Your Guide to a Good ACT Score in 2021

Bonus Material: ACT Score Ranges for 499 Colleges

What’s a good ACT score? What’s an average ACT score? Is there such a thing as a bad ACT score?

We hear these questions all the time from our students.

In this post, we use up-to-date industry data to define a good ACT score for 2021. We also give insight into what makes for a good ACT score for you personally

Understanding the components of a “good” ACT score can be helpful for choosing a target score, which should be the first step in your ACT prep. Plus, students who take the time to figure out their personally great ACT scores are more likely to achieve college admissions success.

We also give readers access to ACT Score Ranges for 499 Colleges, which outlines the score ranges of successful applicants to nearly 500 U.S. institutions. Grab this for free below.

Here’s what we cover in this post:

Your Guide to a Good ACT Score for 2021

A perfect score on the ACT is 36.

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.

Our 2 Definitions of A Good ACT Score

  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
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 

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.

What about those ACT “Ranks”?

ACT score 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. 

Naturally, the higher your “rankings,” the better. Yet we recommend that students prioritize target ACT scores as opposed to rankings, as these are a lot more straightforward (and less likely to fluctuate dramatically in any given year).

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)

We’ve compiled the Middle 50s of ACT score ranges of successful applicants to the top 499 U.S. colleges and universities, which you can download right now.

The Common Data Set

If the colleges on your list do not specify these score ranges on their websites, you can check out the Common Data Set.

The Common Data Set (CDS) initiative is 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.

What This Means In Terms of Questions

How many questions do you have to get correct on the ACT to earn a score that is above average (as per our first definition of a good ACT score)?

Because no two ACTs are alike, it’s difficult to translate average ACT scores into total correct questions. It is possible to generalize, however, which we have done in the following table.

ACT Section Average 2020 Score Average Questions Right
English 20.1 ~ 43-45 (out of 75)
Math 20.4 ~ 29-31 (out of 60)
Reading 21.2 ~ 22-24 (out of 40)
Science 20.6 ~ 19-21 (out of 40)
Total 20.7 ~ 113-121 (out of 215)
Data based on raw score conversion tables for ACT Official Practice Tests 1-5.

Notice that average ACT performance boils down to getting just about (or over) 50% of all questions correct. 

Bad ACT Scores: Do They Exist?

We’ve discussed the good. What about the bad? Is there such thing as a bad ACT score?

Once again, the answer to these questions really depends on your definition of “bad.”

Yet from a general perspective, a “bad” SAT score often misses the mark of what has called college readiness. 

These scores are typically below-average in comparison to the mean. They may also not meet the benchmark scores has established in terms of college preparedness, especially with respect to content areas like English and Math.

Here’s what says specifically about benchmark scores on its website:

Students who meet a benchmark on the ACT have approximately a 50% chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75% chance of earning a C or better in the corresponding college course or courses. 

Here are the benchmark ACT scores for college readiness as of 2020:

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

First-time ACT students should prioritize meeting and surpassing these benchmark scores.

How to Get a Good ACT Score

We’ve discussed the good and the bad. Now what can you do to get a good ACT score? 

Preparation, preparation, preparation.

The ACT is entirely different from traditional high school tests. Much like a second language, it requires dedication, immersion, and time to understand and eventually master. 

To launch your ACT test prep journey, begin by establishing your initial goal score. It’s also important to set aside a decent amount of time for your ACT prep.

The ACT is not a test that students can cram, and nor should it take a side-burner in a student’s college application process. Allocate a generous timeline for sufficient ACT test prep, and stick to it! 

Build that college list.

Crafting a list of colleges of interest can help students identify ballpark ACT score ranges for competitive entry.

It can also inform other aspects of the college application, such as supplemental essay topics, scholarship opportunities, and optional application components.

Take a diagnostic ACT.

Taking a diagnostic practice ACT can give students a greater understanding of their personal great score. 

Plus, it’s an essential starting point for effective test prep! You can find 6 free official ACT practice tests here.

Download ACT Score Ranges for 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!

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_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio 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.