are very high SAT scores!

Most students scored in the 700s at all of the Ivy-League schools.

Perfect scores are pretty common at the Ivy League.

At Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Penn, at least a quarter of students had a perfect score on the SAT Math section.

At Harvard and Yale, at least a quarter of students had a 780 or higher for the SAT Reading & Writing section.

As we can see, all of the schools in the Ivy League have quite similar ranges. If we take an average of the entire Ivy League, the ranges would be 736–796 for SAT Math, 710–770 for SAT Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, and 1446–1566 total SAT.

That means that if your dream is to attend an Ivy-League school, you should work to get your SAT section scores into the 700s

Harvard University
Harvard University

We can take a look at the numbers here:

College Name Admit % Reading 25th Reading 75th Math 25th Math 75th Total 25th Total 75th
Harvard University 5.0% 720 780 740 800 1460 1580
Princeton University 5.6% 710 770 740 800 1450 1570
Yale University 6.5% 720 780 740 800 1460 1580
Columbia University 6.7% 720 770 740 800 1460 1570
Brown University 7.7% 710 770 730 790 1440 1560
University of Pennsylvania 9.0% 710 770 750 800 1460 1570
Dartmouth College 9.2% 710 770 730 790 1440 1560
Cornell University 10.7% 680 750 720 790 1400 1540
source: IPEDS 2020 and CDS 2021–22

Average SAT scores for the top research universities in the US (Ivies+)

The Ivies are certainly some of the best universities in the US, but not all of the top universities are in the Ivy League, since the Ivy League schools are only on the East Coast.

There are a few other top universities that rank among the Ivies—or, in some cases, higher than some of the less-competitive Ivies (like Cornell and Dartmouth).

This list of top-tier universities is sometimes known as the “Ivies Plus,” or “Ivies+.” This isn’t a fixed list, but typically it includes at least Stanford, MIT, and UChicago, and sometimes up to the top twenty or so universities in the US, adding Caltech, Northwestern, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, Rice, WashU, UCLA, and Notre Dame.

Duke University
Duke University

Here, we show the range between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile at the top-tier (Ivies Plus) schools:

SAT score ranges at the top universities

Looking at the graph, we can see that average SAT scores are consistently very high at all of these schools. The middle 50% of students scored in the 700s for both sections at all of these top-tier schools.

For example, at Stanford, a 720 Reading would be in the 25th percentile, so 75% of students have above a 720 Reading. A 750 Math would be in the 25th percentile, so 75% of students have above a 750 Math. The 75th percentile for Math is 800, so actually more than 25% of students at Stanford have a perfect 800 for Math! 

Interestingly, the Math score ranges are higher than Reading & Writing score ranges at all of these top-tier schools.

One guess is that this is because the dedicated students who were admitted to these top schools worked hard to raise their SAT scores, and it’s generally easier to raise your Math SAT score than your Reading & Writing SAT score.

As a whole, the average SAT scores for the top 20 universities in the US are 711–768 for Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, 740–797 for Math, and 1450–1564 for total SAT scores.

That means that if you hope to apply to the top-tier universities in the US, you should aim for SAT scores in the 700s, and in the upper 700s for Math.

Average SAT scores at the top US universities

We can dig into the data a little more to see the distribution of scores at each of these top-tier schools. Generally speaking, about 90% of students scored in the 700s for each section of the SAT. (This drops to about 80% of students for Notre Dame and 60% of students at UCLA.)

distribution of SAT scores at top schools

The graphs show us that there were only a handful of students in each class year with Math or Reading & Writing scores lower than 600.

The graph for the total scores also shows us that if a student does have a particularly low score for Math or for Reading, then they had a higher score in the other section. Very, very few students have lower scores on both sections.

SAT score distributions at the top universities

For example, the data tells us that just 5 students in the freshman class at Yale had SAT scores in the 1000–1190 range. Only 74 students at Yale had SAT scores in the 1200–1390 range. And 886 students (92% of the students who submitted SAT scores) had scores in the 1400–1600 range!

The distribution of scores is similar at all of these top universities. To summarize: at the best schools in the country, about 90% of students have total SAT scores in the 1400–1600 range.

Stanford University
Stanford University

Check out the numbers here: 

College Name Admit % Reading 25th Reading 75th Math 25th Math 75th Total 25th Total 75th
Harvard University 5.0% 720 780 740 800 1460 1580
Stanford University 5.2% 700 770 720 800 1420 1570
Princeton University 5.6% 710 770 740 800 1450 1570
Yale University 6.5% 720 780 740 800 1460 1580
Columbia University 6.7% 720 770 740 800 1460 1570
California Institute of Technology 6.7% 740 780 790 800 1530 1580
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7.3% 730 780 780 800 1510 1580
University of Chicago 7.3% 730 770 770 800 1500 1570
Brown University 7.7% 710 770 730 790 1440 1560
Duke University 7.7% 720 770 750 800 1470 1570
University of Pennsylvania 9.0% 710 770 750 800 1460 1570
Dartmouth College 9.2% 710 770 730 790 1440 1560
Northwestern University 9.3% 700 760 730 790 1430 1550
Cornell University 10.7% 680 750 720 790 1400 1540
Rice University 10.9% 710 770 750 800 1460 1570
Johns Hopkins University 11.1% 720 760 750 800 1470 1560
Vanderbilt University 11.6% 720 770 750 800 1470 1570
University of California-Los Angeles 14.3% 650 740 640 780 1290 1520
Washington University in St Louis 16.0% 720 760 760 800 1480 1560
University of Notre Dame 19.0% 690 760 710 790 1400 1550
source: IPEDS 2020 and CDS 2021–22

Average SAT scores for top-ranked liberal arts colleges

You’re probably heard the phrase “liberal arts college” before, but what is it exactly and how is it different from a university?

In a nutshell, liberal arts colleges are smaller and more focused on undergraduate students compared to research universities. In fact, many liberal arts colleges do not offer any graduate degree programs.

Liberal arts colleges are also more likely to be focused on broader multi-disciplinary studies, and less likely to be focused on preparing students for specific vocations. That doesn’t mean that they don’t support students’ career goals, but they tend to offer more flexibility to explore different areas of study.

These schools may be smaller, but their academics aren't any less stellar. Here we can see the SAT score ranges at the top 30 schools on the US News and World Report ranking, ordered by admissions rates:

SAT score ranges at the best liberal arts colleges

As we can see, the average SAT scores at the top liberal arts colleges in the US are quite high!

In the case of Pomona, Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams, and Harvey Mudd, these scores are comparable to the scores at the Ivy League and other top-tier universities.

In fact, the Math scores at Harvey Mudd—one of the best schools in the country for STEM studies—are actually higher than any of the Ivy-League schools! 

As a whole, the average SAT scores for the top 30 liberal arts colleges in the US are 658–735 for Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, 660–759 for Math, and 1318–1494 for total SAT scores.

Broadly speaking, if you’re hoping to attend a top-tier liberals arts college, you want your total SAT score to be in the 1300s or 1400s.

Average SAT scores for best liberal arts colleges

Check out the numbers here: 

College Name Admit % Reading 25th Reading 75th Math 25th Math 75th Total 25th Total 75th
Pomona College 8.6% 690 750 700 790 1390 1540
United States Military Academy 8.6% 610 700 600 740 1210 1440
Swarthmore College 9.1% 690 750 705 790 1395 1540
United States Naval Academy 9.1% 610 710 620 740 1230 1450
Bowdoin College 9.2% 660 740 670 770 1330 1510
Colby College 10.3% 680 740 700 780 1380 1520
Amherst College 11.8% 710 770 720 790 1430 1560
Claremont McKenna College 13.3% 660 730 670 770 1330 1500
United States Air Force Academy 13.4% 600 700 620 730 1220 1430
Colorado College 13.6% 630 720 610 740 1240 1460
Barnard College 13.6% 680 748 670 770 1350 1518
Bates College 14.1% 620 710 590 710 1210 1420
Williams College 15.1% 700 770 710 790 1410 1560
Harvey Mudd College 18.0% 720 770 770 800 1490 1570
Haverford College 18.2% 670 750 690 770 1360 1520
Hamilton College 18.4% 680 750 700 760 1380 1510
Grinnell College 19.2% 670 750 683 788 1353 1538
Davidson College 20.0% 650 720 650 740 1300 1460
Wellesley College 20.4% 680 750 670 770 1350 1520
Wesleyan University 20.9% 670 750 670 770 1340 1520
Carleton College 21.2% 660 750 670 770 1330 1520
Middlebury College 22.0% 670 750 670 770 1340 1520
Washington and Lee University 24.5% 670 740 680 760 1350 1500
Vassar College 24.5% 680 750 680 770 1360 1520
Colgate University 27.5% 650 720 650 750 1300 1470
Berea College 33.0% 540 640 540 640 1080 1280
Scripps College 35.1% 670 730 650 750 1320 1480
Smith College 36.5% 670 740 655 770 1325 1510
Kenyon College 36.9% 660 730 620 730 1280 1460
Bryn Mawr College 38.4% 630 740 610 760 1240 1500
Macalester College 38.7% 640 720 640 730 1280 1450
Mount Holyoke College 52.5% 630 730 640 770 1270 1500
source: IPEDS 2020 and CDS 2021–22

Average SAT scores for top-ranked public universities

Of course, there are some fantastic public universities throughout the US, many of which are nearly as competitive as the Ivy League and other top-tier private schools. (In recent years, one public university, UCLA, has even broken into the ranks of the top 20 schools in the US.)

For specific programs or majors, these schools might even offer more opportunities than private colleges and universities.

University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley

In fact, back in 1985 a Yale Admissions officer coined the phrase “public Ivies” to describe the best of the public universities, in his book Public Ivies: A Guide to America's Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities.

A more recent list was published by Howard and Matthew Greene’s 2001 book The Public Ivies: America's Flagship Public Universities. According to this book, the top 30 public universities in the US the following:

Northeastern

  • Pennsylvania State University (University Park)
  • Rutgers University (New Brunswick)
  • State University of New York at Binghamton 
  • University of Connecticut (Storrs)

Mid-Atlantic

  • College of William & Mary (Williamsburg, Virginia)
  • University of Delaware (Newark)
  • University of Maryland (College Park)
  • University of Virginia (Charlottesville)

Southern

  • University of Florida (Gainesville)
  • University of Georgia (Athens)
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Texas at Austin

Great Lakes & Midwest

  • Indiana University Bloomington
  • Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)
  • Michigan State University (East Lansing)
  • Ohio State University (Columbus)
  • University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
  • University of Iowa (Iowa City)
  • University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)
  • University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
  • University of Wisconsin–Madison

Western

  • University of Arizona (Tucson)
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Davis
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Diego
  • University of California, Santa Barbara
  • University of Colorado Boulder
  • University of Washington (Seattle)

We expanded this list to show you the average SAT scores at the top 50 public universities in the US, ordered according to the US News and World Report rankings. A dot indicates schools on the list of “public Ivies”:

SAT score ranges at the top public universities

We can notice that, as with the top-tier universities and liberal arts colleges, the average SAT scores at most top public universities are higher for Math than for Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, likely because the top students study hard to raise their SAT Math scores, but it’s harder to raise SAT Reading & Writing scores.

We can also notice a few schools with especially high SAT Math scores compared to their SAT Reading & Writing, like the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin (Madison), and Purdue. These happen to be universities with particularly strong programs in math and engineering.

At Indiana University and University of Iowa, on the other hand, the average SAT Reading & Writing scores are higher than the average SAT Math scores.

This might reflect the fact that Indiana University is one of the top schools in the country for music, while the University of Iowa is well-known for its writing programs.

As a whole, the average SAT scores for the 50 best public universities in the US are 595–685 for Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, 600–713 for Math, and 1198–1397 for total SAT scores.

Roughly speaking, this means that if you hope to attend one of the top large public universities, you should aim for a total SAT score in the 1200s or 1300s.

Average SAT scores at the top public universities

*Note that through 2025, the University of California schools aren’t accepting SAT or ACT scores. (They’re not just test-optional, they’re test-blind, so they won’t look at scores if submitted.) However, as we discussed above, looking at historic SAT data can still give a good idea about the competitiveness of the schools and your general chances of admission.

Check out the numbers here: 

College Name Admit % 25th 75th 25th 75th 25th 75th
University of California-Los Angeles 14.3% 650 740 640 780 1290 1520
University of California-Berkeley 17.5% 650 740 660 790 1310 1530
Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus 21.3% 670 740 700 790 1370 1530
University of Virginia-Main Campus 22.6% 660 740 660 770 1320 1510
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 25.0% 640 730 640 760 1280 1490
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 26.1% 660 740 680 780 1340 1520
University of California-Irvine 29.9% 600 680 630 750 1230 1430
University of Florida 31.1% 650 720 640 740 1290 1460
The University of Texas at Austin 32.0% 610 720 600 750 1210 1470
Florida State University 32.5% 620 680 600 670 1220 1350
University of Miami 33.1% 620 700 630 720 1250 1420
University of California-San Diego 36.6% 620 710 650 770 1270 1480
University of California-Santa Barbara 36.7% 620 710 610 750 1230 1460
William & Mary 42.2% 660 740 640 750 1300 1490
Binghamton University 43.0% 640 710 650 740 1290 1450
North Carolina State University at Raleigh 46.2% 610 690 620 720 1230 1410
University of California-Davis 46.4% 570 670 590 730 1160 1400
University of Georgia 48.4% 630 720 620 740 1250 1460
Stony Brook University 48.9% 600 690 630 750 1230 1440
University of South Florida 49.2% 590 660 570 660 1160 1320
University of Maryland-College Park 51.0% 630 720 640 760 1270 1480
Colorado School of Mines 55.0% 620 700 650 740 1270 1440
University of Washington-Seattle Campus 55.9% 590 700 610 753 1200 1453
University of Connecticut 56.1% 580 680 590 710 1170 1390
University of Wisconsin-Madison 57.2% 610 690 650 770 1260 1460
Pennsylvania State-University Park 57.6% 600 690 600 710 1200 1400
Clemson University 61.9% 610 690 600 700 1210 1390
Texas A & M University-College Station 63.3% 580 680 580 700 1160 1380
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 63.3% 590 690 610 770 1200 1460
University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus 63.9% 623 700 620 720 1243 1420
University of Minnesota-Morris 64.7% 510 620 530 630 1040 1250
University of Massachusetts-Amherst 65.3% 600 680 600 710 1200 1390
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University 65.8% 590 680 580 690 1170 1370
University of California-Riverside 65.8% 540 630 540 650 1080 1280
University of Delaware 66.0% 580 660 570 670 1150 1330
New Jersey Institute of Technology 66.0% 590 670 610 720 1200 1390
Rutgers University-New Brunswick 66.9% 580 680 600 730 1180 1410
University at Buffalo 67.0% 560 640 580 670 1140 1310
Purdue University-Main Campus 67.2% 580 680 590 740 1170 1420
Indiana University-East 67.3% 470 570 450 550 920 1120
Ohio State University-Main Campus 68.5% 590 690 620 740 1210 1430
Auburn University 71.2% 590 650 580 680 1180 1330
Temple University 72.3% 560 670 550 670 1120 1320
University of Tennessee Knoxville 74.9% 590 670 580 670 1180 1340
University of Illinois Chicago 78.8% 540 650 540 660 1090 1300
Michigan State University 83.3% 550 650 550 670 1110 1310
University of Utah 84.0% 590 690 590 700 1190 1380
University of Colorado-Boulder 84.2% 590 690 580 700 1180 1380
University of California-Merced 84.8% 470 570 470 570 950 1140
University of Iowa 86.2% 570 680 560 670 1140 1330
University of Arizona-Tucson 87.1% 560 680 560 690 1140 1360
University of Oregon 93.4% 560 670 550 660 1120 1330
source: IPEDS 2020, CDS 2020–21, and CDS 2021–22

Average SAT scores for Big Ten universities

What is the Big Ten? Like the Ivy League, it’s also an athletic league first and foremost. But in the Midwest, it’s a shorthand for many of the top large universities: the Universities of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, along with Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, and Rutgers.

(For many decades, the conference had ten schools, hence the name, though currently it has fourteen.)

University of Illinois football
University of Illinois

The schools of the Big Ten conference are known for combining academic achievement with athletic success. Most are public universities, but Northwestern is a top-tier private university. 

We can see that the average SAT scores at the Big Ten universities are high:

SAT score ranges at the big 10 universities

As a whole, the average SAT scores for the Big Ten conference are 576–674 for Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, 586–706 for Math, and 1162–1375 for total SAT scores.

That means that, broadly speaking, if you want to go to a Big Ten university, you’ll want your total SAT score to be in the 1200s or 1300s.

Average SAT scores for Big 10 schools

Check out the numbers here:

College Name Admit % 25th 75th 25th 75th 25th 75th
Northwestern University 9.3% 700 760 730 790 1430 1550
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 26.1% 660 740 680 780 1340 1520
University of Maryland-College Park 51.0% 630 720 640 760 1270 1480
University of Wisconsin-Madison 57.2% 610 690 650 770 1260 1460
Pennsylvania State-University Park 57.6% 600 690 600 710 1200 1400
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 63.3% 590 690 610 770 1200 1460
University of Minnesota-Morris 64.7% 510 620 530 630 1040 1250
Rutgers University-New Brunswick 66.9% 580 680 600 730 1180 1410
Purdue University-Main Campus 67.2% 580 680 590 740 1170 1420
Indiana University-East 67.3% 470 570 450 550 920 1120
Ohio State University-Main Campus 68.5% 590 690 620 740 1210 1430
Michigan State University 83.3% 550 650 550 670 1110 1310
University of Iowa 86.2% 570 680 560 670 1140 1330
University of Nebraska 88.3% 550 660 540 660 1100 1310
source: IPEDS 2020 and CDS 2021–22

Average SAT scores for the top 50 colleges and universities in the US

So far we’ve been looking at specific types of schools. Wondering what the average SAT scores are for all of the top 50 schools in the US? Here are the ranges of the middle 50% of students at the top 50 schools (by admissions rate) in the US:

SAT score ranges at the top 50 US schools

As a whole, the average SAT scores for the top 50 colleges and universities in the US are 684–751 for Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, 703–782 for Math, and 1387–1533 for total SAT scores

A good rule of thumb for anyone who wants to apply to a top-50 school is to aim for SAT section scores in the 700s, with a total score in the 1400s or 1500s.

Average SAT scores at the 50 best schools

Check out the numbers here: 

College Name Admit % Reading 25th Reading 75th Math 25th Math 75th Total 25th Total 75th
Harvard University 5.0% 720 780 740 800 1460 1580
Stanford University 5.2% 700 770 720 800 1420 1570
Princeton University 5.6% 710 770 740 800 1450 1570
Yale University 6.5% 720 780 740 800 1460 1580
Columbia University in the City of New York 6.7% 720 770 740 800 1460 1570
California Institute of Technology 6.7% 740 780 790 800 1530 1580
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7.3% 730 780 780 800 1510 1580
University of Chicago 7.3% 730 770 770 800 1500 1570
Brown University 7.7% 710 770 730 790 1440 1560
Duke University 7.7% 720 770 750 800 1470 1570
Pomona College 8.6% 690 750 700 790 1390 1540
United States Military Academy 8.6% 610 700 600 740 1210 1440
University of Pennsylvania 9.0% 710 770 750 800 1460 1570
Swarthmore College 9.1% 690 750 705 790 1395 1540
United States Naval Academy 9.1% 610 710 620 740 1230 1450
Bowdoin College 9.2% 660 740 670 770 1330 1510
Dartmouth College 9.2% 710 770 730 790 1440 1560
Northwestern University 9.3% 700 760 730 790 1430 1550
Colby College 10.3% 680 740 700 780 1380 1520
Cornell University 10.7% 680 750 720 790 1400 1540
Rice University 10.9% 710 770 750 800 1460 1570
Johns Hopkins University 11.1% 720 760 750 800 1470 1560
Tulane University of Louisiana 11.1% 650 730 690 770 1340 1500
Vanderbilt University 11.6% 720 770 750 800 1470 1570
Amherst College 11.8% 710 770 720 790 1430 1560
Claremont McKenna College 13.3% 660 730 670 770 1330 1500
United States Air Force Academy 13.4% 600 700 620 730 1220 1430
Colorado College 13.6% 630 720 610 740 1240 1460
Barnard College 13.6% 680 748 670 770 1350 1518
Bates College 14.1% 620 710 590 710 1210 1420
University of California-Los Angeles 14.3% 650 740 640 780 1290 1520
Williams College 15.1% 700 770 710 790 1410 1560
Washington University in St Louis 16.0% 720 760 760 800 1480 1560
University of Southern California 16.1% 660 740 680 790 1340 1530
Tufts University 16.3% 680 750 700 780 1380 1530
Pitzer College 16.6% 655 740 670 770 1325 1510
Georgetown University 16.8% 690 760 690 790 1380 1550
Carnegie Mellon University 17.3% 700 760 760 800 1460 1560
University of California-Berkeley 17.5% 650 740 660 790 1310 1530
Harvey Mudd College 18.0% 720 770 770 800 1490 1570
Haverford College 18.2% 670 750 690 770 1360 1520
Hamilton College 18.4% 680 750 700 760 1380 1510
University of Notre Dame 19.0% 690 760 710 790 1400 1550
Emory University 19.2% 680 740 700 790 1380 1530
Grinnell College 19.2% 670 750 683 788 1353 1538
Davidson College 20.0% 650 720 650 740 1300 1460
Boston University 20.1% 640 720 670 780 1310 1500
Wellesley College 20.4% 680 750 670 770 1350 1520
Northeastern University 20.5% 690 750 720 790 1410 1540
Wesleyan University 20.9% 670 750 670 770 1340 1520
source: IPEDS 2020, CDS 2020–21, and CDS 2021–22

Don’t see your dream school on this list? Wondering what the average SAT scores are for the rest of the colleges and universities? Check out this list of SAT score ranges at 499 colleges and universities across the country.


Average SAT scores by state

Wondering which state has the highest SAT score?

One answer might be Minnesota, where the average SAT score in 2021 was 626 for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, 636 for Math, and 1263 total. This is over 200 points higher than the national average of 1060! Go Minnesota! 

Minnesota

This map shows the average total SAT scores by state. At first glance, it looks like the upper Midwest is really rocking their SATs:

map of average SAT scores by state

But before we celebrate Minnesota too much. . . it’s actually a bit more complicated!

Some states have very low participation rates for the SAT—hardly any students take the tests. (Note that participation rates have been affected in recent years by the Covid-19 pandemic, and some states that normally have nearly 100% participation are down quite a bit.)

In fact, in Minnesota only 2% of students took the SAT. As we can imagine, this skews the data a lot, because the only students taking the SAT are probably very driven and prepared. 

If we map the participation rates across the US, it looks like this:

map of SAT participation rates by state

We can see that the SAT is most commonly on the East Coast of the US, as well as Illinois, Texas, Colorado, and Idaho, and a bit on the West Coast. This makes sense, since the SAT was first used primarily by selective colleges on the East Coast, while the ACT was traditionally used more by public universities and other regions of the US.

The states with the highest participation rates are those where all high school students are required to take the SAT, like Illinois.

If we look again at the average SAT scores in each states, but only states with a participation rate greater than 10%, then the map looks more like this:

map of average SAT scores by state, states with participation rates over 10%

If we include only the states where more than 10% of students took the SAT, then the state with the highest scores is Massachusetts, where the average SAT score in 2021 was 591 for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, 593 for Math, and 1184 total.

Boston, Massachusetts

The differences between states is actually most important for the PSAT, because the cutoffs for National Merit scholarships are determined separately for each state.

Check out the average score for your state here:

US State Participation % Reading mean Math mean Total mean
Alabama 3% 591 568 1159
Alaska 23% 567 553 1119
Arizona 11% 592 589 1181
Arkansas 2% 610 584 1194
California 24% 527 530 1057
Colorado 56% 544 528 1072
Connecticut 69% 545 527 1072
Delaware 96% 499 485 984
District of Columbia 90% 500 487 987
Florida 81% 513 480 993
Georgia 41% 551 534 1086
Hawaii 26% 572 572 1144
Idaho 90% 502 483 985
Illinois 80% 508 498 1007
Indiana 43% 551 544 1095
Iowa 2% 623 620 1243
Kansas 2% 616 623 1219
Kentucky 4% 609 603 1207
Louisiana 3% 605 583 1188
Maine 29% 558 541 1099
Maryland 47% 542 531 1073
Massachusetts 34% 591 593 1184
Michigan 68% 523 508 1031
Minnesota 2% 626 636 1263
Mississippi 1% 612 589 1202
Missouri 2% 614 606 1219
Montana 5% 618 607 1225
Nebraska 2% 625 620 1246
Nevada 4% 596 598 1195
New Hampshire 71% 540 526 1065
New Jersey 48% 562 563 1125
New Mexico 30% 508 488 996
New York 55% 526 531 1057
North Carolina 23% 578 571 1150
North Dakota 1% 631 628 1258
Ohio 15% 525 523 1048
Oklahoma 6% 535 507 1042
Oregon 17% 565 554 1119
Pennsylvania 39% 566 557 1123
Rhode Island 68% 514 497 1011
South Carolina 48% 529 507 1036
South Dakota 1% 605 610 1215
Tennessee 4% 618 602 1220
Texas 59% 505 498 1003
Utah 1% 621 617 1238
Vermont 41% 571 553 1124
Virginia 41% 584 567 1151
Washington 27% 537 535 1072
West Virginia 45% 520 487 1007
Wisconsin 1% 604 611 1215
Wyoming 2% 626 607 1233
Puerto Rico not provided 511 483 994
Virgin Islands, US not provided 484 435 920
College Board National Report 2021

How to improve your SAT score

Wondering what to do next?

If you’ve never taken the SAT before, try doing a full official SAT practice test at home to get an idea of your score. This tells you where your starting place is.

You can then use our formula to estimate how much you can reasonably expect to increase your SAT scores.

If your scores are lower, it’s easier to increase your score by a bigger amount. If your scores are already in the 700s, then it’s harder to get those final gains.

With your estimated scores, you can already get a sense of where you’d be a competitive candidate—these are schools where your SAT score would be more or less “average,” falling within the middle 50% of students. Taking into account the other aspects of your application, like GPA and extracurriculars, you can start to build your college list.

studying

Next . . . it’s time to raise those SAT scores! Boosting your test scores is one of the easiest ways to increase your admissions chances. Smart, targeted practice can make a big difference. 

In some cases, you might also want to learn or review math or grammar concepts that you either didn’t cover in high school or have forgotten. (Since the SAT covers material that some students will have covered in their middle school math classes, it’s not uncommon for students to have forgotten how to graph a polynomial function or find the measure of an angle inscribed in a circle.) 

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the format of the test overall, and there are many test-taking strategies that one can use to take the test more efficiently and avoid trick answers.

Finally, consider whether there are any other factors that affect your test-taking abilities. Do you get nervous on test days? Do you tend to run out of time on a particular section? Do you tend to lose focus after too long trying to read long passages? There are techniques for mitigating all of these and more.

Not sure how to study more effectively, struggling with certain concepts, or just generally want some help?

standardized test

We’ve helped thousands of students boost their SAT scores with our SAT classes and one-on-one SAT tutoring. We’re happy to chat about your particular challenges.

You also might want to check out the ACT and see which test is a better fit for your strengths. You can read our comparison of the two tests and take a look at our deep dive into average ACT score data.

Once you’ve studied, it’s time to take the test!

Ideally, be strategic about when you schedule your tests.

Many students take the SAT multiple times, with between two to four times being the most common. In between each test date, learn from your experience with the previous test to study more effectively and target problem areas.

Once you know your final SAT score, revise your college list to make sure you have at least two “target” schools (where you’re in the middle 50%) and two “safety” schools (where you’re in the top 25%).

Make sure to pay attention to the other components of your college applications, too—your GPA, college essays, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, and interview. Read more about how admissions officers read your application here.

Submit your applications your senior year of high school and relax!


Download SAT score ranges for 499 US colleges and universities

Here's what you'll get with this handy resource:

  • Middle 50 SAT total scores for the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities
  • Middle 50 SAT sectional scores for Reading & Writing and Math
  • Admit rate for each college
  • All based on the most recent available data (2020)

SAT score ranges for 499 schools

Bonus Material:
SAT score ranges at 499 schools



Average ACT Scores: The Latest Data

Bonus Material:
ACT score ranges at 499 schools

Every day, students and families ask us to help them understand ACT scores. 

In this post, we’ll do a deep dive into the data to answer all of your questions about average ACT scores. 

We’ll answer what’s the average ACT score in the US for this year—but also the average ACT score for the Ivy League, the average ACT score at the best universities and liberal arts colleges in the US, and average ACT score at the top public universities

We’ll find out how common is a perfect score, which states have the highest average ACT scores, and how ACT scores have changed over time.

Finally, we’ll show how to use this data to help navigate the college admissions process more successfully.

We did exhaustive original research to get the latest data that’s not easily available, from dozens of separate sources (including working directly with admissions offices at universities throughout the country). As Princeton grads who love data, we did all the hard work so you don’t have to!

In this post we’ll cover:

Download ACT ranges for 499 schools

Bonus Material:
ACT score ranges at 499 schools


How to use average ACT scores to improve your college admissions strategy

Average ACT scores can be a powerful tool in crafting your admissions strategy.

They’re obviously not the entirety of a college application—all the other elements matter, especially your high school academic record.

For example, though, imagine you had a 29 composite score for your ACT. That's a great score! It's the 90th percentile for the US, which means your score would be higher than 90% of other students!

However, if you had a 29 ACT score, that would be a very low score at the nation's top schools:

composite ACT scores at top US universities

Checking out the distribution of ACT scores at the top schools, we see that only about 5% of students (a few dozen students) at these top schools had scores in the 20s . . . and we can assume that those people had something REALLY amazing about them—they are probably Olympic athletes or published scientists or students who fought exceptional circumstances (refugees from war zones, etc).

We can see that at these top schools, roughly 95% of students scored in the 30s in English, 85% scored in the 30s for Math, and 95% of students have composite ACT scores in the 30s.

What does this mean for students hoping to apply to the Ivy League and other top schools?

garden at Stanford
Stanford University

Uncovering the data for the distribution of ACT scores at colleges and universities throughout the US allows us to get a better sense of an applicant’s chances at a given school. A good general rule is that your ACT score should fall within the 25th and 75th percentile at your target schools. 

(Percentile means the percentage of students compared to whom your score would be higher. So 15th percentile means that your score would be higher than that of 15% of other students, but that 85% of students would have a higher score than yours. Or 80th percentile means that you scored higher than 80% of other students. We use percentiles to talk about where an individual student falls within a given distribution.)

It’s okay to apply to a few schools where your ACT score would be below the 25th percentile, but those are “reach” schools for you, and you should expect that your chances of admission are low at those schools, especially if you don’t have exceptional grades, extracurriculars, and essays.

On the other hand, schools where your ACT scores are above the 75th percentile—assuming your grades are okay—are probably “safe” schools where you are more likely to be admitted.

We also like for “safety” schools to have an acceptance rate higher than about 30%, since even for an amazing applicant there’s a significant element of chance at the most competitive schools.

target range for ACT score

In this way, you can use your ACT scores to craft a balanced college application list, with at least two safety schools, two target schools, and two reach schools.

(By the end of your junior year, it’s hard to change your GPA or your extracurriculars—but it’s definitely possible to improve your ACT scores and your college essays. Want to boost your ACT scores so that they’ll be within range for your dream school? Check out our one-on-one ACT tutoring.)

A note about test-optional: although many schools have temporarily implemented test-optional policies to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see from the data that at the top schools the vast majority of admitted students did submit ACT or SAT scores. Looking at detailed information from the admissions offices, ACT and SAT scores will still be used for admissions purposes if they’re submitted, so good scores can still be part of a compelling application. It’s also unclear how long the test-optional policies will last, so we still advise students to take the ACT and/or SAT and try to get the best scores possible.


What’s a good ACT score?

It depends! We answer this question in more detail in another post. But generally speaking, a “good” ACT score for you will be in the range between the 25th and 75th percentiles for your target schools, and it should be above the 75th percentile for your safety schools.

Your score can be below the 25th percentile for your reach schools, but know that they’re exactly that—a reach—and your chances of admittance are low, especially if you don’t have some other aspect in which you’re exceptional (or at least above-average for that particular school).

Read on below to see if your score is above-average for the US or for your state!


National average ACT score

What’s the average ACT score in the US for 2022? The short answer is 19.9 for English, 20.2 for Math, 21.1 for Reading, 20.5 for Science, and 20.6 for the composite ACT.

But we have a lot more useful data than just these numbers!

For starters, we learn a lot more when we look at a histogram showing the distribution of scores on a national level. 

Below are the score distributions for all students taking the ACT during the the 2021–2022 reporting year:

distribution of ACT scores in the US

Each bar on the graphs represents the percentage of students who earned that particular score in the 2021 testing year. For example, the most common score on the Math section of the ACT in 2021 was a 16, and approximately 155,440 students across the US earned this score. 

Looking at the shape of the graphs, we see that more students across the US score very highly in English and Reading than in Math or Science.

If we look at how many students scored very highly (in the 34–36 range), we see that 78,299 students scored in this range for English and 87,571 students for Reading, compared to 30,005 students for Math and 37,056 students for Science—so very high scores are more than twice as common for English and Reading than for Math and Science.

In total, 31,913 students in 2021 had composite scores in the 34–36 range. Broadening slightly, we learn that 123,183 students in 2021 had composite ACT scores in the 30s.

As we’ll see below, nearly all of the students at the Ivy League and other top-tier schools came from among this group of 123,183 students (or the analogous group of high SAT scorers). 

University of Chicago quad
University of Chicago

In general, English and Reading scores are more spread out—more students with quite low or quite high scores—compared to Math and Science scores. (For anyone wanting the stats, the standard deviation is 7.2 for English, 5.7 for Math, 7.0 for Reading, and 5.9 for Science.)

Digging into the data, we can learn that in 2021, 4,055 students across the US got a perfect 36 composite ACT score. (Note that, because the ACT composite score is an average of all four sections, it’s possible to get a “perfect” composite score while scoring 35 on two of the sections.)

Interestingly, there’s been an increase in the number of students getting perfect scores over the past two and a half decades, especially since 2012. Check out this graph showing the percentage of students who got a perfect composite score of 36 on the ACT between the years 1996 and 2021:

Percentage of students taking the ACT with a with 36

These are still very low numbers—in 2021, only 4,055 students taking the ACT earned a perfect score. However, the percentage of students getting a 36 on the ACT has gone from less than 0.01% to 0.34% in 2020! (There’s a small dip for 2021, which we can likely attribute to the Covid-19 pandemic.)

The makers of the ACT have assured us that this isn’t because the test is getting easier!

Rather, our hypothesis is that the rise in students getting perfect scores is because more high-achieving SAT “superstars” are now also taking the ACT, whereas before they would have only taken the SAT.

(Wondering about the difference between the SAT and the ACT, and why it makes sense to take both? Check out our discussion of whether to take the SAT or the ACT.

In fact, the average ACT score has been pretty consistent between 1990 (when the test format and scoring scale was changed) and 2017. Reading has always had the highest average nationally, while since 1997 English has had the lowest average nationally.

Historical average ACT scores

If anything, the average ACT scores have fallen since 2017, and took an especially sharp drop in the past two years (since 2020). We can assume that the drop from 2020 has likely been due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.


Which schools have the highest average ACT scores?

Wondering which schools in the US have the highest ACT scores? Number one is not Harvard or Stanford! Here’s the scoop. 

We focused on the middle 50% of students at each school—the range between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile—because that gives us a much clearer picture of the distribution of scores than a single number. Using this 25/75 range, we get a good sense of the “average” student at one of these schools.

Here are the schools with the highest composite ACT scores in the US:

ACT score ranges for the schools with the highest ACT scores

Students at CalTech have the highest ACT scores in the country! At least 25% of students at CalTech scored a 35 on the ACT. Impressive!

LA skyline

The schools with the highest ACT scores tend to be STEM-focused schools, since fewer students nationwide earn a 36 in Math and Science.

We can also look at the breakdown for the individual ACT Math and English sections. (Data for the Reading and Science sections isn’t commonly reported, so we’ve been unable to include it here.)

Here’s a visualization of the schools with the highest ACT English scores:

ACT scores ranges for schools with the highest English ACT scores

The schools with the highest ACT English scores are CalTech, MIT, Duke, UChicago, and Harvard.

We can see that the English scores at the top schools are a little higher than the Math scores.

This makes sense in light of the distribution of scores nationally—significantly fewer students have top scores in Math and Science compared to English and Reading.

Here’s a visualization of the schools with the highest ACT Math scores:

ACT ranges for the schools with the highest Math scores

The school with the highest ACT Math scores is CalTech, followed by MIT and Harvey Mudd, then Carnegie Mellon, Rice, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Bowdoin.

Unsurprisingly, these are mostly STEM-focused schools!

What percentage of students at these top schools have a perfect 36?

We can’t tell this exactly from the published data, but for some schools we know that at least 25% of the students have a perfect 36: Caltech, MIT, Rice, and Johns Hopkins.

We also know that at the top schools roughly 90% of students have scores in the 30s.

This is perhaps a good reminder that a great ACT score alone doesn’t guarantee admission to the most competitive schools, since (unfortunately) it’s not particularly exceptional at those schools.

Check out the average ACT scores at your dream school with this list of scores of 499 US colleges and universities:


What is the average ACT score for the Ivy League?

What’s the Ivy League, and what is the average ACT score for the Ivy League schools? 

average ACT scores at the Ivy League

Technically the Ivy League is actually an athletic league!

The term was coined in the 1930s and made official in 1954, when Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Dartmouth, and Cornell formed an agreement to balance competition in football with high academic standards.

From the 1950s, these eight schools organized athletic competitions in many sports, and they gradually also added committees to develop intercollegiate policies for admissions and financial aid. 

The Ivy League represents some of the oldest and most prestigious schools in the country. Here’s the complete list:

  • Harvard University, founded 1636, in Cambridge, MA
  • Yale University, founded 1701, in New Haven, CT
  • University of Pennsylvania, founded 1740, in Philadelphia, PA
  • Princeton University, founded 1746, in Princeton, NJ
  • Columbia University, founded 1754, in New York City, NY
  • Brown University, founded 1764, in Providence, RI
  • Dartmouth College, founded 1769, in Hanover, NH
  • Cornell University, founded 1865, in Ithaca, NY

Here is the range between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile for composite ACT scores at the eight Ivy League schools:

ranges of composite ACT scores at the Ivy League

We can see that the range is very consistent across the Ivies and very narrow, between 32/33 and 35. We get a fuller picture when we look at the ranges for the individual sections:

range of ACT scores at the Ivy League

Splitting apart the section scores reveals that most students at the Ivies have a perfect or near-perfect score for English.

At least a quarter of the students in the Ivy League scored a perfect 36 on the English section, and 75% of them scored at least a 34. (At Harvard, 75% of students scored either a 35 or a 36.)

The ranges are a bit broader when it comes to the Math section, which is more difficult on the ACT.

At least 75% of students at all of the Ivies still scored in the 30s, but the ranges are definitely lower than for English.

(Data for the Reading and Science sections isn’t commonly reported, so we haven’t included them here. Looking at the national data, we can extrapolate that ranges for Reading are similar to English, and ranges for Science are similar to Math.)

The average ACT scores for the entire Ivy League are 31–35 for Math, 34–36 for English, and 33–35 for the composite ACT.

That means that if your dream is to attend an Ivy-League school, you should work to get your ACT scores into the 30s, ideally in the super-high 34–36 range, especially for English and Reading.

Princeton University
Princeton University

We can take a look at the numbers here:

College Name Admit % English 25th English 75th Math 25th Math 75th Composite 25th Composite 75th
Harvard University 5.0% 35 36 31 35 33 35
Princeton University 5.6% 34 36 31 35 32 35
Yale University 6.5% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Columbia University 6.7% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Brown University 7.7% 34 36 30 35 33 35
University of Pennsylvania 9.0% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Dartmouth College 9.2% 33 36 30 35 32 35
Cornell University 10.7% 34 35 30 35 32 35
source: IPEDS 2020 and CDS 2021–22


Average ACT scores for the top research universities in the US (Ivies+)

The Ivies are certainly some of the best universities in the US, but not all of the top universities are in the Ivy League, since the Ivy League schools are only on the East Coast.

There are a few other top universities that rank among the Ivies—or, in some cases, higher than some of the less-competitive Ivies (like Cornell and Dartmouth).

This list of top-tier universities is sometimes known as the “Ivies Plus,” or “Ivies+.” This isn’t a fixed list, but typically it includes at least Stanford, MIT, and UChicago, and sometimes up to the top twenty or so universities in the US, adding Caltech, Northwestern, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, Rice, WashU, UCLA, and Notre Dame.

average ACT scores at top US universities

Here, we show the range between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile at the top 20 US universities for ACT composite scores:

ACT score ranges at the top 20 universities

We can also zoom in a bit more and look at the section scores for English and Math:

average ACT scores at the top 20 universities

Looking at the graphs, we can see that average ACT scores are consistently very high at all of the top 20 universities. The middle 50% of students scored in the 30s for Math, English, and the composite ACT at all of these top-tier schools.

For example, at Harvard, a 35 for English would be in the 25th percentile, so 75% of students have above a 35! A 31 Math would be in the 25th percentile, so 75% of students have above a 31 Math.

Widener library at Harvard
Harvard University

A perfect 36 is very common at CalTech, MIT, Rice, and Johns Hopkins, where at least 25% of students have a 36 composite score on the ACT.

More students at these schools have perfect 36s than at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton because it’s less common to earn a 36 on the Math and Science sections of the ACT.

At least 25% of students at most of these top schools have a perfect 36 in English, but only at CalTech and MIT do at least 25% of students have a perfect 36 in Math.

So when it comes to the schools with the highest overall ACT scores, it’s the STEM-focused schools that come out on top!

We can dig into the data a little more to see the distribution of scores at each of these top-tier schools.

Generally speaking, about 95% of students at the top 20 universities scored in the 30s on the ACT. (This drops to about 85% of students for schools at the bottom of the top-20 list like Notre Dame.)

distributions of ACT scores at top US universities

The graphs show us that there were only a handful of students in each class year with Math or English scores lower than 30. We can assume that these students were exceptional in other ways!

distribution of ACT scores at top 20 universities

As a whole, the average ACT scores for the top 20 universities in the US are 34–36 for English, 31–35 for Math, and 33–35 for composite ACT scores.

This means that if you hope to apply to the top-tier universities in the US, you should aim for ACT scores in the 30s, ideally in the 34–36 range.

Duke University
Duke University

Check out the numbers here:

College Name Admit % English 25th English 75th Math 25th Math 75th Composite 25th Composite 75th
Harvard University 5.0% 35 36 31 35 33 35
Stanford University 5.2% 33 36 30 35 31 35
Princeton University 5.6% 34 36 31 35 32 35
Yale University 6.5% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Columbia University in the City of New York 6.7% 34 36 31 35 33 35
California Institute of Technology 6.7% 35 36 35 36 35 36
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7.3% 35 36 34 36 34 36
University of Chicago 7.3% 35 36 31 35 34 35
Brown University 7.7% 34 36 30 35 33 35
Duke University 7.7% 35 36 32 35 34 35
University of Pennsylvania 9.0% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Dartmouth College 9.2% 33 36 30 35 32 35
Northwestern University 9.3% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Cornell University 10.7% 34 35 30 35 32 35
Rice University 10.9% 34 36 32 35 34 36
Johns Hopkins University 11.1% 34 36 32 35 34 36
Vanderbilt University 11.6% 34 36 31 35 33 35
University of California-Los Angeles 14.3% 29 35 27 34 29 34
Washington University in St Louis 16.0% 34 35 30 35 33 35
University of Notre Dame 19.0% - - - - 32 35
source: IPEDS 2020 and CDS 2021–22


Average ACT scores for top-ranked liberal arts colleges

You’re probably heard the phrase “liberal arts college” before, but what is it exactly and how is it different from a university?

In a nutshell, liberal arts colleges are smaller and more focused on undergraduate students compared to research universities. In fact, many liberal arts colleges do not offer any graduate degree programs.

Liberal arts colleges are also more likely to be focused on broader multi-disciplinary studies, and less likely to be focused on preparing students for specific vocations.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t support students’ career goals, but they tend to offer more flexibility to explore different areas of study.

These schools may be smaller, but their academics aren't any less stellar.

Here we can see the ACT score ranges at the top 30 schools on the US News and World Report ranking, ordered by admissions rate:

ACT score ranges at top liberal arts colleges

As we can see, the average ACT scores at the top liberal arts colleges in the US are quite high.

In fact, average ACT scores at Pomona, Williams, Harvey Mudd, Haverford, Hamilton, Washington & Lee, and Vassar are comparable to the scores at the Ivy League and other top-tier universities.

As a whole, the average ACT scores for the top 30 liberal arts colleges in the US are 31–35 for English, 27–32 for Math, and 30–33 for composite ACT scores.

Broadly speaking, if you’re hoping to attend a top-tier liberals arts college, you want your total ACT score to be in the 30s, though it’s okay if your Math or Science section score is in the high 20s.

average ACT scores at top liberal arts colleges

Check out the numbers here: 

College Name Admit % English 25th English 75th Math 25th Math 75th Composite 25th Composite 75th
Pomona College 8.6% 33 36 29 35 32 35
US Military Academy 8.6% 28 35 27 32 28 33
Swarthmore College 9.1% 33 36 29 34 31 34
US Naval Academy 9.1% 26 35 26 32 28 33
Bowdoin College 9.2% 28 34 32 35 30 34
Colby College 10.3% 32 35 27 32 31 34
Amherst College 11.8% 33 36 29 34 32 35
Claremont McKenna College 13.3% 33 35 28 33 31 34
US Air Force Academy 13.4% 27 35 27 33 29 33
Colorado College 13.6% 30 35 26 31 29 33
Barnard College 13.6% 33 35 27 32 31 34
Bates College 14.1% - - - - 27 33
Williams College 15.1% - - - - 33 35
Harvey Mudd College 18.0% 34 36 33 36 34 35
Haverford College 18.2% 33 35 29 35 32 35
Hamilton College 18.4% - - - - 32 34
Grinnell College 19.2% 30 35 27 33 30 34
Davidson College 20.0% - - - - 30 33
Wellesley College 20.4% 33 35 28 33 31 34
Wesleyan University 20.9% 33 35 28 33 31 34
Carleton College 21.2% 32 35 27 34 30 34
Middlebury College 22.0% - - - - 31 34
Washington and Lee University 24.5% 33 35 29 32 32 34
Vassar College 24.5% 34 35 28 32 32 34
Colgate University 27.5% 31 35 27 32 30 33
Berea College 33.0% 21 27 21 27 21 27
Scripps College 35.1% 31 35 27 32 29 33
Smith College 36.5% 33* 32 27 32 31 34
Kenyon College 36.9% 30 35 27 31 30 33
Bryn Mawr College 38.4% 26 35 24 30 26 32
Macalester College 38.7% 30 35 26 31 29 33
Mount Holyoke College 52.5% 31 34 23 28 27 30
source: IPEDS 2020 and CDS 2021–22


Average ACT scores for top-ranked public universities

Of course, there are some fantastic public universities throughout the US, many of which are nearly as competitive as the Ivy League and other top-tier private schools. (In recent years, one public university, UCLA, has even broken into the ranks of the top 20 schools in the US.)

For specific programs or majors, these schools might even offer more opportunities than private colleges and universities.

University of Washington library
University of Washington (Seattle)

In fact, back in 1985 a Yale Admissions officer coined the phrase “public Ivies” to describe the best of the public universities, in his book Public Ivies: A Guide to America's Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities.

A more recent list was published by Howard and Matthew Greene’s 2001 book The Public Ivies: America's Flagship Public Universities. According to this book, the top 30 public universities in the US are the following:

Northeastern

  • Pennsylvania State University (University Park)
  • Rutgers University (New Brunswick)
  • State University of New York at Binghamton 
  • University of Connecticut (Storrs)

Mid-Atlantic

  • College of William & Mary (Williamsburg, Virginia)
  • University of Delaware (Newark)
  • University of Maryland (College Park)
  • University of Virginia (Charlottesville)

Southern

  • University of Florida (Gainesville)
  • University of Georgia (Athens)
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Texas at Austin

Great Lakes & Midwest

  • Indiana University Bloomington
  • Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)
  • Michigan State University (East Lansing)
  • Ohio State University (Columbus)
  • University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
  • University of Iowa (Iowa City)
  • University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)
  • University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
  • University of Wisconsin–Madison

Western

  • University of Arizona (Tucson)
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Davis
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Diego
  • University of California, Santa Barbara
  • University of Colorado Boulder
  • University of Washington (Seattle)

We expanded this list of the "public Ivies" to show you the average ACT scores at the top 50 public universities in the US, ordered according to the US News and World Report rankings. A dot indicates schools on the list of “public Ivies”:

ACT score ranges at top public universities

We can notice that, as with the top-tier universities and liberal arts colleges, the average ACT scores at most top public universities are higher for Math than for English, likely because the top students study hard to raise their ACT Math scores, but it’s harder to raise ACT English scores.

We can also notice a few schools with especially high ACT Math scores compared to their ACT English, like the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin (Madison), and Purdue. These happen to be universities with particularly strong programs in math and engineering.

At Indiana University and University of Iowa, on the other hand, the average ACT English scores are higher than the average ACT Math scores. This might reflect the fact that Indiana University is one of the top schools in the country for music, while the University of Iowa is well-known for its writing programs.

As a whole, the average ACT scores for the 50 best public universities in the US are 25–33 for English, 25–31 for Math, and 27–32 for composite ACT scores.

Roughly speaking, this means that if you hope to attend one of the top large public universities, you should aim for a composite ACT score in the 30s or high 20s.

*Note that through 2025, the University of California schools aren’t accepting ACT or SAT scores. (They’re not just test-optional, they’re test-blind, so they won’t look at scores if submitted.) However, as we discussed above, looking at historic ACT data can still give a good idea about the competitiveness of the schools and your general chances of admission.

average ACT scores at top public universities

Check out the numbers here: 

College Name Admit % English 25th English 75th Math 25th Math 75th Composite 25th Composite 75th
University of California-Los Angeles 14.3% 29 35 27 34 29 34
University of California-Berkeley 17.5% 27 35 27 34 30 35
Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus 21.3% 31 35 29 35 31 35
University of Virginia-Main Campus 22.6% 32 35 28 34 30 34
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 25.0% 28 35 26 32 28 33
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 26.1% 32 35 29 34 31 34
University of California-Irvine 29.9% 25 33 26 31 26 33
University of Florida 31.1% 28 35 26 31 29 33
The University of Texas at Austin 32.0% 25 35 25 32 26 33
Florida State University 32.5% 26 33 25 29 27 31
University of Miami 33.1% 29 34 26 30 28 32
University of California-San Diego 36.6% 26 35 27 33 28 34
University of California-Santa Barbara 36.7% 26 34 26 31 28 34
William & Mary 42.2% 31 35 27 32 30 34
Binghamton University 43.0% - - - - 29 32
North Carolina State University at Raleigh 46.2% 25 33 25 31 27 32
University of California-Davis 46.4% 23 32 23 29 25 33
University of Georgia 48.4% 31 35 27 32 29 33
Stony Brook University 48.9% 25 34 25 32 26 32
University of South Florida 49.2% 24 31 23 28 25 30
University of Maryland-College Park 51.0% 30 35 27 33 30 34
Colorado School of Mines 55.0% 26 34 27 33 28 33
University of Washington-Seattle Campus 55.9% 26 35 26 32 27 33
University of Connecticut 56.1% 26 34 25 31 27 32
University of Wisconsin-Madison 57.2% 25 33 26 31 27 32
Pennsylvania State-University Park 57.6% 25 33 25 30 26 32
Clemson University 61.9% 26 34 25 30 27 32
Texas A & M University-College Station 63.3% 24 33 25 30 26 32
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 63.3% 26 34 26 33 27 33
University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus 63.9% 26 34 26 31 28 32
University of Minnesota-Morris 64.7% 20 27 20 27 21 28
University of Massachusetts-Amherst 65.3% 25 33 25 31 27 32
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University 65.8% 24 32 24 30 25 31
University of California-Riverside 65.8% 20 26 19 26 22 31
University of Delaware 66.0% 24 32 23 29 25 30
New Jersey Institute of Technology 66.0% 23 33 25 32 25 31
Rutgers University-New Brunswick 66.9% 25 34 25 31 25 32
University at Buffalo 67.0% 22 29 24 29 23 29
Purdue University-Main Campus 67.2% 24 34 26 33 25 33
Indiana University-East 67.3% 16 24 17 24 18 24
Ohio State University-Main Campus 68.5% 26 34 26 31 26 32
Auburn University 71.2% 23 32 22 28 24 30
Temple University 72.3% 24 32 23 30 24 31
University of Tennessee Knoxville 74.9% 24 33 24 29 25 31
University of Illinois Chicago 78.8% 22 33 22 29 23 31
Michigan State University 83.3% 22 30 22 28 23 29
University of Utah 84.0% 21 31 21 29 22 30
University of Colorado-Boulder 84.2% 24 33 24 30 25 31
University of California-Merced 84.8% - - - - 17 22
University of Iowa 86.2% 21 29 21 28 22 29
University of Arizona-Tucson 87.1% 20 29 20 28 21 29
University of Oregon 93.4% 21 30 21 28 22 30
source: IPEDS 2020 and CDS 2021–22


Average ACT scores for Big Ten universities

What is the Big Ten? Like the Ivy League, it’s also an athletic league first and foremost.

But in the Midwest, the Big Ten is shorthand for many of the top large universities: the Universities of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, along with Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, and Rutgers.

(For many decades, the conference had ten schools, hence the name, though currently it has fourteen.)

football stadium at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)

The schools of the Big Ten conference are known for combining academic achievement with athletic success. Most are public universities, but Northwestern is a top-tier private university. 

We can see that the average ACT scores at the Big Ten universities are high:

ACT score ranges at Big 10 universities

As a whole, the average ACT scores for the Big Ten conference are 25–32 for English, 24–30 for Math, and 25–31 for composite ACT scores.

This means that, broadly speaking, if you want to go to a Big Ten university, you’ll want your composite ACT score to be in the 30s or high 20s.

average ACT scores at the Big 10

Check out the numbers here:

College Name Admit % English 25th English 75th Math 25th Math 75th Composite 25th Composite 75th
Northwestern University 9.3% 34 36 31 35 33 35
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 26.1% 32 35 29 34 31 34
University of Maryland-College Park 51.0% 30 35 27 33 30 34
University of Wisconsin-Madison 57.2% 25 33 26 31 27 32
Pennsylvania State-University Park 57.6% 25 33 25 30 26 32
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 63.3% 26 34 26 33 27 33
University of Minnesota-Morris 64.7% 20 27 20 27 21 28
Rutgers University-New Brunswick 66.9% 25 34 25 31 25 32
Purdue University-Main Campus 67.2% 24 34 26 33 25 33
Indiana University-East 67.3% 16 24 17 24 18 24
Ohio State University-Main Campus 68.5% 26 34 26 31 26 32
Michigan State University 83.3% 22 30 22 28 23 29
University of Iowa 86.2% 21 29 21 28 22 29
University of Nebraska 88.3% 21 28 21 27 22 28
source: IPEDS 2020 and CDS 2021–22


Average ACT scores for the top 50 colleges and universities in the US

So far we’ve been looking at schools divided by category—Ivies, research universities, liberal arts colleges, and public universities.

Wondering what the average ACT scores are for all of the top 50 schools combined in the US?

Here’s the ranges of the middle 50% of students at the top 50 schools (determined by admissions rate) in the US:

ACT score ranges for the top 50 schools in the US

As a whole, the average ACT scores for the top 50 colleges and universities in the US are 32–35 for English, 30–34 for Math, and 32–35 for composite ACT scores.

This means that a good rule of thumb for anyone who wants to apply to a top-50 school is to aim for an ACT score in the 30s.

Average ACT scores for the top 50 schools

Check out the numbers here: 

College Name Admit % English 25th English 75th Math 25th Math 75th Composite 25th Composite 75th
Harvard University 5.0% 35 36 31 35 33 35
Stanford University 5.2% 33 36 30 35 31 35
Princeton University 5.6% 34 36 31 35 32 35
Yale University 6.5% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Columbia University in the City of New York 6.7% 34 36 31 35 33 35
California Institute of Technology 6.7% 35 36 35 36 35 36
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 7.3% 35 36 34 36 34 36
University of Chicago 7.3% 35 36 31 35 34 35
Brown University 7.7% 34 36 30 35 33 35
Duke University 7.7% 35 36 32 35 34 35
Pomona College 8.6% 33 36 29 35 32 35
United States Military Academy 8.6% 28 35 27 32 28 33
University of Pennsylvania 9.0% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Swarthmore College 9.1% 33 36 29 34 31 34
United States Naval Academy 9.1% 26 35 26 32 28 33
Bowdoin College 9.2% 28 34 32 35 30 34
Dartmouth College 9.2% 33 36 30 35 32 35
Northwestern University 9.3% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Colby College 10.3% 32 35 27 32 31 34
Cornell University 10.7% 34 35 30 35 32 35
Rice University 10.9% 34 36 32 35 34 36
Johns Hopkins University 11.1% 34 36 32 35 34 36
Tulane University of Louisiana 11.1% 32 35 27 32 30 33
Vanderbilt University 11.6% 34 36 31 35 33 35
Amherst College 11.8% 33 36 29 34 32 35
Claremont McKenna College 13.3% 33 35 28 33 31 34
United States Air Force Academy 13.4% 27 35 27 33 29 33
Colorado College 13.6% 30 35 26 31 29 33
Barnard College 13.6% 33 35 27 32 31 34
Bates College 14.1% - - - - 27 33
University of California-Los Angeles 14.3% 29 35 27 34 29 34
Williams College 15.1% - - - - 33 35
Washington University in St Louis 16.0% 34 35 30 35 33 35
University of Southern California 16.1% 32 35 28 34 30 34
Tufts University 16.3% - - - - 32 35
Pitzer College 16.6% 33 35 28 31 31 33
Georgetown University 16.8% 33 36 29 34 31 35
Carnegie Mellon University 17.3% 33 36 33 35 33 35
University of California-Berkeley 17.5% 27 35 27 34 30 35
Harvey Mudd College 18.0% 34 36 33 36 34 35
Haverford College 18.2% 33 35 29 35 32 35
Hamilton College 18.4% - - - - 32 34
University of Notre Dame 19.0% - - - - 32 35
Emory University 19.2% - - - - 31 34
Grinnell College 19.2% 30 35 27 33 30 34
Davidson College 20.0% - - - - 30 33
Boston University 20.1% 30 35 27 33 30 34
Wellesley College 20.4% 33 35 28 33 31 34
Northeastern University 20.5% 33 35 30 35 33 35
Wesleyan University 20.9% 33 35 28 33 31 34
source: IPEDS 2020, CDS 2020–21, and CDS 2021–22

Don’t see your dream school on this list? Wondering what the average ACT scores are for the rest of the colleges and universities?

Check out this list of ACT score ranges at 499 colleges and universities across the country:


Average ACT scores by state

Wondering which state has the highest ACT score?

One answer might be Massachusetts, where the average ACT score in 2021 was 27.6 total—7 points higher than the national average of 20.6! Connecticut wasn’t far behind, with an average ACT score of 27.2.

Massachusetts

This map shows the average total ACT scores by state. At first glance, it looks like the Northeast states and California are at the top:

map of average ACT scores by state

But before we wonder what those Northeastern states are doing right. . . it’s actually a bit more complicated!

Some states have very low participation rates for the ACT, meaning that not very many students take the test. (Note that participation rates have been affected in recent years by the Covid-19 pandemic, and some states that normally have nearly 100% participation are down.)

So in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where the scores are quite high, only 7% and 9% of students in the state actually took the test. Participation numbers are similarly low for the entire Northeast, which the SAT has traditionally dominated. We can assume that the students who go out of their way to take the ACT in these states tend to be more prepared than average, skewing the scores higher. 

If we first map the participation rates across the US, it looks like this:

map of ACT participation rates

We can see that the ACT is most commonly used in the Midwest and in the South. The states with the highest participation rates are those where all high school students are required to take the SAT, like Nevada.

With that in mind, let’s look again at the average ACT scores in each states—but this time, let’s only show states with a participation rate greater than 10%:

map of average ACT scores by state, only states with participation over 10%

Without those SAT-dominant states, the map looks quite different!

Now the highest-scoring states are the District of Columbia, with an average ACT score of 25.6 and a participation rate of 19%; Illinois, with an average ACT score of 25.2 and a participation rate of 19%; and New Jersey, with an average ACT score of 25.1 and a participation rate of 12%. 

All of these participation rates are still pretty low, though. If we look at only the states where 30% or more of graduating seniors took the ACT, our map looks like this:

map of state average ACT scores, only states with participation rates over 30%

Of these high-participation states, the winners are Minnesota (average 21.6 ACT), South Dakota (average 21.6 ACT), and Iowa (21.6). All of these are higher than, but much closer to, the national average of 20.6. 

Minnesota

Check out the average score for your state here:

US State Composite mean ACT Participation %
Alabama 18.7 100%
Alaska 20.6 16%
Arizona 19.8 35%
Arkansas 19 99%
California 26.1 5%
Colorado 23.6 16%
Connecticut 27.2 9%
Delaware 25.7 5%
District of Columbia 25.6 19%
Florida 20.4 34%
Georgia 22.6 24%
Hawaii 18.2 67%
Idaho 23 16%
Illinois 25.2 19%
Indiana 23.1 14%
Iowa 21.5 47%
Kansas 19.9 79%
Kentucky 19.2 100%
Louisiana 18.4 98%
Maine 25.6 2%
Maryland 25.5 8%
Massachusetts 27.6 7%
Michigan 25.1 9%
Minnesota 21.6 60%
Mississippi 18.1 100%
Missouri 20.6 63%
Montana 20.4 70%
Nebraska 20 86%
Nevada 17.8 100%
New Hampshire 26.6 4%
New Jersey 25.1 12%
New Mexico 20.7 23%
New York 26.3 9%
North Carolina 18.9 92%
North Dakota 19.6 100%
Ohio 19.6 85%
Oklahoma 19.7 58%
Oregon 20.6 20%
Pennsylvania 25 7%
Rhode Island 25.8 4%
South Carolina 18.6 50%
South Dakota 21.6 55%
Tennessee 19.1 100%
Texas 20.1 23%
Utah 20.6 86%
Vermont 24.7 4%
Virginia 25.5 9%
Washington 23.6 7%
West Virginia 20.8 30%
Wisconsin 20 96%
Wyoming 19.8 91%
source: ACT National Profile Report 2021


How to improve your ACT score

Wondering what to do next?

If you’ve never taken the ACT before, try doing a full official ACT practice test at home (check out our instructions) to get an idea of your score. This tells you where your starting place is.

You can then use our formula to estimate how much you can reasonably expect to increase your ACT scores.

If your scores are lower, it’s easier to increase your score by a bigger amount. If your scores are already in the 30s, then it’s harder to get those final gains.

With your estimated scores, you can already get a sense of where you’d be a competitive candidate—these are schools where your ACT score would be more or less “average,” falling within the middle 50% of students.

Taking into account the other aspects of your application, like GPA and extracurriculars, you can start to build your college list.

Next . . . it’s time to raise those ACT scores! Boosting your test scores is one of the easiest ways to increase your admissions chances. Smart, targeted practice can make a big difference. 

In some cases, you might also want to learn or review math or grammar concepts that you either didn’t cover in high school or have forgotten. (Since the ACT covers material that some students will have covered in their middle school math classes, it’s not uncommon for students to have forgotten how to graph a polynomial function or find the measure of an angle inscribed in a circle.) 

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the format of the test overall, and there are many test-taking strategies that one can use to take the test more efficiently and avoid trick answers.

Finally, consider whether there are any other factors that affect your test-taking abilities. Do you get nervous on test days? Do you tend to run out of time on a particular section? Do you tend to lose focus after too long trying to read long passages? There are techniques for mitigating all of these and more.

student practicing the ACT

Not sure how to study more effectively, struggling with certain concepts, or just generally want some help?

We’ve helped thousands of students boost their ACT scores with our one-on-one ACT tutoring. We’re happy to chat about your particular challenges.

You also might want to check out the SAT and see which test is a better fit for your strengths. You can read our comparison of the two tests and take a look at our deep dive into average SAT score data.

Once you’ve studied, it’s time to take the test!

Ideally, be strategic about when you schedule your tests.

Many students take the ACT multiple times, with between two to four times being the most common. In between each test date, learn from your experience with the previous test to study more effectively and target problem areas.

Once you know your final ACT score, revise your college list to make sure you have at least two “target” schools (where you’re in the middle 50%) and at least two “safety” schools (where you’re in the top 25%).

Make sure to pay attention to the other components of your college applications, too—your GPA, college essays, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, and interview matter too.

Submit your applications your senior year of high school and relax!


Download ACT score ranges for 499 US colleges and universities

Here's what you'll get with this handy resource:

  • Middle 50 ACT composite scores for the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities
  • Middle 50 ACT sectional scores for English and Math
  • Admit rate for each college
  • All based on the most recent available data (2020)

Download ACT ranges for 499 schools

Bonus Material:
ACT score ranges at 499 schools



99 Great Handpicked Ideas for Argumentative Essays

Bonus Material:
5-step thesis machine and essay checklist

If you want to write a great argumentative essay, then these are the foolproof steps to do it.

Grab this guide to help you craft a strong thesis statement and check that you haven’t forgotten a crucial part of your essay.

Or skip to the bottom for a list of fantastic argumentative essay ideas that have been vetted by a Princeton grad and professional editor who has taught writing at Notre Dame. 

Keep reading to learn more about what an argumentative essay is, and how is it different from other types of academic writing? What are the most important features of an effective argumentative essay? How do you write this kind of essay—where should you start, how do you make sure that you have an argument, and what are the most common pitfalls?

In this post we’ll cover:

Download the guide to a great thesis statement and essay checklist

Bonus: download our 5-step guide to creating a great thesis statement and essential essay checklist.


What is an argumentative essay?

An argumentative essay is a common assignment in many high school and college classes. But many students don’t know how to write a great argumentative essay!

In order to avoid some of the most common pitfalls, it’s important to know what this kind of essay is not

We can divide academic writing into three broad categories:

  1. Analytical: analyze the tools an author uses to make their point
  2. Research: delve deeply into a research topic and share your findings
  3. Persuasive: argue a specific and nuanced position backed by evidence

An argumentative essay falls into the third category. It’s crucial that your essay presents an argument, not just a series of facts or observations!

In elementary or middle school, you may have been assigned a version of this assignment—something like “write a persuasive essay arguing for a bigger allowance from your parents.” 

Maybe you wrote a five-paragraph essay explaining why you deserved an allowance for completing your weekly chores, the ways in which your current allowance limited your ability to join your friends in social activities, and examples of some of the educational things you’d spend your increased allowance on.

This is the more mature version of that assignment. The goal is to present a nuanced argument with deep thinking. Often the essay explores an ethical question.

a great essay presents nuanced arguments with deep thinking

Keep reading to learn our foolproof way of confirming that you have something that’s arguable. Our hand-picked list of 99 essay topics below gives a great starting place!

For example, you might start with the question “is animal testing ethical?” 

The idea is not to give a simple yes or no answer, but dig into the complexities of the question. Are there circumstances where it would be okay, but not other circumstances? 

Maybe you draw a distinction between animal testing that is part of efforts to find cures for serious human illnesses versus animal testing to develop cosmetics. So instead of just answering yes or no, you give a more nuanced answer.

In this example, you might even further qualify your position. Maybe you think that animal testing for medical research should be subject to careful regulations.

Or maybe you think that only certain animals should be involved in testing. Are tests using fruitflies okay? How about horseshoe crabs? Mice? Dogs? Primates? 

How about genetically modifying the animals as part of the testing?

Is animal testing for certain kinds of medical research more ethical than others?

See how there are a lot of different directions you can take this in beyond just “yes” or “no”? This is what will make your writing more mature and interesting!

For an academic argumentative essay, you will then need to support all of your points with evidence from reputable sources (we’ll explore this more below). Remember, your opinion is a component of the essay, but it’s also supported by evidence.

student writing

The skills that you build when you’re writing an academic argumentative essay will be incredibly useful throughout your life. They’re applicable in nearly any job that you can imagine! 

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 73.4% of employers want a candidate with strong written communication skills. Writing skills are in high demand for employers in every industry and can be crucial to your future success, even if you’re in a STEM-based career.

Download our 5-step guide to creating a great thesis statement and essential essay checklist.


Elements of a good argumentative essay

What makes a good academic argumentative essay?

A good argumentative essay should open with an engaging introduction. 

A well-crafted introduction makes a smooth funnel that starts more broadly and smoothly zeroes in on the specific argument:

  • It begins with some kind of “hook”: this can be an anecdote, quote, statistic, provocative statement, question, etc.
  • It gives some background information that is relevant to understand the ethical dilemma or debate
  • It has a lead-up to the thesis
  • At the end of the introduction, the thesis is clearly stated
essay intro funnel

Check out examples of great introductions here.

Crucially, a good argumentative essay has a strong, clear thesis.

The thesis should be:

  • Arguable: it’s not just the facts—someone could disagree with this position
  • Narrow & specific: don’t pick a position that’s so broad you could never back it up
  • Complex: show that you are thinking deeply—one way to do this is to consider objections/qualifiers in your thesis

We’ll talk more about how to craft a good thesis below, and you can download our 5-step worksheet to make a great thesis statement. 

The body of the essay should have at least three paragraphs.

These be clearly organized, and each paragraph should have a distinct idea. Together, the paragraphs cover all the points raised in the thesis. They should be in a logical order that best supports the argument. 

Each paragraph contains:

  • Transition from the previous sentence: this can be just a word or phrase, or it can be 1–2 whole sentences
  • Topic sentence: the main idea of the paragraph, taken from one “chunk” of your thesis
  • Specific piece of evidence, which is normally either a quote or a paraphrase from one of your sources (use 2–3 pieces of evidence per body paragraph)
    • Context: introduce your piece of evidence and any relevant background info
    • Explanation: explain what the quote/paraphrase means in your own words
    • Analysis: analyze how this piece of evidence proves your thesis
    • Relate it back to the thesis: don’t forget to relate this point back to your overarching thesis!
  • Summarizing sentence: restate topic sentence

Keep reading for more tips on how to use evidence effectively in your essay.

Your essay should also have a conclusion.

The conclusion should summarize your entire argument without being redundant. It should also point to the larger significance of the issue.

So to recap, your essay needs:

  1. An engaging introduction
  2. A great thesis statement
  3. Organized paragraphs with evidence from reputable sources
  4. A conclusion

Make sure your essay has all of these parts! Download our detailed checklist to make sure your essay avoids the most common mistakes.

To see how all these parts work together, check out our examples of great argumentative essays. 

student taking notes

5 steps to develop a great thesis for an argumentative essay

Having a great thesis statement is a make-or-break component of an argumentative essay.

In order to write a great thesis statement for an argumentative essay, use these five steps:

  1. State the topic (check out our list of great topics below!)
  2. Turn it into a debatable issue
  3. Provide a rationale for your position
  4. Add qualifier(s) to refine your position
  5. Reverse your statement to confirm it’s arguable and to anticipate possible counterarguments

(Adapted from Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist.)

birds arguing

Using this method with our example of animal testing, we might write:

  1. The idea: Animal testing
  2. Your position: Animal testing should only be used in certain circumstances. 
  3. Give a reason for your position: Animal testing causes suffering or injury to animals, which we should avoid as much as possible—but this is outweighed by the enormous potential for scientific discoveries.
  4. Add nuance and detail to your position: The ethical problems with animal testing are outweighed by the potential to advance cures for both animal and human diseases, but animal testing should be carefully limited to only applications that reduce suffering and disease, not for cosmetic or recreational applications.
  5. Check that it’s arguable and someone could argue the opposite side: Animal testing causes suffering to animals, which is unethical, and can often be misused for profit.

Download our 5-step worksheet to help guide you through these steps to write a great thesis statement!


How to use evidence in an argumentative essay

Using evidence to support your points is key to making an academic argument. 

When you were in elementary or middle school, perhaps you did a version of this assignment with just your own observations and opinions. 

When you’re writing a more advanced essay, however, you want to support your ideas with evidence from reputable sources.

research on a laptop

One of the big differences between a research paper and an argumentative essay is that you don’t need to do your own original research with primary sources. Original research would be things like running experiments, administering surveys, deciphering ancient inscriptions, interviewing people, or reading archival material.

Instead, you can rely on secondary sources. These are publications of other people’s research or analysis

For an academic essay, you want to make sure that your secondary sources are reputable.

How do you know a source is reputable? One good indication is that it’s published in a book by a major publisher (like Penguin), especially an academic publisher (like Princeton University Press, Harvard University Press, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press. . . basically anything with “university press” in the name!).

Another good kind of source is articles published in major academic journals. Some famous journals are Nature (all science), The Lancet (medicine), and The American Historical Review (history).

More accessible sources might be in other national magazines or newspapers, like The Atlantic, The Economist, or The New York Times.

library research

How do you gather evidence for your essay? When you’re reading sources and taking notes, think:

  • What is the author’s main argument? Supporting arguments?
  • What specific evidence does the author use to support that argument?
  • How does this argument relate to the argument in other sources? Does it agree/disagree or complicate the argument in other sources?

When you’re selecting your evidence, make sure that it directly supports the argument of that paragraph and the essay in general. 

Once you have your evidence gathered, you need to analyze it! You can’t just dump evidence on your readers without explaining its significance to your sub-point and your overall argument.

If you’re representing an author’s perspective, or if the quote is especially strong, quote it directly with quote marks: “  ”. As much as you can, try and quote only part of a sentence, and interweave it with your own writing.

The rest of the time, paraphrase the evidence in your own words. 

Make sure to cite your sources! There are lots of different citation styles. Which style is most appropriate will depend on which field you’re working in. Usually your teacher/professor will tell you which one to use. If it’s not clear, it’s always a good question to ask your instructor.

(You still cite when you paraphrase, unless it’s common knowledge that you find in virtually all the sources you read.)

student typing

How to write analysis

A balanced essay will have at least two sentences of analysis for every one sentence of direct quotation. For our essay about animal testing, this might look like:

"Whenever possible, animal testing should be avoided. Fortunately, advances in technology have made many alternatives to animal testing possible. For example, the polio vaccine, which has saved millions of human lives, used to be made in the kidney cells of monkeys, which meant that tens of thousands of monkeys died each year to produce the vaccine. However, by the 1970s the live monkeys had been replaced by cells in culture, which meant that many monkey lives were saved (Bookchin and Schumacher, 2005). An added benefit of this newer technique is that it also eliminated the risk of contamination with animal viruses (Taylor, 2019). Similarly, the vaccine against yellow fever used to be checked on live animals, but in the 1970s this was replaced with a cell culture test (World Health Organization, 2007). Scientists have also been able to avoid using animals for testing because our understanding of the diseases themselves has improved. For example, scientists used to perform a “particularly unpleasant” test using mice to check batches of insulin which involved sending mice into convulsions (Taylor, 2019). Since every batch of insulin needed to be tested on 600 mice, tens of thousands of mice were involved in the testing every year in the UK alone. Now, however, scientists know how to measure the components of insulin directly, and the mice are no longer needed (Taylor, 2019). Through these advances in scientific understanding and techniques, researchers have been able to reduce the amount of animal testing without compromising important work for human health."

You should introduce your evidence by providing some context. Next, present your evidence. Then explain what it means and how it supports your argument. 

For a really great paper, you can also show how different sources relate to one another! Use transition words or phrases throughout your paragraphs to guide the reader along your thought process.

Your analysis should be:

  • Nuanced and specific
  • Takes into account multiple perspectives and ideas; draws distinctions and connections among them
  • Backed by evidence all relating back to the argument

For more mature writing, avoid clunky phrases like “On page 12, McKitterick states that. . . ” or “This evidence reveals that. . . ” Instead, try to weave the evidence into your writing seamlessly.

Wondering what this looks like when you put it all together? Check out our examples of great student essays.

student writing


99 great topic ideas for argumentative essays

All of these essay ideas have been vetted by a Princeton grad to confirm that they’re actually arguable. That means that they all would make great starting points for argumentative essays!

Use our foolproof 5-step guide to turn one of these ideas into a great thesis statement!

Student issues

  • Should sodas or other unhealthy food be banned at schools?
  • Should students hold jobs?
  • Should gym class be required?
  • Are parents responsible for childhood obesity?
  • Should schools require uniforms?
  • Should schools have tracking (honors classes, AP classes) or should classes be the same for all students in the same grade?
  • Should college athletes be paid?
  • Should children be allowed to play sports that have been proven to have a high risk of permanent brain damage from concussions? Is it ethical for adult athletes to be paid to play these sports?
  • How much should parents get involved in their child’s physical education? Is it ethical for young athletes to compete at the highest levels? (e.g. Olympic athletes who are under 18 years of age.)
  • If social media has been demonstrated to have harmful effects on mental health, should minors have unregulated access to it?
  • Should media for children and teens be regulated?
  • Should college be free of cost? Should future income be tied to the cost of a college degree?
  • Should public preschool be a right for all children?
  • Should all students receive free breakfast and lunch at school?
  • Should the school day start after 9am?
  • Should school libraries ban certain books?
  • Is marketing designed for children ethical?
  • Should the legal drinking age in the US be lowered to 18?

Animal rights

  • Should animal testing be banned?
  • Should animals be kept in zoos?
  • Is having pets ethical?
  • Should wild animals be allowed to be kept as pets?
  • Should you adopt a pet from a shelter or buy a specific breed from a breeder? 
  • Can eating meat be justified?
  • Is animal hunting ethical? 

Politics and human relations

  • Should smoking be illegal? Smoking in public? Smoking around children?
  • Should drug possession be decriminalized?
  • Should some items be taxed more than others? Is there anything that should be exempt from sales tax?
  • Are knock-off fashion “dupes” unethical?
  • Should museum items be returned (repatriated) to the country where they were created?
  • Should charities and humanitarian aid organizations use images of graphic suffering in their advertising campaigns?
  • Is it acceptable to risk harming others in order to benefit one who is clearly in need? For example, is it okay to drive over the speed limit because you need to help someone get to the hospital who is in urgent crisis? What if you cause a crash on the way to the hospital because of dangerous driving? 
  • Should there be any limits to lawyer-client confidentiality?
  • Is the death penalty ever warranted? Should the death penalty exist?
  • Is torture ever justified?
  • Is it ever right to steal, even if you have a great need?
  • Is it unethical to be extremely rich?
  • Should unpaid internships be legal?
  • Should companies be required to meet diversity quotes for their hiring practices?
  • Should parental leave be equal for all parents, regardless of who gives birth?
  • Should the minimum wage be raised?
  • Can war be ethical?
  • Should nuclear weapons be banned globally?
  • Should all new cars be electric?
  • Should we impose population controls? Should people have children, if that greatly increases one’s carbon footprint?
  • Should countries that produce disproportionate carbon emissions and other environmental damage have to help other countries with the effects of climate change?
  • Should individuals be able to sue the government when the government has failed to provide a basic standard of living?
  • Should we invest in military weapons development? 
  • Should we land machines, or humans, on planets, comets or other extraterrestrial bodies in order to study them?
  • Should we explore space colonization?
  • If people engage in risky behaviors, should they be charged a fine if they need to be rescued? (For example, swimming in the ocean at night while drunk.)
  • Should we distribute universal income?
  • How much control should the state have on the press?
  • Should law enforcement be able to work undercover? Is working undercover deception?
  • Should law enforcement be able to use tracking data from phones?
  • Should people serving prison sentences be allowed to vote?
  • Should gender quotas be used in government elections?
  • Can modern societies still be held accountable for what their nation did in the past?
  • Should public transit be free?
  • Should social media companies be regulated?
  • Should everyone have access to the internet for free?
  • Should elections be decided by popular vote? Should citizens over age 18 be legally required to vote?
  • Should certain kinds of speech on social media be banned?

Tech, AI, and data

  • Should tech devices come with an addiction warning label?
  • Will AI help the world or hurt it?
  • Should there be financial penalties for buying soda or other unhealthy foods?
  • Do people have a right to privacy online?
  • Should our data be used to determine insurance policies or legal consequences? For example, should we create a diabetic insulin implant that could notify your doctor or insurance company when you make poor diet choices, and should that decision make you ineligible for certain types of medical treatment? Should cars be equipped to monitor speed and other measures of good driving, and should this data be subpoenaed by authorities following a crash? 
  • Should law enforcement be able to access someone’s online data or phone with a warrant?
  • Can hacking ever be morally justified?

Medical ethics

  • Is healthcare a fundamental human right? Should universal healthcare be free?
  • In cases of terminal illness, do you think that a patient should be able to request medically assisted suicide?
  • Should terminally ill patients who have exhausted all approved drug therapies be able to access drugs that have not been approved for sale by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (commonly called “Right to Try”)?  
  • Under what conditions should people be kept artificially alive?
  • How should we decide who receives organ transplants? Is it ethical to de-prioritize a transplant candidate who smokes cigarettes, for example? 
  • Should there be any limits to doctor-patient confidentiality?
  • Is it ethical for medical study participants to be financially compensated?
  • Is it ethical for blood, plasma, or bone marrow donors to be financially compensated?
  • Should uninsured patients be offered free clinical trials?
  • Is it ethical for individuals who donate genetic material for fertility purposes (e.g. egg or sperm donors) to be financially compensated?
  • Should vaccines and medications be patented? Should individuals or corporations be able to profit from vaccines and medications? 
  • Should individuals or corporations be able to profit from healthcare?
  • Is plastic surgery ethical?
  • Should vaccinations be mandatory for everyone?
  • Should medical personnel collect healthy tissues of a deceased person without their consent?
  • What are the ethics of extremely expensive medical treatments? What if the treatment is not curative, but only extends life for a few more months?
  • As medical data becomes increasingly less “non-identifiable”—i.e. with AI, bigger data, and increasing knowledge of genetics it is less possible to guarantee that research study participants will remain anonymous—what are the ethical implications? 
  • Now that whole genome sequencing allows prospective parents to check the risks of conceiving children, what are the ethical obligations for the best interests of future possible children on the part of the prospective parents? If you know that your children will inherit a serious disease, should you have biological children? Should social policies govern such decisions? Should those policies protect parental procreative liberty or enhance social responsibility for the best interests of those future possible children?
  • Is it ethical to collect extra samples from a patient (for example, an extra vial of blood) before obtaining consent to be enrolled in a study? (Assume that in this scenario the sample would be discarded if the patient declines to enroll in the study.)
  • If, in the course of an unrelated medical or scientific study, a genetic predisposition to a certain illness or condition is discovered, should the study participant be notified? Does it matter if the findings are medically actionable or not? For example, “In a specific study, researchers were performing NGS on tissue banked samples of healthy controls and colon cancer patients to validate an assay. The use of healthy controls in a study like this is not uncommon; however, what happens if one of the healthy controls tests positive for a mutation that predisposes to colon cancer using an unvalidated research assay? The samples were obtained from a tissue bank and the researchers were unclear about what the informed consent stated about returning incidental findings, raising the question whether to contact the subject and if contact is attempted, how to do it.” 
  • Should parents decide medical treatment for their children? Should parents be allowed to opt out of medically-advised treatment because of personal beliefs?
  • Should parents who are researchers be able to enroll their own children in their research study?
  • Should DNA be used for genealogical research?

Bioethics

  • Should we create synthetic forms of life? Should we let them loose in the world?
  • Should we use geo-engineering to attempt to combat global warming?
  • Should we create genetically-modified organisms (like food crops)?
  • Should we resurrect extinct species?
  • If we had the ability to eliminate aberrant thought patterns and enforce social conformity through technological or pharmacological means, would it be the right thing to do? Or do people have an inalienable right to be themselves, provided they pose no immediate risk to themselves or others?
  • Are human enhancements ethical? Pharmaceutical, surgical, mechanical and neurological enhancements are already available for therapeutic purposes. But these same enhancements can be used to magnify human biological function beyond the societal norm. Where do we draw the line between therapy and enhancement? How do we justify enhancing human bodies when so many individuals still lack access to basic therapeutic medicine? Should neuro-enhancing drugs be legal? Is it ethical to improve memory functions with brain stimulation?

Bonus: download the essential essay checklist + 5-step thesis machine

Working on writing your own essay?

Grab our handy checklist to make sure that your essay has everything it needs! It also comes with our foolproof 5-step worksheet for creating great thesis statements every time.

Download the guide to a great thesis statement and essay checklist

Bonus: download our 5-step guide to creating a great thesis statement and essential essay checklist.