ACT Scoring: Your Complete Guide for 2021

Bonus Material: ACT Score Ranges for 499 Colleges

How does ACT scoring work?

Can you superscore the ACT? What does it take to get a “good” ACT score?

If you’re starting your ACT test prep, you’ve probably asked at least one of these questions.

The ACT is a vastly different test than the SAT, the other college entrance exam. It has different sections and time constraints. It especially has a different scoring system, which can feel foreign to first-time test-takers.

We’re here to break down everything you need to know about ACT scoring in 2021 so you can jump into this test feeling confident and prepared.

We also give readers access to the ACT Score Ranges for the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities, a great resource for those establishing their target ACT scores. Grab this below.

Here’s what we cover in this post:


ACT Scoring 101

The ACT has 5 sections, in this order:

  1. English
  2. Math
  3. Reading
  4. Science
  5. Essay (optional)

Every section except the ACT essay is scored on a scale of 1-36. 1 is the lowest score you can achieve on an individual section, while 36 is the highest score possible.

ACT SectionScore Range
English1-36
Math1-36
Reading1-36
Science1-36

Students also receive an ACT total score, called the composite score. This is the average of the scores received on the four required ACT sections.

Take a look at this sample student ACT score report to see this scoring system in action.

ACT Scoring_Sample Score Report
Source: ACT.org

Here, the student’s composite score of 21 is the average of the student’s individual ACT section scores (19, 18, 24, and 23). If this average equates to a decimal, such as 20.8, ACT will round to the nearest whole number, which would be 21 in this case.

What about the ACT Essay score?

The student’s ACT essay (also referred to as Writing) scores do not impact their ACT composite score and fall on a range of 2-12. This number is the sum of two essay readers’ scores, which are assigned in 4 domains:

  • Ideas & Analysis
  • Development & Support
  • Organization
  • Language Use & Conventions

You can find the detailed rubric that ACT essay readers use here.

If you do not take the ACT essay, you will not see a score reported in the “Writing” column. Nor will you see an English Language Arts (ELA) score.

What are ranks?

As you can see in the sample ACT score report above, reports also include information about a student’s “ranking” in the U.S. and that student’s home state. These are approximate percentages of recent grads who have taken the ACT in the U.S. and your state and achieved the same score as you or lower.

The ACT offers these rankings for your composite score, individual section scores, and STEM/ELA scores.

These rankings can be helpful from an assessment perspective. But when it comes to the numbers colleges care about, they aren’t as essential.

What are college readiness benchmarks?

Your score report will also show how your scores relate to what ACT calls “College Readiness Benchmarks,” indicated by a purple line within each scoring column. These are scoring benchmarks designed to predict success in college-level courses.

In this sample score report, the student is below these benchmarks for Math and Science. She is above the benchmarks for English and Reading.

Here are the benchmark ACT scores for college readiness as of 2021:

  • English: 18
  • Math: 22
  • Reading: 22
  • Science: 23

How does ACT calculate my score per section?

Every ACT section has different content and different numbers of questions. So how does ACT boil each down to a number on a scale of 1-36?

Basically, they’ll tally up the number of questions you got correct on a section, called your raw score. They then convert these raw scores for each section to a number between 1-36 using a specific scaled conversion table, like the one below.

ACT Scoring_Raw to Scaled Conversion

If you got 31 questions correct on the ACT Science section of this test, for example, this would yield a 26 sectional score. 50 correct questions on ACT Math on this test equates to a 30.

Is a 36 on one ACT exactly the same as a 36 on another ACT?

Not necessarily.

No two ACTs are alike. They will vary in difficulty, so ACT uses a process called “equating” to balance these discrepancies. The company doesn’t say much about what goes into the equating process, but we can see it at work if we look at sections from the raw score conversion charts for 2 official ACT practice tests.

ACT Scoring_Raw to Scaled Score Conversion_Table1
ACT Scoring_Raw to Scaled Score Conversion_Table2

To get a 30 on ACT English on Practice Test #1, a student must get 65 questions correct. But to get a 30 on ACT English on Practice Test #2, a student has to ace 66 questions.

This might seem like a subtle difference, but take a look at Math. 49 Math questions correct on Practice Test #1 yields a 30, while 51 equates to a 30 on Practice Test #2.

These differences can add up!

Can you predict when ACT will administer an “easy” test?

Nope. While taking the test, you might be able to sense if a section feels harder or easier than other official practice tests.

But there’s no viable way to predict an “easy” ACT. What’s more, an “easy” ACT does not necessarily equate to an easy perfect score! Easier sections often require students to get more questions correct to earn a higher score.


Which Scores Matter Most to Colleges in 2021

What scores will colleges prioritize when they look at your score report? Your composite? Each section score? Your Essay score? Your ACT rankings?

In a nutshell, colleges are going to care most about your ACT composite score. But they will also likely place a heavy emphasis on your ACT section scores.

That’s why we encourage students to work on maximizing their scores in all 4 sections of the ACT. Doing so will also positively impact their composite score, as the composite is the average of all 4 section scores.

Schools have different policies regarding how they assess ACT Essay scores. Because fewer and fewer schools are requiring the ACT Essay, it’s safe to say that most schools will only assess these Essay scores for advising purposes (if at all).

You can learn more about how specific colleges on your list review ACT score reports by checking out what they have to say about standardized tests on their websites.

Bates College, for example, while test-optional, actually specifies the Middle 50% of successful applicants’ test scores on its website. It also states that it superscores the ACT and SAT, which we discuss in the next section.

We’ve compiled the ACT score ranges of successful applicants to the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities in one easy-to-read document! Download a copy below.


Can You Superscore the ACT?

ACT was prepared to launch ACT superscoring in 2020, but the pandemic shifted those plans. According to ACT’s website, superscoring will be available “soon.”

Superscoring allows ACT test-takers to count their highest section and composite scores as official scores. Colleges ultimately have the final say in how they review these scores, but superscoring can be a valuable tool for students who plan on taking the ACT at least twice.

As we saw with Bates College above, many colleges already have their own superscoring policies in place.

They should elaborate on their website what these policies look like, which can vary widely. Some require submission of all test scores, for example, while others might only consider the highest scores submitted.

Here’s what Stanford says about superscoring on its website:

To make the most of superscoring opportunities, students should plan on taking the ACT at least twice.

Some students worry that taking the ACT two or three times may reflect badly on their college applications. This couldn’t be farther from the truth!

Most students take the ACT at least twice, and many experience a score increase the second or third time around. There is no evidence to suggest that taking the ACT more than once impacts the college admissions decision.


What is a Good ACT Score for 2021?

Most students assume that because 36 is the highest possible ACT score (both composite and individual), it’s a “good” ACT score.

Yet while a 36 will definitely add a competitive edge to an application, anything less than a 36 isn’t necessarily a bad ACT score.

In fact, it all comes down to how you define a “good” ACT score. We have 2 definitions for this.

  1. “Good” is anything that is “above average” with sectional scores and percentile rankings
  2. “Good” is anything that will look competitive on a college application

Let’s start with the first definition.

Good ACT Score #1: The “Above Average” ACT Score

ACT regularly releases a “National Norms” report for ACT scores. This includes data from all ACT test scores reported between 2020 and 2021 (although these scores could be from 2018, 2019, and 2020 class graduates).

The most recent National Norms ACT Report includes the average section and composite scores of those reported between 2020 and 2021.

Here’s what they are:

ACT Section2020-2021 Average Score
English20.1
Math20.4
Reading21.2
Science20.6
ACT Composite20.7

Using the first definition of a “good” ACT score, a composite score of 21 or higher on the ACT could be considered a competitive score for 2021.

At the very least, we encourage students who are new to the ACT to aim for a target score that is above national averages, on individual sections and the whole test itself.

This would mean establishing a goal score of the following on each section:

SectionGoal Above-Average Score 
English21
Math21
Reading22
Science21
Composite21

Of course, your starting score may be higher than a composite of 21, so we also recommend that students start with a diagnostic ACT to see where they currently stand.

Good ACT Score #2: The College Competitive ACT Score

Of course, scoring above-average on the ACT is just one interpretation of what it means to do well on the test.

In the context of college entrance, one student’s “good” ACT score could be vastly different than another student’s. It just comes down to where you are applying and the average ACT scores of admitted applicants.

So, we like to say that, under this definition, a ‘good ACT score’ is the one that is right for you given your college aspirations. This will probably be close to the ACT scores of admitted applicants. 

Plenty of universities specify ACT score ranges of successful applicants on their websites (although some are not public with this information).  

Most do so by specifying the ‘Middle 50,’ or the 25th and 75th percentile of accepted students’ ACT scores.

Here’s a sampling of the Middle 50s from various elite institutions:

College 25th Percentile ACT Composite  75th Percentile ACT Composite
Yale University 33 35
Vanderbilt University 33 35
Amherst College 30 34
Pomona College 32 35
Princeton University 33 35
Brown University 33 35
Barnard College 31 34

Source: The National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS (2019)

And here are the Middle 50s of ACT score ranges of successful applicants to the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities.

If the colleges on your list do not specify these score ranges on their websites, you can check out the Common Data Set, an effort to give clear, relevant information to everyone involved in the college admissions process about universities’ “institutional priorities.”

What are institutional priorities? These refer to what a college cares about when it’s admitting an incoming class.

The Common Data Set for Princeton University, for example, contains information about the university’s enrollment, admissions, financial aid, and more. A school’s CDS should also include details about test scores of admitted applicants, as Princeton’s shows here:  

Princeton’s CDS also breaks down ACT scores into 25th and 75th percentiles. You can use these percentiles to understand competitive scores of admitted applicants.

For example, one can safely conclude based on this CDS that 50% of admitted applicants to Princeton in 2019-2020 had ACT composite scores ranging from 33 to 35.


SAT and ACT Score Comparison

How do ACT scores compare to SAT scores?

The two college entrance exams are pretty different. But it is possible to figure out what an ACT score generally aligns with on the SAT, and vice versa.

In fact, in 2018, ACT and the CollegeBoard completed what’s called a “Concordance Study,” which examined the relationship between ACT scores and SAT scores. ACT emphasizes that this study does not “equate scores” but can be a “helpful tool for finding comparable scores.”

Translation: It’s impossible to pinpoint exact equivalences, but it is possible to approximate.

Here is one of the score comparison tables that resulted from this study, which compares ACT Composites to SAT Composites. Notice how this table also includes an “SAT Range,” designed to compensate for fluctuations in test difficulty.

ACT also has a digital tool on its website that allows for quick score comparison calculations:

ACT and SAT Score Comparison Tool

Ideally, students should choose one test to prepare for as they plan their college application journey. All U.S. colleges accept both tests equally. Not sure which test is the best fit for you? We can help.


Download ACT Score Ranges of 499 Colleges

Curious about what ACT score you need to get into your dream school?

We’ve compiled the ACT score ranges of successful applicants to the top 499 U.S. colleges in one simple document, which you can download for free below!

ACT Scoring Guide_ScoreRanges

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 (2019)


Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.